330 BC–167 BC
Location of Epirus
Common languagesEpirote Greek
Ancient Greek religion
• 330–313 BC
• 307–302 BC
Pyrrhus of Epirus
• 302–297 BC
Neoptolemos II
• 297–272 BC
Pyrrhus of Epirus
• 231–167 BC
Epirote League
Historical eraClassical antiquity
• Epirote tribes established united political entity
330 BC
280–275 BC
• Monarchy abolished
231 BC
• Conquered by the Roman Republic in the Third Macedonian War
167 BC
CurrencyEpirote drachma
Preceded by
Succeeded by
Macedonia (Roman province)

Epirus (/ɪˈprəs/; Epirote Greek: Ἄπειρος, Ápeiros; Attic Greek: Ἤπειρος, Ḗpeiros) was an ancient Greek kingdom, and later republic, located in the geographical region of Epirus, in parts of north-western Greece and southern Albania. Home to the ancient Epirotes, the state was bordered by the Aetolian League to the south, Ancient Thessaly and Ancient Macedonia to the east, and Illyrian tribes to the north. The Greek king Pyrrhus is known to have made Epirus a powerful state in the Greek realm (during 280–275 BC) that was comparable to the likes of Ancient Macedonia and Ancient Rome. Pyrrhus' armies also attempted an assault against the state of Ancient Rome during their unsuccessful campaign in what is now modern-day Italy.



Epirus has been occupied since at least Neolithic times by seafarers (along the coast) and by hunters and shepherds (in the interior) who brought with them the Greek language.[1] These neolithic peoples buried their leaders in large tumuli (mounds of earth that were raised over a grave) containing shaft tombs similar to those made by Mycenaean peoples. Due to these ritualistic similarities, an ancestral link may exist between the Epirotes and the Mycenaeans.[1] A number of Mycenaean remains have also been found in Epirus[2][3] at the most important ancient religious sites in the region, including at the Necromanteion of Acheron (on the Acheron river) and at the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona.[1][4] It is also known that Epirus had strong contact with other Ancient Greek regions, including those of Macedonia, Thessaly, Aetolia and Acarnania.[5]

The Dorians invaded Greece from Epirus and Macedonia at the end of the 2nd millennium BC (circa 1100–1000 BC), though the reasons for their migration are obscure. The region's original inhabitants were driven southward into the Greek mainland by the invasion and by the early 1st millennium BC three principal clusters of Greek-speaking tribes emerged in Epirus. These were the Chaonians of northwestern Epirus, the Molossians in the center, and the Thesprotians in the south.[6] The region inhabited by each of these ethne had its own name (Chaonia, Molossia, Thesprotia), thus there was no single name for the entire region originally.

The Greek toponym Epirus (Greek: Ήπειρος), meaning "mainland" or "continent", first appears in the work of Hecataeus of Miletus in the 6th century BC and is one of the few Greek names from the view of an external observer with a maritime-geographical perspective. Although not originally a native Epirote name, it later came to be adopted by the inhabitants of the area.[7]

Molossian expansion (470–330 BC)

The Molossian Aeacidae dynasty managed to create the first centralized state in Epirus from about 370 BC onwards, expanding their power at the expense of rival tribes. The Aeacids allied themselves with the increasingly powerful kingdom of Macedon, in part against the common threat of Illyrian raids,[8] and in 359 BC the Molossian princess Olympias, niece of Arybbas of Epirus, married King Philip II of Macedon (r. 359–336 BC). She was to become the mother of Alexander the Great. On the death of Arybbas, Alexander the Molossian, uncle of Alexander the Great of Macedon, succeeded to the throne with the title King of Epirus.[9]

In 334 BC, the time Alexander the Great crossed into Asia, Alexander the Molossian led an expedition in southern Italy in support of the Greek cities of Magna Graecia against the nearby Italian tribes and the emerging Roman Republic. After some successes on the battlefield, he was defeated by a coalition of Italic tribes at the Battle of Pandosia in 331 BC.

Kingdom of Epirus (330–231 BC)

See also: List of kings of Epirus

Campaigns of Pyrrhus of Epirus in Italy.

