Illyrian Pirates

Queen Teuta

The lembos (Lat. Lembus, Plautus, Mercator, I, 2,81 and II, 1,35) was an Illyrian fast ship, probably originally used in piracy and very important for the Romans for its carrying capacity of men, equipment and booty. It could be open and aphract, with a strong ramming capacity and rowed at two levels (biremis). From this the liburna was developed.

Illyrian land prior to Roman conquest.

The eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea-the Illyrian shore-with its many natural harbors and protected coves was a paradise for pirates. Illyrian pirates lurked in the sheltered hiding places along the shore; they crammed one hundred pirates into their little galleys (known as lembi), fifty to row and fifty to fight, and, when they spied a merchant ship, out they would dash as fast as they could row and come alongside, board, and overwhelm their victims. Merchants sought help from the states along the shores of the Adriatic, but none of the Greek states had sufficient forces to suppress piracy, even if they had had the resolve to confront the Illyrians, and the Romans had no inclination to go to the expense and danger of a campaign for the sake of a few merchants and an occasional threat.

When, however, one of Illyria’s petty kings united the whole of Illyria under his rule, he also brought the pirates under his control; he transformed them from independent entrepreneurs out for what they could get for themselves into an instrument of state policy. His queen, Queen Teuta, succeeded him and continued the same policy-to use the pirates sometimes to harass and attack Illyria’s enemies, sometimes to combine and operate as a navy, and sometimes just to plunder and provide a share of the booty to the crown. The beauty of the situation was that the rulers could disavow the pirates if necessary.

By 230 bc Queen Teuta had consolidated the Illyrians into the most powerful kingdom in the Balkan peninsula and she was determined to subjugate the whole of the Adriatic’s eastern coast. She mustered her army and navy and ordered them to conquer the coast; she lifted the few restrictions left on the pirates and permitted them to attack any ship or any land. At one city the pirates pretended that they were merchants, and particularly inept merchants, selling their cargo at a loss. When they had attracted a crowd of shoppers by their apparent ineptitude and the shoppers were completely engrossed in the bargaining, the Illyrians seized a large number of them, threw them in their ships, sailed away, and sold their victims into slavery. At another city the Illyrians pretended that they needed to fill their water jars (in which they had hidden short swords), but the citizens tumbled to the trick and drove them off.

The pirates ranged as far south as the southern Peloponnesus, while the army and navy defeated the forces of the kingdom of Epirus, and the Epirotes, to save themselves from the Illyrian forces and from the continual attacks of pirates, made peace with the Illyrians, became their allies, and left the Greeks to fend for themselves. The Illyrian armed forces continued to advance south and the Illyrian pirates (operating under the protection of the royal family) ranged up and down the Adriatic, and no one seemed ready, or able, to stop them.

The queen was supremely confident of the power of her united Illyria and the pirates were supremely confident in their queen, far too confident, because they made a disastrous mistake-they plundered some Italian ships. The Italian merchants appealed to the Roman Senate. The Roman Senate listened to their long list of complaints and decided to send two envoys to Queen Teuta to persuade her to control these pirates. The queen, as so many rulers had done in the past and would continue to do in the future, totally misestimated the Romans. She listened to their complaints and she told them that it was not her policy to do injury to the Romans or to Italy and that she could give them a guarantee that her armed forces would not attack Romans or Italians, but she said,

“It is an ancient custom of the land of the Illyrians and of its rulers that the queen does not interfere with the actions of her private citizens in taking plunder on the sea.”

The younger of the envoys replied,

“Queen Teuta, the Romans have an excellent tradition, which is that the state concerns itself with punishing those who commit private wrongs and with helping those who suffer them. With the gods’ help we shall do our utmost, and that very soon, to make you reform this ancient custom of your kings.”

The queen was furious and she let her fury show. The young envoy’s ship was boarded by pirates on his journey home and he was murdered. Perhaps Queen Teuta had ordered the pirates to avenge this insult to her dignity, or perhaps the pirates had simply thought to please her; in either case, she was guilty in the eyes of the Romans and the Senate determined to act.

