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Barbarian invasions and Early Middle Ages

E shtune, 07.07.2007, 08:13 PM


The fall of the Western Roman Empire and the age of great migrations brought radical changes to the Balkan Peninsula and the Illyrian people. Barbarian tribesmen overran many rich Roman cities, destroying the existing social and economic order and leaving the great Roman aqueducts, coliseums, temples, and roads in ruins. The Illyrians gradually disappeared as a distinct people from the Balkans, replaced by the Bulgars, Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians and their lands were gradually overtaken by them. In the late Middle Ages, new waves of invaders swept over the Albanian-populated lands.

Thanks to their protective mountains, close-knit tribal society, and sheer pertinacity, however, the Albanian people developed their distinctive identity and language. Indeed, Albania's ancient communities evolved into fiercely independent clans. Albania remained an isolated place where landowning families ruled over large, private domains. Small principalities developed near port cities and in fertile river valleys. In the mountains, the Albanian clans fought for territory and for scarce natural resources.

In the fourth century, barbarian tribes began to prey upon the Roman Empire, and the fortunes of the Illyrian-populated lands sagged. The Germanic Goths and Asiatic Huns were the first to arrive, invading in mid-century; the Avars attacked in A.D. 570; and the Slavic Serbs and Croats overran Illyrian-populated areas in the early seventh century.

For a time, southern Illyricum remained an important source of manpower for the imperial army. Most of the reconquests in the western Mediterranean were achieved by troops from the southern Balkans. The security of these homelands was now based on local strongholds, either new or refurbished. The network of small forts, whose construction would have been a burden on local communities, represented a passive defense from a basis of limited control over the countryside. In Old and New Epirus, 50 existing forts were repaired, but according to Procopius in his Secret History, the region was ravaged almost every year of Justinian's reign by Huns and Slavs, causing many Roman casualties and so much destruction that the area was deserted. The refortifications had proven insufficiant.

With the eventual collapse of Illyricum, the condition of the region worsened. There seems to have been a collapse of the inland towns which had arisen in the Hellenistic period, while the more secure coastal cities continued to enjoy a relatively prosperous existence. Some inland places were protected with the latest type of defenses, including Scampis (Elbasan) on the Via Egnatia and Vig near Shkodër. The passage of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths through the area caused the building of several new hill-fortresses, such as Sarda overlooking the river Drin, sometime after the 5th century. The population of this area were Latin-speaking provincials, in the interior mainly of Illyrian origin, but more cosmopolitan in the coastal towns.

The dispersal of Slavs in the southern Balkans following the unsuccessful siege of Thessalonika in 586 led to an occupation of Praevalitania and the region south of the Shkumbin, a distribution indicated by place-names of Slav origin. During the 7th and 8th centuries Durrës and the coast remained under imperial control, but the old cities of Lezhë and Shkodër sank to within their acropolis. This is due in large part to the wholesale withrdrawal of Byzantine forces from the Balkans to reinforce the Middle Eastern provinces in 620, leaving Albania to fend for itself.

The key evidence for the population of this time is the Komani-Krujë group of cemeteries centered on Durrës, town-based and Christian. These cemeteries went out of use by the early 9th century when the new military command theme of Durrës came into existence in 862. They indicate the survival of a Romanized population of Illyrian origin driven out by Slav settlements further north, the Romanoi mentioned by Constantine Porphyrogenitus. This interpretation is supported by the concentration of Latin place-names around the Lake of Shkodër, in the Drin and Fan valleys and along the road from Lezhë to Ulpiana in Kosovo, with some in the Black Drin and Mat valleys, a distribution limited on the south by the line of the Via Egnatia.

Another population to the south is evidenced by an early tumulus culture, and this is considered to represent the Albëri of the tenth and eleventh centuries, for whom the region of Arbëri (Gheg Albëni), north of Tirana between the Mat and Erzen rivers, is named. A third region indicates movement from high altitudes between the Shkumbin and Mat, concentrated between Elbasan and Krujë, into the plain of the Mat - a likely place for Arbanon. However, the main brunt of the northern mountaineer population probably came from the northern Albanian mountains, in Dukagjin and Mirditë, and the mountains of Drin, descending into the lowlands of western Albania, the Black Drin river valley, and into parts of Old Serbia during the summer.

In the 9th century, the Bulgars conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and extended their domain to the lowlands of what is now central and southern Albania. The Bulgarian leader Simeon I defeated the Byzantine army and established colonies along the Adriatic seacoast. Samuil, conquered Durrës, the former Roman port of Durrachium that still traded with cities in Greece and Italy. Many Illyrians fled from coastal areas to the mountains, exchanging a sedentary peasant existence for the itinerant life of the herdsman. Other Illyrians intermarried with the conquerors and eventually assimilated. In general, the invaders destroyed or weakened Roman and Byzantine cultural centers in the lands that would become Albania.

But the Byzantine emperor Basil II, nicknamed the “Bulgar-slayer”, counterattacked in 1014. The Byzantine forces smashed the Bulgarian army, seized the Adriatic ports, and conquered Epirus, which lies south of Albania. These territories were far from the Byzantine capital at Constantinople, however, and Byzantine authority in the area gradually weakened. While the clans and landowners controlled the countryside, the people of the coastal cities fought against Byzantine rule. It was during this period of rebellion and turmoil that the region first came to be known as Albania.



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