In 330 BC, upon Alexander the Molossian's death, the term "Epirus" appears as a single political unit in the ancient Greek records for the first time, under the leadership of the Molossian dynasty. Subsequently, the coinages of the three major Epirote tribal groups came to an end, and a new coinage was issued with the legend Epirotes.[10] After Alexander's I death, Aeacides of Epirus, who succeeded him, espoused the cause of Olympias against Cassander, but was dethroned in 313 BC.

Aeacides's son Pyrrhus came to the throne in 295 BC. Pyrrhus, being a skillful general, was encouraged to aid the Greeks of Tarentum and decided to initiate a major offensive in the Italian peninsula and Sicily. Due to its superior martial abilities, the Epirote army defeated the Romans in the Battle of Heraclea (280 BC). Subsequently, Pyrrhus's forces nearly reached the outskirts of Rome, but had to retreat to avoid an unequal conflict with a more numerous Roman army. The following year, Pyrrhus invaded Apulia (279 BC) and the two armies met in the Battle of Asculum where the Epirotes won the eponymous Pyrrhic victory, at a high cost.[11]

In 277 BC, Pyrrhus captured the Carthaginian fortress in Eryx, Sicily. This prompted the rest of the Carthaginian-controlled cities to defect to Pyrrhus. Meanwhile, he had begun to display despotic behavior towards the Sicilian Greeks and soon Sicilian opinion became inflamed against him. Though he defeated the Carthaginians in battle, he was forced to abandon Sicily.[12]

Pyrrhus's Italian campaign came to an end following the inconclusive Battle of Beneventum (275 BC). Having lost the vast majority of his army, he decided to return to Epirus, which finally resulted in the loss of all his Italian holdings. Because of his costly victories, the term "Pyrrhic victory" is often used for a victory with devastating cost to the victor.[13]

Epirote League (231–167 BC)

Further information: Epirote League

Coin of the Epirote League, depicting Zeus (left) and a lightning bolt with the word "ΑΠΕΙΡΩΤΑΝ" , "of the Epirotes" (right).

In 233 BC, the last surviving member of the Aeacid royal house, Deidamia, was murdered. Her death brought the Epirote royal family to an abrupt extinction and a federal republic was set up, though with diminished territory, since western Acarnania had asserted its independence, and the Aetolians seized Ambracia, Amphilochia, and the remaining land north of the Ambracian Gulf. The new Epirote capital was therefore established at Phoenice, the political center of the Chaonians. The reasons for the swift fall of the Aeacid dynasty were probably complex. Aetolian pressure must have played a part, and the alliance with Macedonia may have been unpopular; in addition, there were perhaps social tensions.[14] However, Epirus remained a substantial power, unified under the auspices of the Epirote League as a federal state with its own parliament (or synedrion).[14]

In the following years, Epirus faced the growing threat of the expansionist Roman Republic, which fought a series of wars with Macedonia. The League remained neutral in the first two Macedonian Wars but split in the Third Macedonian War (171–168 BC), with the Molossians siding with the Macedonians and the Chaonians and Thesprotians siding with Rome. The outcome was disastrous for Epirus; Molossia fell to Rome in 167 BC and 150,000 of its inhabitants were enslaved.[1]


Political structure of the ancient Greek world (8th–5th centuries BC).

In antiquity, Epirus was settled by the same nomadic Hellenic tribes that went on to settle the rest of Greece.[15] Unlike most other Greeks of the time, who lived in or around city-states such as Athens or Sparta, the Epirotes lived in small villages and their way of life was foreign to that of polis of southern Greeks. Their region lay on the edge of the Greek world and was far from peaceful; for many centuries, it remained a frontier area contested with the Illyrian peoples of the Adriatic coast and interior. However, Epirus had a far greater religious significance than might have been expected given its geographical remoteness, due to the presence of the shrine and oracle at Dodona – regarded as second only to the more famous oracle at Delphi.[16] Plutarch writes a story that was related to him, according to which, the Molossian king Tharrhypas was the first in his dynasty to become renowned, as he organized his cities on a system of Greek customs, rules and regulations. He was probably responsible for the earliest known decrees of the Molossian state in 370–368 BC, during the reign of his grandson Neoptolemus I; though, the institutions originated much earlier, and the dialect in which they are written is not, as was believed, the Doric of the Corinthian colonies, but a Northwest Greek dialect with several distinctive features, so as to rule out the case of it having been borrowed.[17][18]


