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The Illyrian bid for legitimacy

The following is extracted from Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece, by Robin Waterfield. This is the story of the Roman conquest of classical Greece – a tale of brutality, determination, and the birth of an empire.

The region known as Illyris (Albania and Dalmatia, in today’s terms) was regarded at the time as a barbarian place, only semi-civilized by contact with its Greek and Macedonian neighbours. It was occupied by a number of different tribes, linked by a common culture and language (a cousin of Thracian). From time to time, one of these tribes gained a degree of dominance over some or most of the rest, but never over all of them at once. Contact with the Greek world had led to a degree of urbanization, especially in the south and along the coast, but the region still essentially consisted of many minor tribal dynasts with networks of loyalty. At the time in question, the Ardiaei were the leading tribe, and in the 230s their king, Agron, had forged a kind of union, the chief plank of which was alliances with other local magnates from central Illyris, such as Demetrius, Greek lord of the wealthy island of Pharos, and Scerdilaidas, chief of the Illyrian Labeatae.

In the late 230s, the Illyrians’ Greek neighbors to the south, the confederacy of Epirote tribes and communities, descended into chaos following the republican overthrow of a by-then hated monarchy. Agron seized the opportunity. Following a significant victory over the Aetolians in 231—they had been hired by Demetrius II of Macedon to relieve the siege of Medion, a town belonging to his allies, the Acarnanians—the Illyrians, confi dent that they could stand up to any of their neighbors, expanded their operations. The next year, they raided as far south as the Peloponnesian coastline, but, more importantly, they seized the northern Epirote town of Phoenice.

The capture of Phoenice, the strongest and wealthiest city in Epirus, and then its successful defense against a determined Epirote attempt at recovery, were morale-boosting victories, but the practical consequences were uppermost in Agron’s mind. Phoenice was not just an excellent lookout point; it was also close to the main north–south route from Illyris into Epirus. More immediately, the town commanded its own fertile (though rather boggy) alluvial valleys, and access to the sea at Onchesmus. There was another harbor not far south, at Buthrotum (modern Butrint, one of the best archaeological sites in Europe), but for a ship traveling north up the coast, Onchesmus was the last good harbor until Oricum, eighty kilometers (fifty miles) further on, a day’s sailing or possibly two. And, even apart from the necessity of havens in bad weather, ancient ships had to be beached frequently, to forage for food and water (warships, especially, had room for little in the way of supplies), to dry out the insides of the ships (no pumps in those days), and to kill the teredo “worm” (a kind of boring mollusk). Phoenice was a valuable prize.

By Ptolemaic maps by Girolamo Porro, Venice, 1598. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
By Ptolemaic maps by Girolamo Porro, Venice, 1598. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Agron died a short while later, reputedly from pleurisy contracted after the over-enthusiastic celebration of his victories. He was succeeded by his son Pinnes—or rather, by his wife Teuta, who became regent for the boy. Teuta inherited a critical situation. Following the loss of Phoenice, the Epirotes had joined the Aetolian–Achaean alliance, and their new allies dispatched an army north as soon as they could. Th e Illyrian army under Scerdilaidas moved south to confront them, numbering perhaps ten thousand men. The two armies met not far north of Passaron (modern Ioannina).

The fate of the northwest coastline of Greece hung in the balance. But before battle was joined, the Illyrian forces were recalled by Teuta to deal with a rebellion by one of the tribes of her confederacy (we do not know which), who had called in help from the Dardanians. Th e Dardanian tribes occupied the region north of Macedon and northeast of Illyris (modern Kosovo, mainly), and not infrequently carried out cross-border raids in considerable force, with several tribes uniting for a profi table campaign. Scerdilaidas withdrew back north, plundering as he went, and made a deal with the Epirote authorities whereby he kept all the booty from Phoenice and received a handsome ransom for returning the city, relatively undamaged, to the league.

The Dardanian threat evaporated, and in 230 Teuta turned to the island of Issa, a neighbor of Pharos. Th is was a natural extension for her: Issa (modern Vis), along with Corcyra (Corfu) and Pharos (Hvar), was one of the great commercial islands of this coastline, wealthy from its own products, and as a result of convenience of its harbors for the Adriatic trade in timber and other commodities; in fact, at ten hectares, Issa town was the largest Greek settlement in Dalmatia. Teuta already had Pharos and its dependency, Black Corcyra (Korč ula); if she could take Issa and Corcyra, her revenue would be greatly increased and she would become a major player in the region. Teuta put Issa town under siege; in those days, each island generally had only one large town, the main port, and so to take the town was to take the island.

When the campaigning season of 229 arrived, Tueta (who still had Issa under siege) launched a major expedition. Her forces first attacked Epidamnus, a Greek trading city on the Illyrian coast, with an excellent harbor and command of the most important eastward route towards Macedon, the road the Romans began to develop a century later as the Via Egnatia. Th e attack was thwarted by the desperate bravery of the Epidamnians, but the Illyrians sailed off and joined up with the rest of  their fleet, which had Corcyra town under siege. The people of Corcyra, Epidamnus, and Apollonia (another Greek colony, eighty kilometers [fifty miles] down the coast from Epidamnus, and certain to be the next target) naturally sought help from the Aetolians and Achaeans, who had already demonstrated their hostility toward the Illyrians, and the Greek allies raised a small fl eet and sent it to relieve Corcyra. But the Illyrians had supplemented their usual fleet of small, fast lemboi with some larger warships loaned by the Acarnanians, who were pleased to thank them for raising the siege of Medion. Battle was joined off Paxoi, and it was another victory for the Illyrians.

In addition to having translated numerous Greek classics, including works by Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Xenophon, Polybius, and Plutarch, Robin Waterfield is the author of Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the MythsXenophon’s Retreat: Greece, Persia and the End of the Golden AgeAthens: A HistoryDividing the Spoils: the War for Alexander the Great’s Empire and Taken at the Flood: The Roman Conquest of Greece. He lives in the far south of Greece on a small olive farm.

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