|Some of the most prominent of the so-called “Illyrian” Emperors (from left to right):|
Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian, Valens, Gratian & Justinian
Originally ‘Illyrian’ was a term used by the Greeks and the Romans to describe the various heterogeneous barbarian tribes who inhabited the region between the Adriatic Sea to the west, the Drava River to the north, the Morava River to the east and the Aoos River to the south, in what is now the western Balkans, corresponding to modern Albania and part of the former Yugoslavia. This region was referred to as Illyria and later Illyricum. The ancient inhabitants of Illyria were not homogeneous; it is believed that the various tribes had diverse ethnic origins and spoke different languages (now extinct) which linguists today group together as the “Illyrian group of languages”. The ancient Illyrians were divided into many different tribes and did not have any collective identity or self-awareness; they never called themselves Illyrians, nor regarded themselves as belonging to any common group, culture or nation. Only the Greeks and the Romans recognized the existence of a collective Illyrian identity or group, and they used the broad term ‘Illyrian’ to distinguish themselves (Hellenes and Italics) from those tribes who inhabited the western Balkans. Therefore it is uncertain whether any Illyrian nation or ethnicity ever truly existed or not.
What is certain, however, is that after the Roman conquest of Illyria (229 - 167 BC) the term ‘Illyrian’ became a purely geographical description, not an ethnic designation. The Roman province of Illyricum was established in 167 BC as part of the Roman Republic. After the Roman conquest, the various Illyrian tribes disappeared from history; the region and the people were thoroughly latinized and assimilated to Roman-Latin culture, the region was heavily colonized by Roman settlers from Italy, and the Illyrian languages eventually went extinct as well. Therefore any ethnic Illyrian identity or Illyrian ethnic group which may have existed in ancient times, or at least had the potential to exist, effectively ceased to exist after the Roman conquest. From this point forward Illyria was now inhabited by the romanized descendants of the Illyrian tribes (who had become Latins in all respects and subsequently embraced a Roman identity) and by the Italian settlers who colonized Illyria, founding and/or settling in cities such as Salona, Narona, Scardona, Epidaurum, Aequum, Arba, Varvaria, Curicum (Veglia), Senia (Segna), Aenona (Nona), Iader (Zara), Tragurium (Traù), Acruvium (Cattaro), Scodra (Scutari), Dyrrachium (Durazzo), Buthrotum (Butrinto), Byllis, etc.
Those born in Roman Illyria or Illyricum are occasionally referred to in chronicles as ‘Illyrian’; but the term was geographic and had no ethnic meaning; ‘Illyrian’ no longer referred exclusively to the Illyrian tribes. Therefore, being born in Illyria or being referred to as ‘Illyrian’ did not necessarily mean that such a person was descended from the Illyrian tribes, especially not when pertaining to urban centers, which were heavily colonized by Latins. More often than not such people were descended from Roman families who had established themselves in Illyria and were part of the Roman military and political structure. Such was the case with many of the so-called “Illyrian” emperors.
Emperor Aurelian, for example, was one of the early so-called “Illyrian” emperors. Officially granted the title Restitutor Orbis (“Restorer of the World”) by the Senate, he was born in Sirmnium, a Roman colony and capital of the province of Pannonia Inferior. He belonged to the gens Aurelia, whose origins were in Sabina, Italy. The family gained prominence in Rome at a very early date and some descendants of the family were later found among the Roman settlers of Sirmium. There is no evidence that he was ethnically an “Illyrian”.
Emperor Diocletian, one of the most famous of the so-called “Illyrian” emperors, was born in Salona, which was a Roman colony settled by Italic war veterans. For eight centuries the city was Latin-speaking and populated by Romans descended from Italic colonists. Thus there is no reason to suppose that Diocletian was descended from the Illyrian tribes. He was born in the old Roman province of Illyricum (called Dalmatia at the time of his birth), but there is no evidence that he was ethnically Illyrian or descended from Illyrian tribes; all evidence suggests that he was a Roman, descended from Romans, not from barbarians.
Emperor Valentinian, often considered the last great western emperor, was another of the so-called “Illyrian” emperors. He was born in the city of Cibalae, in the Roman province of Pannonia Inferior. This city was founded in the 1st century AD by Italian settlers. In the 3rd century AD it officially gained status as a Roman colony and was renamed Colonia Aurelia Cibalae. A century later, in the year 321, Valentinian was born in the city-colony. There is no reason to suppose that Valentinian was ethnically an Illyrian, or descended from Illyrian tribes, especially when the city in which he was born was founded by Italian settlers and had been recently established as an official Roman colony a mere century earlier. All evidence points to a Roman colonial origin. Emperor Valens, commonly called “the Last True Roman”, was the brother of Valentinian and shared his same origins.
