Teuta, Pirate Queen of the Ancient Illyrians
During the 3rd century BC, piracy flourished among the Illyrian tribes dwelling along the coasts of today’s Croatia and Albania. Piracy had been suppressed during the Classical period, when the powerful navies of Athens and Rhodes kept the waters around the Greek world relatively safe. Phillip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great followed suit, but after Alexander’s death his successors focused their energies on fighting each other. With no strong naval presence to keep them in check, the Illyrians took full advantage of the many hidden inlets along their coastlines, and turned to piracy as a way of life.
That eventually led to conflict with the expanding Roman Republic. Rome became a dominant Mediterranean naval power for the first time after its victory over Carthage in the First Punic War (264 – 241 BC). However, that newly won dominance was challenged by the Illyrians across the Adriatic Sea from the Italian Peninsula, most notably the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe, and their queen Teuta (reigned 231 – 227 BC).
Teuta had inherited the Ardiaei kingdom following the death of her husband, king Agron, in 231 BC. She continued her husband’s expansionist policies, pushing her realm’s borders deeper into the Balkans, while encouraging and supporting her subjects’ piratical activities. The trouble with Rome started when some of her pirates seized and plundered Roman vessels.
When the merchants complained to the Roman Senate, it tried to handle the problem with diplomacy at first, and so two envoys were sent to Teuta’s court to complain. Teuta responded that piracy was legal among the Illyrians, and her government had no right to interfere with the private enterprise of its citizens. When the Roman diplomats retorted that Rome would then have no choice but to make her change Illyrian laws, Teuta stopped feeling diplomatic. She ordered one of the Roman envoys killed, and the other imprisoned.
The outraged Romans declared war in 229 BC. A fleet of 200 warships was sent to harry the Illyrians at sea, while an army of 20,000 men and cavalry crossed the Adriatic to harry Teuta’s kingdom by land. Despite her fierce resistance, Teuta’s kingdom was no match for the might of Rome, and in 227 BC, she was forced to surrender. The Romans made her to sign a humiliating peace treaty. She was allowed to keep her throne, but as a de facto Roman vassal, paying annual tribute, and ruling over a shrunken realm, stripped of much of its territory.