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The Liburnians (or Liburni, Greek: Λιβυρνοί)[1] were an ancient Illyrian tribe inhabiting the district called Liburnia,[2] a coastal region of the northeastern Adriatic between the rivers Arsia (Raša) and Titius (Krka) in what is now Croatia.


Classic age

The first account of the Liburni comes from Periplus or Coastal passage, an ancient Greek text of the mid 4th century BC.[3]

The fall of Liburnian domination in the Adriatic Sea and their final retreat to their ethnic region (Liburnia) were caused by the military and political activities of Dionysius the Elder of Syracuse (406 – 367 BC). The imperial power base of this Syracusan tyrant stemmed from a huge naval fleet of 300 tetreras and penteras. After he ended Carthaginian authority in Sicily, he turned against the Etruscans. He made use of the Celtic invasion of Italy, and the Celts became his allies in the Italian peninsula (386 - 385 BC). This alliance was crucial for his politics, then focusing on the Adriatic Sea, where the Liburnians still dominated. In light of this strategy, he established a few Syracusan colonies on the coasts of the Adriatic Sea: Adria at the mouth of Po river and Ancona at the western Adriatic coast, Issa on the outermost island of the central Adriatic archipelago (island of Vis) and others. Meanwhile in 385-384 BC he helped colonists from the Greek island of Paros to establish Pharos (Starigrad) colony on the Liburnian island of Hvar, thus taking control of the important points and navigable routes in the southern, central and northern Adriatic.

This caused a simultaneous Liburnian resistance on both coasts, whether in their ethnic domain or on the western coast, where their possessions or interests were in danger. A great naval battle was recorded a year after the establishment of Pharos colony, by a Greek inscription in Pharos (384 – 383 BC) and by the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (80 – 29 BC), initiated by conflicts between the Greek colonists and the indigenous Hvar islanders, who asked their compatriots for support. 10,000 Liburnians sailed out from their capital Idassa (Zadar), led by the Iadasinoi (people of Zadar), and laid siege to Pharos. The Syracusan fleet positioned in Issa was informed in time, and Greek triremes attacked the siege fleet, taking victory in the end. According to Diodorus, the Greeks killed more than 5,000 and captured 2,000 prisoners, ran down or captured their ships, and burned their weapons in dedication to their god.

This battle meant the loss of the most important strategic Liburnian positions in the centre of the Adriatic, resulting in their final retreat to their main ethnic region, Liburnia, and their complete departure from the Italic coast, apart from Truentum (nowadays on the border between Marche and Abruzzo). Greek colonization, however, did not extend into Liburnia, which remained strongly held, and Syracusan dominance suddenly diminished upon the death of Dionysius the Elder. The Liburnians recovered and developed piracy to secure navigable routes in the Adriatic, as recorded by Livius in 302 BC.[4]

The middle of the 3rd century BC was marked by the rise of an Illyrian kingdom in the south of the Adriatic, led by king Agron of the Ardiaei. Its piratical activities imperiled Greek and Roman interests in the Adriatic, and caused the first Roman intervention on the eastern coast in 229 BC; Florus (II,5) noted the Liburnians as the Romans' enemies in this expedition, while Appian (Bell. Civ., II, 39) noted liburnae as swift galleys the Romans first fought with when they entered the Adriatic. The Liburni were allies of their southern Illyrian compatriots, Ardiaei and the others, but from the lack of more records related to them in the 3rd century BC, it is assumed that they mostly stood aside in the subsequent Roman wars and conflicts with Pyrrhus, Carthage, Macedonia and the southern Illyrian state.[5] Even though Liburnian territory was not involved in these confrontations, it seems that the Liburna warship was adopted by the Romans during the Punic Wars[6] and in the Second Macedonian War.[7]

Hellenistic and Roman periods

In 181 BC, the Romans established their colony at Aquileia and took control of all Venetia in the north, thus expanding towards the Illyrian area from the northwest. In 177 BC they conquered Istria to the north of the eastern Adriatic coast, settled by tribe of Histri, while the Iapodes, the northern neighbors of Liburnia, attacked Aquileia in 171 BC. These incidents did not involve Liburnian territory. The Liburnians probably avoided direct conflict with the Romans in order to safeguard their remaining naval activities. After their arrival to the west of Liburnia, Roman legions also appeared on its southern borders, defeating the southern Illyrians and finally king Gentius in 167 BC, and during wars against the tribe of Dalmatae in 156–155 BC. The first Roman appearance in Liburnian waters occurred in 129 BC, during the military expedition of the Roman consul Gaius Sempronius Tuditanus against the Iapodes, which ended with hard-won victories over the Iapodes, Carni, Taurisci and Liburnians.

