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The First Roman-Illyrian War, 229-228 BC: Ancient Rome’s First Armed Conflict in the Western Balkans


For many people learning about ancient history in any detail for the first time, the title “civilization” is largely confined to the civilizations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome. In the West, especially, the Greek and Roman civilizations are given significant praise as the founders of Western culture. What many people don’t realize was that there was a large area of land in between Italy and Greece which was just as advanced and just as powerful as they. In ancient times, this region, the western Balkans, was home to a group of enigmatic people who are mentioned only occasionally in modern historical texts, but they were crucial in the progression of events in Classical times. They were the Illyrians.

The Illyrians were a group of heavily Hellenized tribes (nearly sixty of them in total) who inhabited the western Balkans from modern day Slovenia into Albania. Although they were not united into a single nation, many of the Illyrian tribes were powerful politically, economically, and militarily. This was especially true for the peoples who dwelt along the Adriatic coast such as the Liburnians and the Dalmatians. Their warriors often bested the Greek phalanxes, and their dragon-headed warships ruled the Adriatic Sea. They were a force to be respected and feared.

For centuries, the major enemies of the Illyrians were the Greek city-states and the kingdom of Macedon. However, as the power of the Roman Republic rose throughout the 4th and 3rd Centuries BC, the Illyrians steadily felt Rome’s influence pervade the region. It would not be long before Illyria would have to focus her attention away from the east, away from the Greeks and Macedonians, and more towards the south and west, towards Roman Italy.

Several ancient historians relate how formal hostilities between the Illyrians and Romans began. The one which deserves special attention is Polybius, whose account is lengthy and detailed, and comments that the First Roman-Illyrian War was an important event which should be very carefully studied (1). Other historians include Appianus, Cassius Dio, and Publius Annius Florus. In contrast to the long and detailed account of the war related by Polybius, the others are short and summarized, and the details often differ significantly from Polybius’ report.


Greeks versus Illyrians

While the Carthaginians were expanding their empire in Spain and fighting the Iberians and Iberian Celts there, the kingdom of Macedon was at war with the Aetolian League, a collection of Greek city states headed by the state of Aetolia. Throughout Greek history, especially from the Classical Period onwards, the various Greek states would sometimes join together in confederations in order to combat an adversary, who might have formed a confederation of his own. The Aetolians tried to persuade the people of the town of Medion to join them as a member of their league, but when they refused, the Aetolians laid siege to the town and attempted to bring them into submission by force. The Aetolians brought forth their entire army, accompanied by siege weapons, and completely surrounded the town. With the people of Medion cut off from all hope of escape, the Aetolians immediately assaulted the town with the full strength of their army. The Macedonians did not have enough troops to face down and defeat such a powerful adversary. So, King Demetrius of Macedon was forced to appeal to his neighbors for help. There was an Illyrian king named Agron, son of Plevratos, who ruled over a group of tribes located around Scodra and the Bay of Rhizon, and commanded a more powerful military than any other Illyrian king who came before him. Cassius Dio identifies Agron as the king of a tribe called the Ardiaeans (2). Florus states that they were actually Liburnians (3). The Macedonian king paid King Agron to send warriors to act as mercenaries for the Macedonian army and help raze the siege of Medion (4).

The town of Medion was in dire peril, and each day it was expected that the town would fall to the attackers. But meanwhile, there was trouble in the Aetolian camp. The Aetolian army was a democratic one (their generals were elected by the soldiers they led), and during the siege, the time for the army’s election of a new general had come again. The general who was then in command wished to be re-elected, and so stated that since he had been in command during the siege, it was only fitting that he and not some new commander should reap the benefits when the town would at last fall, and to have his name inscribed on the shields of all of the soldiers in order to commemorate his victory. However, his claim was rejected by other candidates. The Aetolians reached a compromise, stating that whoever was general when the town of Medion fell into their control must share the task of distributing the spoils of conquest with the previous general, since he had done most of the work. That night under the cover of darkness, a hundred Illyrian warships carrying 5,000 Illyrian soldiers landed on the coast near the town. Polybius says that this deployment of much-needed reinforcements went unobserved by the nearby Aetolians (5). I am assuming that they were so distracted with the matters of politics and martial command that they never noticed the large fleet appearing on the sea’s horizon and steadily approaching the coast.

