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The Fierce Queen of the Illyrians: Teuta the Untameable

The Fierce Queen of the Illyrians: Teuta the Untameable


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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 Ardiaean 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 Ardiaean 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 .

Death of the King, Rise of the Queen

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 Ardiaean kingdom became ruled by Teuta, who acted as queen regent.

Bust of Queen Teuta. (Maria Zontou/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

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 histiography. 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.

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"Illyrian" type helmet. Bronze. Greek, 6th-5th century BC. From Argolis-Greece. Photo by David Liam Moran, 2007. (David Liam Moran/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Illyrian Piracy Irks the Romans

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.

Queen Teuta of the Ardieai orders the Roman ambassadors to be killed. ( Public Domain )

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 Illyirians 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 Apollonnia, causing the Romans to interfere again. Demetrius would later transfer his allegiance to the Romans, as a result of the queen’s capriciousness.

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The Pirate Queen’s Fate

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 .

Risan on the Bay of Kotor, where the Illyrian Queen Teuta allegedly jumped off a cliff rather than submit to the Romans in 229 BC. This is the only town in the bay without a seafaring tradition, supposedly because of the Queen's curse. (Diego Delso/ CC BY SA )

Featured image: Artist's impression of Teuta, Queen of the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe. Credit: Creative Assembly / Ancient History Encyclopedia .

By Ḏḥwty

Updated on December 8, 2020.


The Fierce Queen of the Illyrians: Teuta the Untameable - History

Ancient Illyria covered the same space as modern Albania. Or modern Bosnia-Hezergovinia. Or modern Serbia. Or modern Croatia. Or modern Montenegro. Historians really can't agree. No matter where they may have lived, the Illyrians were a fierce nation of seafarers, with a penchant for piracy. The pillaged all around the Adriatic, making themselves rich off of the goods of trading ships. They were a wealthy nation, and in the early 200 BCE's, they were still holding strong, despite the rise of the land hungry Roman Republic.

A reasonable guess as to where Illyria may have been.
Teuta was the second wife of king Agron. Agron was your typical ancient king. He liked pillaging, booze, and sex. And after a particularly successful raid, he engaged in all three so enthusiastically that it lead to his demise, leaving Teuta to serve as regent for their young son, Pinnes.

Impossibly enough, Teuta liked pillaging even more than her dead husband. One of her first acts upon being appointed regent was to give out letters of marque to the majority of the ships in her navy, authorizing them to pillage whoever they wanted, so long as they paid their tax.

In Illyria, piracy was just as much an industry as fishing. It was an acceptable career, and the Illyrians didn't see anything wrong with it. Teuta encouraged it among her people, and told them to attack everyone and anyone. Not only did piracy bring in money to the Illyrians, but it also brought in new lands and cities, because the Illyrians weren't content to just steal things, they also had to conquer lands.

Teuta was known to have led some of these raids herself, and for several years the Illyrians were the scourge of the Adriatic. No one could stop them, until someone snitched to Rome.

Teuta
The Roman Republic was about 250 years old, and going pretty strong. The senate was dedicated to protecting the financial interests of Roman citizens, so when reports of Illyrians indiscriminately attacking their ships reached Rome, the senate sent out two ambassadors--the Coruncanius brothers--to try and broker a peace with Teuta.


Unfortunately for all involved, one of those ambassadors, Lucius, wasn't very good at being an ambassador. Lucius and Gaius approached Teuta when she was in the middle of a seige, pulling her away from the thick of the fight. When they presented their argument she was obviously distracted, and when they finished speaking she told them that she and her government couldn't regulate the actions of private citizens. This is when Lucius lost it.

There's no account of exactly what Lucius said to Teuta, historians just record it as 'plain speech'. However, the gist of what he told her was that Illyria should change its customs to suit the needs of Rome. Bad move.

When the brothers were on a ship back to Rome Lucius was killed by an assassin that is widely believed to have been sent by Teuta. Killing an ambassador is a major no-no, so when word reached Rome, the Romans retaliated brutally, sending 200 ships and 20,000 infantrymen to suppress the Illyrians.

Teuta on Albanian currency.
Teuta held her own for a very long time against the Romans, and would have been able to beat them back, if not for the treachery of Demetrius. Demetrius was a high ranking Illyrian with designs on the throne. He sold out the Illyrians to the Romans, and Teuta was forced to surrender, and ceed Illyria to the Romans.

