DURING the final centuries of the Roman Empire, when it was decaying from within and being pressed by enemies from beyond the Rhine and Danube and from the Iranian plateau and the far-off Asiatic steppes, there appeared in its defense strong personalities who left their impression on the political and spiritual life of the times, as if the ancient world wanted to achieve at its very decline its classical and unsurpassed summit. A great many of the notable representatives who gave a boost to the classical world had their origins in the Balkans, and in their veins ran a larger or smaller amount of old Illyrian blood.
To mention only a few: Diocletian, restorer of the empire, was from Dioclea in Dalmatia; his celebrated heir, Constantine the Great, who looking up in the sky found in the clouds the triumphant omen of the cross and gave freedom to Christianity, was born in Niš; Julian the Apostate, the tragic pagan philosopher on the Christian throne, although born in Constantinople, was strongly bound to the Balkan locale. Hieronymus came from somewhere near Ljubljana. He translated the Bible into Latin in the solitude of Bethlehem, thus giving medieval culture and literature its foundation. Justinian, the last Emperor of the classical world and the first of the medieval Byzantine Empire, who combined within him politician, theologian, and architect, was from Caričingrad near Leskovac in the old Serbia. Of course, all men of the third to sixth century A.D. spoke Latin and Greek, and their culture included traditions from Illyrian times which were perhaps still alive in their native places and homes. But it is a historical fact that the foremost men of the late Roman Empire were influenced by certain people from the Illyrian area.
Who were those Illyrians, whose descendants we see on the stage of world history at the end of the classical period? If we are to answer this question, we must reach back nearly two thousand years toward prehistoric Europe. At that time, the Achaeans conquered Troy, and Odysseus wandered in distant western Mediterranean lands. And in the far north, in Lusatia and Silesia, there appeared a new society, whose members, it was revealed in the excavations, cremated their dead and buried the ashes in characteristically dark and tall urns. Some centuries later, this group spread over a large part of Europe, from the Pyrenees to the Carpathian Mountains and from Silesia to Salonika. In Europe these people became identified by their urn burials, and they spoke IndoEuropean dialects, among which one of the most notable was the proto-Illyrian dialect.
In the eighth century B.C., when the Greeks began to colonize Italy, Spain, and the city of Marseilles, there appeared in the region between the Alps, the bend of the Danube near Budapest, and the Dinaric Alps in the western Balkans a distinctive group of people, formed as a mixture of much older indigenous cultures and of the Lusatian culture, which cremated the dead and buried them in urns. We call them Illyrians. They were the first to discover iron in Europe, and this undoubtedly gave them great importance. The old Illyrian word isarnon became the English word “iron.”
After 400 B.C. the Illyrians were invaded by the Celts, and the old independent Illyrian civilization received its first blow and suffered its first change. The blow was not so harsh on the east coast of the Adriatic and Istria, in Dalmatia, Montenegro, Albania, Epirus, but it was very strong along the great Danube, Drava, Sava, and Morava rivers.
As a result of these invasions, we find a mixture of the Illyrian and Celtic cultures, the tribes being in some places predominantly Illyrian and in others Celtic. But the old Illyrian element was still prominent, and after the first century B.C., when Julius Caesar gave the Celtic peoples in Gaul the final destructive blows, the Celts in northern Italy, the eastern Alps, the Pannonian plain, and the Balkan Peninsula could never again resume a position of leadership.
However, a new enemy had to be met. The legions of the Emperor Augustus brought their eagles from Italy to the Danube, and the Roman Empire occupied the Illyrian territory. It seemed as if Roman society, its language, and its morals would easily overrun central Europe and the Balkans, just as it had western Europe. But once more the Illyrian tribes showed their power to rebel. For three years, from 6 to 9 A.D., they fought fiercely in the wooded and lonely karst in Dalmatia and Bosnia, but at last the Illyrians and remaining Celts capitulated to a strange and cold victor. The rebellion was put down, and from then on a period of new progress began, but it was the end of the prehistoric phase of the Balkans. Roads were constructed connecting the country with its neighbors; harbors became active again; cities were built; unpopulated regions were colonized; agriculture was intensified, as were all sorts of trades, especially iron making in Noricum and mining in Bosnia and Serbia.
The new era brought with it a new type of inhabitant, the Roman provincial of Illyrian origin. Young Illyrians went into military service and traveled the world over, and when they had served their tour of duty, they returned to their homes. They learned to write and to speak Latin; they married native girls, and their children bore Latin names. Some of the barbarians distinguished themselves with courage, which came naturally to them, and became officers, and when the army started dictating to the Senate, the opportunity arose for the upstarts to reach for the imperial purple and diadem. This happened with increasing frequency, and thus came to the forefront such men as Diocletian and Constantine the Great, who had combined within themselves the Illyrian heroic character and persistence and the universal culture and politics ol Rome.
