Like most of the Balkan nations, the Albanians, too, have a multifold and complex identity, as well as their own contradictory and difficult historical fate. Western historiography regards as “perplexing the ethnic variety in Southeastern Europe, which is the result of age-old processes of assimilation by local and foreign elements. What is more, in this case we do not have a succession of different ethnic groups, but rather different forms emerging from ascending layers”.
Scholarship has embraced as sufficiently convincing the thesis that the origins of the Albanian ethnos go back to ancient Illyrians. Of course, this bottom layer was overlaid by Greek colonists’ influence in the coastal area, and Romanisation imposed by the legions and the garrison towns in Macedonia and along the Dalmatian-Albanian seashore. The traces of the German tribes of Ostrogoths and Visigoths have been lost, but, on the other hand, the Slavs expansion in Southeastern Europe during the 6th century led to a substantial change in the ethnic map of the region.As a matter of fact, a legend has been told among the Albanians that they come from the same tribe as Alexander the Great – a megalomaniacal claim common to other Balkan nations too. He is attributed an order given during one of the wars between Macedonians and Greeks, put in a phrase used to date in the Albanian language: “Go, strike, slash, let no stone be left under your feet.” To make this legend sound convincingly enough, Albanians assert that the quoted words have been cut into a stone of the Acropolis. 2 The period of the Roman domination, the 2nd-4th centuries A.D., marked the beginning of a major differentiation, effective throughout the Albanians’ historical development, in the processes taking place in the North and in the South. The population in the more backward North succumbed to assimilation and lost its language and its Illyrian identity awareness. On the contrary, owing to their higher level of development and cultural and ethnic distinction, the Illyrians in the South could keep their identity even under the Roman Empire and its strong civilisation pressure.
Part of the population, which lived in the high inland country and was organised in its majority in some kind of cattle-breeding or village communities, preserved for a long time its tribal characteristics, being only nominally subject to the Roman rule. To obtain their subordination, Rome passed special laws. The legal status of these tribes was one of free people, but in the social hierarchy they held a place between the Romans enjoying civil rights, and the multitude of slaves, who had no rights at all. Ptolemy of Alexandria, the famous Greek astronomer and geographer (2nd c. A.D.), lists the names of the free Illyrian tribes and mentions among them the tribe of the “Albanoi” (Arbërs according to some other sources), who lived in the mountainous area between Durrës and Debar (Alb. Dibra), referring to their town as Albanopolis.There are philological theories assuming that the name of “Albanoi”, or “Arbanitai”, means “people dressed in white”, from the Latin albus. From among this mass of free peasants, who were granted civil rights by a decree issued in 212, Rome recruited soldiers to guard its borders from the barbarian tribes. Their squads grew in number to such an extent that the Illyrian military began to play an important part in Roman political life, even ascending the imperial throne at certain points. In the course of over a century seven Illyrian-born emperors ruled in succession. One of them, Emperor Diocletian, carried out an administrative reform in the Roman Empire by constituting prefectures, dioceses and provinces. In conformity with this reorganisation, the Albanian territory was divided into three provinces: Praevalitana, with Shkodra (Shkodër) as its administrative centre, Epirus Nova, Dyrrachium as its capital, and Epirus Vetus, with its central city at Nikopois. The latter two were part of the Macedonian diocese. The dioceses of Dacia and Macedonia were constituent parts of the prefecture of Illyricum, which comprised the entire Balkans.
When in 395 Emperor Theodosius divided the empire into two independent parts – the Western Roman Empire, with its capital at Rome, and the Eastern Roman Empire with Constantinople as its capital, the borderline between the two portions of the empire was drawn across the western part of the Balkan Peninsula. Under the push of invasions by the Barbarian tribes it steadily moved westwards.
Of Illyricum, which embraced the dioceses of Pannonia, Dacia and Macedonia, the Western Empire took over only Pannonia after the division. Dacia and Macedonia were conceded to the Eastern Empire. Today’s Albanian territories were then all part of the eastern portion of the empire, that is part of the Byzantine Empire.
In the 7th century the tides of Avars and Slavs flooded the Peninsula and closed in on the imperial capital of Constantinople. In the course of nearly two centuries, Southeastern Europe was inaccessible to Byzantium’s control. When in 800 the Byzantine counteroffensive got underway, the progressing ethnic changes were already a reality, and difficult to revise.4
One of the key directions for expansion of the Bulgarian kingdom at the time of its efflorescence in the 9th-10th centuries, was southwestwards. Then not only Macedonia, but also Albania, became an object of rivalry between Byzantium and Bulgaria. Thus, for a comparatively long period of time, between 851 and 1018, the present-day territory of Albania was under Bulgarian authority.
