Scerdilaidas: The History of a Master and Commander

Scerdilaidas: The History of a Master and Commander

Scerdilaidas was king of the Illyrian state of the Ardiaei during 218-206 B.C.E. Prior to his accession to the throne, he made a formidable career in the Illyrian military and in the Ardiaean court.

Scerdilaidas was likely a brother or cousin of king Agron of the Ardiaei, who ruled during 250 – 231 B.C.E. During Agron’s rule, the Ardiaean state relied heavily on marshal and naval prowess to establish domination in the region. Teuta, who succeeded Agron as a regent queen for his infant son Pinnes, continued to strengthen and expand the Ardiaean state.  

Scerdilaidas’ “Debut” as a Military Commander

During Teuta’s brief rule (231-228) Scerdilaidas made a name for himself as a capable military commander. He marks his first appearance in the literal sources during the Ardiaean invasion of Epirus. In the campaigning season of 231, the Ardiaean navy had landed Illyrian troops in Onchesmus (modern Saranda). These troops had quickly captured the important city of Phoenice (current Finiq), the capital of the new Epirote Republic. The other Epirotes of the countryside organized a relief force to recapture their capital. At this point, they learned of Scerdilaidas approaching from the narrows of Antigonea at the command of 5,000 Illyrian land forces. 

The Epirotes found it suitable to encamp near Bistrica, with this river at their front forming a natural barricade. Also, they sent a part of their force in the direction of Antigonea apparently in an attempt to cut Scerdilaidas’ supply line. To prevent the Illyrian advance south of Bistrica, the Epirote destroyed the only bridge that connected the two riverbanks. Relying on the abundant supplies south of Bistrica, all the Epirotes had to do was to wait for Illyrians to run out of supplies; at least as far as the Epirotes were concerned. 

Illyrian bronze helmet of the III century B.C.E.; this particular type provided beater hearing and vision; attachments for decorative elements such as horsehair according to rank are visible in the picture. Credit:
Illyrian bronze helmet of the III century B.C.E.; this particular type provided beater hearing and vision; attachments for decorative elements such as horsehair according to rank are visible in the picture. Credit:

The faith in their position caused the Epirotes to lower their guard. As such, “the Illyrians [holding Phoenice], learning of the partition of the Epirot force and of their general remissness, made a night sortie, and replacing planks on the bridge, crossed the river in safety and occupied a strong position where they remained for the rest of the night. When day broke, both armies drew up their forces in front of the town and engaged. The battle resulted in the defeat of the Epirotes, many of whom were killed and still more taken prisoners, the rest escaping in the direction of Atintania” (Pol. II.  V. VI-VIII). Scerdilaidas had also pierced through the Epirote territory crushing any potential resistance. He then joined the victorious Illyrians in Phoenice. 

Stand-off at Helicranum

After the loss, the Epirote sent an appeal to the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues asking their assistance in driving back the Ardiaei. Both leagues agreed to help and quickly sent a relief force into Epirus. Scerdilaidas, uniting his 5,000 strong force with those Illyrians he found at Phoenice, advanced and met the Achaean/Aetolian force near Helicranum (a city near modern Chrisorrachi). Scerdilaidas and his Illyrians kept their position, eager to offer fight to the Achaeans and the Aetolians. Apparently, the Illyrians were confident in their ability to defeat a Hellenic force as they had done a year ago. Meanwhile, the hesitance of the Hellenes to engage the Illyrians, although the latter held a disadvantageous position, suggests a new geopolitical reality. In this new reality, the forces of mainland Hellenic states (the immediate such states being Aetolia and Achaea) could not cope with the increased strength of the Ardiaean army. 