The warships didn’t disembark the men until dawn. The warriors arranged themselves in battle formation and advanced in small units towards the Aetolian camp. The Aetolians were caught completely by surprise, but Polybius states that the Aetolians were a haughty arrogant people, and despite being the victims of surprise, they were confident that their large army could repulse the newly-arrived Illyrian reinforcements – after all, they were only non-Hellenic barbaroi. The Aetolians prepared for battle, arranging most of their cavalry and heavy infantry on the flat open ground in front of their base camp. A little further beyond this flat area was a piece of high ground, possibly a ridge or a slope, and here they placed the remainder of their cavalry and their light infantry. The Illyrians were not intimidated by the Aetolians’ lines of soldiers and immediately charged at them en masse. Due to their superior numbers and the weight of their attack, the Illyrians pushed the light infantry and cavalry off of the high ground, forcing the Aetolian cavalry to crash back into their own heavy infantry waiting in the rear. The Illyrians continued to push forward until their forces smashed into the main line of Aetolian cavalry and heavy infantry. When the besieged defenders of Medion saw that the enemy’s cavalry and light infantry had been overcome, their forces sallied from behind their fortifications and they attacked the Aetolians from the rear. The Illyrians killed many, took prisoner even more, and captured all of the Aetolians’ weapons and supplies. The Aetolians were thoroughly defeated, and the Illyrians set sail for home with a great quantity of plunder and captives (6).

So far, Polybius alone has given us information regarding these events, with the exception of one minor note by Cassius Dio in relation to which specific tribe Agron belonged to. Appianus doesn’t begin his study of the First Illyrian War until immediately before it happens. It is now, following the events that occurred in Greece, that Appianus’ narrative begins, and as said before, his account differs in several significant ways. Polybius states that when the Illyrians returned and the commanders told King Agron about their great victory, the king threw a great celebration, and cavorted so heartily that he died a few days later. Polybius says he died from pleurisy, an inflammation of the lining around the lungs, but I find this difficult to believe since excessive partying isn’t likely to bring about this condition. Pleurisy is often a result of severe trauma, and taking a few hard blows to the chest or back might be enough to bring this condition about. Although there is no report of King Agron actually taking part in hostilities, it was understood that monarchs had to lead their armies in times of war, and Agron might have seen action earlier in life before these events. Another option is that he might have died from dysentery – the infamous King John of England likewise suddenly died of dysentery after over-indulging himself during a night of festivities (7).

Regardless of the exact diagnosis, the king was dead, and he was succeeded by his wife, Queen Teuta. She was not an absolute monarch in the sense that she controlled every aspect of running her kingdom, preferring instead to leave the tasks of governance to a council. Cassius Dio comments that Agron had left behind an infant son who was too young to rule, and so Teuta, the young boy’s stepmother, acted as regent (8). Due to the recent success of the army in the war against the Aetolians, she was so confident of her kingdom’s power that she granted permission to her ships to act as pirates, attacking and plundering any foreign ship that they saw. Afterwards, she mustered an army and fleet equal in size to the one that attacked the Aetolians in preparation for a new war, and she gave the commanders orders to treat all of the various Greek states as her enemies, whether they actually proclaimed themselves as such or not (9).

Appianus’ account differs in several ways from Polybius’. Firstly, Appianus mentions nothing about the Illyrians participating in the war on the Macedonian’s side against the Aetolians. Secondly, King Agron doesn’t die. Thirdly, it was King Agron, not Queen Teuta, who declared war with the goal of taking over large portions of Epirus and Greece. According to Appianus’ account, King Agron doesn’t die until his war of conquest is already well underway, following the conquest of three Greek states and the partial conquest of a fourth (10).

But back to Polybius’ narrative. The Illyrians chose as their first target the Greek states of Elis and Messenia, located on the western side of the Peloponnesian Peninsula, and which, according to Polybius, the Illyrians had been in the habit of raiding since the beginning of time. Both of these states possessed long areas of coastline, and since most of their cities were located far inland, presumably to protect them against naval invasions, any soldiers tasked with defending the shore had to march a long way from their interior bases to get to the beach, by which time a potential invading force would have already landed and gained a foothold in the country. The Illyrians knew this, and as far back as anyone could remember, parties of Illyrian warriors would raid the coastal settlements of these two states, confident in the knowledge that the Elisian and Messenian soldiers would take a long time to arrive on the scene. The Illyrians could land, attack, plunder, and quickly get out before the Greek soldiers appeared. In this manner, Illyrian raiders conducted attacks on these states with impunity (11).

