THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS AND THE MIDDLE AGES
The fall of the Roman Empire and the age of great migrations
brought radical changes to the Balkan Peninsula and the Illyrian
people. Barbarian tribesmen overran many rich Roman cities, destroying
the existing social and economic order and leaving the great Roman
aqueducts, coliseums, temples, and roads in ruins. The Illyrians
gradually disappeared as a distinct people from the Balkans, replaced
by the Bulgars, Serbs, Croats, and Albanians. In the late Middle
Ages, new waves of invaders swept over the Albanian-populated
lands. Thanks to their protective mountains, close-knit tribal
society, and sheer pertinacity, however, the Albanian people developed
their distinctive identity and language.
In the fourth century, barbarian tribes began to prey upon the
Roman Empire, and the fortunes of the Illyrian-populated lands
sagged. The Germanic Goths and Asiatic Huns were the first to
arrive, invading in mid-century; the Avars attacked in A.D. 570;
and the Slavic Serbs and Croats overran Illyrian-populated areas
in the early seventh century. About fifty years later, the Bulgars
conquered much of the Balkan Peninsula and extended their domain
to the lowlands of what is now central Albania. Many Illyrians
fled from coastal areas to the mountains, exchanging a sedentary
peasant existence for the itinerant life of the herdsman. Other
Illyrians intermarried with the conquerors and eventually assimilated.
In general, the invaders destroyed or weakened Roman and Byzantine
cultural centers in the lands that would become Albania.
Again during the late medieval period, invaders ravaged the Illyrian-inhabited
regions of the Balkans. Norman, Venetian, and Byzantine fleets
attacked by sea. Bulgar, Serb, and Byzantine forces came overland
and held the region in their grip for years. Clashes between rival
clans and intrusions by the Serbs produced hardship that triggered
an exodus from the region southward into Greece, including Thessaly,
the Peloponnese, and the Aegean Islands. The invaders assimilated
much of the Illyrian population, but the Illyrians living in lands
that comprise modern-day Albania and parts of Yugoslavia (see
Glossary) and Greece were never completely absorbed or even controlled.
The first historical mention of Albania and the Albanians as
such appears in an account of the resistance by a Byzantine emperor,
Alexius I Comnenus, to an offensive by the Vatican-backed Normans
from southern Italy into the Albanian-populated lands in 1081.
The Serbs occupied parts of northern and eastern Albania toward
the end of the twelfth century. In 1204, after Western crusaders
sacked Constantinople, Venice won nominal control over Albania
and the Epirus region of northern Greece and took possession of
Durrės. A prince from the overthrown Byzantine ruling family,
Michael Comnenus, made alliances with Albanian chiefs and drove
the Venetians from lands that now make up southern Albania and
northern Greece, and in 1204 he set up an independent principality,
the Despotate of Epirus, with Janina (now Ioannina in northwest
Greece) as its capital. In 1272 the king of Naples, Charles I
of Anjou, occupied Durrės and formed an Albanian kingdom that
would last for a century. Internal power struggles further weakened
the Byzantine Empire in the fourteenth century, enabling the Serbs'
most powerful medieval ruler, Stefan Dusan, to establish a short-lived
empire that included all of Albania except Durrės.
Data as of April 1992