At Helicranum, a message from queen Teuta ordered Scerdilaidas and the other Illyrians there to avoid the confrontation and return home as soon as they could. The queen faced a rebellion instigated by the Dardanians in her own turf so she needed the main force to quell that rebellion. As such, the Illyrian contingent that had captured Phoenice retreated into Onchesmus and from there sailed back home. Meanwhile, Scerdilaidas with his 5,000 soldiers returned following the same land route, from the passes near Antigonea. The fact that the Achaeans and the Aetolians did not pursue them is meaningful. 

Political shifts in the Ardiaean monarchy

Yet, the Illyrians did not leave without plundering Epirus and gathering much booty. Also, they secured the loyalty of the Epirotes by establishing a treaty of alliance with them. The Illyrian success even convinced the Acarnanians to join their cause. With these alliances in the bag, Scerdilaidas returned victorious into his homeland. There, his return helped the queen Teuta quell an internal rebellion instigated by the Dardanians. 

Ruins of Finiq in southern Albania, ancient Phoenice, capital of the Epirote Republic.
Ruins of Finiq in southern Albania, ancient Phoenice, capital of the Epirote Republic.

A year after Scerdilaidas’ successful venture into Epirus, Rome intervened for the first time in Illyria. With a large force of four legions and two hundred quinqueremes, the Romans forced Teuta into submission. The following treaty, among other clauses, prevented the Ardiaei from sailing south of Lissus with more than two ships, even those unarmed.

Scerdilaidas’ role during the First Illyrian War remains obscure. He was certainly present in Illyria when the Romans conquered the southern Illyrian coast, Corcyra, and Issa. However, unlike Demetrius of Pharos, Teuta’s other general who went into the Roman side, Scerdilaidas remained in, at least, a neutral position. Eventually, Demetrius of Pharos rose to kingship by tapping into Roman support and marrying the mother of infant Pinnes, the rightful heir to the throne. 

Scerdilaidas’ expedition into Hellas

During the reign of Demetrius the Pharian over the Illyrian Ardiaei, Scerdilaidas remained part of the royalty’s inner circle. In 220, both appear in the sources leading a large fleet of 90 lembi south of Lissus. Polybius, building up the narrative into the Second Illyrian War, was careful to mention that this sail was a breach of the treaty with Romans. The fleet landed first at Pylos where they made an attempt against it but without success. After setting sail again, the fleet split in two; 50 ships continued their journey south under Demetrius’ guidance meanwhile 40 ships under Scerdilaidas returned north. 

Scerdilaidas’ adventure continued as follows: “…on his voyage home touched at Naupactus with his forty boats at the request of Amynas, the king of Athamania, who was his connexion by marriage. Here, having come to terms with the Aetolians through Agelaus about the division of the spoil, he promised to join them in invading Achaea. Agelaus, Dorimachus, and Scopas were negotiating for the betrayal to them of the city of Cynaetha, and having made this arrangement with Scerdilaïdas, they collected the Aetolian forces en masse and invaded Achaea with the Illyrians” (Pol. IV. XVI. IX-XI) .

Grudges against Aetolias and Siding with Macedon

The Aetolians, along with Scerdilaidas and his Illyrians carried their incursion against the Achaeans all the way into the city of Megalopolis. This forced the Archaean League to declare war upon the Aetolians. As for Scerdilaidas, his involvement was of a private nature; he acted as a mercenary force, a popular solution in those times. However, as all mercenaries, he was loyal as long as he got paid. When the Aetolians did not deliver to him parts of the booty gained from the capture of Cynaetha, Scerdilaidas rightly withdrew from the agreement. Moreover, he went to the side of Macedon, Aetolia’s enemy. By 219, in exchange for 20 talents per year from Philip V, Scerdilaidas engaged with 30 of his ships against the Aetolian coast.

Graphic representation of an Ardiaean marine/hoplite in combat; lightly armed this soldier proved efficient when fighting in coastal areas backed by the navy. Credit: Creative Assembly.
Graphic representation of an Ardiaean marine/hoplite in combat; lightly armed this soldier proved efficient when fighting in coastal areas backed by the navy. Credit: Creative Assembly.

