by Antonina Zhelyazkova 

Historical background. Ethnogenesis.
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". 1

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. 3
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.

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