However, this time, things were different. Before the fleet advanced on their intended targets, the Illyrians landed in the fortified and wealthy port-city of Phoenice (near modern-day Saranda), located in the Greek state of Epirus, in order to pick up supplies. Here, the Illyrians discovered eight hundred Gauls who were serving in the Epirot army and tasked with defending the city. The Illyrians, seeing a potential opportunity for further conquest, proposed to these Celtic warriors that they should betray the town into their hands. The Celts agreed. The Illyrians attacked and seized control of the city with the help of their new Gallic allies (12).

When news of this sudden unprovoked attack arrived in the Epirot court, especially an attack on Epirus’ largest and most prosperous city, their entire army was mustered to take back the city and to drive the Illyrians out of the country. The Greek soldiers of Epirus made their camp near the city. Between the city of Phoenice and the Epirot army, there was a river with a wooden bridge spanning it. The Greeks made camp on the opposite side of the river, and ripped up the planks of the bridge so that the Illyrians could not advance across it, although perhaps forgetting that now the Greek soldiers couldn’t advance across it either to recover the city. After they had done this, they received word that Illyrian reinforcements were marching overland, numbering at 5,000 men, and commanded by a man named Scerdilaidas, who was possibly related to King Agron. This body of warriors was approaching through a mountain pass near the town of Antigoneia (about twenty miles south of modern-day Tepeleni, Albania). The town was strategically located at the confluence of the Aoiis and Drinus Rivers (13). The Greeks had no choice but to order a part of their force break away from the main body and protect the town from attack. This move lessened their total numbers. Moreover, the Epirotes had become lax; they did not post pickets or watch-duty sentries, and they began pillaging the country of resources. The Illyrians guarding the city of Phoenice, however, were still disciplined and vigilant, and they soon discovered that the Greek soldiers on the other side of the river had divided their forces and were not taking any security precautions. Thus, under cover of darkness, the Illyrians sent a small party of men forward to repair the bridge so that the remainder of the army could cross over it. The work was soon done, and during that same night, the entire Illyrian force managed to quickly and quietly get across the river, and set up a strong defensive position. Afterwards, the men rested for the remainder of the night. The following morning, the two armies fought in a battle outside the city. The Greeks were defeated, with many of their men killed and many more taken captive. The survivors fled towards the land of the Atintane tribe. The entire army of the state of Epiros had been virtually destroyed in a single battle (14).

With no soldiers left to defend the state, the Epirotes lost all confidence of victory, and therefore sent delegations to the Aetolian League and the Achaean League for help. Both of these confederations agreed to provide assistance (I can imagine the Aetolians wanting to seek revenge for their earlier defeat by the hands of the Illyrians), and sent relief forces which rendezvoused at the town of Helicranum. Meanwhile, the Illyrian reinforcements, led by Scerdilaidas, linked up with the Illyrians encamped within Phoenice. With their combined forces, the large Illyrian army marched on Helicranum. The Illyrians pitched camp outside the town, but found the terrain unsuitable – a battle here might not end in their favor. They were spared from possible defeat, because before a battle could commence, a message arrived from Queen Teuta stating that a large section of the population had rebelled and defected to a neighboring tribe called the Dardanians, and they were ordered to return home as soon as possible. They obeyed the order, but not before they utterly ravaged the country of Epiros. Afterwards, they concluded a truce with the Greeks of Epiros. For a hefty price, the Illyrians would hand back the city of Phoenice and its citizens within. The Illyrians would keep all plunder and all captives as slaves. The Epirotes agreed to the terms. The original Illyrian invasion force set sail for home, while the Illyrian reinforcements under Scerdilaidas returned via their overland route (15). The Illyrians never made it to their intended targets of Elis and Messenia, but they had gained a great deal of plunder and captives anyway, and they were probably well satisfied with what they had.

This attack by the Illyrians spread great fear throughout the Greeks in that area. Phoenice was not only the largest and wealthiest city, but it also the best protected natural stronghold in all of Epirus, and contrary to all expectations of its capabilities in defending itself from attack, the city had not only been attacked but it was actually taken and sacked. If this impressive place could fall to the Illyrians, then surely other smaller less-fortified places were easy targets. All Greeks who lived along the coast suddenly became very afraid of their safety of their settlements and of themselves. Believing that the Illyrians were too powerful for them to handle, the people of Epirus sent an embassy to Queen Teuta, asking if they could form an alliance with themselves, the Illyrians, and the state of Acarnania, for the purpose of combating the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues – the very people who had agreed to help Epirus when it was under attack by the Illyrians (16).

