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00. Geography in Montenegro during 1000 to 1BCE

JUL. 13, 2023


Ryan and Pete share duties and investigate the geography of Montenegro. Discover the beautiful bay of Kotor and learn the story of the ancient queen who challenged the might of the Roman Empire.

In this episode we’re in Montenegro, or to give it its formal name… Montenegro. It is a country on the Adriatic sea bordering Albania, Serbia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo.

It covers nearly 14,000 square kilometers or 5300 square miles and has a population of 605,000.

Geographically, there are high mountains in the North descending down to sea level at the coast, but typically it looks like a lot of craggy hills and forested mountain, hardly surprising given Montenegro is said to mean Black Mountain.

The flag is red with a golden border, and the coat of arms of the country in the middle, which is a two headed eagle in gold with a shield in front it and a lion on the shield which has a bit of green and blue in it, and it looks pretty darn cool.

Montenegro is the 2nd or 3rd newest country in the world (depending on whether you count Kosovo which is not yet recognised by the United Nations and it has a capital city at Podgorica.

Montenegro is not neither a member of the European Union (EU) or is it part of the Eurozone, so guess what currency they use?

That’s right, the Euro. They adopted it in 2002, unilaterally and against the desires of the EU. European Commission spokesperson Amelia Torres saying in 2007 that "The conditions for the adoption of the euro are clear. That means, first and foremost, to be a member of the EU."

The official language is Montenegrin, but you can also speak Serbian, Bosnian, Albanian, and Croatian, and people will still understand you, because not so long ago these were all considered variants of the same language – Serbo-Croat.

Montenegro has the country code domain, that bit of a web address of .ME which is apparently quite attractive for personal websites – who wouldn’t want after all. In 2015 the country generated about $334m from it, enough to make up about 2% of the country’s total exports.

Care to guess at the national sport?

That’s right, it’s water polo.

A notable Montenegrins was Stefan Cernetic, who you may have heard of as a crown prince of Montenegro.

For years he could be seen hob-nobbing with the elite, he had his own brand of wine and in 2015, he even made Pamela Anderson a countess.

The only downside to all of this was that he’d made up the entire thing.

When he sent a bill to the Macedonian embassy to settle for him, they replied “Do not send us the bills, we don’t have a prince, and we certainly don’t share one with Montenegro.”

Suspicions were roused and the fake prince was investigated and eventually arrested.

History of Montenegro.

The first evidence of Early Man dates back to the Palaeolithic era, sometime around 1.5 million years ago when our hairy ancestors fished off the coast and hunted and gathered in the steep and rugged mountain ranges.

Eventually, sometime in the bronze age, a tribe called the Illyrii appear and they dominate the region for nearly a thousand years, fending off several attempts by the Greeks to set up colonies there.

Around the 2nd century BCE however, the Illyrii face stiff competition in the form of the Roman Republic who are advancing across Europe stomping tribes and taking names.

It’s not all bad though, as the Romans do their thing of introducing, roads and architecture, sanitation, and murder-as-entertainment, and hang on in the area for several hundred years until the eventually the Western Roman Empire falls and the remnants flee.

This leaves a huge power vacuum and the ones to fill it are the Slavic people of Central Europe. A large migration of Slavs enter into the area and quickly establish several states and principalities which are still around today.

In 1042 a revolt of the people, led by Stefan Vojislav leads to the rise of the Vojislavljević dynasty who proclaim the area a kingdom called Duklja – which pretty much corresponds with the shape of modern day Montenegro.

But the dynasty lasts just over a century before it too comes to an abrupt and bloody end

Thereafter the Middle Ages proves to be a turbulent time for the region with several powerful noble families each taking opportunities to rule.

But that all comes to a stop in the late 15th century when the Ottoman Empire arrives, riding in on horses and wielding weapons that saw them become the defacto power in the region for the next 400 years, right into the 19th century.

But nothing lasts forever, and after a long struggle against Ottoman rule, Montenegrins joined forces with the Russians and defeat the Turks in the Russo-Turkish War of 1877.

