Pirate queens are actually far more numerous in the annals of history than the average American education would have us believe. From Grania ni Maille to Cleopatra VII and everyone in between and beyond, they are a colorful bunch who have been rather shamefully hidden under a sturdy bushel because of misogyny and religion. So today, I'm turning the bushel over to reveal the high spirited pirate queen who took on mighty Rome before Rome even knew what hit it.
The Illyrians, whose territories in 232 BCE covered roughly the area now occupied by modern Albania and Serbia, were a seafaring tribe. Perhaps descendant from the ancient Sea People, they made their livings in boats. They were aggressive and warlike and fond of leaders who held to the same code. So when King Agron returned from a hugely successful raid loaded down with booty in that same year, no one batted an eye his order of hard partying in celebration. Probably least of all his second wife and Queen, Teuta.
Agron, who may very well have had an upper respiratory infection when he began his week or so long binge of drink and debauch, eventually developed pleurisy and died. Thanks to the rather snotty parts about Agron and Teuta in Roman historian Polybius' Universal History, we know a lot about what happened after the King of Illyria passed away, drown in his own fluids.
Teuta seems not to have spent much time mourning her husband. Though Polybius doesn't say where she was from originally, Teuta may have been of Hittite stock and so her own warrior spirit was certainly equal with that of her people. She took up the reins of government and almost immediately turned the Illyrian navy into a privateer fleet. From Polybius:
Her first measure was to grant letters of marque to privateers, authorizing they plunder all whom they fell in with...
Teuta declared all the world her enemy and she gave free license to the sailors in her fast, one-masted galleys known as lembi to prey on all at sea and on land. The Illyrians struck hard and often, taking port cities and villages along the Ionian and Adriatic coasts. They brought home ship-fulls of loot and Illyria prospered as she never had under King Agron.
Famously, Teuta enjoyed leading some of the inland raids personally. One attack on the city of Epidamnos in modern Albania found Teuta leading her sailors (men and women) inland with water jars on their heads or shoulders. Teuta herself called up to the Epidamnosians for help, saying that her people lacked water and were dying of thirst. As the Illyrians wailed beneath their city walls, the Epidamnos guards gave in and opened the massive gates. Teuta gave her order, the jars were dashed to the ground revealing the swords they held and the Illyrians attacked. Though Epidamnos managed to repulse Teuta, many more cities were not so fortunate.
The local tribes lived in fear of the Illyrians by 230 BCE and they began to call out for help to the new power player on the Mediterranean: Rome. Rome, of course, saw an opportunity to not only halt rampant piracy but to annex more territory in the form of these desperate cities and villages. Illyria's enemies agreed to become "Roman" if Rome would stop Teuta.
Two silver-tongued brothers, Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius, were sent to Teuta as "ambassadors". In fact, they were to put the upstart Queen in her place and make sure she understood that further affronts to "Roman citizens" would lead to horrible punishment. Teuta listened to the Coruncanius brothers and then told them flat out that there was absolutely nothing the Queen of Illyria could do about private citizens raiding ships at sea. Hearing this, Lucius lost his cool and insulted Teuta. She made no effort to respond in kind, but simply thanked and dismissed the Romans. Unfortunately for Lucius, Teuta had a long arm. On the caravan back to Rome, Lucius was killed by a group of Illyrian strong men.
Rome had now been personally affronted and reacted with typical aggression. 200 ships and 20,000 infantry were sent against Illyria with the result that her fleet was virtually destroyed. Queen Teuta was forced to retreat to the nearly impregnable fortress at Rhizon where she and her people became the victims of a year long siege. Finally, in 228 BCE, Teuta cracked. She conceded to every Roman demand, including giving up all her lands but the city of Rhizon itself. No further sallies went forth from Illyria except unarmed merchant galleys that were a pitiful shadow of their former privateer glory.
Teuta, the pirate Queen of Illyria, faded from memory and has almost been forgotten. Thanks to her enemy, the Roman Polybius, we still know of her and her few spectacular years of domination at sea.