THAT was the historic fate of the Illyrians. Now let us look at them when they were at the peak of their own prosperity and culture, from the eighth to the fifth century B.C. Walking through the country which they inhabited centuries ago, we discover traces of them everywhere, and it is apparent that their numbers were great for those times. We find their settlements on the tops of hills which strategically overlook river valleys and mountain passes from one country to another, in places rich with iron, and at every important site. These strongholds were by no means cities, but they were imposing — for example, Stična, half a mile long and one sixteenth of a mile wide, which consists of great terraces surrounded by a mighty ditch and a wall made of big rocks.
By today’s standards, such areas seem small, and surely they must have seemed insignificant to the Romans. However, we have only to remember medieval Italy with its multitude of cities, or ancient Greece, where the highest civilizations grew within the limits of small, isolated, and jealously closed cities. In prehistoric Illyria, the situation was similar.
Near the settlements of the living grew the cities of the dead. Prehistoric man was very much concerned about life hereafter, and so the burial grounds are numerous and important. At the height of the Illyrian civilization the dead were buried in monumental tumuli, round or oval earthen mounds, sometimes 32 feet high and 320 feet wide.
Detailed origins of such princely graves are not entirely clear to us because we must not apply things we know from other places and peoples to the Illyrians. From archaeological findings and from Herodotus we know that the Scythians in south Russia buried a prince in full armor sitting on a live horse, which they slowly covered with earth. Around the prince they buried his wives, slaves, and horses, whom they killed, and his best armor, as well as presents of food for traveling in the afterworld. On the high mound, called kurgan, they planted in the earth the handle of the warrior’s sword, which pointed toward the sky and became a symbol seen from afar.
In Illyrian tombs we also sometimes find horses, but they are buried lying down next to the graves of the warriors, and we do not find traces of people who would have had to follow their masters into death. In the main tumulus we usually find a number of graves. Thus, they are tombs not for one man, but for whole families, for the patriarch, his wives and sons, and sons’ wives and sons’ children, resembling the tombs we know from the Bible and the Middle East.
There are rich and poor graves. In a poor man’s grave only modest personal ornaments are found — bracelets, anklets, a clasp for a necklace, and a small pot or two of beads at the feet. But it was very different in a rich person’s grave. A young woman from Stična had a golden diadem, golden necklace, and three variously shaped necklaces made of amber (traded from the Baltic Sea through Czechoslovakia and Austria). On her arms she wore many bronze bracelets of different designs. Her dress was pinned together with a number of fibulae, some of them carved in bone. Her coat was made of several thousand small bronze buttons and could serve as a model for Dior or Yves St. Laurent. Ordinary men had only a bronze belt clasp and an iron battle-ax, but the chief was distinguished from the others by a bronze helmet, bronze sword, iron battle-ax, and a pair of iron spears. In some rare instances we even find bronze armor. There are three such instances in Slovenia in western Yugoslavia.
If the settlements were on tops of hills near a river, then the graves were usually beyond, on the other side of the river. The city of the dead was therefore separated from the city of the living, and we may see in this actual funeral circumstance the basis of the symbolic passage on Charon’s boat in Greek mythology.
The daily occupations of the Illyrian people were shepherding and some cattle raising, which provided milk and meat for food, and wool and skin for clothing. More distinguished, more important, and more exclusive were the crafts, especially those connected with metallurgical work. The process first involved procuring the metals, by mining copper and tin for bronze or panning the gold from river sand. Iron was cast in primitive foundries, the ancestors of modern steel giants. Steel was unknown to the Illyrians, but their soft iron was of a high quality and had many uses.
The best of the metalwork was the product of artisans. They made things according to local traditions and needs, but under the influence of ancient Greece and of Italy all sorts of exquisite objects were fashioned, and among them probably the best known, the most valued, and the most beautiful are the situlae. The situla is a bronze bucket made of thin bronze plate and usually decorated with scenes in relief. This craft was known not only to the Illyrians but also to their neighbors, the Veneti in northern Italy, who were under the influence of the Etruscans. The situla was not familiar to all Illyrians; we find it only in western Yugoslavia, in Dalmatia, Bosnia, and Serbia. But it is significant to the Illyrian culture. Perhaps the most beautiful situla is from
a small village called Vače in Slovenia. It is only nine and a half inches high, made of a very thin fine bronze tin; and on it is shown in three friezes all the spiritual and physical life of the Illyrians.
The bottom frieze of the Vače situla has in relief wild animals, either those native to the Balkan area — roebucks and wild goats—or animals known from stories about faraway places in the Orient, such as lions. In the two upper friezes are distinguished Illyrian men on horseback and in chariots; some are bareheaded and some wear Phrygian caps. Then we see them at a sacrificial ceremony in front of a pudgy crater urn on profiled legs, resembling tripods; and undressed, as they fight for a trophy — a helmet, which is placed in the middle of the ring between two fighters, who are being observed and probably judged by four spectators. Others are sitting on a rich throne at a feast blowing on Pan’s flute; behind them are their attendants, and in front of them a servant offering them a drink from a situla held in her hands. The situla from Vače shows us as on a movie screen the everyday life of the old Illyrians, their princes and chieftains, and, as the old archaeologist Moritz Hoernes has said, “On the situlae we see the whole contents of Illyrian life.”
