Prehistory and the Illyrians

The first traces of human presence in Albania are from the Paleolithic era. Traces of human activity have been found near Tirana and in more remote villages such as Xarrë. It is thought that these tribes were closely connected with Proto-Greeks and may have even spoke the same language. Around 1600 BC some of these people left Albania to found the Mycenaean culture



Most of what we know of the Illyrians who lived in Albania comes from the Greeks. Several Illyrian kings united the tribes and fought the kingdom of Macedon, which became Macedonia. Bardyllis was the first of these Illyrian kings; his name means white star in Albanian. Cleitus, the last of these Illyrian kings, was ultimately defeated by Alexander the Great around 335 BC. In 230 BC the Illyrians, led by King Agron and his wife Teuta, regained their independence and became a formidable naval power in the Adriatic Sea. For about 60 years they fought and raided neighboring states, including the Romans, before finally being defeated by the Romans in 168 BC. 

Under the Romans Illyria became Illyricum, an eastern province of the Roman Republic and later, the Roman Empire. The land known today as Albania was then split between three provinces: Illyricum, Macedonia, and Dalmatia. As the centuries passed, Christianity slowly began to replace the pagan religions of the area. During the schism that divided the Roman Empire into the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, Albania became a problem for the new emperors. Geographically speaking, Albania belonged to the Eastern Roman Empire. However, ecclesiastically, the region depended on the popes in Rome instead of the patriarchs in Constantinople. 



The anomaly of Albania’s position changed during the Iconoclastic Controversy of 732 AD. Leo III the Byzantine Emperor banned the worship of religious images. Following this imperial decree, many religious images throughout the Byzantine Empire were destroyed. However, the archbishops of Albania sided with the Popes in Rome, who supported the use of icons in worship. After being criticized by Pope Gregory III, Leo III decided to confiscate several papal estates, including modern day Albania. The province of Illyricum remained under Byzantine control until the Great Schism of 1054, when the pope in Rome and the patriarch in Constantinople excommunicated each other, forming Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Following the split southern Albania sided with the patriarchs, and retained their ties to Constantinople; meanwhile, the northern part of the region reverted back to Roman Catholicism. This split on religious lines marked the first fragmentation in the country along religious lines.