Emperor Constantine is the most important and well-known of the so-called “Illyrian” emperors. He was born in the city of Naissus, in the Roman province of Moesia Superior. Naissus was originally a Roman military camp, which later developed into a city and was settled by many Roman families from Italy. His parents were Emperor Constantius Chlorus (who is also one of the so-called “Illyrian” emperors) and Empress Helena. Helena was born in the city of Drepana (later renamed Helenopolis), in the Roman province of Bithynia — a region in Anatolia, today part of modern Turkey. The region was named after the Bithyni, a Thracian tribe that inhabited the region. Previously the general area in which she was born belonged to the Hittites, Phrygians and Greeks. Helena's ethnic origins are unclear, but she certainly was not an Illyrian. Her full name, Flavia Julia Helena, indicates descent from the gens Flavia and the gens Julia, although it is not certain whether she belonged to these gens or later adopted the names. Constantine's father, Constantius Chlorus, was also born in Moesia Superior. He descended from the Flavii Sabini, a branch of the gens Flavia, whose origins were in Sabina, Italy, and from the gens Ceionia, whose origins were in Etruria, Italy, and also from the Crispini family of the gens Bruttia, whose origins were in Bruttium, Italy. Therefore Constantine, through his father Constantius Chlorus, belonged to the gens Flavia, Ceionia, and Bruttia — all well-known ancient Italian families. Although the origins of Constatine's mother Helena are uncertain, the origins of his father are known to be Italian. There are no “Illyrians” to be found in his ancestry.
These are just a few examples. Many more can be given. There are a total of at least 19 emperors who are commonly (and in many cases incorrectly) called “Illyrian”.
The so-called “Spanish” and “Arabic” Emperors
Many authors also make similar mistakes with other emperors, as for example Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, all of whom were born in the Roman province of Hispania. The birth-place of Trajan has led to him being incorrectly labeled as “the first non-Italian Emperor” and even as “the first Spanish Emperor”. While it is true that Trajan was the first Roman emperor to be born outside of Italy, he certainly was not ethnically Spanish or Hispanic. Trajan was born in the city of Italica, an Italian colony founded by the Romans in 206 BC. He descended from a family of Italian colonists belonging to the gens Ulpia, whose origins were in Umbria, Italy. Hadrian too was born in Italica to an Italian colonial family (although some sources say he was born in Rome to an Italian colonial family that returned to Italy from Italica). His mother Paulina was from the Roman colony Augusta Urbs Julia Gaditana (modern Cádiz). His father descended from a family of Marche, Italy and he also belonged to the gens Ulpia and the gens Aelia. Trajan and Hadrian were maternal cousins through the gens Ulpia. Marcus Aurelius was born in Ucubi, in the province of Hispania. His family belonged to the gens Annia, whose origins were in Lazio and Campania, Italy. The Italian origins of these three emperors are well established; they all descended from Italian families who colonized Hispania and remained part of the socio-political life of Rome. They were by no means “non-Italians”, and they were certainly not “Spanish” nor related to the modern country of Spain. Yet some historians continue to mistakenly identify them as if they were Spaniards.
Another example of a commonly-misidentified emperor is Philip the Arab (reigned 244–249 AD). Despite his name, Philip was not an Arab. He was born to a Roman family in the city of Philippopolis (modern Shahba, Syria), in the Roman province of Arabia Petraea, and thus is referred to as ‘the Arab’ by virtue of his birthplace. But, ethnically speaking, Philip was not an Arab; he was merely born in Arabia. In a similar way, an Ireland-born descendant of Nigerian immigrants may sometimes be referred to as “Irish”, but it is clear that he is in no way ethnically Irish or related to the Irish people. Philip came from a Roman family; his father was Julius Marinus, a Roman citizen who likely descended from Roman settlers or soldiers stationed in the Middle East. The city in which Philip was born — Philippopolis (named after the same emperor) — had previously been part of the Roman province of Syria before being merged into the province of Arabia Petraea by Emperor Severus in the year 193. Therefore the designation of ‘Arab’ has no ethnic meaning, and had he been born prior to 193 he would have been called ‘the Syrian’ rather than ‘the Arab’. But these simple facts have not prevented misunderstandings and have not prevented some people from claiming that Philip was “the first Arab Emperor”. In fact, there never was any Roman emperor of Arabic descent.
Those who mistakenly believe that Emperor Philip was “Arabic”, and that Trajan, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius were “Spaniards”, often make the same mistake with the so-called “Illyrian” Emperors, incorrectly believing that all the provincial-born emperors from Diocletian to Constantine to Justinian were descended from Illyrians, when in reality that is often not the case.