Today Teuta is remembered most often as a Pirate Queen. She's on the back of Albanian currency, and she's claimed as a national hero by the Albanians. Teuta was known in her day for being fierce and indomitable, to the point that following her peace treaty with Rome she was no longer allowed to sail out of her harbor with more than two unarmed ships. Despite not knowing much about Teuta before or after this incident with Rome, there is no doubt that she was a strong, fearless woman.


The Fierce Queen of the Illyrians: Teuta the Untameable - History

A bust of warrior Queen Teuta.

Around 230 B.C., a powerful Illyrian tribe — a group native to what is now known as the Balkan Penninsula — was under the rule of the heavy-drinking and fearsome King Agron. His revelrous and raucous life eventually brought on his early death. But it was during this period following his rule that the Illyrians reached the peak of their power under the rule of his wife, Queen Teuta.

Queen Teuta continued her husband’s agenda of conquering foreign lands. She conquered Dyrrachium and Phoenice and continued their tribe’s expansion up the Adriatic coast.

Teuta’s powerful navy and fleet of pirates ships were forces to be reckoned with on the ancient seas. She had given her pirates free reign in the Mediterranean to plunder and pillage.

The pirates constantly attacked Roman merchant ships and after several complaints, the Roman government was forced to act against the Illyrian pirates. They tried to settle things with Teuta diplomatically at first but she refused. She instead ordered that the Roman ambassador’s ships be seized. Queen Teuta held one of them captive and killed the other.

Wikimedia Commons Queen Teuta (right, seated) orders Roman ambassadors to be killed.

As retaliation for Teuta’s actions against their ambassadors, the Romans declared war on Illyria. They gained control of Illyria and Teuta had to surrender to the Romans.

Rome eventually declared peace and allowed Teuta to continue to rule a small region but she had to recognize their ultimate sovereignty. Queen Teuta refused to accept that level of humiliation and stepped down from the throne.

Some accounts say that she lived quietly for many years after her surrender but others claim that she was unable to deal with the grief of her defeat and committed suicide. It’s said that she jumped from the top of a cliff in the Bay of Kotor which is in modern-day Montenegro.

Queen Teuta’s military conquests and her refusal to bend the knee to the Romans make her one of history’s most headstrong women warriors.


A strong, fearless, and independent woman, Mary (sometimes Elizabeth) Wolverston, better known to history as Lady Killigrew (circa 1525 &ndash circa 1587), was an English gentlewoman from Suffolk who led a double life as a pirate. She was accused and convicted of organizing and a piracy ring that preyed on English shipping passing through the coastal waters surrounding Cornwall.

The rocky coast of Cornwall, where Killigrew carried out her piratical activities, had long been a home to smugglers, wreckers, and pirates. Piracy was in Mary&rsquos blood, as her father, Phillip Wolverton, Lord of Wolverton Hall, had been a gentleman pirate for years. It was an era when piracy was something of an English pastime, often abetted or outright encouraged by the authorities. Particularly during the Elizabethan era&rsquos wars against Catholic Spain, when the line between English pirates and the English navy was often indistinguishable.

Mary Wolverston was married and widowed at a young age, and was then married to Sir John IV Killigrew, becoming Lady Killigrew. Her second husband, like her father, had also been a pirate. However, unlike her father, who had retired from piracy, Mary&rsquos second husband was still an active pirate. In of itself, that was not too problematic, as the Elizabethan authorities encouraged piracy on the high seas, as a form of economic warfare against the country&rsquos enemies.

So long as it was conducted far away and in a manner that allowed the English government some measure of plausible deniability, it was not much of a problem. Unfortunately, Lady Killigrew and her husband did not prey solely upon enemy shipping in the high seas, but also engaged in piracy in English waters, against foreign and English ships.

Lady Killigrew&rsquos downfall came in early 1583, when a Spanish ship, Marie of San Sebastian, docked at Arwenack near her castle. Hearing that the ship carried treasure, Lady Killigrew entertained the captain and crew at her castle, and had them visit her estates inland. During their absence, she led a raiding party that violently seized the Spanish ship, killing all who resisted, before absconding with the cargo.