In 84 BC, the Roman consuls, enemies of Sulla, mobilized an army in Italy and tried to use Liburnian territory, probably some outer island, to organize a military campaign back into Italy, against Sulla. This failed owing to bad weather and the low morale of the soldiers, who massively escaped to their homes in Italy, or refused to cross the sea to Liburnia. The Roman legions once again passed through Liburnian territory, probably by sea along the coast, in their next expedition against the Dalmatae 78–76 BC, started from the north, from Aquilea and Istria, to stabilize Roman control of the Dalmatian city Salona.[8]

In 59 BC, Illyricum was assigned as a provincia (or zone of responsibility) to Julius Caesar, and the main Liburnian city of Iadera was nominally proclaimed a Roman municipium, but the real establishment of the Roman province occurred no earlier than 33 BC.

The Dalmatae soon recovered and entered into conflict with the Liburnians in 51 BC (probably over possession of the pasture grounds around the Krka river), taking their city Promona. The Liburnians were not strong enough to reconquer it alone, so they appealed to Caesar, then the Roman proconsul of Illyricum. However, the Liburnian army, strategically supported by the Romans, was heavily defeated by the Dalmatae.[9]

The civil war between Caesar and Pompey in 49 BC affected all of the Roman Empire, as well as Liburnia. In that year, near the island of Krk, there was an important naval battle between the forces of Caesar and Pompey, involving local Liburnian support to both sides. Caesar was supported by the urban Liburnian centres, like Iader, Aenona and Curicum, while the rest of Liburnia supported Pompey, including the city of Issa where residents objected to Caesar's support for the Dalmatae in Salona. The "Navy of Iader" (Zadar) which may have included both Liburnian and Roman ships, confronted the "Liburnian navy" in service to Pompey, equipped with only Liburnians in their liburnae galleys.

Caesar rewarded his supporters in Liburnian Iader and Dalmatian Salona with the status of Roman colonies, but the battle was won by the Liburnian navy, prolonging the civil war, and ensuring control of the Adriatic to the side aligned with Pompey over the next 2 years until his final defeat in 48 BC. In the same year, Caesar sent his legions to take control of the rebellious Illyricum province, and took the fortress of Promona from Dalmatian hands, making them submit.[10]

Throughout this time, Roman rule in Illyricum province, largely nominal, was concentrated in only a few cities on the eastern Adriatic coast, such as Iader, Salona and Narona. Renewed Illyrian and Liburnian piracy motivated Octavian to organize a great military operation in Illyricum province in 35 BC, to finally stabilize Roman control of it. This action was first concentrated on the coastal Illyrian tribes to the east of Narona, then was expanded along the depth of Illyrian territory, where continental tribes gave much stronger resistance. After returning from the inland areas of Illyricum, Octavian destroyed the Illyrian pirate communities on the islands of Melita (Mljet) and Korkyra Nigra (Korčula), and continued to Liburnia, where he wiped out the last remnants of the Liburnian naval forces, thus resolving the problems of their renewed piratical activities in the bay of Kvarner (sinus Flanaticus) and their attempt to secede from Rome. Octavian commandeered all the Liburnian ships. Very soon these galleys would play a decisive role in the battle near Actium.

Octavian made another expedition inland against the Iapodes from the Liburnian port of Senia (Senj), and conquered their most important positions in 34 BC. Over the next 2 years the Roman army, led by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, fought hard battles with the Dalmatae. The Liburnians were not recorded as participants in this war, but their southernmost territories were surely involved.[11]

It is uncertain whether the Liburnians joined in the last Great Illyrian Revolt; this remains debatable, as the only evidence is a damaged inscription found in Verona, mentioning the Iapodes and Liburnians under an unknown leader.[12]

Over the centuries, naval power was the most important aspect of warfare for the Liburni. After the empowered Roman forces defeated the Liburni, the region became part of the Roman province of Dalmatia, but it was considered marginal in a military sense. Burnum on the Krka river became a Roman military camp, while the plains of Liburnia proper inland from Iader, already urbanized, now became easily accessible to control by Roman rulers. However, Liburnian seafaring tradition was not extinguished; it rather acquired a more commercial character under the new circumstances as Liburnia's ports and cities thrived economically and culturally. Despite Romanization, especially in the larger cities, Liburnians retained their traditions, cults, burial customs (Liburnian cipus), names, etc., as attested by the archaeological evidence from that era.[13]


