Teuta (c. 260–after 228 BCE)

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Teuta (c. 260–after 228 bce)

Powerful queen of Illyria whose successful piracy and sieges in Greece were checked only by Roman military intervention. Born possibly around 260 bce; died after 228 bce; married Agron, king of the Illyrian tribe of the Ardiaioi.

Teuta was the wife of Agron, king of the Illyrian tribe of the Ardiaioi. Agron had unified the Adriatic coast from Istria (in modern Slovenia, just to the east of Italy) to Lissus (near where the modern Drin River enters the Adriatic in northern Albania) for the first time. His success came as a result of his skill in acquiring booty which was then used to reward the increasing number of followers who flocked to his banner. (In the 3rd century bce, the Illyrians knew little of the settled social order long experienced by the urban peoples of the southern Balkans and Italy. Illyria was also poor and overpopulated at the time.) Agron's successful exploitation of local conditions, however, quickly posed a problem. After so many Illyrians came to acknowledge his hegemony, he both had a greater need than ever to acquire the booty essential to maintaining his followers' loyalty, and fewer opportunities to do so close to home since one-time victims were now allies. Instead of opting to range more widely by land, Agron sought to overcome his dilemma by exploiting sea-borne raiding, an innovation as far as the Illyrians were concerned. The sea—giving his raiders range and speed (it was always much faster to travel by ship than over land in antiquity)—made Agron a figure to be feared, especially among the Greeks who lived to the south of his expanded domain.

The Greeks were at the time especially susceptible to Illyrian attack because generations of conflict had left Greece hopelessly disunited and militarily feeble. Most significantly, in 233, just before Agron's power surged, the Molossian kingdom of Epirus (immediately abutting the realm of Agron on the south) was overthrown and replaced by a looser federation of tribes which was much weaker as a deterrent than had been the monarchy which preceded it. In addition, by 231 Macedonia (abutting Agron's kingdom to the east and southeast) was itself immersed in a bevy of political and military difficulties, not the least of which was the threat posed by the Dardanians, a people who lived to the north and northwest of Macedon (and thus, to the east and northeast of Agron). Therefore, two states which had long served to check Illyrian raiding to the south were not in a strong position to do so as Agron's power reached its acme.

Teuta's rise to fame beyond Illyria came as a result of the general disquiet then existing throughout Greece. In 231, the Aetolians, having for some time coveted the land of the Acarnanians which lay on the Adriatic just to the north of the Corinthian Gulf, attacked the Acarnanian city of Medeon. The Acarnanians had long been protected from such an assault by the Macedonians; however, when the Aetolians attacked, Macedonia was itself preparing for a Dardanian war. As a result, the Macedonian king, Demetrius II, paid Agron to send a relief force to counterattack the Aetolians. Agron sent 5,000 men in 100 ships to Medeon and successfully beat off the Aetolians. This force thereafter returned to Agron's court at Scodra with a significant amount of produce "liberated" from the Acarnanian countryside and a report about the easy pickings to be had for the taking in Greece. Agron took this news enthusiastically. In fact, during the celebration which followed his army's return, he ate and drank so much that he literally burst open and died.

Agron's heir, Pinnes, was underage at the time and, as a result, Teuta succeeded her husband. (Teuta was not Pinnes' mother, but clearly she was the dominant woman at Agron's court at the time of his death.) Teuta immediately exploited the news of Greek weakness by sending another fleet to ravage the countrysides of Elis and Messenia (south of Acarnania, along the west coast of the Peloponnesus). This operation was also very successful and proved to be a stimulus to even more extensive raiding. Over the winter of 231–30, Teuta, advised by a council which included two men of particular note—Scerdilaidas, and a Greek adventurer from Pharos named Demetrius—planned additional attacks.

These began in 230 with an Illyrian army approaching the Epirote city of Phoenice, supposedly seeking supplies to carry them farther south. Employed within Phoenice was a garrison of Gauls whose function was to protect the interests of the locals. When some Illyrians were admitted into the city, rather than purchasing supplies they offered the Gauls a lucrative reward in exchange for turning Phoenice over to the army just outside its gates. This the Gauls did, much to the shock of Greeks everywhere, for the seizure of a city (as opposed to the looting of the countryside) represented a radical escalation in the threat posed by the Illyrians. The Epirotes reacted by raising an army to relieve Phoenice, but at that moment Scerdilaidas with another force invaded northern Epirus by way of the Atiniania gorge. To meet the new threat, the Epirote army split in two and sent urgent requests for aid to the Aetolians and to the Achaeans (a federation of Peloponnesian cities). These states reacted quickly with help, but not before the half of the Epirote army that had remained at Phoenice was soundly defeated. Nevertheless, prodded by visions of armageddon, what remained of the Epirote army with its allies made ready to meet the Illyrian invaders in open battle. Just before a battle could be fought, however, an order from Teuta arrived in Scerdilaidas' camp, demanding his return home to deal with a rebellious Illyrian tribe which had made common cause with the Dardanians. The Illyrians extracted themselves from Epirus by agreeing to return Phoenice, but this was effected only after the Illyrians handily plundered the city.