When captain and crew returned to Arwenack and discovered what had happened, they complained to the local authorities. The local judge, however, was Lady Killigrew&rsquos son, so their complaint went nowhere. Enraged, the Spaniards journeyed on to London, where they enlisted the Spanish ambassador&rsquos help. Lady Killigrew&rsquos latest piratical foray was not the kind of discrete piracy carried out far away, but a brazen act of piracy carried out in English waters, which threatened to cause a diplomatic crisis.

So the authorities in London sent officials to take a look. When it was discovered that Lady Killigrew&rsquos son, the judge, had tampered with the local investigation, she and her chief accomplices were arrested. Some of the stolen goods from the Marie of San Sebastian were discovered in her house, so receiving and fencing stolen goods was added to her charges. She was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death. Two of her accomplices were executed, but she received a commutation from Queen Elizabeth, and was later released from prison after her son doled out lavish bribes.


Illyrian Pirates Clash With Rome

Unfortunately for Teuta, her countrymen’s piracy soon threatened the growing superpower on the other side of the Adriatic sea: the Roman Republic.

Fresh off defeating its greatest rival Carthage in the First Punic War, Rome was in the process of extending its influence across the Mediterranean.

It had many important trade routes along the Eastern Mediterranean between Greece and Italy, and Roman merchants were constantly threatened by Illyrian pirates who raided their ships and stole their goods.

The merchant’s complaints filled the Roman Senate until they could no longer be ignored. At first, the Romans tried the diplomatic route.

Around 230 B.C., they sent two ambassadors to Illyria to convince Teuta to reign in the pirates. But when they got there, Teuta refused, informing them that piracy was not illegal in the Ardiaean Kingdom.

In her view, the pirates had done nothing illegal and she was not about to change her kingdom’s laws to accommodate pesky Roman merchants.

Teuta was apparently so insulted by the Roman envoys that she had their ships seized. What’s more, she held one ambassador captive and killed the other one.

When news of their ambassador’s death reached the Roman Senate, Rome did what it does best: go to war.

Wikimedia Commons A depiction of Queen Teuta ordering the death of the Roman ambassador.


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In the third century BC, Teuta and her husband ruled the the Ardiaei kingdom, the most prominent tribe of the Balkan Peninsula.

Her husband, King Agron, celebrated his battle victories with multi-day feasts and bacchanalian toasts — a few too many toasts. His drinking ultimately caught up to him in 231 BC, when his sudden death made Teuta Queen of Illyria.

Teuta picked up the mantle her husband cast down, aggressively expanding the kingdom and warding off Roman invaders. She built up a powerful navy and sent pirates out on pillaging expeditions, giving her soldiers carte blanche to plunder wealthy cities and merchant vessels. She declared piracy legal and even awarded victors, making it a noble profession of sorts.

Following the first Punic War, however, the Romans decided they’d had enough of Teuta’s pirates. In 230 BC, Rome sent two ambassadors to Illyria, asking her to declare piracy illegal and call off her rogue forces. Instead, the queen took command of the ambassadors’ ships, held one envoy hostage and sentenced the other to death. Rome (predictably) declared war on Illyria.

Even her fleet of pirates couldn’t save Teuta, however. One of her most powerful commanders immediately defected to the other side and within months, a prominent city fell and from there. Soon, she was fighting a losing war. After just two years, Teuta surrendered to Rome.

But the Romans tried to strike a deal. If Teuta pledged loyalty and named Rome as Illyria’s sovereign ruler, she could hold onto her title as Queen of Illyria. They promised her a smaller slice of the kingdom if she paid tribute. She refused.

History loses track of her after that. Some say she lived the remainder of her life in exile legend says she threw herself off a cliff, drowning in the Montenegro sea.


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The Fierce Queen of the Illyrians: Teuta the Untameable

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&rsquos control of the seas was not absolute. To the east of Italy, another power was on the rise. This was the Ardiaean kingdom, ruled by an Illyrian tribe that began to threaten Rome&rsquos 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 Ardiaean kingdom. It was under Agron&rsquos 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&rsquos fleet was much feared in the Adriatic Sea.