It is a bit unclear why the Epirotes would make such a drastic about-face in terms of diplomacy and military prerogatives. As stated before, the Greek city states would often be united in confederations in order to combat their enemies. Many times, these leagues used their power not merely for the purpose of defending themselves against a powerful adversary, but to exert power and hegemony over others. Greece had never been a united country, and they were understandably wary of any state seeking to reign over all of Greece – the Greeks were fiercely independent and, dare I say, tribal people. The Achaean League and the Aetolian League were powerful confederacies seeking to dominate Greece, or at least the portions that they had carved up for themselves. The people of Epirus, wary of both of these leagues’ growing power, decided that having their Illyrian enemies as allies would be a good way to combat the power of both of these confederations. Therefore, the Epirotes appealing to these confederacies for aid in the war against the Illyrians appears to have been something done out of necessity rather than a request from one ally to another. For the time being, the Epirotes and the Achaeans and Aetolians would set their differences aside – they could always go back to killing each other later.

Polybius is especially condemnatory towards his fellow Greeks. Although he admits people make mistakes, he says there is no pardon when we make a decision fully knowing that there will be bad consequences. He claims it was foolish to have the defense of the city of Phoenice entrusted to foreigners, especially Gauls, who were, according to Greek eyes, not the most trustworthy of people. Moreover, this particular group of Gauls should have been carefully watched since they had been expelled from their lands by their own tribe due to their treacherous conduct. Thus, Polybius says, the people of Epirus brought this disaster upon themselves (17).


The Roman Republic enters the War

The Illyrians were notorious pirates in ancient times. Just as the Caribbean Sea was the playground for every cutthroat and swashbuckling buccaneer in the 17th and 18th Centuries, the Adriatic Sea was owned by Illyrian ships. No foreign vessel could hope to sail across its waters without being attacked by Illyrian pirates. Italian merchant and trading ships sailing from their ports on Italy’s eastern shore always ran the risk of being boarded and looted by these men. While the Illyrians had taken and occupied the port-city of Phoenice, several Illyrian ships had attacked Roman merchant vessels, robbing some, killing others, and taking the rest into slavery. In the past, the Romans had ignored appeals to bring an end to the pirate threat in the Adriatic, possibly believing that pirates would always exist anywhere and that the practice of piracy simply couldn’t be stopped, despite their best efforts to do so. However, with this recent rash of attacks, more and more people approached the Senate with the issue of dealing with the Illyrian pirates. After many complaints and urgings, in 230 BC (18) the Senate appointed two men named Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius to travel to Illyria to assess the situation (19).

Meanwhile, the Illyrian army had returned to its homeland, bringing all of the spoils of war with it. Queen Teuta was so overjoyed by the vast amounts of plunder that had been taken from Epirus that she became more determined than ever to attack the Greek states. For a while, she had been forced to postpone her plans due to troubles at home, but now with peace restored, she could proceed. Her army cut a swath through many small settlements until they reached the island polis of Issa, “the only city which still held out against her” (20). It was then that the Roman envoys arrived by sea.

The two Roman envoys were granted an audience with the Illyrian queen. The accounts differ in terms of the details regarding the meeting between Queen Teuta and the Roman ambassadors, but all of them agree that it went badly. The two men proceeded to complain about the attacks on Roman ships in the Adriatic by Illyrian pirates. Polybius says that Queen Teuta listened to their grievances with a haughty disposition during the whole time that they spoke. Cassius Dio makes a similar statement, saying that she was completely unreasonable with the ambassadors (21). After they were finished, the queen replied with a rather ambiguous statement, declaring that she would see to it that Rome did not suffer any public wrongs at the hands of her ships, but as far as private wrongs were concerned, she would do nothing, stating that it was not the custom of Illyrian monarchs to prevent their subjects from engaging in piracy; one wonders what exactly the difference between a “public wrong” and a “private wrong” really was. The younger of the two envoys became very angry at the queen’s reply and immediately reproached her for her conduct. Naturally, the queen was very angry at this gesture of boldness and insolence. She couldn’t let them get away with such an affront to her person (22).

The reports of the events which occurred next are conflicting. Polybius states that as the two envoys were about to leave on their ship, she sent assassins to kill the man who had offended her (23). Cassius Dio states that when the ambassadors were finished speaking with her, she ordered some of the Romans who came to her kingdom to be executed and others to be thrown into the dungeon (24). Florus states that when the ambassadors were finished speaking, she had them executed “not with the sword, but like sacrificial victims, with the axe, and burnt to death the commanders of our ships. To make their action still more insulting, it was a woman that gave the order” (25).

