Though surviving remains are minimal, as one of the oldest cities in Albania, the city was founded as Epidamnos in the ancient region of Illyria in 627 BC by ancient Greek colonists from Corinth and Corcyra, modern-day Corfu. The general vicinity of Epidamnos was called Epidamnia. The city’s geographical position was highly advantageous, as it was situated around a natural rocky harbour which was surrounded by inland swamps and high cliffs on the seaward side, making the city very difficult to attack from either land or sea.Epidamnos was noted for being a politically advanced society, prompting Aristotle to praise its political system in controlling trade between the Greek colonists and the local barbarians.However, Corinth and Corcyra, each with a claim to be “mother city” (metropolis), quarreled over the city, helping to precipitate the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC as one of the most significant battles took place on Epidamnos’ seaside. Epidamnos was seized by Glaukias, an Illyrian king, in 312 BC with the help of the local Greek oligarchy. Later Queen Teuta attacked Epidamnos but withdrew when the Romans arrived the same year (229 BC) and expelled the Illyrian garrison from the city, including it thereafter in their protectorate. The Romans replaced the rule of Teuta with that of Demetrius of Pharos, one of her generals. He lost his kingdom, including Epidamnus, to the Romans in 219 BC at the Second Illyrian War. In the Third Illyrian War Epidamnus was attacked by Gentius but he was defeated by the Romans at the same year.For Catullus, the city was Durrachium Hadriae tabernam, “the taberna of the Adriatic”, one of the stopping places for a Roman traveling up the Adriatic, as Catullus had done himself in the sailing season of 56.
Roman and Byzantine rule
After the Illyrian Wars with the Roman Republic in 229 BC ended in a decisive defeat for the Illyrians, the city passed to Roman rule, under which it was developed as a major military and naval base. The Romans renamed it Dyrrachium (Greek: Δυρράχιον / Dyrrhachion). They considered the name Epidamnos to be inauspicious because of its wholly coincidental similarities with the Latin word damnum, meaning “loss” or “harm”. The meaning of Dyrrachium (“bad spine” or “difficult ridge” in Greek) is unclear, but it has been suggested that it refers to the imposing cliffs near the city. Julius Caesar’s rival Pompey made a stand there in 48 BC before fleeing south to Greece. Under Roman rule, Dyrrachium prospered; it became the western end of the Via Egnatia, the great Roman road that led to Thessalonica and on to Constantinople. Another lesser road led south to the city of Buthrotum, the modern Butrint. The Roman emperor Caesar Augustus made the city a colony for veterans of his legions following the Battle of Actium, proclaiming it a civitas libera (free town).
In the 4th century, Dyrrachium was made the capital of the Roman province of Epirus nova. It was the birthplace of the emperor Anastasius I in c. 430. Some time later that century, Dyrrachium was struck by a powerful earthquake which destroyed the city’s defences. Anastasius I rebuilt and strengthened the city walls, thus creating the strongest fortifications in the western Balkans. The 12 m (36 ft)-high walls were so thick that, according to the Byzantine historian Anna Komnene, four horsemen could ride abreast on them. Significant portions of the ancient city defences still remain, although they have been much reduced over the centuries.
Like much of the rest of the Balkans, Dyrrachium and the surrounding Dyrraciensis provinciae suffered considerably from barbarian incursions during the Migrations Period. It was besieged in 481 by Theodoric the Great, king of the Ostrogoths, and in subsequent centuries had to fend off frequent attacks by the Bulgarians. Unaffected by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city continued under the Byzantine Empire as an important port and a major link between the Empire and western Europe.