Tribes of Epirus in antiquity.

The Molossians (Greek: Μολοσσοί, Molossoi) were an ancient Greek tribe that inhabited the region of Epirus since the Mycenaean era.[1] On their northeast frontier they had the Chaonians and to their southern frontier the kingdom of the Thesprotians, to their north were the Illyrians. The Molossians were part of the League of Epirus until they sided against Rome in the Third Macedonian War (171 BC-168 BC). The result was disastrous with the vengeful Romans enslaving 150,000 of its inhabitants and annexing the region into the Roman Empire.



According to Greek mythology, the Molossians were the descendants of Molossus, one of the three sons of Neoptolemus, son of Achilles and Deidamia. Following the sack of Troy, Neoptolemus and his armies settled in Epirus where they joined with the local population. Molossus inherited the kingdom of Epirus after the death of Helenus, son of Priam and Hecuba of Troy, who had married his erstwhile sister-in-law Andromache after Neoptolemus' death. Plutarch tells us that according to some historians their first king was Phaethon, one of those who came into Epirus with Pelasgus. Plutarch also says, that Deucalion and Pyrrha, having set up the worship of Zeus at Dodona, settled there among the Molossians.[2]

Ancient sources

The League of Epirus, 234 BC.

Strabo tells us that the Molossians, along with the Chaonians and Thesprotians, were the most famous among the fourteen tribes of Epirus, who once ruled over the whole region. The Chaonians ruled Epirus at an earlier time and afterwards the Thesprotians and Molossians controlled the region. Plutarch[2] tells us that the Thesprotians, the Chaonians and the Molossians were the three principal clusters of Greek-speaking tribes that had emerged from Epirus and were the most powerful among all other tribes.

The Molossians were also renowned for their vicious hounds, which were used by shepherds to guard their flocks. This is where the canine breed Molossoid, native to Greece, got its name. Virgil tells us that in ancient Greece the heavier Molossian dogs were often used by the Greeks and Romans for hunting (canis venaticus) and to watch over the house and livestock (canis pastoralis). "Never, with them on guard," says Virgil, "need you fear for your stalls a midnight thief, or onslaught of wolves, or Iberian brigands at your back."

Strabo records that the Thesprotians, Molossians, and Macedonians referred to old men as πελιοί pelioi and old women as πελιαί peliai (<PIE *pel-, 'grey'). Cf. Ancient Greek πέλεια peleia, "pigeon", so-called because of its dusky grey color. Ancient Greek πελός pelos meant "grey".[3] Their senators were called Peligones, similar to Macedonian Peliganes.

Molossian royalty

The most famed member of the Molossian dynasty was Pyrrhus, who became famous for his Pyrrhic victory over the Romans. According to Plutarch, Pyrrhus was the son of Aeacides of Epirus and a Greek woman from Thessaly named Phthia, the daughter of a war hero in the Lamian War. Pyrrhus was a second cousin of Alexander the Great. In the 4th century BC, they had adopted the term for office of prostatai (Greek: προστάται)[4] literally meaning "protectors" like most Greek tribal states at the time. Other terms for office were grammateus (Greek: γραμματεύς) meaning "secretary", demiourgoi (Greek: δημιουργοί) literally meaning "creators", hieromnemones (Greek: ἱερομνήμονες) literally meaning "of the sacred memory" and synarchontes (Greek: συνάρχοντες) literally meaning "co-rulers"[5] An inscription from the 4th century stated (referring to Alexander I of Epirus):[6]

When King was Alexandros when of Molossoi prostatas was Aristomachos Omphalas secretary was Menedamos Omphalas resolved by the assembly of the Molossoi; Kreston is benefactor hence to give citizenship to Kteson and descent line

Dodona was used for the display of public decisions.[7] Despite having a monarchy, the Molossians sent princes[8] to Athens to learn of democracy as they did not consider monarchy and certain aspects of democracy as opposite concepts.[9]

Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great, was a member of this celebrated sovereign house.


In 385 BC, the Molossians were attacked by Illyrians instigated and aided by Dionysius of Syracuse to place Alcetas that was a refugee in his court to the throne.[10] Dionysius planned to control all the Ionian Sea. Sparta intervened[11] as soon as the events became known and expelled[12] the Illyrians who were led by Bardyllis.[13] Despite being aided by 2000 Greek hoplites and 500 suits of Greek armour, the Illyrians were defeated by the Spartans (led by Agesilaus) but not before ravaging the region and killing 15,000 Molossians.[13]

In another Illyrian attack in 360 BC, the Molossian king Arymbas (or Arybbas) evacuated his non-combatant population to Aetolia and let the Illyrians loot freely. The stratagem worked and the Molossians fell upon the Illyrians now encumbered with booty and defeated them.[13][14]

List of Molossians

See also


  1. ^ Lewis & Boardman 1994, pp. 430, 433–434; Wilkes 1995, p. 104; Errington 1990, p. 43; Borza 1992, pp. 62, 78, 98; Boardman & Hammond 1982, p. 284; Hammond 1998.
  2. ^ a b Plutarch. Parallel Lives, "Pyrrhus".
  3. ^ Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott - An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon.
  4. ^ Horsley 1987, p. 243; Hornblower 2002, p. 199.
  5. ^ Lewis & Boardman 1994, p. 431.
  6. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 250.
  7. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 257.
  8. ^ Alcock & Osborne 2007, p. 392.
  9. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 256.
  10. ^ Hammond 1986, p. 479.
  11. ^ Hammond 1986, p. 470.
  12. ^ Diodorus Siculus. Library, 15.13.1.
  13. ^ a b c Lewis & Boardman 1994, p. 428.
  14. ^ Diodorus Siculus. Library. Books 14.92, 15.2, 16.2.
  15. ^ Cabanes, L'Épire 534,1.
  16. ^ IG IV²,1 95 Line 31.
  17. ^ Woodbury 1979, pp. 95–133.
  18. ^ Cabanes, L'Épire 540,4.
  19. ^ Smith 1844, p. 191: "ANTI'NOUS (Άντίνους), a chief among the Molossians in Epeirus, who became involved, against his own will, in the war of Perseus, king of Macedonia, against the Romans."


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