Queen Teuta of Illyria and her pirate army ruled the ancient Adriatic Sea and even stood up to Ancient Rome — until they were forced to stand down.
From approximately 400 B.C. to 167 B.C., the several tribes making up the kingdom of Illyria occupied the region now known as the Balkan Peninsula. By the middle of the third century B.C., one of the most powerful Illyrian groups was the Ardiaei tribe, which ruled along the coast of the Adriatic Sea from modern-day Montenegro into Bosnia and Herzegovina.
This kingdom began its expansion under the rule of King Agron starting around 250 B.C. and reached its full power under the control of his wife, Queen Teuta.
When he first took the throne, Agron focused on building up the Illyrian naval forces in the Mediterranean Sea and extending his rule along the Adriatic coast. His plan began to work: his kingdom’s power grew and he scored a decisive victory over the Aetolians in 232 or 231 B.C. (sources vary).
But legend holds that in 231 B.C., Agron celebrated his victory with so much drinking and other indulgences that he came down with pleurisy (inflammation in the lungs and chest) and died.
After his death, Teuta — whose early life, even her year of birth, essentially remain a mystery — took the throne and served as the queen regent in place of Agron’s infant son and heir, Pinnes. She continued Argon’s expansionist policies, turning her sights to Dyrrachium and then to Phoenice, eventually conquering both.
However, perhaps more so even than Illyria’s traditional navy, Teuta’s most feared forces were her pirates that roamed the nearby seas.
Piracy in Illyria was legal and often considered a viable if not quite respectable profession. Teuta had given her ships free reign in the Mediterranean Sea, and Illyrian pirates were well-known and feared for their plundering of merchant ships.
But Rome had many important trade routes along the Eastern Mediterranean between Greece and Italy, and Roman merchants were constantly threatened by the pirates who raided their ships and stole their goods. The merchant’s complaints filled the Roman Senate until they could no longer be ignored.
First, the Romans decided to try diplomatic tactics in dealing with Teuta circa 230 B.C. Rome sent two ambassadors to Illyria to convince Teuta to reign in her pirate vessels on Roman trade routes.
But when they got there, Teuta flat out refused, telling them that piracy was not illegal in the Ardiaean Kingdom, so the pirates had broken no laws and she would not change the laws to accommodate Roman merchants. Not only did she refuse to relent, but she was apparently so insulted by the envoys that she ordered the ambassadors’ ships seized. What’s more, she held one ambassador captive and had the other one killed.
When news of their ambassador’s death reached the Roman Senate, they were forced to strike back against Teuta. In 229 B.C., Rome declared war on Illyria. They sent a fleet of 200 ships and about 20,000 land soldiers across the Adriatic Sea.
They arrived at the city of Corcyra, where Teuta’s governor Demetrius betrayed her, immediately handing over control of Corcyra to the Romans and joining their side as an advisor. From there, the Roman troops advanced north to Apollonia, attacking towns along the way until they arrived at the capital city of Scodra.
The Illyrian forces were no match for Rome’s military power and Teuta was forced to retreat south. By 228 B.C., Rome had gained control of the entire coast of Illyria.
Teuta officially surrendered to Rome in 227 B.C. Rome declared peace and allowed Teuta to continue to rule, albeit over a much smaller region. She was also forced to pay tribute to Rome, acknowledging their ultimate sovereignty.
But rather than face the humiliation of a limited reign under Rome’s control, Teuta stepped down from the throne.
The details of her life afterward remain unclear, but most sources agree that she lived for several more years after the Roman defeat. According to some folklore, Teuta never got over her grief regarding the Roman defeat.
Instead, she chose to end her own life by jumping off a cliff in the Bay of Kotor in modern-day Risan, Montenegro.
As the legend goes, the queen’s death placed a curse on Risan, making them the only city without a seafaring tradition. However, Teuta’s cause of death and even year of death have never been confirmed and her tomb has never been discovered.
After this look at Teuta, read up on some of the other fearsome queens of ancient history, including Zenobia of the Palmyrene Empire, Nzinga of present-day Angola, and Olympias, the mother of Alexander the Great.