In 1878, the Treaty of Berlin was signed which officially recognised Montenegro as an independent nation.
What then follows is a period of growth and modernisation until the 20th century, when, at the end of the first World War, in 1918, Montenegro becomes part of the ‘Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes’ - renamed later in 1929 as, ‘the Kingdom of Yugoslavia’.

A socialist era begins in 1945 under the leadership of Yosip Tito during which time Montenegro becomes one of six republics in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and finds itself subject to a lot of changes in the way they’d been living – amongst which the government taking control of most industries and businesses, and the education system being nationalised.

But despite these reforms, the country also experiences significant progress, with infrastructure and standards of living improving for many people; possibly as a result of an increase of tourism, because it’s this time that the region becomes known as a haven for travellers and holidaymakers.

The socialist era ends in 1992, and at the dawn of the 21st century, in 2006, Montenegro conducts a national referendum and the people vote overwhelmingly for independence.

And that’s where we find Montenegro today - officially one of the youngest countries in the world, they’ve started to integrate with Europe, joining NATO in 2017, and on the candidate list to join the European Union.

They’re considered modern and progressive, yet still balance that future-looking approach with a deeply held passion for their rich and diverse past.

As a people, the Montenegrins have continually shown resilience and adaptation in the face of challenging times, and like the rugged landscape and the rolling Adriatic Sea around them, the proud and enduring spirit of the people will continue to be a feature of this impressive nation for a long time to come.

Introducing… the bay of Kotor.

And in Montenegro the most famous ria is The Bay of Kotor, also known as the Boka. Located in the South Western corner of Montenegro, the Boka is roughly 28 Kms (17 miles) long, 10 km (6.2 miles) wide and so deep that ships of up to 60 meters (200 feet) in length can easily travel through it.

Home to several small towns, the Bay of Kotor has crystal blue waters and is surrounded by the Dinaric Alps, one of the oldest mountain ranges in Europe, which rises up to 1,000 meters (3,300 feet) high.

It’s home to a number of different species of plants and animals, including dolphins, seals, and sea turtles – some unique to the area, like bioluminescent jellyfish, the Balkan trout, and the Kotor wall lizard, a 6-inch brown lizard that can be found hanging around on… walls. Who’d have guessed?

In fact, the Boka is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, considered to be one of the most beautiful bays in the world.

And it’s because of it’s stunning natural beauty, and hot Mediterranean summers, that the Boka today is considered a hotspot destination for tourists who come here to sail, fish, kayak, dive and hike to their hearts content.

The bay is even a popular filming location, having been featured in films like the James Bond classic "Casino Royale" and "The Phantom of the Opera".

But, it’s not just today that the Boka attracts visitors. In fact the place is riddled with a number of different historical sites.

It was once used as a hideout by pirates, and was even the site of a major battle during World War I, when Austro-Hungarian and Serbian armies fought for control of the region.

There’s even evidence of early man having settled in the region during the Neolithic period.

But it is during our time period between 1000-1 BCE, that we see the most significant development in the area.

Now, you may recall from the history section that we talked about the Illyrians, a tribe who dominated the region at the time.

Well, because they were a seafaring people, they were the first ones who saw the opportunities that the geography of the Boka had for their survival.

They established settlements in the bay, including Risan, Tivat, and Kotor itself and based themselves there as the centre of their trade and commerce.

They built walls, towers and forts throughout the bay to protect themselves from attacks by their arch-enemies the Greeks, and relied upon the natural mountain range behind them to protect themselves from any attempts at land-based attacks.

The fortifications were sophisticated too, built on high ground, often from local rock, they even equipped them with water supplies and underground passages.

Remains of these early Illyrian fortresses can be visited today, but as strong as their defensive measures were, the Illyrians ultimately succumbed to a Roman invasion in the 3rd century BCE, and the Bay of Kotor became part of the Roman Empire.

And the Romans weren’t stupid, they also saw the benefits of this magnificent entrance to the Adriatic Sea as a strategic location for their own Empire. So they decided to use it as their main trading route between the Roman Empire and the East.

They continued to develop the bay, building a number of roads, bridges, and aqueducts, and generally made the region a secure and effective base of operations.

