Teuta: Queen of Illyria Who Challenged the Romans

Teuta: Queen of Illyria Who Challenged the Romans

Teuta was the queen of Ardiaei during the short but intense period 231-228 B.C.E. The Ardiaean state was the most powerful monarchy among the Illyrians. We know nothing about Teuta’s early life. She was born around 260, in an Illyrian royal household. At some point, she married Agron, then king of Ardiaei. The latter’s domain extended from river Narona (current Neretva) north to the Acroceraunians (current Llogara) south. In the east, it bordered the states of Dardania, Paeonia; southeast touched Macedon and south reached Epirus

Teuta’s Accession

King Agron relied significantly on naval power to expand his domain. This strategy yielded significant benefits especially in the late years of his reign. The other coastal states who could keep the Illyrian naval expansion in check (Aetolis, Elis, Messenia, and especially Epirus) had turned fragile. By the 230s, these states were disunited and militarily feeble. Even Macedon could no longer dominate the affairs of the region. Agron’s aggression and military effectiveness culminated in 231 with a splendid victory of his Illyrians against the Aetolians in Acarnanian Medion (modern Katouna). The news on the victory so much pleased the king that he succumbed to pleurisy caused by excessive celebratory drinking. 

Agron left Pinnes, his minor son with his other wife Triteuta, as an heir. Thus, Teuta took over the regency becoming the effective ruler of the state. We don’t know the factors that determined her accession when she was not the mother of the infant king. A status of a chief-wife of a polygamous king combined with a relevant, established tradition, could have given her the regency. Also, her level of royal descent must have surpassed that of Pinnes’ natural mother. Finally, Teuta may have ticked other equally important boxes such as expressions of charisma and leadership.

The Illyrian Court

Contrary to popular belief, Teuta was not a warrior-queen. She did not herself lead fleets nor physically engage in piracy. Even Roman authors who would have had reasons to present her as some sort of pirate did not go to such lengths. Instead, as far as we know, Teuta exercised her power through aristocrats in her inner circle, much like the Macedonian royal house. We know the names of only two such individuals: Demetrius of Pharos and Scerdilaidas. Thus, from the safety of her own palace at Rhizon (modern Risan), Teuta issued orders that were then carried out by her generals. 

Rhizon was Teuta’s “command center”, and rightly so. It was a place easy to defend both by land and by sea. It’s bay provided a safe harbor for maritime activity while supporting the lives of many people. Teuta or her predecessors may have even relocated populations from other areas in the Bay of Kotor. Among these, the Illyrian tribe of the Pirusti took their lot along the bay (hence the modern name of the town Perast). Saint-Gouard, in 1572, summarizes perfectly Kotor’s strategic position: 

Whoever holds Kotor, I hold him to be master of the Adriatic and to have it within his power to make a descent in Italy and thereby surround it by land and sea”.

The area of Sinus Rhizonicus (modern Bay of Kotor in Montenegro) provided excellent shelter for native ships and indigenous nautical developments.
The area of Sinus Rhizonicus (modern Bay of Kotor in Montenegro) provided excellent shelter for native ships and indigenous nautical developments.

Total Mobilization 

One of the first orders the Illyrian queen issued was to mobilize the whole fleet, totaling some 100 lembi. Also, she ordered the construction of other warships from Illyrian shipyards at Rhizon, Pharos, and Lissus. Archaeological evidence suggests that she even started or continued the construction of a new city-port in modern Sucuraj, Croatia.  

In this sense, Teuta continued the expansionist policy of her deceased husband at even a higher rate. She sought to conquer all the Hellenic colonies east of the Adriatic. This would result in an uninterrupted dominion of the Ardiaean state over the whole eastern Adriatic coast. It would transform this coast from a line dotted with coastal colonies such as Apollonia, Dyrrachium, and Issa, into a unified territory under one monarchy. 

