Alexandria's founded by Alexander

Alexandria's founded by Alexander the Great (by year BC): 334 Alexandria in Troia (Turkey) - 333 Alexandria at Issus/Alexandrette (Iskenderun, Turkey) - 332 Alexandria of Caria/by the Latmos (Alinda, Turkey) - 331 Alexandria Mygdoniae - 331 Alexandria (Egypt) - 330 Alexandria in Areia (Herat, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria of the Prophthasia/in Dragiana/Phrada (Farah, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Arachosia (Kandahar, Afghanistan) - 330 Alexandria in Caucasus (Begram, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria of the Paropanisades (Ghazni, Afghanistan) - 329 Alexandria Eschate or Ultima (Khodjend, Tajikistan) - 329 Alexandria on the Oxus (Ai-Khanoum OR Termez, Afghanistan) - 328 Alexandria in Margiana (Merv, Turkmenistan) - 326 Alexandria Nicaea (on the Hydaspes, India) - 326 Alexandria Bucephala (on the Hydaspes, India) - 325 Alexandria Sogdia - 325 Alexandria Rambacia (Bela, Pakistan) - 325 Alexandria Oreitide - 325 Alexandria in Opiene (confluence of Indus & Acesines, India) - 325 Alexandria on the Indus - 325 Alexandria Xylinepolis (Patala, India) - 325 Alexandria in Carminia (Gulashkird, Iran) - 324 Alexandria-on-the-Tigris/Antiochia-in-Susiana/Charax (Spasinou Charax on the Tigris, Iraq) - ?Alexandria of Carmahle? (Kahnu)

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Along the Via Egnatia: Apollonia in Illyria

The Via Egnatia as mentioned earlier (see: Via Egnatia, a road to remember) was built by the Romans in the 2nd century AD and served as a major connection between Byzantium and Rome. As far as the Illyrian part is concerned, the road came from Ohrid (FYROM), then ran through Elbasan where it split in two, one arm connecting directly to Dyrrhachion (Dürres) and another one crossing Apollonia and Antipatrea (Berat) to end also in Dyrrhachion on the Adriatic coast where ships ferried people and goods to Brundisium (Brindisi) on the Italian side. 

To name a city after the sun god Apollo seems to have been very popular in Greek history as we find several cities by the name of Apollonia in Turkey (Lycia, Mysia, Pisidia, etc.); in Sicily, Italy; in Greece itself (Thessaloniki, Chalcidice, Kavalla, etc) and in Crete; in Libya, where it was the harbor of wealthy Cyrene; and finally here in Illyria, modern Albania.

This time, I’ll be concentrating on Apollonia in Albania, located at about 7 kilometers from Fier (see: Alexander’s psychological warfare in Pelion, Illyria). The city is well documented during Roman times and the remains are obviously very Roman too. For Alexander this was deep into Illyrian country, just beyond the northern border of Epirus.

The original name was Gylakeia, after its founder Gylax who belonged to the Illyrian tribe of the Taulantii. It were the Greek colonists migrating from Corinth and Corfu in 588 BC who changed the name into Apollonia. They were the ones who controlled the city and ruled over the Illyrians. Money was made from slave trade and agriculture, but maybe mostly through the supply of asphalt that was a valuable material for the caulking of ships in antiquity. Located on a branch of the Via Egnatia, it is obvious that it was an important harbor along the Illyrian coastline to link up with Brindisi on the other side of the Adriatic Sea and a transit port for all kinds of goods travelling between Byzantium and Rome.

This is the area where King Pyrrhus (a great-nephew of Olympias and cousin of Alexander the Great) ruled roughly from 306 till 272 BC, while mingling in Macedonian affairs in the wake of the Diadochi Wars. He tried to keep the Romans out of Illyria but by 229 BC they firmly established themselves. I find it rather strange that Apollonia, like in so many other Illyrian cities, was so loyal to the Romans. Maybe that is because the city was rewarded with the booty taken from their defeated King Gentius of Illyria – not very patriotic, I would say. By 148 BC, Apollonia became part of the Roman province of Macedonia, Epirus Nova. About a century later, the city supported Julius Caesar in his war against Pompey, but fell in the hands of Brutus in 48 BC. Apollonia could also boost to having contributed to the education of Emperor Augustus who studied at its famous school of philosophy in 44 BC where Athenodorus of Tarsus was his teacher. Together with other cities of in the area, Apollonia flourished and was even mentioned by Cicero as “magna urbs et gravis”, meaning “a great and important city”. Strabo also mentions the city in his Geographica, as “an exceedingly well-governed city”. Decline set in during the third century AD when its harbor started silting up after being hit by a severe earthquake which changed the course of the Aoos River. The inland turned into an ever growing malaria ridden swamp and the inhabitants moved out to resettle at nearby Avlona (modern Vlore).  Only a small Christian community that moved in during the very early days of Christianity remained; they may have built the first church of Saint Mary. Today’s church dates from the 14th century and houses the local museum. 