Amid the violence which characterized the Illyrian occupation of Phoenice some resident Italian merchants were killed, a fact that would bode ill for Teuta, but not so in time to stem further aggression. In fact, even with the temporary retreat from Epirus, Teuta's raiding barely missed a beat. After quickly returning the Illyrian rebels to the fold, the queen renewed the offensive by personally leading an army and fleet to Issa, a small Greek colony which had been founded on an island of the same name off the central Illyrian coast. This was no hit-swiftlyand-flee operation, for the Issans had been on their guard against just such an assault and had defensively prepared their city against a siege. Before Issa, Illyrian attacks had been either sweeps across countrysides or, in the case of Phoenice, a ruse which won the city before effective resistance could be raised. Thus, the siege of Issa, which lasted for many months, represented another escalation in the threat posed by the Illyrians, for clearly they were organized for a long effort and confident of success.

This confidence, and the expectation that the Illyrians would soon return to where they had left off in Epirus, so unnerved the Epirotes that they attempted to forestall future attacks by forging an alliance with Teuta, in effect agreeing to aid and abet her efforts if she would only leave them alone. To ally with Teuta, of course, the Epirotes essentially had to double-cross the Aetolians and the Achaeans. They also were forced to cede to Teuta's control the Atintanian corridor linking Illyria with Epirus, thus providing the Illyrians with a land route into the heart of Epirus—useful, if Epirus failed to live up to Illyrian expectations. Clearly, Teuta was on a roll.

While Teuta was at Issa, two Roman envoys, brothers Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius, visited her. These were charged by the Senate to discover precisely what was going on in the Adriatic and to warn against any continuation of her disruptive campaigns. This delegation was certainly sparked by the loss of Italian life at Phoenice and probably also by a request from the Issans that the Romans intervene on their behalf—there being no other viable ally to turn to. The Romans, shocked by the magnitude of Teuta's power and the extent of its range, brusquely warned Teuta not to interfere with Roman interests, or with those of Rome's friends. Teuta displayed a cautious diplomacy in the face of Rome's frankness, replying that she would make sure that no Roman would henceforth be hurt by anyone associated with her "government," but that she did not have the right to stop "private" piracy. In reality, given the importance of raiding to the alleviation of Illyrian poverty, even if Teuta had been willing to bring law and order to her realm, she almost certainly would not have been able to do so. Not pleased with Teuta's response, Lucius Coruncanius shot back that if Teuta would not control her subjects, then the Romans would. Some Illyrian, perhaps even Teuta herself, was so offended by the Roman's arrogance—displayed without any evident means by which to carry out his threat—that Lucius' murder was planned, and carried out as the two brothers were making their way back to Rome.

The assassination of Lucius Coruncanius guaranteed Rome's intervention in the Adriatic. Even if Teuta suspected how quickly and with what force the Romans would react, however, that suspicion did not deter her from carrying on with her attacks upon Greeks. In 229, she both continued the assault on Issa and ordered Epidamnus and Corcyra to be put under siege. These newly attacked cities betray the extent of Teuta's ambition in 229, for they were two of the largest and most powerful Greek foundations in the Adriatic. Corcyra and Epidamnus responded (as did Apollonia, certain that it was next on the hit list) as the Epirotes had before their alliance with Teuta, by appealing to the Aetolians and the Achaeans. These latter states again responded, but the combined fleet sent to relieve the Greek northwest was soundly defeated by the Illyrians and their Acarnanian allies. Immediately thereafter, Corcyra fell to an Illyrian force led by Demetrius of Pharos. Clearly, things were quickly getting out of hand, for without some unforeseeable relief, all of Greece which had not struck a devil's bargain with the Illyrians would soon be subjected to their piracy.

At that moment, Rome appeared on the scene in the form of a large navy, commanded by Gnaeus Fulvius, and army (20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry strong), commanded by Aulus Postumius. This armada first made its way to Corcyra, where it overwhelmed the Illyrian garrison under Demetrius. So decisive was the Roman show of force (it must be remembered that by 229 the Romans had the Mediterranean's largest military establishment, Rome having both unified Italy and recently defeated the Carthaginians in the First Punic War), that Demetrius (Teuta's erstwhile adviser-general) immediately realized the futility of resistance and the advantage to be won by collaborating with Rome. Thereafter, Demetrius acted as Rome's guide in the war against Teuta. The campaign saw the Romans methodically proceed up the Adriatic coast, freeing one city and/or people after another from Illyrian control, thereafter to place each under Roman "protection," that is, without stationing any troops in the liberated areas the Romans made it clear that they would tolerate no attack on their new "friends."

The occasional minor setback did little to stem the Roman advance northward, so much more powerful were the Romans than the armies of the nascent Ardiain monarchy. It became painfully obvious to the Illyrians that, militarily speaking, the Romans were not to be compared with any contemporary Greek state. Within weeks, not only had the Romans relieved every region (including Issa) once threatened by Teuta, they had also destroyed the Illyrian unification so recently accomplished by Agron. Teuta herself fled to the fortified city of Rhizon and begged the Romans for peace. This she was granted upon the stipulation that she pay a stiff tribute to the Romans, that she surrender most of her Illyrian realm, and that she not sail beyond southern Illyria at any time with more than two ships. The Romans had fought this war strictly as a police action, and neither annexed any territory at its end nor kept any troops in the Balkans past the spring of 228. Clearly, Rome's intention was merely to bring peace to the region by the implicit threat of future violence if the locals did not behave. The lion's share of Teuta's realm the Romans gave over to Demetrius, with the explicit warning that he see to it that his subjects made a living from some occupation other than piracy. Thus ended the first Roman military intervention east of the Adriatic Sea. The second would occur ten years later, to chastise the traitorous Demetrius for failing to put an end to Illyrian raiding. What happened to Teuta after 228 is unknown. Presumably, she reigned over a fraction of her former realm from her seat at Rhizon, but we do not know how long she lived.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California