Byllis, Albania

Byllis is perched high on top of a hill some 520 meters above sea level, overlooking the Vjosa River and definitely occupying a strong strategic position. The city is surrounded by sturdy Hellenistic walls over a distance of more than two kilometres, 3.5 meters thick and reaching a height of eight to nine meters; it is interrupted by six fortified entrance gates. No less than four inscriptions testify of the reconstruction by the Byzantine engineer Victorinus, who worked upon instructions of Emperor Justinian (end 5th-early 6th century AD). 


About its foundation it has been suggested that Byllis was founded by Greek settlers. According to another view, Byllis was found by king Pyrrhus of Epirus. Pyrrhus (Πύρρος, Pyrrhos; 319/318–272 BC) was a Greek general and statesman of the Hellenistic period.He was king of the Greek tribe of Molossians,of the royal Aeacid house (from c. 297 BC),and later he became king of Epirus (r. 306–302, 297–272 BC) and Macedon (r. 288–284, 273–272 BC).He was one of the strongest opponents of early Rome. Some of his battles, though successful, caused him heavy losses, from which the term Pyrrhic victory was coined. He is the subject of one of Plutarch's Parallel Lives.

Byllis, being a Greek-speaking city, it had its own stadium and theatre during the Hellenistic era, also it had its own coinage which was different from that of the tribe of the Bylliones.

The walls of Byllis were 2,200m long, enclosing 30 hectares of a plain atop a hill 524m above sea level. There were 6 gates in the city walls. 

The road coming from Apollonia passed through two of them, crossing Byllis in the direction of the narrows of gorges of the Vjosa river on the way to Macedonia or those of Antigonia in the direction of Epirus.

In 2011 during a road reconstruction near the archaeological park found in the site a statue of the Hellenistic era, Greek soldier or a war deity, was discovered.  However, the city in which language, institutions, officials, onomastics, city-planning and fortifications were Greek.

Roman and Byzantine rule
Under the Roman Empire, Byllis became part of the province of Epirus Nova. The walls of Byllis carry more than four inscriptions with details regarding their construction by the engineer Victorinus, as ordered by Emperor Justinian I (483-565)

Description / Site Monuments
The original Greek theater was built in the middle of the 3rd century BC and counted 40 tiers, providing seating for as many as 7,500 spectators, which based on the size of Byllis means that visitors from neighbouring towns attended the performances. It is said to resemble the theater of Dodona in neighbouring Epirus, but I am not in a position to compare. Clearly this theater has been “updated” by the Romans who added the skena of which only the foundations remain. A corner of the seating area has been reconstructed to give a better feel of the building, and it is interesting to look around for the many details of decorations for the walls, seats and the trimmings of the skena. I find it striking that the VIP seats are still present around the orchestra in the Greek fashion, meaning that this theater was never adapted to be used for animal fights as the Romans generally loved to organize. The view from up here is, as always, breathtaking!

Turning away from the steep edge on which the theater stands, are the remains of the arsenal also from the 3rd century BC and reconstructed during the 1st century AD using the so-called opus reticulatum technique (square diamond-shaped tufa blocks positioned with their corners downwards). It lays about three meters below the adjacent prytaneion (sacred meeting place) and measures 18.2x6.2 meters. This prytaneion, dedicated to Artemis, in turn, is 20 meters long by 6 meters wide and may well be one of the earliest buildings in the Agora.

Byllis also had a stadium from the end of the third century BC, one of the strangest constructions I have ever seen. Only one side of this stadium has been preserved. From the original length of 190 meters, the bottom seating stairs have survived over 134 meters. Near the theater, we can find as many as 19 steps still in place, but overall there are no more than three or four. But what makes this track so unique is that it runs alongside a huge public water cistern of 51 meters and 4.2 meters wide. This means that this vaulted cistern with a capacity of about 1,200 m3 was constructed underneath the stadium itself. The water was collected from the roofs of the Stoa and from the stairs on the south side of the stadium. In Byzantine times, Emperor Justinian built his baths right next to this cistern and the facilities were used till around 550 AD.

Sources / Bibliography / Photos

Bulletin du Centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre 14, pp. 57–60.
Beaudry, Nicolas, et al. (2003). 'Byllis (Albanie)', Bulletin de correspondance hellénique 126.2, pp. 659–684.
Bowden, William (2003). Epirus Vetus: The Archaeology of a Late Antique Province. Duckworth. ISBN 0-7156-3116-0.
Chevalier, Pascale, et al. (2003). 'Trois basiliques et un groupe épiscopal des Ve-VIe siècles réétudiés à Byllis (Albanie)', Hortus Artium Medievalium 9, pp. 155–165.
Ceka, Neritan, & Muçaj, Skënder (2005). Byllis, its history and monuments, Tirana.
Chevalier, Pascale, et al. (2008). 'Byllis (Albanie), campagne 2007: le quartier épiscopal, la Basilique E et les carrières', Bulletin du Centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre 13, pp. 73–76.
Chevalier, Pascale, Beaudry, Nicolas, & Muçaj, Skënder (2009). 'Le quartier épiscopal, campagne 2008, Byllis (Albanie)', Bulletin du Centre d’études médiévales d’Auxerre 13, pp. 73–76.
Hammond, N. G. L. (1989). "The Illyrian Atintani, the Epirotic Atintanes and the Roman Protectorate". The Journal of Roman Studies 79: 11–25. JSTOR 301177.
Haxhimihali, Marin (2004). 'Byllis et sa région à la lumière des sources écrites du VIe siècle', L'Illyrie méridionale et l'Épire dans l'Antiquité IV, Paris, pp. 463–466.
Hansen, Mogens Herman; Nielsen, Thomas Heine (2004). An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-814099-3.
Hatzopoulos, M. B.; Sakellariou, M.; Loukopoulou, L. D. (1997). Epirus, Four Thousand Years of Greek History and Civilization. Ekdotike Athenon. ISBN 960-213-377-5.
Lewis, D. M.; Boardman, John (1994). The Cambridge Ancient History, Volume 6: The Fourth Century BC. ISBN 0-521-23348-8.
Wilkes, John (1995). The Illyrians. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-19807-5.

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