The fall of the Roman Empire and the
age of great migrations brought radical changes to the Balkan
Peninsula and the Illyrian people. Barbarian tribesmen overran
many rich Roman cities, destroying the existing social and
economic order and leaving the great Roman aqueducts, coliseums,
temples, and roads in ruins. The Illyrians gradually disappeared
as a distinct people from the Balkans, replaced by the Bulgars,
Serbs, Croats, and Albanians. In the late Middle Ages, new
waves of invaders swept over the Albanian-populated lands.
Thanks to their protective mountains, close-knit tribal society,
and sheer pertinacity, however, the Albanian people developed
their distinctive identity and language.
In the fourth century, barbarian tribes
began to prey upon the Roman Empire, and the fortunes of the
Illyrian-populated lands sagged. The Germanic Goths and Asiatic
Huns were the first to arrive, invading in mid-century; the
Avars attacked in A.D. 570; and the Slavic Serbs and Croats
overran Illyrian-populated areas in the early seventh century.
About fifty years later, the Bulgars conquered much of the
Balkan Peninsula and extended their domain to the lowlands
of what is now central Albania. Many Illyrians fled from coastal
areas to the mountains, exchanging a sedentary peasant existence
for the itinerant life of the herdsman. Other Illyrians intermarried
with the conquerors and eventually assimilated. In general,
the invaders destroyed or weakened Roman and Byzantine cultural
centers in the lands that would become Albania.
during the late medieval period, invaders ravaged the Illyrian-inhabited
regions of the Balkans. Norman, Venetian, and Byzantine fleets
attacked by sea. Bulgar, Serb, and Byzantine forces came overland
and held the region in their grip for years. Clashes between
rival clans and intrusions by the Serbs produced hardship
that triggered an exodus from the region southward into Greece,
including Thessaly, the Peloponnese, and the Aegean Islands.
The invaders assimilated much of the Illyrian population,
but the Illyrians living in lands that comprise modern-day
Albania and parts of Yugoslavia and Greece were never completely
absorbed or even controlled.
The first historical mention of Albania
and the Albanians as such appears in an account of the resistance
by a Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus, to an offensive
by the Vatican-backed Normans from southern Italy into the
Albanian-populated lands in 1081.
The Serbs occupied parts of northern
and eastern Albania toward the end of the twelfth century.
In 1204, after Western crusaders sacked Constantinople, Venice
won nominal control over Albania and the Epirus region of
northern Greece and took possession of Durrës. A prince
from the overthrown Byzantine ruling family, Michael Comnenus,
made alliances with Albanian chiefs and drove the Venetians
from lands that now make up southern Albania and northern
Greece, and in 1204 he set up an independent principality,
the Despotate of Epirus, with Janina (now Ioannina in northwest
Greece) as its capital. In 1272 the king of Naples, Charles
I of Anjou, occupied Durrës and formed an Albanian kingdom
that would last for a century. Internal power struggles further
weakened the Byzantine Empire in the fourteenth century, enabling
the Serbs' most powerful medieval ruler, Stefan Dusan, to
establish a short-lived empire that included all of Albania