Let’s see if we can combine these separate and different accounts to be more coherent with each other. When the ambassadors were finished admonishing the queen and left, she gave secret orders to sneak aboard their ships with orders to capture all of the Romans who came to her kingdom. When the Roman envoys returned to their ships, a large number of armed men boarded the ships and seized all of the persons aboard: the ambassadors, the ships’ captains, and the crews. Teuta commanded that the two envoys should be beheaded by axe, the ships’ captains to be burned alive at the stake, and the crews to be imprisoned in the dungeons.

When news of the murders reached Rome, the public demanded vengeance. Legions were mustered, warships were made ready, and an invasion was planned (26). Cassius Dio states “As soon, however, as the Romans had voted for war against her, she [Teuta] became panic-strickened, promised to restore the ambassadors who were left alive, and declared that those dead had been slain by robbers. But when the Romans demanded the surrender of the murderers, she declared she would not give up anybody, and dispatched an army against [the island of] Issa” (27).

Appianus’ narrative differs in several ways from the others. According to his version of the story, King Agron (remember, according to Appianus’ version, Agron hasn’t died yet), for reasons that aren’t stated, declared war on several Greek city states. His army captured, in the following order, part of Epirus, as well as Corcyra, Epidamnus (also called Dyrrachium; modern-day Durrës), and Pharos (modern-day Starigrad), and placed garrisons of armed men within the territories that he conquered in order to retain control of them. When his large fleet of war ships threatened the Adriatic, the people of the island of Issa requested aid from the Romans. In the autumn of 230 BC, the Romans sent some delegates to Issa to see if the reports of the Illyrian threat were true or exaggerated. However, before they could reach their destination, their ship came under attack by Illyrian warships. Cleemporus, the envoy from Issa, and Coruncanius, one of the Roman delegates, were killed in the attack. When the Romans heard about this assault, they were outraged. They immediately declared war on the Illyrians and invaded the country by both land and sea. Both invading forces were led by one of the Senatorial consuls. The army which marched overland was commanded by Lucius Postumius Albinus, and the fleet was commanded by Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus. Meanwhile, King Agron had died, leaving behind an infant prince named Pinnes as his heir. Agron’s widowed queen Teuta was made royal regent until the boy (who it is noted was not her son) came of age (28). Polybius, who provides the most detailed account of this war, mentions nothing about the boy prince, although Cassius Dio does.


Queen Teuta’s Wrath

In the spring of 229 BC, Queen Teuta was making ready to resume her planned attack on Greece. A fleet of warships was prepared, one far larger than the one which sailed the previous year. One group sailed to the island state of Corcyra, and another to the polity of Epidamnus. The sailors stated that their purpose was to take on supplies of fresh drinking water, but in actuality, they intended to conquer these places. The naïve people of Epidamnus, suspecting nothing, allowed the Illyrians free access to the city. A few of them disembarked from their ships wearing ordinary clothes and no armor, carrying large water jars, and appeared to be acting on their word. In actuality, the Illyrians had swords hidden inside the jars. As they approached the city gates, they suddenly whipped out their secret weapons, killed the guards, and seized control of the gatehouse. With the gates now opened, the remainder of the Illyrians erupted out from their ships, this time fully-armed for battle, and poured into the city. The people were initially taken by surprise, but they quickly mustered up their courage and fought back hard. After holding out for a while, the Illyrians were driven out. The retreating Illyrians clambered back aboard their ships and fled, joining the other half of their fleet sailing for Corcyra (29). Polybius states that Epidamnus had been spared at the last moment, but Appianus states that it had been overrun and that a garrison had been emplaced there in order to secure possession of the city (30).

At Corcyra, the massive Illyrian fleet dropped anchor, the warriors disembarked, and the city was besieged. The Corcyrans were certain that they could not hold out against such a powerful military force, so they sent envoys to the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues asking for help. The cities of Apollonia and Epidamnus, fearing that they would be attacked, also sent envoys. Both Greek confederations agreed to help, with the Achaeans sending ten warships – a paltry number compared to the presumably large fleet of over a hundred ships which the Illyrians possessed. But not all of the Greeks were on the same side. Earlier, the Greeks of Acarnania had signed an alliance with the Illyrians, and they sent seven warships to help the Illyrians in their war (31).