Death of the King, Rise of the Queen

In 231 BC, Agron suddenly died, after obtaining a victory over the Aetolians. According to the Greek historian, Polybius, &ldquoKing 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.&rdquo As Agron&rsquos heir, Pinnes, was a mere infant when the king died, the Ardiaean kingdom became ruled by Teuta, who acted as queen regent.


Celts, Goths, Illyrians, Slavs and Ancient Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a mountainous country. The terrain ranges from the dense forest and lush upland pastures in north-central Bosnia to arid and gaunt landscapes in western Herzegovina. Throughout history, the land that comprises modern-day Bosnia and Herzegovina attracted many peoples and tribes. Today, the people speak a Slavic language, but the remnants of a diverse past remain.

Some of the earliest inhabitants of whom we have historical details are the Illyrians, a collection of tribes that covered much of modern Yugoslavia and Albania and spoke an Indo-European language related to modern Albanian. The Delmatae was an Illyrian tribe whose territory covered part of western Bosnia and Dalmatia, from whom the region gets its name. In the second and first century BCE, the Roman Empire began extending its power inland, and they encountered several tribes, including a mixed Illyrian-Celtic grouping, the Scordisci. They also discovered the Daesitates, a rebellious people whose last rebellion was crushed in AD 9.

Map of the Bosnian Kingdom (Historija Bosnjaka – Dr. Mustafa Imamovic)

Once the Illyrian insurrections were put down and firmly under Roman rule, a network of roads linking Roman settlements was established throughout the territory. The roads brought back rich gold deposits, silver, and lead mined in places such as Srebrenica, known as Argentum (land of silver). Most of Bosnia was included in the Roman Province of Dalmatia, but part of northern Bosnia fell within Pannonia, which included modern north-eastern Croatia and southern Hungary.

Bronze Illyrian war greaves, found on the territory of northern Bosnia and Herzegovina

As fierce warriors, Illyrians were recruited heavily into the Roman Empire’s military system. A Roman historian described these men by writing, “they are a throng of motley soldiers most savage in appearance, most terrifying in speech, and most boorish in conversation.” Very little evidence remains of Illyrian cultural rights, but Greek geographer Strabo (63 BCE-AD 25) offers us a glimpse. He detailed that the art of body tattooing was pervasive with not just the warriors, but all members of Illyrian society. Indeed, tattooing needles have been discovered in numerous Illyrian burial mounds throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Other Tribes and Movements

Besides the Illyrians, numerous other tribes inhabited the area of modern Bosnia and Herzegovina throughout history. Asiatic Huns (Mongol-Turkic people) and Iranian Alans (ancestors of the modern Ossetians) appeared in the 4th and 5th centuries AD. As the 6th century arrived, two new tribes began entering the Balkans – the Avars (a Turkic people) and the Slavs. In many parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Avars were permanent settlers. The Slavic word for Avars was Obri, and many places in Bosnia, such as Obrovac, still carry on the name of its former inhabitants and founders.

Queen Teuta orders the murder of the Roman ambassadors

It was the Slavic tribes that predominated the region in the end. By the early 600s, a growing Slavic population was already established in Bulgaria, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia.

The walls of the Illyrian city of Daorson, Bosnia and Herzegovina

By 958 AD, Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus mentions Bosnia (an area smaller than modern Bosnia proper, and centered on the river Bosna which flows northwards from near Sarajevo) was considered a separate territory. Hungarian rule was also extended onto Bosnia in 1102, but as more remote and impenetrable territory, it was ruled by ban whose authority became more and more independent as the century progressed. Manuel Comnenus’ secretary, the chronicler Kinnamos, wrote in the 1180s: “Bosnia does not obey the grand župan of the Serbs it is a neighboring people with its customs and government.” Kinnamos also noted that Bosnia was separated from Serbia by the river Drina.

Roman glass fragment discovered in Bosnia

Despite arriving to the territory, becoming absorbed, or leaving altogether, each tribe and people have left its trace. For example, there are many signs of pagan practices being carried over first into Christianity and later into Islam in Bosnia. The use of mountain tops as a place of worship is an example. The names of the pagan gods such as Pir, Oganj, Veles, and Tur survived in oral tradition until the twentieth century and they have also been preserved in Bosnian personal names as well.


Watch the video: First Illyrian War,Rome Prepares for War. (May 2022).

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