At least since classical antiquity, the Epirotes were speakers of an epichoric Northwest Greek dialect, Epirote Greek, different from the Dorian of the Greek colonies on the Ionian islands, and bearers of mostly Greek names, as evidenced by epigraphy and literary evidence.[19][20]

Nicholas Hammond argues that the principal social structure of the Epirotes was the tribe and that they spoke a West-Greek dialect.[21] Tom Winnifrith (1983) argues that the Epirotes became culturally more closely connected to the rest of the Greek world during the centuries that preceded the Roman conquest of the region (3rd-2nd century BC), while hellenisation process continued even after the conquest. As such their rulers claimed Greek descent.[22] Old genealogical links through the stories about the return voyages of the Greek heroes from Troy (nostoi) and other Greek myths strongly connected Epirus with the rest of Greece and these stories prevented any serious debate about the Greekness of the Epirotes, including the Molossians.[23] The language they spoke was regarded as a primitive Northwestern Greek dialect, but there was no question that it was Greek.[24] The way of life in Epirus was more archaic than that in the Corinthian and Corcyrean colonies on the coast, but there was never a discussion about their Greekness.[24]

Ancient writers such as Herodotus,[25] Dionysius of Halicarnassus,[26] Pausanias,[27] and Eutropius,[28] describe the Epirotes as Greeks. On the other hand, the 5th century BC Athenian historian Thucydides describes them as "barbarians" in his History of the Peloponnesian War,[29] as does Strabo in his Geography.[30] Simon Hornblower interprets the vague, and sometimes even antithetical, comments of Thucydides on the Epirotes as implying that they were neither completely "barbarian" nor completely Greek, but akin to the latter. Notably, Thucydides had similar views of the neighboring Aetolians and Acarnians, even though the evidence leaves no doubt that they were Greek. The term "barbarian" may have denoted not only clearly non-Greek populations, but also Greek populations on the fringe of the Greek world with peculiar dialects.[31] The ancient historians and geographers did not follow the scientific methods of modern linguists, who record in detail the speech of the groups they study; their information was based, more rarely on personal experiences, and mostly on the impressions of each of their informants, who as a rule, had neither philological training nor particularly linguistic interests.[32] A far more reliable source on the views of the Greeks is the list of sacred envoys (Ancient Greek: θεαρόδοκοι) in Epidaurus, which includes the Epirotes.[33] The list which was compiled in 360 BC includes the sacred envoys (members of the ruling family of each tribe or subtribe) of the Molossians, Kassopeans, Chaonians and Thesprotians.[34]