The clash between the two sides’ fleets took place off the Paxi Islands, a few miles southeast of the main island of Corcyra. The Greek ships were large and heavy, but the Illyrians had light galleys, best suited for speed and maneuverability rather than a head-to-head naval battle. To compensate, the Illyrians tied their light galleys together in groups of four ships. The battle commenced, and the Illyrians began to gain the upper hand early on. One large Greek warship was sunk with all hands on board, and another four Greek ships were captured. When the Achaeans saw that the battle was not going in their favor, they turned and fled for home. The Illyrians did not pursue. The Battle of the Paxi Islands was an Illyrian victory, and Polybius states the winners celebrated. As for the Illyrians’ Acarnanian allies, they came out of the battle relatively unscathed – none of their ships were damaged, no one was killed, and only a handful of men were wounded (32).

With the Achaeans out of the war for the time being, the Illyrians could get back to concentrating on the siege of Corcyra. Their confidence in victory was increased following the Achaeans’ naval defeat at the Battle of the Paxi Islands. After hearing about the defeat and retreat of those who were supposed to rescue them, the Corcyrans fell into despair. After holding out for only a little while longer, the Corcyrans surrendered. The Illyrians placed a garrison in the city under the command of Demetrius of Pharos. After sorting out the security of the city, the Illyrians set sail once again for Epidamnus to try to take the city a second time (33).


The Romans take the Offensive

It was around this time that the Romans, after a period of preparation and planning, got their invasion force underway. A large fleet of two hundred warships, commanded by the senatorial consul Gnaeus Fulvius Centumalus, set sail from Italy. His colleague Lucius Postumius Albinus would command the invading army. Centumalus wanted his fleet to sail directly to Corcyra, since he believed that the siege of the city was still in progress. Cassius Dio states that when Queen Teuta heard that the Romans were moving against her, “she again grew fearful and sent a certain Demetrius to the consuls, assuring them of her readiness to heed them in everything” (34). Demetrius of Pharos contacted the Roman fleet (it isn’t stated how), giving them two messages: one was news, and the other was an offer. Demetrius of Pharos was a very shady character of dubious loyalty, and perhaps willing to take sides with whomever was winning or whoever would give him greater benefits. The Illyrians had suspected that Demetrius might be up to no good, and most likely came to the decision that putting him in a position of authority was a mistake considering his character. Since he feared whatever punishment that Queen Teuta would bestow upon him for suspected disloyalty, he told the Romans that the siege of Corcyra had already ended, and offered to hand the city of Corcyra over to the Romans along with the other places he held sway over, perhaps with a request that the Romans put him under their protection (35).

When Centumalus was informed that he was too late to provide any help in razing the siege, he decided nevertheless to continue sailing to Corcyra in order to meet with Demetrius of Pharos. His purpose was to see what exactly had happened, and also to see if there was any truth in Demetrius’ messages. When the Roman fleet arrived off the island, the people of Corcyra cheered and, according to Demetrius’ promise, the Illyrian garrison was immediately handed over to the Romans. This statement by Polybius confirms that Demetrius’ message was a secret message, and that the Illyrians soldiers guarding the city were not aware of Demetrius’ treachery. The people threw out their Illyrian occupiers, with the Romans taking them as their prisoners. The people of Corcyra unanimously accepted to be under Rome’s protection, since they felt that this was the only way that they could preserve themselves against future attacks by the Illyrians. After Corcyra was accepted into the Roman fold, the fleet then sailed for the port-city of Apollonia, with Demetrius serving as the Romans’ guide (36).

Cassius Dio gives a different version of the story. Although the Romans met with Demetrius and the Romans took possession of Corcyra, he states that Queen Teuta had sent Demetrius as her official envoy to the Romans with an offer – the Romans and Illyrians would be at peace with one another in exchange for handing over the island of Corcyra to the Romans. It was a good offer, and the Romans took it. However, as was typical of a woman, Cassius Dio comments, Teuta changed her mind. As the Romans landed at Corcyra to officially take possession of the island, she decided to continue the war anyway and sent an army to Apollonia and Epidamnus (37).

Meanwhile, Lucius Albinus had assembled his invasion army at the southern Italian port of Brundisium, consisting of 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. The fleet of transport ships set sail from Brundisium and landed at Apollonia, where the two Roman forces rendezvoused. The people of Apollonia agreed to submit to Rome, but not long after the two Roman forces linked up, news arrived in the Roman camp that the city of Epidamnus was once again under attack by the Illyrians. The Roman army immediately marched towards the city with the purpose of razing the siege. Such was the power and reputation of Rome’s army that when the Illyrians learned that a large army of Roman soldiers was approaching, they abruptly abandoned their siege of the city and withdrew in a frantic panic. Epidamnus was incorporated into the Roman Republic (38).

