Saturday, October 3, 2015

Was Emperor Constantine an “Illyrian”?

‘The Vision of Constantine’ by Gian Lorenzo Bernini
Scala Regia in the Apostolic Palace, Vatican City

Emperor Constantine (c. 274 - 337 AD) is one of the most famous Roman emperors and one of the most important political and religious figures in history. As such, he is the source of much controversy, dispute, polemics and historical revisionism.


Constantine was born Flavius Valerius Aurelius Constantinus in the city of Naissus, in the Roman province of Moesia Superior, in c. 274 AD. He was the son of Emperor Constantius Chlorus and Empress Helena. He became Roman Emperor in 306, during a period known as the Tetrarchy: the Roman Empire was divided into four administrative divisions ruled by two senior emperors and two junior emperors. During the Civil Wars of the Tetrarchy (306-324 AD), in which Constantine and the co-emperors Maxentius, Licinius and Severus II fought for control over the Empire, Constantine witnessed a vision from God: On October 27, 312, just before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine was marching with his army when he saw a cross in the sky with the words ‘in hoc signo vinces’ (“In this sign you shall conquer”), sparking the process of his conversion to Christianity. He won the battle, defeated Maxentius, and gave thanks to God. One year later, in 313, Constantine and Licinius issued the Edict of Milan, a landmark proclamation that permanently established religious toleration and legalization of Christianity within the Roman Empire. In 324 the Civil Wars ended in a Constantinian victory, with Constantine as the sole Roman Emperor. He died in 337.

An “Illyrian”?

Constantine is often classified as one of the so-called “Illyrian emperors” — a term used by some authors to describe those emperors born in what is today called the Balkan Peninsula. However, the word “Illyrian”, especially since the 19th century, has also taken on ethnic connotations, which has caused a lot of confusion. There are many people in the Balkans today wishing to connect themselves to Illyrians, and therefore to all historical people who are commonly regarded as Illyrians. This is especially true in modern Albania, but also to a lesser extent in Serbia, and historically also among the Croats. Thus it is not uncommon nowadays to hear claims that “Constantine was Albanian”, “Constantine was Serbian”, and other similar claims. Because such people believe that Constantine was Illyrian, and also believe that their particular nation is descended from Illyrians, they argue that Constantine was in fact part of their nation. But was Emperor Constantine actually an “Illyrian”? In order to answer this question it is necessary to first define what exactly an Illyrian is.

What is an “Illyrian”?

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.

Geographical History

Constantine was born in the city of Naissus. This city originated as a Roman military camp, established by the Roman army between 75-73 BC. The camp later developed into a city and was settled by many Roman families from Italy. Before being conquered by the Romans, the area in the nearby vicinity of Naissus was historically inhabited by the Triballi, a Thracian tribe, and the Scordisci, a Celtic tribe — not Illyrians. The city itself, however, was of Roman origin, being first inhabited by Roman legionaries from Italy, before eventually transforming into a proper city by the second century AD.

When Constantine was born, the city of Naissus was located in the Roman province of Moesia Superior, not in Illyricum (which had been renamed Dalmatia since 10 AD). Under Emperor Diocletian, who became emperor ten years after the birth of Constantine, the southern half of Moesia Superior was detached from Moesia and renamed Dardania, with Naissus as its capital. This new province (which corresponded to modern Kosovo, southern Serbia, and northern FYR Macedonia) was named after the Dardani, a Thracian tribe that historically occupied the area. The area of Dardania was never part of the historical region of Illyria, nor was it part of the historical Roman province of Illyricum when Constantine was born; Dardania was not created until ten years after Constantine's birth; he was born in what was then known as Moesia.

Moesia was never historically linked to ancient Illyria, nor to the Roman province of Illyricum, nor did it ever form any part of an area known as Illyricum until the year 347, when the Roman Empire was divided into four administrative divisions known as praetorian prefectures; several of the Roman provinces, including Moesia Superior and Moesia Inferior, were grouped together into the Praetorian Prefecture of Illyricum — named after the old Roman province of Illyricum. This took place in 347, a decade after the death of Constantine. Prior to this, the area of Moesia never belonged to Illyricum — neither to the province, nor the the historical region, nor to any cultural, political, administrative, or geographical region known by that name.

