A Woman to Know: Teuta of Illyria

She ruled by women’s reasoning … — Polybius

She ruled by women’s reasoning … — Polybius

(image via Flickr)

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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