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Queen Teuta, Terror of the Adriatic

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Queen Teuta of Illyria, by Mariusz Kozik for  The Creative Assembly

I first saw this production artwork on the Facebook page for The Creative Assembly’s Total War: Rome II, and immediately recognized her as Queen Teuta of Illyria, a powerful, but little-known pirate queen during the time of early Roman Republic. After inheriting her husband, King Agron‘s confederation of Illyrian kingdoms and city-states, she used the powerful navy he’d assembled and offered letters of the marque to local privateers in order to terrorize Greek and Roman shipping across the Adriatic, raiding as far south as Sicily. Her captains outmaneuvered the navies of Rome, Syracuse, and Corinth, bringing in massive amounts of gold, treasure, and stolen goods from countless merchants and coastal settlements, allowing her to expand the Illyrian confederation to the largest and wealthiest it would ever achieve.

In 230 BCE, Teuta’s reign of terror forced the Romans to intervene on behalf of their own merchants as well as their Greek allies. With typical Roman bluntness, their envoys interrupted Queen Teuta during her siege of the island of Issa, demanding she cease her raiding and use her navy to help quell the pirate infestations across the Adriatic. Teuta basically told the Romans to mind their own business, then had one of the envoys who’d been rude to her assassinated after they’d left. Expecting a reprisal from the Romans, Teuta spent the winter building up her navy and defenses, then in spring of 229, she instigated a number of naval skirmishes with Rome’s Greek allies.

Unfortunately for Teuta, she picked a fight with the Romans during a year when they had nothing better to do with their soldiers. They were between wars with Carthage, weren’t actively antagonizing Macedonia yet, plus the Cisalpine Gauls were behaving themselves for a change. Thus poor Teuta found herself with both Consular Armies on her doorstep, amounting to over 20,000 Roman and Italian soldiers. Faced with overwhelming opposition, several of Teuta’s fortresses and allied city-states capitulated to the Romans, forcing the queen to surrender as well. With typical Roman efficiency, they demobilized her fleet and army and disbanded the Illyrian confederation, leaving Teuta with only her capital to rule over. Afterword the queen ceased to be a major player in Greek and Illyrian politics, and none of our surviving sources allude to what became of her after.

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I love the overall look of Teuta’s outfit in Mariusz’s depiction. Her armor is a Grecian leather cuirass, common among skirmishers and light infantry across the ancient Mediterranean, and preferred by shipboard soldiers for being easier to swim in than bronze. Tailored to her measurements, it offers fair deflection against arrows and spears, without sacrificing mobility or flexibility. It makes for highly effective sailing armor, as it’s light enough for our Illyrian heroine to swim in, in the event of a shipwreck or a naval engagement that goes sour. The armor’s shoulder pauldrons offer decent protection for Teuta’s shoulders, as well, while the skirt of studded leather strips protects her hips and upper legs.

Her dress I’m not as sure about. One user in the Total War forums criticized it for being translucent silk, and therefor fairly useless and impractical for sailing. But I think it’s more likely that it’s a light cotton dress that’s gotten wet. The bronze sword is also thematically appropriate. To me it looks like a large sica, a curved sword or dagger common among warriors of the Illyrians and other Balkan tribes. The fact that it appears to be bronze is an important detail as well—as iron and steel weapons tend to rust, and saltwater is particularly corrosive, it was common for ancient pirates and marines to favor bronze weapons and armor over all but the best quality of steel.

Despite the anticlimactic end to her reign of terror, several historians have argued that had Rome had pressing business elsewhere and been thus unable to respond with overwhelming force, Teuta very likely would have posed a far more serious threat to their expansion, perhaps changing the outcome of their machinations in Greece.

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For more info on Teuta, Polybius’s Histories Book 2, chapters 3–12 contains the most extensive surviving account of the history, though I also recommend Philip Matyszak’s Roman Conquests: Macedonia and Greece for additional reading.

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