Not satisfied with not making contact with their enemies, the Romans pushed into the interior of the country, conquering a tribe called the Ardiaeans (which Cassius Dio states was the tribe that Teuta belonged to). After this tribe was subdued, other tribes sent messengers to the Romans offering their submission – the subjugation of the Ardiaeans, therefore, must have been a savage episode of slaughter and destruction in order to put such fear into so many other tribes, who wished to surrender themselves to Rome without a fight. Only two tribes are specifically mentioned by name: the Parthini and the Atintanes (39).

The Romans now advanced towards the island of Issa, which the Illyrians were in the process of besieging. By now, the Illyrians generally knew of the Roman presence, and so in addition to the army attacking the city, the Illyrian navy had surrounded and blockaded the island, presumably in the hope of preventing Rome’s fleet from getting close and landing her soldiers on the island. But these measures did no good – the Romans forced the Illyrians to abandon their siege of the city. The Illyrians fled to the islands of Pharos and Arbo. The Romans incorporated Issa into their realm (40).

The Romans once again took the offensive against the Illyrians, not merely rescuing besieged cities. As the Roman fleet cruised along the Balkan coast, they attacked Illyrian cities as they happened upon them. One-by-one, the coastal Illyrian settlements fell to the Roman soldiers as they waded ashore from their ships, taking the cities by storm. However, at the town of Nutria, the Romans were defeated, suffering horrendous losses included the deaths of several high-ranking officers. But this was the only reverse of Romans’ fire and storm campaign. The Roman navy managed to capture twenty Illyrian galleys which were carrying plunder taken from the Greek settlements that they had attacked. It’s highly likely that the Romans kept the loot for themselves rather than returning it to their original owners. Realizing that the war was essentially lost, Queen Teuta and a few attendants fled to the small but strongly-fortified town of Rhizon located in the interior of the country on the banks of the Rhizon River (41).

This report is corroborated by Cassius Dio, who states that the Romans took control of the cities that the Illyrians had attacked earlier, then ravaged the Illyrian coastline, and added to their victories by capturing an Illyrian treasury fleet sailing from the Peloponnesus. By this time, Demetrius had unquestionably switched sides and joined the Romans, and persuaded others to pledge loyalty to Rome as well (42).


The Fall of Queen Teuta

The Romans now controlled the greater part of Illyria, or at least Queen Teuta’s kingdom, and emplaced Demetrius of Pharos as Rome’s strongman in the region, running the territory as one of Rome’s vassals. Gnaeus Centumalus, who had commanded the fleet during the war, returned to Rome along with a majority of the army. Lucius Albinus remained behind with the remainder of the army in Epidamnus, and accompanied by forty ships, for the purpose of enforcing the loyalty of the Illyrian tribes which had submitted to Rome during the war. In order to augment his strength, Albinus began to enroll the natives of the surrounding countryside as auxiliaries (43).

Cassius Dio says that with the war going so badly for her, Queen Teuta realized that she had no choice but to negotiate with the Romans (44). The following year in the spring of 228 BC, she sent a delegation to the Romans asking for peace. The Romans’ terms were crippling: The Illyrians had to pay whatever tributes the Romans demanded; all of Illyria, with the exception of a few places, was now under Roman control; the Illyrians could not set sail beyond Lissus except with two unarmed ships (a term which was greatly welcomed by the Greeks) (45).

Appianus gives a somewhat different and more detailed account of the surrender proceedings. He states that, during this time, Queen Teuta sent messengers to the Romans asking for peace. She asked for mercy for the things that the Illyrians had done not by her command but by her dead husband’s. The Romans gave the following terms: The islands of Corcyra, Pharos, Issa, and Epidamnus were now Roman territories, and all the people who dwelt upon these islands were now Roman subjects. All people of the Atintani tribe were also now Roman subjects. The infant prince Pinnes would be allowed to keep the remainder of his father’s territory. The massive Illyrian fleet was to be reduced to only two unarmed pinnacles. No Illyrian ships were to sail beyond Lissus. Queen Teuta agreed to the conditions. The Romans declared Corcyra and Apollonia “free” (46).

Cassius Dio provides his own terms for the peace treaty. He states that Queen Teuta was forced to abdicate her throne. Demetrius of Pharos was officially placed in charge of the region as a Roman puppet ruler and also served as the regent for Prince Pinnes until he was old enough to rule on his own, most likely as a Roman vassal. He concludes by stating that the Romans were thanked by the people of the Greek state of Corinth for their actions during the war and formed an alliance with Athens (47).