Let us move now from the Alps and Croatia to Bosnia, Serbia, and Macedonia. Near Ohrid is a place called Trebenište.
In 1917, during World War I, when the Bulgarian Army was retreating from the Salonika front, the soldiers, while repairing a road, found very rich graves of Illyrian princes. The National Museum of Belgrade found even more in later excavations. Today in Belgrade and Sophia the museums have two golden masks and golden sandals, golden gloves, golden ornaments for a dress, pins, and brooches. Outstanding among those rich findings is an import from Corinth, a big bronze jar for mixing wine with water at feasts. The golden masks remind us of famous discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann’s in Mycenae, which were a thousand years older. The best example of the bronze wine mixer is found in Vix in France. It came to France from Corinth by way of Marseilles. The splendor of the great European civilizations allured the barbarians by its outward brilliance, but classical thought remained hidden and inaccessible.
WE HAVE already mentioned the fate of the Illyrians in the period of the Roman Empire, their fall, and their hidden strength, which could be detected later on in the inhabitants of the Roman provinces on the Balkan and Danubian plains. Then came the end of the empire. Under the blows of Germans, Goths, Vandals, Lombards, Franks, Bavarians, Angles, and Saxons, the majestic structures of Caesar, Augustus, Trajan, Diocletian, and Constantine fell apart. South Slavs started to settle the territory of the Illyrians—Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, and to the east of them, Bulgarian Slavs. The old inhabitants withdrew into inaccessible mountainous places, but some died or fled to Italy. Some of them mixed with newcomers and formed a new type of south Slav in an ethnogenic process which lasted for centuries. Today we can discover the Illyrian language in Albania, as we can still discover the Celtic language in other parts of Europe — in England, Wales, and Ireland. Even in modern times, one finds in the central mountains of the Balkans the Vlaches in their picturesque costumes. In the autumn the Vlach comes with his family and herds to the valleys of old Serbia and Macedonia to spend the winter, waiting there for the spring, when he can return to his isolated mountains. But old heroic and Homeric life is dying, and from day to day it becomes increasingly a legend and a saga about a period no longer in existence.
The traveler in Bosnia and Herzegovina is greatly surprised to find the enormous fields covered extensively with hundreds of massive white rock monuments. There are many problems in connection with them, and all sorts of sciences — history, archaeology, art history, ethnology, and the history of religion — are at the moment dealing with them. We know that they date from the Middle Ages and that the last of them came from the Turkish occupation of Bosnia in the fifteenth century. The rare inscriptions are in the Slav language, for in those graves are buried the Bogomils, the peculiar Christians of Bosnia who acknowledged neither the Ring in Hungary nor the Pope in Rome. The ornamentation on the majestic monoliths is very archaic — the sunwheel dance, a wild boar, a bowman, mysterious symbols of life and death. The most probable explanation for this art is the hypothesis that an old Illyrian tradition is involved which survived the Roman classical period in the isolation of Bosnia, far away from the main traffic veins in Dalmatia and along the Adriatic in the south and the Sava and Danube rivers in the north.
As we walk along in any part of the Balkans we find traces of the Illyrians. We could say that in their link with the soil the old Illyrians and south Slavs are identical, and the heritage of the Illyrians in the ethnical and cultural spectrum of the south Slavs looms large and important.
All the bigger museums in Yugoslavia have beautiful and rich collections of Illyrian culture — in Belgrade, Sarajevo, Zagreb, and Ljubljana. Outside Yugoslavia, many others can boast numerous objects from Slovenia — the Natural History Museum in Vienna, the Museo Civico in Trieste, the Peabody Museum at Harvard. A number of Yugoslav and foreign archaeologists are continually at work in seminars and in the field studying the old Illyrians. Specialists from various countries meet in Yugoslavia and discuss their views on Illyrian culture and its relationship with the neighboring areas.
This year an international traveling exhibition of Illyrian art and Venetian situlae was opened in Padua in Italy. It then came to Ljubljana in Yugoslavia and went on to Vienna.
Year after year the National Museum in Ljubljana continues to excavate the enormous Illyrian settlement and necropolis in Stična. In fact, on one big tumulus there is enough work for five years, and there are fifty tumuli, in addition to the settlement. These big tasks will need more concentrated, better organized plans and cooperation on an international basis, in the field as well as in the museum. There is enough work for several generations, and when they ask us how long we will excavate Illyrian Stična, we answer half seriously, half jokingly, “Two hundred and fifty years.”