In search of the ancient city of Uscana

AncientsIn search of the ancient city of Uscana

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Everyone in Kičevo agrees that the ancient city of Uscana used to be here where the modern city is now located. However, research is not so sure about this. Or should we say, little research has been done and academics have not yet found an answer to the location of the old city.

In general, science favors three locations that come into question as locations. On the one hand, near the town of Kičevo or in its valley. Another option is a location in the Debar valley. But also a location near Ohrid, in or near Debarca, which is north of Lake Ohrid.

We try to bring some light into the darkness. A few months passed during which we searched several books and sources dealing with this topic.

Uscana is mentioned for the first and last time by the Roman historian Titus Livius – Livy in the history books “History of Rome” in connection with the Third Roman-Macedonian War (171-168 BC).

Since then, history has been “silent” about the existence of such a city, and no other city in later times has been associated with Uscana. The first attempts to locate this city were made some 21 centuries later by historians Gustav Zippel and Benedictus Niese in 1877 and 1893, respectively.

The location of Uscana from a historical perspective

As we have already written, there are several opinions about the position of Uscana in science.

Some suggest Uscana near Kičevo in mountainous western Macedonia (Nikola Vulič comments on different opinions about the location of Uscana between Debar and Kičevo; quotes the opinion of B. Niese, Geschichte der griechischen und Makedonischen Staaten seit der Schlacht bei Chaeronea, Gotha 1893).

However, other academics, if not the majority, sees Uscana at Debar, which lies west of Kičevo (Papazoglou, Plemena, 147, fn. 197 quotes the statement by Zippel, Die römische Herrschaft in Illyrien bis auf Augustus, Leipzig 1877; J. Kromayer, Antike Schlachtfelder II, Berlin 1907. P. Meloni, Perseo e la fine della monarchia Macedone, Roma 1953, 275. F. Papazoglou, Quellques facts de l’historie de laprovince de Macedoine, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, Berlin 1979.332 and holds the opinion that the city was near Debar).

According to science, the third possible location for the city is a location near Debarca, about 30 km north of Ohrid. According to Tomo Tomovski in his work “On the trail of the Illyrian settlement Uscana”.

However, as mentioned, the location remains unknown to this day and is the subject of debate and speculations.

What did the main source Titus Livius say about Uscana?

The city is mentioned by Liviy in Book 43 of his History of Rome, in the Chapters 10, 18, 20 and 21. The work is actually called “Ab urbe condita”. What is written in these mentioned chapters is so far the only source on which everything related to Uscana is based. Thus, the Roman historian Titus Livius is the primary source.

According to Livy, Uscana was the largest city in Penestia, with a total population of about 10,000. The city was temporarily under the control of the Macedonians and entered the league of those cities that recognized Macedonian rule under King Perseus.

The Roman consul Appius Claudius, who was sent on a campaign of conquest, settled in Lychnidos (modern-day Ohrid) in the area of Desaretia (Ohrid region) with an army of 8000 soldiers. 4000 Romans and 4000 soldiers gathered on the way through Illyria. Claudius received a message that the people of Uscana would hand over the city to the Romans. Without doubting the accuracy of this information, he set out for Uscana and encamped 12 Roman miles from the city.

He left about 1000 men behind at Lychnidos while taking the rest of the force (about 7000 soldiers) with him. Claudius, driven by the information that the city would be given to him, uncharacteristically did not form a military formation. This harsh carelessness cost him a heavy defeat at the gates of Uscana. He returned to Lychnidos with only 2000 men left. Most of his army was killed trying to escape. This happened in 171 or 170 BC.


…the consul Hostilius sent Appius Claudius, with four thousand foot, into Illyria, to protect the states that bordered on it. But Appius Claudius, not content with the force which he brought with him, collected aid from the allies, until he armed as many as eight thousand men of different nations; and after overrunning all that country, took post at Lychnidus, in the territory of the Dassaretians. [10] Not far from this place was Uscana, a town generally deemed part of the dominions of Perseus. It contained ten thousand inhabitants, and a small party of Cretans, who served as a garrison.

– Excerpt from Titus Livy, History of Rome, Book 43, paragraphs 9/10 –


The war between Rome and Macedonia continued. In the winter of 170/169 BC the Macedonian king Perseus, realizing that borders other than Illyria were safe for him, set out on a new campaign westward. His campaign had two goals: first, to secure the western border with Illyria, and second, to win over the Illyrian king Gentius against the Romans.

Here Titus Livius tells us in more detail the location of Uscana. “A 3-day march from Stubera,” he wrote. Stubera is the modern-day village of Čepigovo in the municipality of Prilep, Pelagonia. Based on this writing, later historians will search for the city’s location.

