Teuta, Ancient Pirate Queen of Illyria

May 1, 2020

 

 

                      Part history and part legend, an ancient warrioress lives on 

 

 

 

 

 

                                                                                    
The ancient region known in antiquity as Illyria was situated in the western Balkan peninsula. Comprising an area roughly stretching from the lower alps in what is now Croatia, south along the Dalmatian coast from Istria to the Albanian town of Vlore and the mainland known as Epirus, the region was made up of many various feuding tribes and clans who all spoke the Illyrian language, a now extinct member of the Indo European language family. The Illyro Thracian family of languages, once spoken throughout the Balkans into Asia Minor, fell out of use over time, and many scholars argue that only modern Albanian survives as a testimony to Illyrian, though this language has been highly modified over time with the addition of Latin and Greek loan words, and later in the middle ages by Slavic and Turkish words as well. The language was not written down at great length as Greek or later as Latin was, so records of the past are dim and not so well defined. Not to mention that the stories and accounts of the Illyrians, like their relatives the Thracians to the east, were left to their neighbors who on many occasions were their enemies. Thus, what we know of these ancient peoples are shady accounts at best.

 

The Illyrians are said to have come down from the Alps of central Europe and imposed themselves on the Pelasgians to the south who already lived in the Balkans. Of course, as in all migrations and invasions of one people upon another, they intermarried. They brought with them the ancient Hallstatt culture which learned to smelt metal at an early period, all of this happening in the pre bronze and actual bronze age. They also were known for mining salt and other minerals, and they loved gold, which they held in high esteem and worked into intricately beautiful jewelry and ornate armor. The Illyro Thracian language group included a number of languages such as Illyrian in the west, and Thracian in what is nor Bulgaria and northeastern Greece. Phrygia was one member of the group as was Pannonian, spoken near the Hungarian plain in the north of the Balkans. The peoples known as Macedonians and Epirots were Greek speaking peoples, though there was quite a bit of Illyrian and Thracian blood due to intermarriage. For example, while Alexander the Great and his father Philip spoke Greek at court and identified as Greeks due to being part of the Greek cultural world, Alexander's mother was a Molossian princess, a tribe of what Philip called varvaros- foreigners, indicating a non Greek origin of that tribe, though the Molossian chiefs all spoke Greek and were allowed to compete in the Olympic games. It is certainly possible that the Molossians were originally an Illyrian people who became Hellenized. From the Greek varvaros we get the word barbarian, meaning an outsider. In this period it should be remembered that Illyria and the Illyrian language as a cultural definition was being overshadowed by the rise of Greek civilization which was able to maintain records due to it's adoption of an alphabet, of which illiterate Illyria in some ways was and in other ways was not a part of. Few greeks ventured into the inner Illyrian or Thracian lands. But the two worlds did blend and overlap, of this there can be no argument. Illyrians, having lived in the Balkans for centuries before the rise of Greece, were witness its rise, and took advantage of work and the opportunities offered to mercenaries in and about the various city states. Illyria, probably due to not utilizing writing, began to fade, just as later Greece would sink into the abyss as Rome became ascendant. 

 

Perhaps language can unravel some of the mysteries of the past. In the Greek language, the Greeks call themselves call themselves Ellenes. Yet in the Albanian language gryka means a valley. We know that the Illyrians tended to settle in mountainous regions and build their fortified citadels on rocky hilltops, and tended their sheep, goats and cattle. Is it possible that the gryka were the industrious people of the valleys who perfected farming techniques which encouraged the more settled lives of townspeople who would go on to create one of the world's great civilizations? In Albanian the word for house shtpi, as in Greek spiti, both sounding amazingly similar. In fact it is the very same word stemming from the word for cave, the Albanian shpyll and the Greek spilia. My guess is that it was the the hardy mountain dwelling Illyrians or earlier Pelasgians, ancestors of both peoples, who first used the word for a stone house which was the eventual product of prehistoric cave dwellings.

 