On Teuta’s orders, the Illyrian fleet first made a hit-and-run expedition against Elis and Messenia, in eastern Peloponnese. The towns near their coasts were vulnerable targets to seaborne raids as main military centers lied far, in the hinterland. For the Illyrians, vulnerable meant attractive and raids meant supplies. 

Descent on Epirus

The campaigning season of 230 continued with a major incursion into Epirus. On their way back from eastern Peloponnese, the Illyrian fleet landed in Ochesmus, a port conveniently close to Phoenice. The latter was the new capital of the weak Epirote Republic; it was the strongest and most powerful city in political Epirus. After gaining the support of some eight hundred Gallic mercenaries in charge of Phoenice’s defense, the Illyrians conquered the city at the first attempt. 

Graphic work depicted an assault of the Illyrian navy and marines on a coastal town. The Ardiaei used small native crafts referred to in ancient literature as lembi (singular: lembus) to carry out such assaults; credit: Creative Assembly, Rome Total War, Pirates and Raiders.
Graphic work depicted an assault of the Illyrian navy and marines on a coastal town. The Ardiaei used small native crafts referred to in ancient literature as lembi (singular: lembus) to carry out such assaults; credit: Creative Assembly, Rome Total War, Pirates and Raiders.

The conquest was calculated. When the Epirote tried to regain their capital, Teuta’s commander Scerdilaidas appeared on-site with some 5,000 troops. In the clash along the current river Bistrica, Scerdilaidas crushed the relief force of the Epirotes. The latter had no choice but to ask assistance from outside, namely from Achaea and Aetolia. A combined force of Aetolians and Achaeans arrived at Helicranon (modern Chrysorachi near Ioannina) to find the Illyrian lined-up for battle. After a stand-off, the Illyrians left the site without engaging, on Teuta’s direct orders, despite Scerdilaidas’ desire to fight. The Aetolian/Achaean force did not pursue having any choice but to return to their homelands. 

Some sort of internal turmoil had erupted within Teuta’s domain that she could not afford to let her army dwell in Epirus for too long. Yet, she and her commanders made sure to force the Epirotes into a treaty of submission. Accordingly, the city and the free citizens captured at Phoenice were released in exchange for a ransom. Then, the Ardiaei plundered the capital and the countryside gathering large valuables and taking many slaves. The Epirote Republic sent delegates to Teuta to confirm their allegiance to her state. So did the Acarnanians. Both states agreed to offer assistance to the Illyrians of Teuta and turn against Teuta’s declared enemies, the Aetolians and Achaeans.

The Audience with Romans

The actions of Teuta drew the attention of the Roman Republic. Mostly, the Ardiaean dominance east of Italy had intercepted and disturbed the seaborne trade. The most sufferings were the Hellenic colonies of Sicily and Magna Graecia, then strong allies of the Romans. However, Ardiaean vessels had allegedly targeted even traders from Italic populations, possibly even Roman themselves. Polybius implies one such assault on Italic traders on the sea off Onchesmus (modern Saranda), apparently upon the latter’s departure from Phoenice’s successful expedition.

Roman Republic sent Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius in Illyria to discuss the issue of naval assaults on Italic merchants with Teuta. At the time of envoy arrival, Teuta had just placed a siege on Issa, the only colony in central Adriatic still resisting her control. Eventually, the queen granted the audience to the two delegates. Polybius provides an account of the discussion:

…they [the Roman envoys] began to speak of the outrages committed against them. Teuta, during the whole interview, listened to them in a most arrogant and overbearing manner, and when they had finished speaking, she said she would see to it that Rome suffered no public wrong from Illyria, but that, as for private wrongs, it was contrary to the custom of the Illyrian kings to hinder their subjects from winning booty from the sea. The younger of the ambassadors was very indignant at these words of hers, and spoke out with a frankness most proper indeed, but highly inopportune: “O Teuta,” he said, the Romans have an admirable custom, which is to punish publicly the doers of private wrongs and publicly come to the help of the wronged. Be sure that we will try, God willing, by might and main and right soon, to force thee to mend the custom toward the Illyrians of their kings.” Giving way to her temper like a woman and heedless of the consequences, she took this frankness ill, and was so enraged at the speech that, defying the law of nations, when the ambassadors were leaving in their ship, she sent emissaries to assassinate the one [apparently Titius Coruncanius] who had been so bold of speech”. (Pol. II. VIII. VI-XII).