The Macedonian king Perseus set out with 10,000 infantry (some of them phalangites), 2,000 lightly armed soldiers and 500 cavalry for Uscana, “the largest city in Penestia”. Roman troops and some Illyrian soldiers were stationed in Uscana. After a three-day march, Perseus encamped at the gates of Uscana.

He first sent envoys in turn to find a peaceful solution. With no prospect of peace, the Macedonian king ordered an attack. Fierce fighting was fought day and night. The city’s defenders withstood several strong attacks in the hope that the Macedonians would abandon the siege due to the severe winter and the ongoing war with Rome. When they finally saw the moving siege towers of the Macedonian army in front of the city walls, they realized that further defense of the city was in vain – Livy wrote.

Roman generals Caius Carvilius Spoletinus and Caius Afranius were sent to negotiate with the Macedonians on behalf of Rome for their safe retreat. Perseus responded positively to their requests. After the Romans withdrew, the Illyrian cavalry of 500 men and the Uscans surrendered. Perseus established a Macedonian garrison at Uscana, while part of the city’s entire population was captured and brought to Stubera. Roman troops (4000 in number) except for their commanders were deployed in several guard towns, while the Illyrians and Uscans were sold as slaves to Penestia.


Perseus did not venture, at the commencement of winter, to go out of the limits of Macedon, lest the Romans might make an irruption into the kingdom by some unguarded quarter; but on the approach of the winter solstice, when the depth of the snow renders the mountains between it and Thessaly impassable, he thought the season favourable for crushing the hopes and spirits of his neighbours, lest any danger should be lurking there, while his attention was turned to the Romans; since Cotys afforded him security in the direction of Thrace, and Cephalus, by his sudden revolt from the Romans, freed him from uneasiness on the side of Epirus, and as his late expedition had subdued the Dardanians, he considered that Macedon was only exposed on the side next to Illyria, the Illyrians themselves being in motion, and having offered a free passage to the Romans: hoping, however, that if he reduced the nearest tribes of Illyrians, Gentius himself, who had long been wavering, might be brought into alliance with him, he set out at the head of ten thousand foot, the greater part of whom were soldiers of the phalanx, two thousand light infantry, and five hundred horse, and proceeded to Stubera. Having there supplied himself with corn sufficient for many days, and ordered every requisite for besieging towns to be sent after him, he encamped on the third day before Uscana, the largest city in the Penestian country. Before he employed force, he sent emissaries to sound the dispositions, sometimes of the commanders of the garrison, sometimes of the inhabitants; for, besides some troops of Illyrians, there was a Roman garrison in the place. When his emissaries brought back no friendly message, he resolved to attack the town, and made an attempt to take it by a line of circumvallation formed of troops; but though his men, relieving one another, continued without intermission, either by day or night, some to apply ladders to the walls, others to attempt to set fire to the gates, yet the defenders of the city sustained that shock, for they had hopes that the Macedonians would not be able to endure any longer the severity of the winter in the open field; and besides, that the king would not have so long a respite from the war with Rome, that he would be able to stay there. But, when they saw the machines in motion, and towers erected, their resolution was overcome; for, besides that they were unequal to a contest with his force, they had not a sufficient store of corn, or any other necessary, as they had not expected a siege. Therefore when they had no hopes of being able to hold out, Caius Carvilius Spoletinus and Caius Afranius were sent by the Roman garrison to request from Perseus, first, to allow the troops to march out with their arms, and to carry their effects with them; and then, if they could not obtain that, to receive his promise of their lives and liberty. The king promised more generously than he performed; for, after desiring them to march out with their effects, the first thing he did was to take away their arms. As soon as they left the city, both the cohort of Illyrians, five hundred in number, and the inhabitants of Uscana, immediately surrendered themselves and the city.

Excerpt from Titus Livy, History of Rome, Book 43, Paragraph 18


Uscana is last mentioned in chapters 20 and 21 of the same book. The actions described in this section relate to a new expedition by King Perseus to Uscana. L. Coelius, the Roman general, made an attempt to capture Uscana from the Macedonians stationed in the city. His attack was repulsed while many of his men were injured. In this attempt by the Romans to take Uscana, they were defeated and returned defeated from Uscana.

Uscana is mentioned here for the last time in historical sources. However, the city survived. This event took place in 169 or 168 BC. Nothing is found in historical sources about Uscana for the next 21 centuries.