In the middle of the 11th century the official split between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church became a reality. When their spheres of influence were fixed, the dividing line ran across today’s Albanian lands granting the Roman Catholic Church authority over their northern parts. During this period the Eastern Orthodox Church still dominated because of the long-lasting influence of Byzantium and Bulgaria.
Late in the 12th century, the first independent principality of Albania (Arbania) was established on the territory of present-day central Albania, having its capital at Kruja (Krujë). In the sources, the princes, who stood at the head of the small formation, are referred to as Arbëreshes (Arbanians), and so is the population under their rule. With its gradual expansion, the principality clashed with the Byzantine and the Slav feudal lords. The newly formed Arbëresh aristocracy sought to enlarge their estates, to obtain independence, to be emancipated from the foreign rule, in a word – to constitute their own state. Around 1204 the principality of Arbania emancipated itself from Byzantine control, but, in turn, fell under pressure by the Despotate of Epirus to the south, the Serbian principality of Zeta to the north, and the county of Durrës, established by the Venetian Republic, to the west. In order to withstand efforts by the Republic of San Marco to annex Arbaria to the county of Durres, prince Dimiter (1206-1216) asked the Pope for support promising him to adopt the Catholic faith. At the same time, he married the daughter of the Serbian prince of Rascia, and by doing so clearly became a full-grown political factor in the region.
Back to the time of the ephemeral existence of the Albanian medieval principality dates a trade agreement with the Republic of Ragusa [modern Dubrovnik, Croatia], signed by Dimiter and fourteen Arbanian princes, which guaranteed peace, granted the Ragusan merchants the right of free movement across Arbanian lands and exempted them from taxes and duties. One can conclude from the text of this agreement that some sort of feudal hierarchy was observed in the principality: Dimiter called himself Grand Archon implying supreme feudal lord.
Soon after the death of Dimiter, the despot of Epirus Theodore Angelos Comnenos (1216-1230) subjugated the principality of Arbania and launched campaigns to restore Byzantine power. His intentions were in conflict with the interests of the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Assen, so in 1230 Theodore Comnenos was defeated, and Macedonia and Albania became part of the Bulgarian possessions.
In 1253 the emperor of Nicaea tricked the Arbanians with pledges to grant them the right of self- determination, and spread his authority over them. His failure to fulfil his promises stirred the Albanians, who drove the Nicaean troops out of their territory and for about a year enjoyed an independent existence.
Through a dynastic marriage between King of Sicily Manfred Hohenstaufen and the daughter of the despot of Epirus, an attempt was made to consolidate the control of Epirus over the Albanian principality. This plan ended in failure, but the Sicilian king received Vlora (Valona, Avlona, modern Vlorë), Kanina, and Berat, as dowry, succeeding, through the agency of his German and Arbanian feudal lords, to keep his power over Arbania for several years. In 1266 Manfred died in a battle against Charles of Anjou, who, proclaiming himself the King of Sicily, took over the rule in Arbaria too. In the course of several years he expanded his power and in 1272 Durrës – the major medieval Albanian town -was already in his hands. In order to win over the support of the local population, Charles proclaimed in the same year in Naples the establishment of the Albanian Kingdom declaring himself its king. The Albanian princes were granted feudal estates and family titles corresponding to the western hierarchy. Despite this gesture, the Italian and French aristocrats, who moved to the Albanian lands, gradually took over all posts in the Kingdom of Albania and seized the largest feuds. The discontent among the native feudal lords and the population in general made them take the side of the Byzantines when the latter were waging war against the Anjou dynasty. . In 1304 the Anjou stepped in Albania once again, and then Philip of Anjou made energetic moves to restore the privileges and lean on the support of the princes of Albania, in order to ensure his allies not only against Byzantium, but also against the Serbs, who at that time were already striving to expand in Albania. The common interests caused Philip to share his power in Arbaria with the local princes. Thus a member of the Blinisht clan was appointed marshal of the Anjouan corps in Albania, a member of the Thopia clan was granted a count’s title and was recognised as ruler of the lands lying between the rivers Mat and Shkumbin; Andrea Muzaki received the title of despot of Albania and the lands stretching between the Shkumbin and the Seman.
The Anjou-Albanian alliance could not prevent the occupation of Albania’s territory by the Serbian Kingdom. In 1343-1347 Stefan Dushan conquered almost the entire territory of Albania without Durrës, which remained under the control of the Anjou dynasty. The Serbian Empire was short-lived and disintegrated with the death of Stefan Dushan in 1355. During that period the Albanian feudal lords founded numerous independent principalities.