The visitor’s attention is immediately drawn towards a colonnaded façade that could be part of a temple but turns out to be the entrance to the Bouleuterion from the second century AD – quite unusual since generally the tiers of such a city council survive but not the portal. The columns are definitely Corinthian and in the architrave above them we can still read the Greek dedication: “To the memory and in honor of Valentinus Villius Furius Proculus from his brother Quintus Villius Crispinus Furius Proculus, prefect of cohort in Syria, tribune of the Legion Gemina in Pannonia, and president of the sacred games. A fight of 25 gladiators was held for the inauguration.” This Bouleuterion is surrounded on three sides by rooms, some kind of annexes to the Ionic Temple next to it. What is left are mainly low walls and archeologists suppose that these rooms were used for administration or for the priests’ duties. The outlines of the temple itself are easily located with a few columns sticking out from the grass.

Across from the Bouleuterion are two big stumps of stone indicating the site of a triumphal arch at the end at the street leading into Apollonia and dating from the 3rd century AD. To the right, but difficult to make out are the remains of a Library from the 2nd-3rd century AD, a proof of the city’s importance – if needed. On the other side of the street, lies an Odeon that has been carefully restored and could hold as many as 650 spectators. Adjacent is a small Sacellum, an open sanctuary dedicated to an imperial cult. The niche was most probably flanked by two Ionic columns and we still can see the rosettes and lion paws of their base.

It is followed by a portico, 78 meters long, punctuated by 17 niches that once held marble statues. This portico seems to date from the 4th century BC and was divided lengthwise in two by a row of Doric columns, whereas the outside columns were of Ionic style. I am told that this kind of structure is unique for Apollonia.

The portico ends at the Sacred Road where we find a temple right around the corner, dating from the second half of the 2nd century BC but probably renovated four centuries later and possibly dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. The Sacred Road continues further uphill to the Acropolis where little or no excavations have been done. With a width of nine meters, it is the widest street so far in Apollonia, paved with river pebbles laid directly on the clay surface.

On the other side of this Sacred Road are three vaulted shops, almost square in shape (3.45x3.40m) whose entrance could be closed by heavy double doors. The walls were very thick to keep out the moisture and guarantee a nearly constant temperature in order to preserve the goods stocked inside. They seem to be built during the second half of the second century AD. Against these shops another construction deserves our attention for this is a water cistern that was used from the 4th century BC all the way to the 2nd century BC and still has kept its impermeable inside coating.

Opposite this Sacred Road are the remains of a large villa, in fact no more than a succession of mosaic floors. The house was divided in four parts: an entrance portico of 14x5.8 m right opposite the Sacred Road; the main room measuring 12x11.8m with a center of white mosaics surrounded on all four sides by a corridor 2.9 m wide paved with little brick squares of 5x5 cm; the back room overlooking the sea. It is thought that this house was used as a gathering place for the believers before starting their procession over the Sacred Road. The most precious mosaics have been covered, of course, but the remaining ones are quite interesting. The attentive visitor will also notice the clearly Roman sewage system running parallel to this building.

As every single Greek city, the location of Apollonia was chosen with greatest care, overlooking the Aoos River and its fertile valley with the Adriatic Sea at the far horizon.

My greatest surprise, however, was the local museum, housed in the 14th century monastery attached to the church of St Mary, by itself worth a visit. Under the watchful eyes of the soaring Pantocrator it is easy to discover all sorts of antique fragments: Corinthian capitals placed upside-down to serve as a base for some Christian relic or flowers; the marble wall of a well with deep gutters left by the ropes that pulled the water-buckets over the centuries and now on dry land; small lidless sarcophagi turned into mini-gardens; and other spolia spotted in the outside walls. In the upstairs portico leading to the very entrance of the museum several grave steles and smaller altars have found refuge.

Since I have been walking through Roman Apollonia, I expect this museum to reflect that image. Well, not entirely so for originally the city was founded by Greeks who imported the art from their home-towns or created their own imitation. I walk among Attic vases and hydras from the 5th century BC, Apollonian bottles and pots but also some Italic imports. The Hellenistic period is also very present with several marble steles, reliefs, busts and statues, but the eye catcher is this wonderful shield that I immediately recognize as Macedonian. But wait a moment … according to the label it seems to be Illyrian! How on earth is that possible? I take a closer look at this splendid piece with three concentric circles in its center around the frightening head of a Gorgon in Classical Greek style sticking out its tongue and staring at me with shiny inlaid eyes. The border of the shield also counts three concentric rows of circles framing six half circles around the edge. I fail to see what makes it Illyrian, and inquire with the museum director who tells me that the difference lies in the curving. Well, I suppose he knows but I am not entirely convinced till I see other examples of Illyrian shields later on in Tirana and at the Skanderberg Museum. I’m totally baffled by this revelation! Ironically the Illyrian shield in Apollonia is presented next to a splendid Macedonian helmet that has been dated to 314-312 BC, a rather narrow timeline.

