Quaternary climatic oscillations caused severe range expansions and retractions of European biota. During the cold phases, most species shifted to lower latitudes and altitudes, and expanded their distribution range northwards and to higher elevations during the warmer interglacial phases. These range shifts produced contrasting distribution dynamics, forming geographically restricted distribution patterns but also panmictic distributions, strongly dependent on the ecologic demands of the species. The two closely related butterfly species Erebia ottomana Herrich-Schäffer, 1847 and Erebia cassioides (Reiner & Hohenwarth, 1792) show subalpine and alpine distribution settings, respectively. Erebia ottomana is found up to the treeline (1400–2400 m a.s.l.), whereas E. cassioides reaches much higher elevations (from about 1800 m a.s.l. in the Retezat Mountains, in Romania, to 2800 m a.s.l.). Thus, both species cover diverging climatic niches, and thus might also have been distributed differently during the cold glacial stages. Individuals of these two species were sampled over the mountain areas of the Balkan Peninsula and genetically analysed using allozyme electrophoresis. Additionally, we performed species distribution models (SDMs) to simulate the distribution patterns of both species in the past (i.e. during the Last Glacial Maximum and the Atlanticum). Our genetic data show contrasting structures, with comparatively low genetic differentiation but high genetic diversity found in E. ottomana, and with stronger genetic differentiation and a lower level of genetic diversity, including many endemic alleles, occurring restricted to single mountain massifs in E. cassioides. The SDMs support a downhill shift during glacial periods, especially for E. ottomana, with possible interconnection among mountain regions. We conclude that during the cold glacial phases, both species are assumed to shift downhill, but persisted at different elevations, with E. ottomana reaching the foothills and spreading over major parts of the Balkan Peninsula. In contrast, E. cassioides (the truly alpine species) survived in the foothills, but did not reach and spread over lowland areas. This more widespread distribution at the Balkan Peninsula of E. ottomana compared with E. cassioides is strongly supported by our distribution models. As a consequence, long-term geographic restriction to distinct mountain massifs in E. cassioides versus panmixia in E. ottomana produced two contrasting evolutionary scenarios. © 2014 The Linnean Society of London, Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2014, 112, 569–583.