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The Fierce Queen of the Illyrians: Teuta the Untameable

By: Celtic Bard Jeff

Following the defeat of Carthage in the First Punic War in 241 BC, the Roman Republic became a dominant naval power in the Mediterranean.

Nevertheless, Rome’s control of the seas was not absolute. To the east of Italy, another power was on the rise. This was the Ardiaei kingdom, ruled by an Illyrian tribe that began to threaten Rome’s trade routes that ran across the Adriatic Sea. At the helm of this kingdom was the capable Queen Teuta.

Queen Teuta was the wife of Agron, a king of the Ardiaei kingdom. It was under Agron’s leadership that the Ardiaei became a force to be reckoned with. According to the Roman writer, Appian of Alexandria, Agron had expanded his kingdom by capturing a part of Epirus, as well as Corcyra, Epidamnus, and Pharus. In addition, Agron’s fleet was much feared in the Adriatic Sea.

In 231 BC, Agron suddenly died, after obtaining a victory over the Aetolians. According to the Greek historian, Polybius, “King Agron, when the flotilla returned and his officers gave him an account of the battle, was so overjoyed at the thought of having beaten the Aetolians, then the proudest of peoples, that he took to carousals and other convivial excesses, from which he fell into a pleurisy that ended fatally in a few days.” As Agron’s heir, Pinnes, was a mere infant when the king died, the Ardiaei kingdom became ruled by Teuta, who acted as queen regent.

Although Teuta continued her late husband’s expansionist policy, her actions have been portrayed in a negative light by Polybius. Though this may well have been a biased view based on his focus on Roman histography.

According to Polybius, Teuta had a “woman’s natural shortness of view”, and that she “could see nothing but the recent success and had no eyes of what was going on elsewhere”. Polybius also mentions that Teuta supported the Illyrian practice of piracy, and pillaged her neighbors indiscriminately, as her commanders were ordered to treat everyone else as their enemies.

It was these piratical raids that would eventually lead the Romans to wage war against Teuta. The Roman Senate had initially ignored the complaints made against the Illyrians by merchants sailing the Adriatic Sea. Yet, as the number of complaints increased, the Senate was forced to interfere.

The Romans first employed diplomacy and sent envoys to Teuta’s court. The ancient sources record that Teuta was not at all pleased with the Roman envoys and was not reasonable in her dealings with them. Worst of all, the diplomatic immunity of these envoys was breached. Polybius records that one of the envoys was assassinated while preparing to leave for Rome, while Cassius Dio mentions that some envoys were imprisoned, and others killed.

When news of this returned to Rome, the Romans were outraged, and declared war against Teuta. A fleet of 200 ships was prepared for the invasion, along with a land army. The first target of the Roman fleet was the island of Corcyra, held by Demetrius, who was also the governor of Pharus.

In both accounts of Appian and Polybius, Demetrius is said to have betrayed the Illyrians by surrendering Corcyra and Pharus to the Romans. According to Cassius Dio, however, it was Teuta herself who sent Demetrius to hand over Corcyra to the Romans in exchange for a truce. Shortly after the truce, however, Teuta attacked Epidamnus and Apollonia, causing the Romans to interfere again. Demetrius would later transfer his allegiance to the Romans, as a result of the queen’s capriciousness.

Realizing that she was no match for the Romans, Teuta surrendered in 227 BC. According to Polybius, Teuta “consented to pay any tribute they imposed, to relinquish all Illyria except a few places and what mostly concerned the Greeks, undertook not to sail beyond Lissus with more than two unarmed vessels.” Additionally, Appian mentions that Corcyra, Pharus, Issa, Epidamnus and the Illyrian Atintani became Roman subjects. The remainder of Agron’s kingdom was in the hands of Pinnes, whose new guardian was Demetrius.

Although Teuta lived for another few decades, there is an interesting story stating that Teuta had jumped off a cliff instead of surrendering to Rome at Risan, on the Bay of Kotor , present day Montenegro. As Risan is the only town on the bay without a seafaring tradition, it is said that this was due to the curse inflicted by the Illyrian queen on the city before she committed suicide.

Source: Ancient Origins

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