A major development during the course of 219 took Scerdilaidas from a privateer into a legitimate king. The Romans, after a decade of absence, assaulted Demetrius the Pharian. The latter had long acted on his own accord, without taking consideration for Roman interests in the region. Eventually, the Romans shattered any Illyrian resistance, razed Pharus to the ground forcing Demetrius into exile. With Pinnes still a youth, Scerdilaidas became the new king of the Ardiaei. Since sources do not follow Pinnes into maturity, Scerdilaidas soon after becoming regent also turned into the sole king of the Ardiaei. 

From ally of Macedon to Philip’s enemy

Prior to the First Macedonian War, Scerdilaidas acted independently along the shores of the Peloponnesus and the Ionian islands. In 217, 15 galleys of Scerdilaidas approached the harbor of Leucas (modern Lefkada). The Leucadians welcomed the galleys, thinking the Illyrians of Scerdilaidas as being on friendly terms with the Macedonians. Instead, the Illyrians assaulted and seized four Macedonian ships and took their Corinthian crew hostage. The Illyrian fleet took their campaign all the way into Cape Malea (current Maleas in Laconia), plundering and capturing merchant ships on the way. The incident on Leucas changed Scerdilaidas from an ally of Macedon to its enemy. By extension, it approached the Illyrian with Rome, also hostile towards Macedon. 

Scerdilaidas’ seaborne assault caused concern to Philip V of Macedon. “Accordingly, when he [Philip] heard that the galleys of Scerdilaidas were committing acts of piracy off Malea, and treating all merchants as open enemies, and had treacherously seized some of his own vessels which were at anchor at Leucas, he fitted out twelve decked ships, eight open vessels, and thirty light crafts called hemioliae, and sailed through the Euripus in hot haste to come up with the Illyrians exceedingly excited about his plans for carrying on the war against the Aetolians, as he knew nothing as yet of what had happened in Italy [Hannibal had defeated the Romans at Lake Trasimene]” (Pol. V. CI. I-III). Unable to catch Scerdilaidas and his Illyrians, Philip docked in Chenchreae. From here he sent his decked ships into Malea with orders to then sail into Aegium and Patras. 

Inland inroads into Macedon

While Philip’s ships patrolled the Ionian Sea, Scerdilaidas chose to assault Macedon inland. Thus, the Illyrian crossed the highlands near Lake Lychnidos, in between the Roman Protectorate (i.e. the lands of the Parthini) and Macedon. The route corresponds to the ancient Candaviae mountains or modern Polis mountains in south-east Albania. Thus, he arrived in Dassaretis, a region Rome had left out of her protectorate even after the Second Illyrian War. He did not stop there. In Dassaretis he won over “by menaces or by promises” the cities of Antipatrea, Chrysondyon, and Gertus (Pol. V. CVIII. II). After getting hold of Dassaretis, he jumped into Pelagonia where he pillaged the small town of Pissaeum. Scerdilaidas even entered Macedon organizing incursions so serious that it threatened that whole kingdom. Using Dassaretis as a springboard into Macedon was the same strategy that the Romans used against Macedon in 200. 

According to Polybius, Scerdilaidas made the assaults into Macedon on the “pretence of money still due to him” by Philip V. (Pol. V. CVIII.I). The Illyrian ruler considered “himself wronged by the king [Philip V], as the sum due to him by the terms of their agreement had not been paid in full”. (Pol. V. XCV. I). The assault on Leucas fits into this narrative but the later inroad into Macedon itself reveals other intentions as well. Apparently, the Illyrian intended to make most of the time during which Philip V was engaged in the war against the Aetolians. 