In terms of religion they worshiped the same gods as the rest of the Greeks. No traces of non-Greek deities were found until the Hellenistic age (with the introduction of oriental deities in the Greek world). Their supreme deity was Zeus and the Oracle of Dodona found in the land of the Molossians attracted pilgrims from all over the Greek world. As with the rest of the Epirotes they were included in the thearodokoi catalogues where only Greeks were allowed in order to participate in Panhellenic Games and festivals.[35] Aristotle considered the region around Dodona to have been part of Hellas and the region where the Hellenes originated.[36] Plutarch mentions an interesting cultural element of the Epirotes regarding the Greek hero Achilles. In his biography of King Pyrrhus, he states that Achilles "had a divine status in Epirus and in the local dialect he was called Aspetos" (meaning "unspeakable" or "unspeakably great" in Homeric Greek).[37][38]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d "Epirus". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. Retrieved 16 November 2013.
  2. ^ Tandy 2001, p. 4
  3. ^ McHenry 2003, p. 527: "Epirus itself remained culturally backward during this time, but Mycenean remains have been found at two religious shrines of great antiquity in the region: the Oracle of the Dead on the Acheron River, familiar to the heroes of Homer's Odyssey."
  4. ^ Tandy 2001, pp. 23, 30.
  5. ^ Filos 2018, p. 215.
  6. ^ Hammond 1982, p. 284.
  7. ^ Douzougli, Angelika; Papadopoulos, John (2010). "Liatovouni: a Molossian cemetery and settlement in Epirus". Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts. 125: 3.
  8. ^ Anson 2010, p. 5.
  9. ^ Hammond 1994, p. 438.
  10. ^ Hammond 1994, p. 442.
  11. ^ Franke 1989, pp. 462–479.
  12. ^ Franke 1989, pp. 477–480.
  13. ^ Franke 1989, p. 468.
  14. ^ a b Walbank 1984, p. 452.
  15. ^ Borza 1992, p. 62; Minahan 2002, p. 578.
  16. ^ Hammond 1967.
  17. ^ Hammond 1967, pp. 507–508: "'They relate', says Plutarch in introducing Pyrrhus, 'that Tharyps was the first to become renowned, as he organized the states on a system of Greek customs, and rules and regulations of a humane kind' (Θαρρύπαν πρῶτον ἱστοροῦσιν Ἑλληνικοῖς ἔθεσι καὶ γράμμασι καὶ νόμοις φιλανθρώποις διακοσμήσαντα τὰς πόλεις ὀνομαστὸν γενέσθαι. (Plu. Ρ. 1)). ... It is probable that Tharyps was responsible for the kind of written rules and regulations which we find in the earliest known decrees of the Molossian state in 370–368 B.C. But the institutions were, of course, much earlier in origin."
  18. ^ Hatzopoulos 1997, p. 141
  19. ^ Katičić 1976, pp. 123–124; Filos 2018, pp. 233–234.
  20. ^ Hernandez, David (2010). Excavations of the Roman Forum at Butrint (2004-2007) (PhD). University of California at Berkeley, University of Cincinnati. Archived from the original on 2 April 2021. Retrieved 21 January 2021. Epigraphic and ancient literary evidence indicates that the Epirotes spoke a form of West Greek, a dialect of ancient Greek.
  21. ^ Hammond 1998: "Epirus was a land of milk and animal products [...] The social unit was a small tribe, consisting of several nomadic or semi-nomadic groups, and these tribes, of which more than seventy names are known, coalesced into large tribal coalitions, three in number: Thesprotians, Molossians and Chaonians [...] We know from the discovery of inscriptions that these tribes were speaking the Greek language (in a West-Greek dialect)."
  22. ^ Winnifrith, Tom (1983). Greeks and Romans. Springer. p. 73. ISBN 1349051233.
  23. ^ Roisman, Joseph; Worthington, Ian (7 July 2011). A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-1-4443-5163-7.
  24. ^ a b Joseph Roisman; Ian Worthington (7 July 2011). A Companion to Ancient Macedonia. John Wiley & Sons. pp. 83–84. ISBN 978-1-4443-5163-7.
  25. ^ Herodotus. Histories, 6.124.7.
  26. ^ Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Roman Antiquities, 20.10 (19.11).
  27. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece, 1.11.7–1.12.2.
  28. ^ Eutropius. Abridgment of Roman History (Historiae Romanae Breviarium), 2.11.13.
  29. ^ Thucydides. The History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.8 Archived 5 August 2011 at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^ Strabo. Geography, 7.7.1.
  31. ^ Filos 2018, p. 218.
  32. ^ Hatzopoulos 1997, p. 141
  33. ^ Filos 2018, p. 219.
  34. ^ Davies, J. K. (2002). "A Wholly Non-Aristotelian Universe: The Molossians as Ethnos, State, and Monarchy". In Roger Brock (ed.). Alternatives to Athens: Varieties of Political Organization and Community in Ancient Greece. Oxford University Press. p. 247. ISBN 0199258104.
  35. ^ Hatzopoulos, M. B.; Sakellariou, M.; Loukopoulou, L. D. (1997). Epirus, Four Thousand Years of Greek History and Civilization. Ekdotike Athenon. pp. 140–141. ISBN 960-213-377-5. It is equally incontestable that the Epirote tribes practised the same religion as the other Greeks. The supreme god of the Epirotes was Zeus and his sanctuary at Dodona attracted believers from all over the Greek world. Foreign deities are not attested...The most convincing proof, however, that the Epirotes belonged firmly within the religious body of Greece, is provided by the catalogue of thearodokoi listing Greek cities and tribes to which the major hellenic sanctuaries sent theoroi to... only Greeks were allowed to, participate in the pan-Hellenic games and festivals
  36. ^ Hammond 1986, p. 77: "The original home of the Hellenes was 'Hellas', the area round Dodona in Epirus, according to Aristotle. In the Iliad it was the home of Achilles' Hellenes."
  37. ^ Plutarch. Parallel Lives: Pyrrhus, 1.
  38. ^ Cameron 2004, p. 141: "As for Aspetos, Achilles was honored at Epirus under that name, and the patronymic [Ἀ]σπετίδης is found in a fragmentary poem found on papyrus."