Yet time passed, murder had been done, and nothing seemed to happen. Queen Teuta assumed that she had given the Romans a sharp lesson in what the Illyrians did to meddlers, and in the spring of 229 bc she ordered an expedition to seize the two most important way stations for the trade between Greece and Italy, the Greek cities of Epidamnus and Corcyra. An Illyrian surprise attack on Epidamnus failed and the Illyrians withdrew, regrouped, and attacked Corcyra. Corcyra appealed to the Greek leagues: of the three leagues with interests in the region, one had already joined the Illyrians, another demurred, and the third league did send a few ships, but in the ensuing sea battle, when the first Greek ships caught the Illyrian ships broadside and rammed them, the bronze rams stuck, and the Greeks only then discovered that the Illyrians had lashed their ships together, four by four, to form a large unsinkable platform; Illyrian soldiers stormed the Greek ships and took them. When the captains of the other Greek ships saw what had happened, they turned their ships, fled, and abandoned the citizens of Corcyra to their fate. The Corcyraeans came to terms with the Illyrians and accepted a garrison under the command of Demetrius of Pharos (later to be king of the Illyrians). The Illyrians then sailed north and returned to the attack they had earlier abandoned on the city of Epidamnus.

At this crucial moment, when no Greek power seemed able to stand up to the Illyrians and many Greeks feared that Queen Teuta would subjugate the whole western coast of Greece, when Corcyra seemed firmly under Illyrian control, and when Epidamnus was about to fall, a Roman fleet of 200 ships (under the command of one of the Roman consuls) appeared before Corcyra. Demetrius, the commander of the Illyrian garrison at Corcyra, recognized immediately that the game was up and he surrendered to the Romans and made himself useful as an adviser. The Roman naval commander enrolled the Corcyraeans as “friends of the Roman people”-this designation meant that in the future the Romans would come to their aid and protection-and then took the fleet to Apollonia, where the second consul and an army of 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry joined the first consul and the entire Roman force advanced on Epidamnus to raise the Illyrian siege. As soon as the Illyrian soldiers heard that the Romans were coming, they broke and scattered across the countryside. The Romans enrolled Epidamnus as a “friend” and then the two consuls conducted coordinated campaigns. The Roman army advanced inland and accepted the surrender of three of the Illyrian tribes (thus fracturing the unity of the Illyrian state). The Roman fleet attacked and captured Illyrian coastal towns, surprised and captured pirate vessels, and liberated Greek cities. While the queen fled to a fort in the interior of the country, the Romans recruited local troops and campaigned vigorously for one year. At the end of the year they believed that they had the situation enough in hand to release one consul to return to Rome with most of the soldiers and all but forty ships. The Romans placed Demetrius on the throne of a reduced Illyria and in the spring of 228 bc the queen capitulated completely: she offered to pay the Romans an indemnity of whatever they asked, to accept the breakup of Illyria, to acknowledge Demetrius, and to be content with whatever the Romans were willing to grant her and, finally, she agreed that she would not sail south of Lissus with more than two galleys and those galleys would not be armed.

With the war concluded the Romans sent envoys to the Greek leagues to explain their actions, to delineate for the Greeks which places and people were now under Roman protection, and to reassure them that the Romans had no ambitions in that part of the world.

PAXOI ISLS (229 BC, spring) – Illyrian Raids

The Illyrians were masters of piracy with an utter disregard for the nationality of their victims, who included Italian traders. This led to an increasing number of complaints to Rome, where the senate sent out two commissioners to Illyria to investigate. One of these officials spoke some words to Queen Teuta to which she took exception. She had him assassinated. The incident is noteworthy because it triggered the first Roman intervention in the Balkans.

Queen Teuta, in continuation of her warlike policies, fitted out a large fleet of galleys. Some of them were sent to Epidamnus [Durres] where, taking the inhabitants by surprise, they all but captured the city. Rejoining the rest of the fleet, they proceeded to besiege Corcyra [Corfu], which appealed to the Achaeans and Aetolians for help. The two leagues manned 10 Achaean ships, which sailed for Corcyra and met the Illyrians off the Paxoi islands. The Illyrian tactics consisted of lashing their galleys together in groups of four and inviting a broadside attack from a ram. The Illyrians would then board the enemy craft in overwhelming numbers. In this way they captured four quadriremes and sank a quinquereme. The rest of the Achaean crews, overwhelmed by the enemy’s success, set sail for home. The unfortunate Corcyreans had no alternative but to capitulate and to receive a garrison until the Romans arrived with offers of protection. Polybius, 2: 9-10

Illyrian Warfare 

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