Teuta orders the assassination of the Roman envoy.
Teuta orders the assassination of the Roman envoy.

A Roman Propaganda

It’s highly doubtful that Polybius had access to a record of the conversation. His passage is likely fabricated by him or by sources he counted on. Either way, it suits the Roman need for a reason for war; an assassination of a Roman envoy by queen’s order certainly served to gain the Roman public support a “just” war overseas. In reality, it’s equally probable that Teuta did no harm to any of the Roman envoys sent to her. In fact, by her following actions, she did not even regard the Romans as potential enemies. We don’t know if the Romans even notified Teuta on them using force to curb her expansion; or the Romans actually did so in their own manner but that way “lost in translation”, interpreted otherwise by the political elite of a completely different culture. 

To all fairness, a Roman envoy may have lost his life on his expedition to Illyria; after all, there was a naval blockade on nearby Issa who regarded with suspicion each ship near that blockade. Appian, in his “Illyrike”, mentions, in addition to an Illyrian assault “on the Roman Coruncanius”, the assassination of a certain Cleemporus on that same assault. This Cleemporus was an envoy of Issa, at that time blockaded by sea. If the Illyrian assault was a reaction to an Issaean escaping the blockade, one wonders how this assault “defied the laws of nations”!

Contrary to popular belief, Teuta was not a warrior-queen. As far as we know, unlike this graphic characterization and rendition, she did not herself lead fleets nor physically engage in piracy; copyrights: Creative Assembly & Mariusz Kozik.
Contrary to popular belief, Teuta was not a warrior-queen. As far as we know, unlike this graphic characterization and rendition, she did not herself lead fleets nor physically engage in piracy; copyrights: Creative Assembly & Mariusz Kozik.

Assault on Corcyra

In early 229, Teuta mobilized an even larger navy to continue her aggression against Greek colonies. As far as she knew, a war with the Romans was not in foresight. A large Illyrian force landed in the strategic island of Corcyra, ideal for controlling the sail in the Ionian Strait. The land force laid siege to the city while the main fleet blockaded Corcyraean ports. Blocked both by land and sea, citizens of Corcyra sent messengers into Achaea and Aetolia, asking their help in relieving the siege. Messengers from Apollonia and Dyrrachium also joined Corcyra in the appeal for help. After all, just before the siege of Corcyra, the Ardiaean forces had nearly conquered Dyrrachium; only repelled from that city by a massive mobilization of the mob. Apollonia could expect the same treatment as Dyrrachium and Corcyra. 

Achaeans responded to the appeal by preparing and launching ten decked ships that set their way to Corcyra. On news of Achaean naval actions, the Illyrians responded with a naval force composed of some of their own ships blocking Corcyra as well as seven decked ships from Acarnanian allies. This combined force intercepted the Achaeans in the outer sea, off the island of Paxi (modern Paxos). The Illyrians could count on the superior maneuver of their ships compared to the heavier Achaean ships; as well as in the striking power of their iron beak. 

Victorious at Sea

Polybius describes the clash between Illyrian/Acarnanian navy and Achaean/Aetolian fleet:   

The Illyrians lashed their boats together in batches of four and thus engaged the enemy. They sacrificed their own boats, presenting them broadside to their adversaries in a position favouring their charge, but when the enemy’s ships had charged and struck them and getting fixed in them, found themselves in difficulties, as in each case the four boats lashed together were hanging on to their beaks, the marines leapt on to the decks of the Achaean ships and overmastered them by their numbers.” (Pol. II. X. III-IV). 