They crossed over the top of Mount Scordus, and through desert tracts of Illyria, which the Macedonians had laid waste, for the purpose of preventing the Dardanians from passing easily into Illyria or Macedon; and, at length, after undergoing prodigious fatigue, arrived at Scodra. King Gentius was at Lissus; to which place the ambassadors were invited, and received a favourable audience while stating their instructions, but obtained an indecisive answer: that “he wanted not inclination to go to war with the Romans, but was in extreme want of money to enable him to enter on such an undertaking, though he wished to do so.” This answer they brought to the king at Stubera, whilst he was engaged in selling the Illyrian prisoners. The same ambassadors were immediately sent back, with an accession to their numbers in Glaucias, one of his body guards, but without any mention of money; the only thing by which the needy barbarian could be induced to take a part in the war. Then Perseus, after ravaging Ancyra, led back his army once more into Penestia; and having strengthened the garrison of Uscana, and the surrounding fortresses which he had taken, he retired into Macedon. Lucius Caelius, a Roman lieutenant-general, commanded at that time in Illyria. While the king was in that country, he did not venture to stir; but, on his departure, he made an attempt to recover Uscana, in Penestia; in which being repulsed, with great loss, by the Macedonian garrison, he led back his forces to Lychnidus. In a short time after he sent Marcus Trebellius Fregellanus, with a very strong force, into Penestia, to receive hostages from the cities which had faithfully remained in friendship. He ordered him, also, to march on to the Parthinians, who had likewise covenanted to give hostages, which were received from both nations without any trouble: those of the Penestians were sent to Apollonia; those of the Parthinians, to Dyrrachium, then more generally called by the Greeks Epidamnus. Appius Claudius, wishing to repair the disgrace which he had suffered in Illyria, made an attack on Phanote, a fortress of Epirus; bringing with him, besides the Roman troops, Athamanian and Thesprotian auxiliaries, to the amount of six thousand men; nor did he gain any advantage to recompense his exertion, for Clevas, who had been left there with a strong garrison, effectually defended the place. Perseus marched to Elimea, and, after reviewing his army in the vicinity of that town, led it to Stratus, in compliance with an invitation of the Epirotes. Stratus was then the strongest city in Aetolia. It stands on the Ambracian Gulf, near the river Inachus. Thither he marched with ten thousand foot and three hundred horse; for, on account of the narrowness and ruggedness of the roads, he led a smaller army than he would otherwise have done. On the third day he came to Mount Citium, which he could scarcely climb over, by reason of the depth of the snow, and with difficulty found even a place for his camp. Leaving that spot, rather because he could not conveniently stay, than that either the road or the weather was tolerable, the army, after suffering severe hardships, which fell heaviest on the beasts of burden, encamped on the second day at the temple of Jupiter, called Nicaus. After a very long march thence, he halted at the river Aracthus, being detained there by the depth of the water, during the time in which a bridge was being constructed; he then led over his army, and, having proceeded one day’s march, met Archidamus, an Aetolian of distinction, who proposed delivering Stratus into his hands.

Excerpt from Titus Livy, History of Rome, Book 43, paragraphs 20 and 21


Historical Maps

In John Wilkes’ book The Illyrians there is a map showing Illyrian settlements, but with the place names commonly used today. In it, several Illyrian settlements are shown along the valley of the Crn Drim river, as the easternmost settlements of the Illyrian territory, which stretched west to the Ionian Sea, south to Epirus, and north to Istria and Sava.

The author does not mention the area where Kičevo is located today.

In another map depicting the Balkan kingdoms in the 3rd century BC, just before the Roman-Macedonian wars, in which Titus Livius mentions Uscana, this city is also on the Black Drim River in the Debar field in part of the today’s Albania.

This is where most authors and historians assume the location of the city. In support of their thesis, they state that a city with such a large population (10000 inhabitants) can only withstand and cope with an area the size of the Debar Field.

Image: Kingdom of Illyria (under king Agron and queen Teuta, stretching “from Epirus to Neretva”) and Kingdom of Dardania in the 3rd century BC. Note: borders of Illyria and Dardania are made according to the map from the article written by Fanula Papazoglu, professor of the University of Belgrade and academician of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts.. Image source: Wikipedia

Where should we search for Uscana?

Everyone in Kičevo agrees that the ancient city of Uscana used to be here where the modern city now stands. The residents of Kičevo generally accepted that the ancient city of Uscana was located in Kičevo. The Yugoslav historiography played the greatest role in this assumption, which, according to Nikola Vulic, placed the city of Uscana in this area.

And the name of the ancient city is omnipresent in Kičevo. For example, the recitation society “Uskana” was named after the city, or the café “Uskana”. A local TV and Radio station called “Uskana” was also founded, etc.

But according to the available historical sources and modern science, Uscana is not in Kičevo, but much further west.

Search for the city via Google Maps

Based on Titus Livys’ legacy that Uscana is “a 3-day march from Stubera” we made a simulation using Google Maps, trying to somehow reconstruct this event from 22 centuries ago.

In the first simulation we calculated the road from Čepigovo (formerly Stubera) to Kičevo, taking the three directions along which it would have been possible for the Macedonian army to move towards Uskana if they were in the Kičevo- valley would be located. We have taken into account the descriptions that it was a “march,” that an “army in wartime” was marching, and that it was “winter,” as the text by Titus Livy puts it.

