Risan, known in ancient times as Rhizon and Risinum, lies in the Bay of Kotor and is the oldest Illyrian settlement in the area and was under strong Hellenistic influence from the late 4th century BC. After the fall of the last Illyrian king, it was controlled by Rome and became part of the Empire from the early 1st century.
The city is mentioned in several ancient sources. However, it is not known when exactly the Illyrians (probably from the tribe of Labeates) founded Rhizon, as indeed the whole origin and early history of this people is still not completely clear. It can be considered certain that Rhizon was an important center of Hellenized Illyrian culture during the reign of King Agron from the 3rd century BC at the latest. The city also played a role in the First Illyrian War (229-228 BC) between Rome and Agron’s wife and successor, Teuta, who came to power in 231/230 BC after her husband’s death.
Polish and Montenegrin excavations at Rhizon since 2001 have uncovered various layers of destruction, most likely a consequence of warfare. The city was apparently burned and lost its importance for nearly a century. Under Roman rule in the first and second centuries, the city flourished again.
After sporadic excavations in the 20th century, Rhizon has been consistently studied and excavated since 2001 by a team from our Centre and the Montenegrin Monuments Protection Authority. Noteworthy are two parts of the town: Carine, a former village and today’s district name on the right bank of the local river, and Gradina (the castle), a small hill that rises 200 m above Risan and hides mostly medieval and modern ruins. There is also a Roman villa in Risan with mosaic floors from the 2nd century, which was discovered already in the 1930s.
During excavations in the areas of Carine VI and VII, much of the urban layout (insulae) of ancient Rhizon was discovered. In the section of Carine VII, the two insulae are separated by a 3 meter wide road paved with large stone slabs, which probably led to a gate in the defensive wall. In this part of the city there were rather average Hellenistic type houses with many storage rooms. In 2010, a large jug containing treasure was discovered under the floor of one of these rooms: nearly 5,000 coins of “King” Ballaios (βασιλέως Βαλλαίου). This ruler was a mysterious figure not mentioned in any known ancient source. During later campaigns, excavations began in the area of Carine VIII. They revealed very interesting architectural elements, including monumental walls, of a building that is interpreted as the palace of the local Illyrian aristocracy and tentatively dated to the 3rd century BC.
An impressive number of high quality artifacts reflect the sophisticated nature of this edifice. Prominent among the finds are two solid bronze handles decorated with various images of the Greek god Acheloos.
Several campaigns were also dedicated to the local fortress of Gradina. This small castle was built as early as the 10th century. Later the town and the fortress belonged to the principality of Trebinje, later Herzegovina, while in 1482 the castle was taken over and rebuilt by the Ottomans. The Venetian Republic briefly conquered Risan in 1538, and again in 1648, but during excavations traces of antiquity were also discovered on the hill. Moreover, there is a certain probability that the temple of the local Risanian god Medaur was located there, as evidenced by an inscription discovered in 2019. Digging in difficult conditions on the rocky hill, a number of architectural elements and fragments of inscriptions related to the construction of the church were also discovered. This is interesting as such a temple could have been built at the castle only before the first arrival of the Turks in 1482.
P. Dyczek, Rhizon – antyczna perła Czarnogóry/Ancient Pearl of Montenegro/antički biser Crne Gore, Warszawa-Risan 2013.