Further information: Prehistoric Balkans

The development of Liburnian culture can be divided into 3 main time periods:

  • 11th and 10th centuries BC. Between two waves of Balkan-Pannonian migrations, this was a transitive period between the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, with features more related to the Late Bronze Age. It was characterized by the influence of the Urnfield Culture that spread in the Pannonian areas, in addition to the general changes caused by the Balkan-Pannonian migrations.
  • 9th to the 5th centuries BC. Liburnian domination in the Adriatic Sea; its first phase (9th century BC), because of the aforementioned migrations, did not continue the developments of the Late Bronze Age, except in certain forms. This was the beginning of the Liburnian Iron Age, marked by their expansion and colonization of Picenum, Daunia and Apulia on the Italic shores. The establishment of colonies resulted in a highly developed and rich culture based on naval trade, in the 8th and 7th centuries BC. This was followed by isolation from the Balkan area, except from Iapodia. The lucrative exchange of materials with the opposite coast was continued in the 6th century BC, and its connection to Picenum remained strong, and links to Iapodes and Dalmatae have also been attested. In the 5th century BC, the Greeks undertook the leadership of trade in the Adriatic and considerable changes resulted, such as the importing of a wider range of Greek products.
  • 5th to the 1st centuries BC. Decline of Liburnia's power; Liburnian culture was thoroughly under Hellenic influence, although specifically local cultural aspects were retained. Apart from the extended importation of Hellenistic and Italic pottery, and other lesser influences, Liburnian cultural relations with other peoples were rather poor.


The principal forms of settlements were forts (Latin: castellum, Croatian: gradina) built for defense, usually on elevations and fortified with dry walls. In Liburnian territory, about 400 have been identified so far, but they were considerably more numerous. About a hundred names of these hill-forts have kept their roots from prehistory, especially places that had been inhabited permanently, such as Zadar (Iader), Nin (Aenona), Nadin (Nedinium), Rab (Arba), Krk (Curicum), etc. The dwellings were square, dry-wall, ground-floor buildings of one room. Similar stone houses are preserved in Croatian tradition all over Dalmatia and Kvarner, mostly of the rounded form called bunja.

Burial tradition

The Liburnians buried their dead in graves near or beneath settlements. It is known that they laid their dead on one side in a contracted position, mostly in chests of stone slabs. Tumuli are numerous all over Liburnian territory, especially in the heartland of Liburnia proper (Nin, Zaton, etc.). Although most grave sites were from the beginning of the Iron Age, many were continually used in the Copper Age or from the Early Bronze Age to the end of the Iron Age. Inhumation under tumuli as practiced in Liburnian territory was undoubtedly inherited from earlier times.

Material culture

The transitory remains of culture are represented by various artifacts, mostly jewellery, pottery, and pieces of costume. Other forms are less common, such as weapons, tools etc. Especially numerous are fibulae, some twenty forms and many more variants, as well as ornamental pins. Small sculptures representing animals and people are fairly common. Various coins from 23 mints beginning from the 6th and especially the 3rd century have been found in former Liburnian territory, from Greek cities, colonies, Italian cities, Illyrian rulers, North African, Celtic and Roman. Bronze and glass vessels occur very rarely. Pottery is found mostly in settlements and tumuli, but it rarely occurs in tombs, except in rare tombs of Hellenistic type. Pottery was made without throwing, with a mixture of calcite, and burnt on an open fire. Imported pottery is also common, especially from southern Italy, from the 8th to 1st centuries BC; mostly Apulian vessels, but also some Greek pottery was imported.


Main article: Paleo-Balkanic religion

The mythology of the people of Illyria is only known through the mention of Illyrian deities on Roman Empire period monuments, some with interpretatio Romana.[14] There appears to be no single most prominent Illyrian god, and there would have been much variation between individual Illyrian tribes. The Illyrians did not develop a uniform cosmology on which to center their religious practices.[15]


Liburnia's economy relied on its strength in the sectors of agriculture, stock breeding, crafts, trade, barter, seamanship, fishing, hunting, and food collecting. The Liburnians traded over the whole of the Adriatic, and into the Middle and Eastern Mediterranean and the northwestern Balkan peninsula. They exported mostly to the territories of the Iapodes and Dalmatae, and across the Adriatic to Picenum and southern Italy, especially the commodities of jewellery, cheese, clothing, etc., and they imported mostly from Italy, primarily pottery, and various adopted coins. Importation of amber from the Baltic cannot be proven, but acquisitions likely occurred in Liburnian territory.