So, all in all, Apollonia was definitely worth a visit, including the local museum. Some artifacts, however, have been moved to the national museum at Tirana where I discover a hoard of silver drachmae from the 1st century BC, as well as a head of Demosthenes (1st century AD) – of all people, what is he doing here?

I’m not too far away from Alexander after all!


  1. Hi,
    I have just returned from a trip to Albania, FYROM and N Greece during which we visited Apollonia and was interested in your comments about the "Illyrian" shield in the museum. You say that you saw other "Illyrian" shields in Tirana etc - does that mean that you now AGREE that the shield IS Illyrian rather than Macedonian??
    An aspect I have been following up since our return is the place of "Illyria" in Albanian national consciousness, You may be aware of the extent to which Enver Hoxha supported (and abused) archaeology which emphasised the Illyrian antecedents of modern Albanians. I am wondering if the decision to portray the shield as "Illyrian" rather than "Macedonian" is a continuation (albeit not as extreme!) of that approach.

  2. PS
    I don't know if you have seen the book "Practice of Archaeology under dictatorship" EDITED BY MICHAEL L. GALATY AND CHARLES WATKINSON
    If you do a search and add e.g "Hoxha" and "Illyria" you will be directed to the page about Hpoxa's "push" for Illyrian archaeology!! He also instituted a series of "Conferences" on Illyrian archaeology from the late 60's

  3. Hello,
    Thank you for visiting my blog and for sharing your thoughts about Illyria. The subject is a very sensitive one with or without Enver Hoxha. Under Ottoman rule, people in the Balkan lived their own tribal life as long as they paid their taxes to the Sultan in Istanbul. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, 27 new countries or entities were formed from west to east and they all had to search an identity of their own. These countries or entities struggled and are often still struggling to define their rights, their own law and order. Albania is no exception and the situation there is a very complex one. To cut history short, Enver Hoxha established an “Albanian” identity – for better or for worse, who knows – with all the consequences we know.
    Geographically, Albania does not match ancient Illyria alone for it also covers the northern part of ancient Epirus.
    In Alexander’s days, the borders of Illyria were not too clearly drawn either and the name Illyrians encompassed a dazzling number of tribes. You may want to have a look at the list published in Wikipedia ( The fact is, however, that Alexander enlisted a great number of Illyrians in his troops when he set off to Asia - Diodorus mentions some 7,000 Illyrians, Odrisians and Triballians.
    That leads me to the question whether the shields I saw were Illyrian or Macedonian. Honestly, I still don’t know for sure. These “Illyrian” shields have been dated as belonging to the 4th century BC. This could be either before or after Alexander and your guess in this matter is as good as mine.
    The Illyrians had invaded Macedonia on a more or less regular basis. It was during such an attack that King Perdiccas III was killed in 360/59 BC and with him almost the entire Macedonian army. Macedonia called on Philip (Perdiccas’ younger brother and Alexander’s father) to save his country. The quickest way out was to make a treaty with Illyria which included his marriage with Audata, the granddaughter of King Bardelys. It took Philip several battles to subdue the Illyrians and after his death, they were the first to revolt – not expecting that the young King Alexander would settle the matter once and for all.
    It is logical that the Illyrians took weaponry and shields after each confrontation as booty of war. This implies that Macedonian armament was not foreign to the Illyrians, who may have copied the entire shields or “borrowed” part(s) of them to make their own.
    Let it be clear that I only express my own opinion in this matter since I have found no decent argumentation by any historian or archaeologist.
    Unfortunately I could only partially read the pages you are mentioning in Practice of Archaeology under dictatorship as my computer is hiding the first words of each line of text.
    As always, not everything Hoxha did or didn’t do was bad. History – as life - is never as black and white as we like to believe.

  4. Thanks for the reply.
    You might be interested in a review I have done of another "Illyrian" visit we made in Albania - in this case to the Illyrian tombs of Selca e Poshtme. These are near and connected historically to the site of the city of Pelion which was "on" the Via Egnatia route.
    We visited them as we "use" UNESCO World Heritage Sites (both Inscribed and Tentative) as a "hook" for hanging our travels on!

    The possible inscription of Apollonia also has its "Illyrian issues" regarding the extent to which it might include/emphasise the less well known and obvious pre Greco-Roman aspects of the site - ie the finds such as "that" shield in the Necropolis! See -