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Tribes of Epirus in antiquity.

The Molossians (Ancient Greek: Μολοσσοί, romanizedMolossoi) were an ancient Greek tribe and kingdom that inhabited the region of Epirus since the Mycenaean era.[1][2] On their north frontier, they had the Chaonians and on their southern frontier the kingdom of the Thesprotians. The Molossians were part of the League of Epirus until they sided against Rome in the Third Macedonian War (171–168 BC).


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's death. According to some historians, their first king was Phaethon, one of those who came into Epirus with Pelasgus. According to Plutarch, Deucalion and Pyrrha, having set up the worship of Zeus at Dodona, settled there among the Molossians.[3]

Ancient sources[edit]

Coin of Molossi, 360–330/25 BC. Obverse: Vertical thunderbolt on shield, ΜΟΛΟΣΣΩΝ (of Molossians) around shield. Reverse: Thunderbolt within wreath.

According to Strabo, 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. The Thesprotians, the Chaonians, and the Molossians were the three principal clusters of Greek tribes that had emerged from Epirus and were the most powerful among all other tribes.[3]

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".[4] Their senators were called Peligones (Πελιγόνες), similar to Macedonian Peliganes (Πελιγᾶνες).[5]

Molossian royalty[edit]

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)[6] 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"[7] An inscription from the 4th century stated (referring to Alexander I of Epirus):[8]

The shrine of Dodona was used for the display of public decisions.[9] Despite having a monarchy, the Molossians sent princes to Athens to learn of democracy, and they did not consider certain aspects of democracy incompatible with their form of government.[10][11]

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


In 385 BC, the Illyrians, aided by Dionysius of Syracuse, attacked the Molossians, attempting to place the exile Alcetas on the throne.[12] Dionysius planned to control all the Ionian Sea. Sparta intervened and expelled the Illyrians who were led by Bardyllis.[13][14][15] Even with the aid of 2,000 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.[15]

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, who were encumbered with booty, and defeated them.[15][16]

List of Molossians[edit]

Family tree of kings of Epirus[edit]

king of Epirus
430-392 BC
Alcetas I
king of Epirus
390-370 BC
Neoptolemus I
king of Epirus
370-357 BC
king of Epirus
370-343 BC
Philip II
king of Macedon
Alexander I
king of Epirus
343/2-331 BC
Alcetas II
king of Epirus
313-306 BC
king of Epirus
331-316, 313 BC
daughter of
Menon IV of Pharsalus
Alexander the Great
king of Macedon
lord of Asia
Neoptolemus II
king of Epirus
302-297 BC
Deidamia I
Demetrius I Poliorketes
king of Macedon
daughter of
Agathocles of Syracuse
king of Sicily
Pyrrhus I
king of Epirus 306-302 BC,
of Macedon 274-272 BC,
of Syracusse 278-276 BC
∞ 3.Bircenna
daughter of
Philip and Berenice I
Antigonos II Gonatas
king of Macedon
(1) Ptolemy
military officer
(2) Alexander II
king of Epirus
272-242 BC
(1) Olympias II
Demetrius II
king of Macedon
Pyrrhus II
king of Epirus
242-238 BC
king of Epirus
238-235 BC
king of Syracuse
Deidamia II
queen of Epirus
235-c.231 BC
Pyrrhus III
king of Epirus
235 BC

See also[edit]



  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; Encyclopædia Britannica ("Epirus") 2013.
  2. ^ Hornblower, Spawforth & Eidinow 2012, p. 966: "Molossi, common name of tribes forming a tribal state (koinon) in Epirus, which originated in northern Pindus including the Orestae, FGrH 1 F 107) and expanded southwards, reaching the Ambraciote Gulf (see AMBRACIA) c.370 BC."
  3. ^ a b Plutarch. Parallel Lives, "Pyrrhus".
  4. ^ Liddell & Scott 1889: πελός.
  5. ^ Liddell & Scott 1889: πελιγᾶνες.
  6. ^ Horsley 1987, p. 243; Hornblower 2002, p. 199.
  7. ^ Lewis & Boardman 1994, p. 431.
  8. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 250.
  9. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 257.
  10. ^ Alcock & Osborne 2007, p. 392.
  11. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 256.
  12. ^ Hammond 1986, p. 479.
  13. ^ Diodorus Siculus. Library, 15.13.1.
  14. ^ Hammond 1986, p. 470.
  15. ^ a b c Lewis & Boardman 1994, p. 428.
  16. ^ Diodorus Siculus. Library, 14.92, 15.2, 16.2.
  17. ^ Cabanes, L'Épire 534,1.
  18. ^ IG IV²,1 95 Line 31.
  19. ^ Woodbury 1979, pp. 95–133.
  20. ^ Cabanes, L'Épire 540,4.
  21. ^ 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."