In fact, in the 1st century BCE, it was the Romans who founded the city of Cattaro - from the Greek word for "waterfall" - "katarraktes" - which how the modern-day town of Kotor got it’s name, and for which the Boka is now called – The Bay of Kotor.

The tale of queen Teuta

Pete also talked about the Bay of Kotor, the geography of which often dictated human activity in the area.

The oldest oldest recorded settlement in the Bay of Kotor is a town known as Rhizon, where the modern town of Risan stands today. The earliest mention of Rhizon dates back to about 330BCE in a document known as the Periplus of Pseudo-Scylax. Said to have been created by the ancient geographer scylax there’s now substantial doubt that it was actually him.

Whoever created it, the periplus, meaning circumnavigation, is a guide to travelling around the Mediterranean.

The periplus tells tells us that the town of Rhizon was home to a people called the Enchelei, aka the eel people, who were a tribe of the Ilyrians who lived in this area.

At some point the area was overtaken by another Ilyrian tribe, called the Ardiaei and, under one particularly effective leader, a man named Agron, this tribe expanded their reach and soon had established something of an Ilyrian empire.

Greek Historian Polybius wrote of him around 150BCE as "Agron, king of the Illyrians,…possessed the most powerful force, both by land and sea, of any of the kings who had reigned in Illyria before him.”

The nature of this empire was fairly dictated by geography – specifically the opportunity presented by the sea as a means of transport - Agron sent out his ships and his empires consequently spread along the line of the coast.

Eventually Agron died in 231BCE, and his wife, a woman named Teuta took over as regent and she made the town of Rhizon her capital.

Teuta took a slightly different approach to rule. As well as formally invading places to add territory, she set the navy off and says ‘go on and be pirates, have at it” and so they start raiding.

The problem was, just across the Adriatic was Italy, or as it was known in those days, Rome.

So bad was the Ilyrian raiding it caused the merchants kept complaining to the senate - the ancient equivalent of writing to your local MP - who eventually felt they really ought to do something.

So they sent representatives across the Adriatic to Scodra in what is now Albania to have a word with the queen.

They duly arrive in the queen’s court and request she do something about the pirates. However, Teuton replied that "it was contrary to the custom of the Illyrian kings to hinder their subjects from winning booty from the sea" in other words, Piracy is legal here, so bugger off.

At this the ambassadors allegedly lost their temper with the queen and were sufficiently rude in their replies, that “she took this frankness ill, and was so enraged at the speech that, defying the law of nations, when the ambassadors were leaving in their ship, she sent emissaries to assassinate the one who had been so bold of speech”.

That may not have been a good idea.

In 229BCE, Rome declared war. An army consisting of approximately 20,000 troops, 200 cavalry units and an entire Roman fleet of 200 ships was sent across the Adriatic to do battle

Their first contact, they didn’t even have to do battle – Teuta’s lieutenant, a man named Demetrius, turned traitor and started to help the Romans. Then the Romans started working their way down the coast, with Teuta retreating.

She eventually took refuge back in her capital in Rhizon. Why? Geography. Specifically geography that made for good defence. There’s only one direction of attack by sea and that involved passing through a narrow strait named Verige

In fact some claim the name Verige derives from the word for chains, after the chains that were said to have been strung across the strait to prevent attacking ships passing through

So Rhizon was a good place to hole up, possibly hoping the approaching winter will stop the Romans for a while.

But the Romans did not go home. They kept coming.

Teuta realised the jig was up and the Spring of 228BCE she agreed to a treaty with the Romans involving paying tribute to Rome, cutting down on the piracy and giving up a large chunk of her territory.

After the treaty, Teuta either abdicated her throne or was forced to do so, from whence she disappears from history entirely.

But Rhizon doesn’t disappear, in fact it’s still there today, and in a dig that started in 2010, Polish archaeologists working in the town unearthed a ceramic vessel of 4,600 bronze coins from the period, found just below a burned layer, causing them to believe this may be connected with the first Illyrian, also discovering buildings that quite possibly could have been the palace of Teuta herself.

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