The Illyrian sank four quadriremes and one quinquereme. The remaining Achaean ships, up until then engaged against Acarnanian ships, gave up the battle and sailed into retreat. The Illyrian victory forced Corcyra to surrender to the siege. An Illyrian contingent led by Demetrius of Pharos took control of the island and garrisoned its city. The other part of the navy and army sailed north and placed a siege on Dyrrachium, committed to reducing it as well. 

First Illyrian War

It was at this point where things go south fast for Illyrians. Gnaeus Fulvius, the Roman consul for the year, sailed with two hundred ships towards Corcyra, initiating the First Illyrian War. Roman intelligence had previously corresponded with the commander of the Corcyraean garrison Demetrius of Pharos. The latter had promised them no resistance. Thus, at the sight of the Roman fleet, Demetrius surrendered the city to the Romans, betraying the Illyrian garrison, placing them under Roman custody. Soon, the Roman fleet approached Apollonia, taking them on their side as well. 

By the time the Roman fleet had conquered Corcyra and Apollonia, a Roman land force of 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry led by the other consul Aulus Postumius Albinus, set sail for Illyria. They landed in Apollonia and advanced north, shadowed by the Roman fleet advancing with them. When they reached Dyrrachium, the siegers who did not expect this force popping up here, relieved the siege and retreated.

Roman Victory

In the same manner, the Roman fleet relieved the siege of Issa while the land force tried to clear the coast. In the process, they captured some Illyrian towns and seized 20 Illyrian ships. Rome had achieved a complete victory, at least from a geostrategic standpoint. Corcyra, the “keys to the Ionian Strait”, became a Roman possession, along with a coastal belt running from Apollonia to Dyrrachium. 

We are not told on Illyrian counter-movements but some resistance actually took place. It’s not far fetched to imagine Roman losses as the Romans moved more inland into uncharted territory. Polybius mentions one Roman loss to Teuta’s forces at Nutria, an unidentified place. Here, they lost “not only many soldiers, but some of their military tribunes and their quaestor”. (Pol. II. XI. XIII). Cassius Dio mentions another winter-combat at a hill he calls Atyrus (unidentified). Teuta’s emergency plan, as reflected by the continued resistance, was to wait at Rhizon for the winter in the hope of a Roman leave. 

Plan of ancient Rhizon and contemporary terrain situation (author: B. Wojciechowski).
Plan of ancient Rhizon and contemporary terrain situation (author: B. Wojciechowski).

Teuta’s Fall

Yet, the Romans did not leave during winter. While most of the army and navy retreated to winter back in Italy, a Roman force under Aulus Postumius stationed in Dyrrachium. The Republic was determined to protect her gains and sanction the victory. As such, “in the early spring [228] Teuta sent an embassy to the Romans and made a treaty, by which she consented to pay any tribute they imposed, to relinquish all Illyria except a few places, and, …undertook not to sail beyond Lissus with more than two unarmed vessels” (Pol. II. XII. II-IV). Such were the conclusions of Roman war against Teuta. 

After the treaty, Teuta either abdicated her throne or someone forced her into abdicating. From hereafter, Teuta disappears from recorded history. We know that the Romans promoted Demetrius of Pharos into the regency position, the latter marrying Pinnes’ mother Triteuta. The physical elimination of Teuta as a strong royal figure from the new royalty remains part of the equation although no source supports such a claim. 


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Dionis Cassi Cocceiani. Historia Romana. Fragmenta. XLVII. / & Joannis Zonarae. Epitomae Historiarum. VIII. IXX. 

Dyczek, P. (2019). Illyrian King Ballaios, King Agron and Queen Teuta from Ancient Rhizon

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Hammond, N.G.L. (1966). The Kingdoms in Illyria circa 400-167 B.C. The Annual British School at Athens, 61, 240-253.

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