Celts, Goths, Illyrians, Slavs and Ancient Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a mountainous country. The terrain ranges from the dense forest and lush upland pastures in north-central Bosnia to arid and gaunt landscapes in western Herzegovina. Throughout history, the land that comprises modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina attracted many peoples and tribes. Today, the people speak a Slavic language, but the remnants of a diverse past remain.

Some of the earliest inhabitants of whom we have historical details are the Illyrians, a collection of tribes that covered much of modern Yugoslavia and Albania and spoke an Indo-European language related to modern Albanian. The Delmatae was an Illyrian tribe whose territory covered part of western Bosnia and Dalmatia, from whom the region gets its name. In the second and first century BCE, the Roman Empire began extending its power inland, and they encountered several tribes, including a mixed Illyrian-Celtic grouping, the Scordisci. They also discovered the Daesitates, a rebellious people whose last rebellion was crushed in AD 9.

Map of the Bosnian Kingdom (Historija Bosnjaka – Dr. Mustafa Imamovic)

Once the Illyrian insurrections were put down and firmly under Roman rule, a network of roads linking Roman settlements was established throughout the territory. The roads brought back rich gold deposits, silver, and lead mined in places such as Srebrenica, known as Argentum (land of silver). Most of Bosnia was included in the Roman Province of Dalmatia, but part of northern Bosnia fell within Pannonia, which included modern north-eastern Croatia and southern Hungary.

Bronze Illyrian war greaves, found on the territory of northern Bosnia and Herzegovina

As fierce warriors, Illyrians were recruited heavily into the Roman Empire’s military system. A Roman historian described these men by writing, “they are a throng of motley soldiers most savage in appearance, most terrifying in speech, and most boorish in conversation.” Very little evidence remains of Illyrian cultural rights, but Greek geographer Strabo (63 BCE-AD 25) offers us a glimpse. He detailed that the art of body tattooing was pervasive with not just the warriors, but all members of Illyrian society. Indeed, tattooing needles have been discovered in numerous Illyrian burial mounds throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Other Tribes and Movements

Besides the Illyrians, numerous other tribes inhabited the area of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina throughout history. Asiatic Huns (Mongol-Turkic people) and Iranian Alans (ancestors of the modern Ossetians) appeared in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. As the 6th century arrived, two new tribes began entering the Balkans – the Avars (a Turkic people) and the Slavs. In many parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Avars were permanent settlers. The Slavic word for Avars was Obri, and many places in Bosnia, such as Obrovac, still carry on the name of its former inhabitants and founders.

Queen Teuta orders the murder of the Roman ambassadors

It was the Slavic tribes that predominated the region in the end. By the early 600s, a growing Slavic population was already established in Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia.

The walls of the Illyrian city of Daorson, Bosnia and Herzegovina

By 958 AD, Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus mentions Bosnia (an area smaller than modern Bosnia proper, and centered on the river Bosna which flows northwards from near Sarajevo) was considered a separate territory. Hungarian rule was also extended onto Bosnia in 1102, but as more remote and impenetrable territory, it was ruled by ban whose authority became more and more independent as the century progressed. Manuel Comnenus’ secretary, the chronicler Kinnamos, wrote in the 1180s: “Bosnia does not obey the grand župan of the Serbs; it is a neighboring people with its customs and government.” Kinnamos also noted that Bosnia was separated from Serbia by the river Drina.

Roman glass fragment discovered in Bosnia

Despite arriving to the territory, becoming absorbed, or leaving altogether, each tribe and people have left its trace. For example, there are many signs of pagan practices being carried over first into Christianity and later into Islam in Bosnia. The use of mountain tops as a place of worship is an example. The names of the pagan gods such as Pir, Oganj, Veles, and Tur survived in oral tradition until the twentieth century and they have also been preserved in Bosnian personal names as well.

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