The results are as follows:

All three routes are on the same mountainous terrain. From the Pelagonija valley to the west, the closest is the Kičevo valley, where such an army of about 12500 soldiers could be camped and secured. Being in a mountainous area or a canyon is dangerous for the safety of the troops. The size of an army doesn’t mean much when suddenly ambushed in such a place.

In any case, according to Google Maps, the route from Stubera to Kičevo does not take 3 days, but 14-16 hours (a good day’s march), depending on which route the army would have taken.

The routes:

  • Route 1: Stubera – Makedonski Brod – Kičevo (72 km ≈ 49 Roman miles) = 14 hours and 49 minutes
  • Route 2: Stubera – Kruševo – Via Turla – Kičevo (old road 74 km ≈ 50 Roman miles) = 16 hours
  • Route 3: Stubera – Demir Hisar – Podvis – Kičevo (72.8 km ≈ 49 Roman miles) = 14 hours and 55 minutes

As we have now seen, these routes are not three days’ march. Kičevo is less than a day’s march from Stubera, with enough time to set up camp for the army, safe enough for the Macedonian king’s troops to have enough time to group, deploy and in case of an attack to maneuver accordingly.

The road to Kičevo passes through mountainous areas, passes and a gorge that is difficult to almost impossible for an army to pass the night safely. Especially not in winter, which forced the Macedonian king to reach a valley.

This largely means that Uscana is not in Kičevo. This certainly does not preclude the assumption that Perseus’ army used one of these roads to reach Uscana. However, the city was much further west than today’s Kičevo.

We went further and compared an old map with the modern Google map and pinpointed the supposed location in the Debar field as a second possible location. The results are as follows:

The journey from Stubera to the location of the merged map is a total of 27 to 35 hours of walking, depending on which route King Perseus would have chosen. If we add the overnight time here, we naturally conclude that this is most likely the place where Perseus’ army marched in three days during the winter. Exactly this place is located in the upper part of the Debar field, which is today in the Republic of Albania.

In addition, this thesis is supported by the fact that the Roman general Claudius camped 12 Roman miles (approx. 18 km) from the city during the first attack on Uscana. However, the Kičevo valley is too small to find two points at such a distance, one of which would be the city and the other the military camp, which should/could be strategically placed to defend itself. Such conditions, however, can be found in the Debar Valley.

We assume that Perseus led the troops on a 12-hour march. While the rest of the time was spent camping and resting. In 12 + 12 + 3 hours one probably reached the place where Uscana was located, somewhere north of the Debar field.

This means that Kičevo was at least a border town, located on the border where war was raging at that time. But the chances are low that the former Uscana is located here. In fact, at least 10 smaller and larger fortresses have been discovered in Kičevo. This confirms the fact and assumption that this area was a well-fortified frontier from early antiquity and remained so until late antiquity when the Roman provinces of Macedonia, Epirus and Praevalitana bordered each other here.

If Uscana is not in Kičevo, what ancient city is in the Kičevo Valley?

Historical sources say that the Bryges tribe once lived in the Kičevo valley. The Bryges are often associated with the Phrygians, who later founded a kingdom in Asia Minor and migrated there from those areas. Their origin is associated by some with the Macedonians, others with the Thracians, still others with the Paionians.

Systematic archaeological excavations have never been carried out in Kičevo, with the exception of the Knezin Monastery, which could yield results that could shed light on the past of the Kičevo region.

Archaeologist Gordana Spasovska Dimitrioska discovered the presence of ancient settlements at several sites during excavations. At least one of which can be considered as an early antique and lively urban settlement – during the Roman-Macedonian wars. But we don’t know her name. In any case, we can assume that it is not about Uscana…

Materials and sources used:

  • Titus Livius – Ab urbe condita (History of Rome), Book 43
  • Gustav Zippel – Die Römische Herrschaft in Illyrien Bis Auf Augustus (published 1877)
  • Benedikt Niese – Geschichte der griechischen und makedonischen Staaten seit der Schlacht bei Chaeronea (1893–1903)
  • Nikola Vulič – Geografija Južne Srbije u antičko doba. Glasnik Skopskog naučnog društva, sv. XIX, Skoplje 1938., p 3 and 4
  • Jovan F. Trufunoski – Kičevska kotlina
  • T. Tomovski – Auf den Spuren der illyrischen Siedlung Uscana, 2A XII — 1962, 339.
  • John Wilkes – The Illyrians
  • Vera Bitrakova Grozdanova – Spomenici od Helenističkiot period do Makedonija
  • Fanula Papazoglu – Srednjobalkanska plemena
  • Gordana Spasovska Dimitrioska (MAA, 7-8, 1987)

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