Furthermore, the city of Naissus — where Constantine was born — was located east of the Morava River, which was the historical easternmost boundary of the ancient region of Illyria: the city had no historical connection to Illyria nor to the Roman province of Illyricum, and it was not until a decade after the death of Constantine that the city and surrounding province became incorporated into an administrative-geographical area called Illyricum.

Map of the Roman Empire
Illyricum and Moesa—two distinct regions


Constantine belonged to Latin culture and Roman civilization. His native language was Latin. He did not speak Greek, as is often incorrectly assumed. In fact, he required the use of a translator in order to translate his Latin speeches into Greek. There is no evidence that he spoke Illyrian either, which was gradually becoming extinct due to the wide use of the Latin language. Nor would there be any reason for Constantine to know Illyrian, since the city and immediate surrounding area in which he lived was not inhabited by Illyrians, as was mentioned in the above section.

Roman cities and urban areas were centres of Latin culture, in which Roman civilization flourished and from which Roman civilization was able to rapidly spread. There were no “Illyrian” cities, as such, in the Roman Empire. By the time of Constantine, the Latin language was the spoken language in all the western cities of the Empire, as well as in the western Balkans. By this time the Illyrian languages were near extinction even in the rural areas and, needless to say, these languages were never prominently spoken in the cities or urban areas of the Empire to begin with, especially not in those cities which were founded and/or heavily settled and colonized by the Romans.

Constantine did not belong to “Illyrian civilization”. In truth, there was no “Illyrian civilization” for Constantine to belong to; there was no Illyrian literature, no Illyrian education, no Illyrian institutions, no collective Illyrian identity; anything that could have been called “Illyrian civilization” or “Illyrian culture” (such as distinct forms of art, sculpture, law, religion, etc.) had ceased to exist centuries prior as a result of the Roman conquest. The culture and civilization to which Constantine belonged to was Latin and Roman: the language, law, literature, education, customs, life and identity of Constantine was Latin and Roman, not Illyrian.


It has already been demonstrated that Constantine was not an Illyrian by culture, and not an Illyrian by geography either. But what about by ancestry? To determine Constantine's ancestry, it is necessary to trace the ancestry of his parents: Emperor Constantius Chlorus and Empress Helena.

Helena was born in the city of Drepana (later renamed Helenopolis), in the Roman province of Bithynia — which was not located anywhere near Illyria. Bithynia was an ancient region located in northwestern Anatolia (then called Asia Minor), 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 complete name, Flavia Iulia Helena, indicates descent from the gens Flavia and the gens Julia, two ancient Italian families, although it is not certain whether she truly belonged to these gens or later adopted the names.

Constantine's father, Constantius Chlorus (who is also one of the so-called “Illyrian” emperors), was born in the Roman province of Moesia Superior to Flavius ​​Eutropius and Claudia Crispina. Flavius ​​Eutropius (the paternal grandfather of Constantine) descended from the Flavii Sabini, a branch of the gens Flavia, whose origins were in Sabina, Italy, and from Junius Licinius Balbus, nephew of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus, who belonged to the gens Ceionia, whose origins were in Etruria, Italy. Claudia Crispina (the paternal grandmother of Constantine) belonged to the Crispini family of the gens Bruttia, whose origins were in Bruttium, Italy. She was also distantly related to the gens Atia, a plebeian family from Rome, through her mother Aurelia (the paternal great-grandmother of Constantine). Thus Constantius Chlorus belonged to the gens Flavia, Ceionia and Bruttia, and more distantly to the gens Atia — all well-known ancient Italian families.

Therefore, although the origins of Constatine's mother Helena are uncertain, we know that Constantine was certainly of Italian origin through his father Constantius Chlorus. There are no “Illyrians” to be found in his ancestry.

Constantine's Family Tree
Paternal Lineage

(Click to enlarge)


There is absolutely no reason to declare Constantine an “Illyrian”; he was not Illyrian in any sense of the term; neither culturally, nor ethnically, nor even geographically. He was born in the Roman province of Moesia Superior—not Illyria. The city in which he was born (Naissus) was settled by Romans—not Illyrians. The area immediately surrounding this city was historically inhabited by Thracians and Celts—not Illyrians. His father descended from Italians—not Illyrians. His mother was not Illyrian. His language and culture was Latin—not Illyrian. His civilization and identity was Roman—not Illyrian. Thus it is clear that Constantine was not an Illyrian in any sense of the term.