Philip’s Response

To prevent complete destruction of his kingdom by Scerdilaidas, Philip concluded his war in Aetolia with the peace of Naupactus. Immediately after this peace, he moves against Scerdilaidas. Previously, Demetrius of Pharos had advised Philip to assault Roman possession in Illyria and even bring the war into Rome itself. However, the Macedonian king was hardly acting on Demetrius’ advice. Rather, he was concerned with Scerdilaidas specifically. Thus, the main Macedonian army presses hard against the Illyrian, regaining swiftly the cities the latter had previously captured and ravaged. The Macedonian continued to press by conquering other towns such as Creonium and Gerous/Gerus in Dassaretis, Enchelanae, Cerax, Sation, and Boei/Boii in the region near Lake Lychnis, Bantia of the Caloecini, and Orgussus/Orgyssus of the Pisantini. 

Philip’s offensive was so intense that it undermined Scerdilaidas’ rule over the Ardiaei themselves. On constant retreat, Scerdilaidas appealed to the Roman Republic for help. In response, the Romans sent east of the Ionian Sea a force of only ten ships, detached from its fleet at Lilybaeum. Rather than assistance for Scerdilaidas, this small fleet could only serve to reassure coastal possession of the Romans of Roman presence. Yet, the move worked. Not wanting a confrontation with the Romans, at the sight of the ten Republican quinqueremes, the Macedonian king abandoned any ambitions in coastal Illyria for the time being.

Illustration of a Macedonian Antigonid royal guard; (I) Philip V (II) Horseman, “Sacred Squadron”.
Illustration of a Macedonian Antigonid royal guard; (I) Philip V (II) Horseman, “Sacred Squadron”.

In 215, Philip establishes a treaty with Hannibal, after the latter’s immense victory at Cannae. This agreement stipulated, among others, the removal of Roman influence from Epidamnus/Dyrrachium, Apollonia, Corcyra, Pharos, the Parthini, and the Atintanes; otherwise known as Roman Protectorate in Illyria. Also, the allies ought to restore Demetrius the Pharian to the Ardiaean throne at the expense of Scerdilaidas. This would turn the Ardiaei into a client state of Macedon. 

Scerdilaidas drives back the Macedonians

Philip continued to press against the Ardiaei following the pact with Hannibal. In 213/212, the Macedonian conquered the strategic coastal city of Lissus and its nearby stronghold, Acrolissus. Though Rome remained largely inactive, Scerdilaidas kept his pro-Roman approach even at a severe military disadvantage compared to Macedon. However, the Republic had reason to support anti-Macedonian states such as Scerdilaidas’ domain and Aetolia in the region indirectly. For the Roman state, possession of Lissus by a force such as Macedon was especially concerning. 

In 208, Scerdilaidas along with his son Pleuratus launched an incursion against the Macedonian garrison of Lissus. The Ardiaean forces recaptured Lissus, Acrolissus, and the nearby territory. By next year, the two Illyrian royals had likely regained much of the territory inland of the Roman Protectorate, driving back the Macedonians. At that time, both Livy and Polybius claim that Scerdilaidas and Pleuratus were ready to assault Macedon upon Philip’s movement away from it. The Illyrian threat, combined with the threat from the Thracian Maedi, kept Philip largely inactive during the rest of the First Macedonian War. 

Peace of Phoenice and Conclusion

In 205, the peace of Phoenice between Rome and Macedon concluded the First Macedonian War. The treaty was somewhat balanced, mostly protecting Roman possession on the coast. The region of Atintania and apparently Dassaretis went to Philip. However, Pleuratus, who had apparently succeeded his father Scerdilaidas, gained his share of recognition. Namely, he gained the Illyrian cities of Lychnis and Parthus, up until then under Macedon control. With the peace of Phoenice, Scerdilaidas disappears from the sources. Pleuratus continues his legacy. 

The pro-Roman policy of Scerdilaidas would persist for about fifty years among the Ardiaei. Through this, he restored most of the former glory of the Ardiaean kingdom. Scerdilaidas’ prowess both on land and on the sea is especially significant. This makes him the only Illyrian ruler to show such extensive military abilities. 


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