Florus adds an interesting comment in this tale. Earlier, he had stated that Queen Teuta had ordered the Roman ambassadors to be executed by axe, mostly probably beheading them. When the war came to an end, the Romans carried out an act of poetic justice – the Romans rounded up the leaders of the Illyrians, and they were executed by axe as a fitting punishment for the execution of the envoys (48).

The way in which Polybius and Appianus depict the progress of the war, and specifically the role that Queen Teuta played in it, is rather interesting. According to Polybius’ narrative, King Agron was the original instigator, but he is a rather peripheral figure who dies early in the story, leaving Queen Teuta to do most of the war-work. She oversees the overwhelming majority of the conflict and is the leader of the Illyrians in their war against the Greeks and the Romans. She is described as being haughty, arrogant, hot-headed, and incapable of seeing things long-term. Appianus, by contrast, portrays Queen Teuta in a more sympathetic way. According to his version of the story, King Agron is the main foe in the war who launches unprovoked attacks on several Greek cities which later appeal to the Romans for help. When King Agron unexpectedly dies just before the Romans enter the scene, his wife Queen Teuta, who is an innocent non-participant in the war, is left holding the bag and is wrongfully held accountable for the crimes which her husband committed. It isn’t clear why there should be such a disparity in these two versions, with the first casting her as the villain and the second as the victim.

After the treaty was concluded, the Romans sent messengers to the Achaean and Aetolian Leagues, who explained the causes and conduct of the war, and recited the terms of the treaty. “These, then, were the circumstances of the Romans’ first armed intervention in Illyria and those parts of Europe, and of their first diplomatic mission to Greece” (49). As a reward for his treachery in handing over his territories to Roman control, Demetrius of Pharos was given some estates, although the Romans suspected that this man was not to be trusted, and their suspicions were well-founded (50).



The First Roman-Illyrian War had several short-term and long-term effects. The immediate threat of Illyrian pirate ships had been significantly reduced and the power of several Illyrian tribes had been weakened. Rome now exercised considerable influence in the region, although Illyria was not yet under its direct authority. Rome also became more closely connected with the Greek world, and the Roman Republic replaced the kingdom of Macedon as the major regional power. This would, in turn, result in the Macedonians becoming increasingly hostile towards the Republic, and this would eventually result in a new series of wars that would test the power of the Macedonian phalanx against the Roman legions (51).

However, the fall of Queen Teuta did not bring peace to the region. This was only the first of several conflicts that would become known as the Roman-Illyrian Wars, which would be fought for the next sixty-four years. Even after the major fighting was over, small-scale minor conflicts would still persist until the reign of Caesar Augustus.

In the year 6 AD, the last major war between Romans and Illyrians erupted. The Great Illyrian Revolt was the Illyrians’ last major attempt to win back their freedom. For four years, they fought tenaciously, but in the end they were defeated, never to rise again.


Source citations

  1. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 112.
  2. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  3. Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  4. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 112.
  5. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 112-113.
  6. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 113-114.
  7. A History of Britain, episode 3 – “Dynasty”; Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), page 114-115.
  8. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  9. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 114-115; Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  10. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  11. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 115.
  12. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 115.
  13. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, map of northern Greece (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 551.
  14. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 115-116.
  15. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 116.
  16. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 116-117.
  17. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 117-118.
  18. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  19. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118.
  20. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118.
  21. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  22. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118-119.
  23. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 119.
  24. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  25. Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  26. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 118-119.
  27. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  28. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  29. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 119-120.
  30. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, part 7.
  31. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 120.
  32. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 120.
  33. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 120-121.
  34. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  35. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 121.
  36. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 121.
  37. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  38. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 121-122.
  39. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  40. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  41. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  42. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  43. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122.
  44. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  45. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 122-123
  46. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, parts 7-8.
  47. Cassius Dio, The Roman History, book 12, chapter 19.
  48. Publius Annius Florus, Epitome, book 1, chapter 21.
  49. Polybius, The Rise of the Roman Empire, book 2, chapter 2 (London: Penguin Classics, 1979), 123.
  50. Appianus, The Roman History, book 9, appendix on the Illyrian Wars, parts 7-8.
  51. UNRV. “First Illyrian War”. http://www.unrv.com/empire/first-illyrian-war.php.






  • A History of Britain. Episode 3 – “Dynasty”. BBC, 2000.