Social relations

Insights into social relations are possible by means of cultural relics, Roman-era inscriptions, and the works of several authors. Mention of the special role of women in Liburnian society can be noted in their writings. They describe the original division into several tribes and territorial communities, later fused into a union of tribes and a single ethnic community of Liburnians. Social relations were based on the structure of family and clan. Collections of tumuli correspond to this; there were up to 18 graves in a tumulus through several generations, or individual interments, with up to 8 bodies in each grave. Certain data suggest social division, stratification, and inequality, where the Liburnian aristocracy maintained many privileges, special status, and features of their culture under Roman rule.

Relations to other cultures

Liburnian culture mainly developed on the basis of inheritance and independent development, partly through foreign influence, particularly Italic and Hellenic, as well as through the imports of foreign goods. Links with the Pannonian basin were fewer than in Late Bronze Age. Much more important were links with the Iapodes, and especially with the Dalmatae. Histrian culture developed differently, and their links with the Liburnians were less general. The exchange with Italy was varied and important. The Liburnians had the most versatile relationships with Picenum and southern Italy because of Liburnian immigration. Trade with the Greeks was more meagre, except in the Hellenistic age. Just as in other parts of the Mediterranean, large quantities of North African coins are prominent. Celtic influence is important, especially in jewellery and tools, but mostly it is not direct.[16]


The Liburnians were renowned seafarers, notorious for their raids in the Adriatic Sea, which they conducted in their swift galleys. The Romans knew them principally as a people addicted to piracy. The major harbour of the Liburnian navy since the 5th century BC was Corynthia at the eastern cape of Krk island, including 7 unearthed docks, a marine arsenal, and stony fortifications; this early harbour persisted in its function through ancient and medieval times to the 16th century.

The Liburnians constructed different ship types; their galaia was an early prototype of transport galleys, lembus was a fishing ship[17][18][19] continued by the actual Croatian levut, and a drakoforos was apparently mounted with a dragonhead at the prow.

Remains of a 10 meter long ship from the 1st century BC were found in Zaton near Nin (Aenona in Liburnia proper), the ship keel with the bottom planking made of 6 rows of wooden boards on each side, joined together and sewn with resin cords and wooden wedges, testifying to the Liburnian shipbuilding tradition style known as "Serilia Liburnica". Deciduous trees (oak and beech) were used, while some climber was used for the cords.[20] A 10th-century AD ship of identical form and size, made with wooden fittings instead of sewn planking joints, was found in the same place, "Condura Croatica" used by the Medieval Croats. Condura could be the closest known vessel to the original "liburna" galley in form, only much smaller, with the features of a quick and agile galley, having a shallow bottom, very straightened but long, with one large Latin sail and a row of oaks on each side.


Main article: Liburna

The best known Liburnian ship was their oar-propelled warship, known as a libyrnis (λιβύρνις, λιβυρνίς) to the Greeks and a liburna to the Romans.

Liburnae may have been shown in a naval battle scene carved on a stone tablet (Stele di Novilara) found near Antique Pisaurum (Pesaro) and dated to the 5th or 6th century BC. It depicts a legendary battle between the Liburnian and Picenian fleets. The liburna was presented as a light ship with one row of oars, one mast, one sail and a prow twisted outwards. Under the prow was a rostrum made for striking enemy ships under the sea.

In its original form, the liburna was similar to the Greek penteconter. It had one bench with 25 oars on each side. Later, in the time of the Roman Republic, it became a smaller version of a trireme, but with two banks of oars (a bireme), faster, lighter, and more agile than biremes and triremes. The liburnian design was adopted by the Romans and became a key part of the Roman Navy, possibly by way of the Macedonian navy, in the 2nd half of the 1st century BC. Liburnae ships played a crucial role in the naval battle of Actium in Greece, which lasted from August 31 to September 2 of 31 BC. Because of the liburna's maneuverability and the bravery of its Liburnian crews, these ships completely defeated much bigger and heavier eastern ships, quadriremes and penterames. The liburna was different from the battle triremes, quadriremes and quinqueremes — not in terms of rowing, but rather in its specific construction.[21][22] It was 109 ft (33 m) long and 16 ft (5 m) wide with a 3 ft (0.91 m) draft. Two rows of oarsmen pulled 18 oars per side. The ship could make up to 14 knots under sail and more than 7 under oars.[23] Such a vessel, used as a merchantman, might take on a passenger, as Lycinus relates in the 2nd-century dialogue, traditionally attributed to Lucian of Samosata: "I had a speedy vessel readied, the kind of bireme used above all by the Liburnians of the Ionian Gulf."

