Tribes of Epirus in antiquity.

The Molossians (Ancient Greek: Μολοσσοί, romanizedMolossoi) were a group of ancient Greek tribes which inhabited the region of Epirus in classical antiquity.[1][2] Together with the Chaonians and the Thesprotians, they formed the main tribal groupings of the northwestern Greek group.[3] On their northern frontier, they neighbored the Chaonians and on their southern frontier neighbored the kingdom of the Thesprotians. They formed their own state around 370 BC and were part of the League of Epirus until they sided against Rome in the Third Macedonian War (171–168 BC). Following the war, 150,000 Molossians and other Epirotes were enslaved and transported to the Roman Republic, overwhelmingly in Italy itself. This decision is the only such act of the Roman senate and the largest, single, slave-hunting operation in Roman history.


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.[4]

Ancient sourcesEdit

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.[4]

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, received 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 pelioi (πελιοί) and old women as peliai (πελιαί) (<PIE *pel-, "grey"). Cf. Ancient Greek πέλεια peleia, "pigeon", so-called because of its dusky grey color. Ancient Greek πελός pelos meant "grey".[5] Their senators were called Peligones (Πελιγόνες), similar to Macedonian Peliganes (Πελιγᾶνες).[6]

Molossian royaltyEdit

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) literally meaning "protectors" like most Greek tribal states at the time.[7] 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".[8] An inscription from the 4th century stated (referring to Alexander I of Epirus):[9]

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

The shrine of Dodona was used for the display of public decisions.[10] 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.[11][12]

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


The Molossian expansion in Epirus possibly began in the early 6th century B.C.. As such they were a leading power in the region already from the time of historian Hecataeus (c. 550-476 B.C.). [13]

In 385 BC, the Illyrians, aided by Dionysius of Syracuse, attacked the Molossians, attempting to place the exile Alcetas on the throne.[14] Dionysius planned to control all the Ionian Sea. Sparta intervened and expelled the Illyrians who were led by Bardyllis.[15][16][17] 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.[17]

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.[17][18]

The Molossians briefly sided with the anti-Roman Macedonian-Illyrian pact in the Third Macedonian War. After the Roman victory, a total of 150,000 Epirotes, mostly Molossians, were enslaved and sent to Italy, by decision of the Roman Senate. In the following years, Epirote slaves in Italy outnumbered slaves of other origins and the majority of slave marriages were between Epirotes.[19] In historiography, the decision of the senate has been the subject of much debate, as the two main anti-Roman powers of the time in that region, the Macedonians and the Illyrians, suffered few consequences in contrast to the Molossians in terms of punishment. Howard Hayes Scullard had proposed the most recognized theory in the past. He connected the measures taken by the Romans to Charops of Epirus, member of a rival tribe the Chaonians - a Roman ally - who in order to gain command of the region, pushed for the extermination of the Molossians.[20] This interpretation is based on the negative assessment of Charops, already in ancient sources, as Polybius calls him "the most savage and degenerate of all men". The modern interpretation of the events, focuses more on the structural reasons which led to this decision by the Romans rather than the personal politics of regional actors.[21] The plague of 174 BC caused a great reduction of available labor in Italy, which was supplied almost exclusively by slave labor. In the following years, slave-hunting became a central feature of Roman campaigns. The Roman senate, which represented the landowning elite, specifically targeted the Molossians because of the proximity of their territory to Brundisium and Taranto would require a much lower cost of transportation. In comparison, at least 65,000 Sardinians and many other tribes were enslaved in the same year.[22]

List of MolossiansEdit

Family tree of kings of EpirusEdit

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
OlympiasAlexander I
king of Epirus
343/2-331 BC
TroasAlcetas 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
CleopatraNeoptolemus II
king of Epirus
302-297 BC
Deidamia IDemetrius 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
PhthiaPyrrhus 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 alsoEdit



  1. ^ Borza 1992, pp. 62, 78, 98; Encyclopædia Britannica ("Epirus") 2013; Errington 1990, p. 43; Hammond 1998, p. 19; Hammond 1994, pp. 430, 433–434; Hammond 1982, p. 284; Wilkes 1995, p. 104.
  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. ^ Errington 1990, p. 43.
  4. ^ a b Plutarch. Parallel Lives, "Pyrrhus".
  5. ^ Liddell & Scott 1889: πελός.
  6. ^ Liddell & Scott 1889: πελιγᾶνες.
  7. ^ Horsley 1987, p. 243; Hornblower 2002, p. 199.
  8. ^ Hammond 1994, p. 431.
  9. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 250.
  10. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 257.
  11. ^ Alcock & Osborne 2007, p. 392.
  12. ^ Brock & Hodkinson 2000, p. 256.
  13. ^ Hammond, N. G. L. (1997). "The Tribal Systems of Epirus and Neighbouring Areas down to 400 B . C ". Epirus: 55. The Molossian group was the leading power in the time of Hekataios. Its expansion may have begun early in the sixth century.
  14. ^ Hammond 1986, p. 479.
  15. ^ Diodorus Siculus. Library, 15.13.1.
  16. ^ Hammond 1986, p. 470.
  17. ^ a b c Hammond 1994, p. 428.
  18. ^ Diodorus Siculus. Library, 14.92, 15.2, 16.2.
  19. ^ Ziolkowski 1986, p. 79.
  20. ^ Ziolkowski 1986, p. 71.
  21. ^ Ziolkowski 1986, p. 80.
  22. ^ Ziolkowski 1986, p. 75.
  23. ^ Cabanes, L'Épire 534,1.
  24. ^ IG IV²,1 95 Line 31.
  25. ^ Woodbury 1979, pp. 95–133.
  26. ^ Cabanes, L'Épire 540,4.
  27. ^ 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."