Once the Romans had adopted the liburna, they improved it. The benefits gained from the addition of rams and protection from missiles more than made up for the slight loss of speed.[24] The ships also required that the regular Roman military unit be simplified in order to function more smoothly. Each ship operated as an individual entity, so the more complicated organization normally used was not necessary.[25] Within the navy, there were probably liburnae of several varying sizes, all put to specific tasks such as scouting and patrolling Roman waters against piracy.[26] The Romans made use of liburnae particularly in some provinces where they formed the bulk of the fleets,[27][28][29] while they were included in smaller numbers in the fleets at Ravenna and Micenum where a large number of Illyrians were serving, especially Dalmatae, Liburnians and Pannonians.

Gradually liburna became a generic name for different types of Roman ships, attached also to cargo ships in later Antiquity. Tacitus and Suetonius were using it as a synonym for battle ship. In inscriptions it was mentioned as the last class of battle ships: hexeres, penteres, quadrieres, trieres, liburna.[30]

In Medieval sources, "liburna" ships were often recorded in use by Croatian and Dalmatian pirates and sailors, probably not always referring to ships of the same form.


Main article: Liburnian language

The Liburnian language is an extinct language which was spoken by the ancient Liburnians, who occupied Liburnia in classical times. Classification of the Liburnian language is not clearly established; it is reckoned as an Indo-European language with significant proportion of the Pre-Indo-European elements from wider area of the ancient Mediterranean.

Extinction of the language and ethnicity

In AD 634 Heraclius invited the Chrovates or Chrobati (ancestors of the Croats), who lived on the north side of the Carpathians, in what is now southern Poland (or Galicia), to occupy the province as vassals of the Empire.[31] Their presence had a permanent effect on the Romanized culture, and the Liburnians faded as a distinct ethne.


  • HELVII u Jaderu i Liburniji, ["Helvii in Iader and Liburnia"], Radovi - zavoda za povijesne znanosti HAZU u Zadru, 37, Zadar, 1955, 9-37.
  • Liburnski cipus iz Verone (CIL 5, 2200, 8852; CIL 3, 2190), ["Liburnian cippus from Verona"], Diadora, 10, Zadar, 1988, 73-99.
  • "Prilog klasifikaciji liburnskih nadgrobnih spomenika, tzv. liburnskih cipusa - sjeverna grupa nalaza," [“Contribution to classification of Liburnian gravestones, so called cipuses - northern group of findings”], Izdanja HAD-a, 13, Arheoloska istrazivanja na otocima Krku, Rabu i u Hrvatskom primorju, Zagreb, 1989, 51-59.
  • "Aserijatska skupina liburnskih nadgrobnih spomenika, tzv. liburnskih cipusa," [“Asseriate group of Liburnian gravestones, so called cippi”], Diadora, 12: 209-299, Zadar, 1990; Diadora, 13, Zadar, 1991, 169-211.
  • Ivo Fadić, Archaeological museum in Zadar
  • Barac, L. et al., '"Y-chromosomal heritage of Croatian population and its island isolates", European Journal of Human Genetics, 11: 535-542, 2003.
  • Batovic, Sime, Sepultures de la peuplade illyrienne des Liburnes, Bonn, 1962.
  • Batovic, Sime, '"Die Eisenzeit auf dem Gebiet des illyrischen Stammes der Liburnen." Archaeologia Jugoslavica '6 (1965.), 55 p.,
  • Tolk, H.V. et al., "MtDNA haplogroups in the populations of Croatian Adriatic Islands." Coll. Anthropologica 24: 267-279, 2000.
  • Wilkes, John J., The Illyrians, Blackwell Books, 1992.
  • Yoshamya, Mitjel and Zyelimer Yoshamya, Gan-Veyan: Neo-Liburnic glossary, grammar, culture, genom, Old-Croatian Archidioms, Monograph I, pp. 1–1.224, Scientific Society for Ethnogenesis studies, Zagreb 2005.
  • Brusic, Zdenko, Hellenistic and Roman Relief Pottery in Liburnia British Archaeological Reports (December 8, 1999), 254 pages, 122 plates of drawings and photographs.


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