At some point in time, the mountain folk came down to the seashore and and the rocky harbors of the western Balkans where they met the seafaring Greeks, trading and eventually intermarrying with them. Interestingly, if we were to take modern Albanian as our partial guide to ancient Illyrian, most of the seafaring and nautical words in that language are of Greek origin: port is limani, waves are thalassa, boat is vapora, a whale is a baleena, a porpoise a delfini, ocean is okean...the list goes on. We might be want to propose that the Illyrians were an inland people who eventually came down to the sea seeking more prosperity. It is interesting to note that in time the Illyrians became fierce pirates and marauders on the high seas, the very terror of the Mediterranean. Perhaps living in the harsh and rocky Balkan interior with a soil that was difficult to farm which failed to provide enough food for the expanding population caused the Illyrians to migrate down to the sea. They saw the high culture and mercantile expertise of Greek civilization in their cities of the Adriatic and came to know of the sophisticated Etruscans across that sea in the Italian peninsula. They became acquainted with those cultures, adopting elements of them as their own. However, rather than turn to trade and commerce as the Greeks did the Illyrians sailed their ships for other reasons, namely for plunder and theft. With Greek civilization dominating the coastal regions and with Rome in the ascendant, the Illyrians chose to present themselves as daring and confrontational rather than as peaceful coexisting neighbors. Different societies produce different lifestyles based on the experience of geography and climate and these factors inform how a people will react to the forces of nature or the whims of fellow men going through the same experience. Divided into herding clans who feuded with each other for good grazing space and the meager fertility of the otherwise rocky mountain valleys of the Dinaric karst, the various Illyrian tribes could not develop a sense of unity or a common nation. This was also the case of the Greek city states, though these states could identify as one people when a foreign invader approached threatening their very existence due to a common alphabet based on a common language which informed the Greeks that they shared common cultural views about who they were. THus we see the makings of a nation even though the Greeks never achieved unity as in a sovereign nation. The Illyrians had no such sense of unity based on language or culture, for every tribe spoke a dialect that differed from the tribe on the other side of the mountain, and the stories told in their oral traditions were about their own particular tribe or fis and their victories and deeds in battle with other tribes.They may have know they were generally Illyri, which many linguists believe is a name that stems from from i liri, or the free, which shows a kinship to Latin. But more likely these various Illyrian peoples identified by their fis, such as the Arbani, Taulanti, Dibri and so forth. Some claimed that they were descended from the gods themselves, as in the name Bardhylli (White Star) and hyll i lir means 'the free star'. This, with their worship of the Sun (Dielli) tells us that they thought rather highly of their origins. At any rate, it was the Illyrian word zyt (god) which may have become the Greek Zeus just as Achilles, known by the Trojans as Ispetus (i Shpejti, in Alb. the quick one) was dunked into the river Aous (the Vijose river, southern Albania) by his mother for protection against sword blows, or Dardanus procreated and was granted dominion over the Earth ruling from his capital Dardania or Dardhe, the land of the pear trees and name for the region we now know by the Slavic derived name of Kossova. The Greeks knew well the origins of their myths and where many of these myths had their beginnings, as did the Illyrians who called these many of these myths their own, perhaps all coming from the aboriginal Pelasgians. However, Illyria and Thrace were considered foreign and semi barbaric lands by the Greeks whom the Illyrians identified as Aegis, meaning Aegean, the sea where they created seemingly out of nothing this great ancient civilization that was unique in the world. This word Aegis was still used by some 20th century Albanians as a nick name for their Greek neighbors. 

Living in the fastness of their high fortresses and competing for food and grazing land begat confrontation, and this confrontation became constant feuding which was done on a grand scale. The competitive tradition of the Greek city states or even the later Italian Renaissance cities who vied with one another for power and mercantile control can be compared to the ancient Illyrian lifestyle, as a culture developed based on honor and loyalty to family and clan. In such a warlike environment, all inhabitants learn the arts of war and fighting, heroism is lauded and cowardice frowned upon. In such ancient societies strict codes of behavior develop to ensure that succeeding generations will be ever ready to go to war at a moments notice, since weakness might result in a tribe being wiped out or starved to death due to losing precious grazing or farmed land. In such a patriarchal society males ranging in ages from the very young to those quite old go to war. Many are killed or taken as captives, which in the ancient world meant a merciless death or a life of slavery serving the victors. When a family or clan would lose their fighting men the need for a leader to guide them was a priority. The only law that was known or held any pertinence in Illyrian society was an unwritten code of honor, known to this day in Albanian as the Besa, related to the ancient Spartan gerousia, the Sicilian code of omerta or the Pashtunwali of the Pathans. At the core of such codes is the importance of the solemn word, which is indicative of a family's honor and dignity. Bes is the Albanian root for belief, trust, faith. It was in this legal atmosphere that an archaic tradition would be utilized for the purpose of preserving the name of a clan.

Growing up and living in such an atmosphere of militancy, warfare and conflict women could be as formidable as men, even though they would normally play subservient roles in that society in times of relative peace. But when the survival of a family was at stake, the Illyrians could call on their strongest, bravest and most daring women to lead the clan to success and victory. This tradition required a woman to take an oath of sworn virginity, and by doing this she could fill the role of tribal chief or leader. If her father, husband or brother was such a chief and was killed in battle the wife or sister could vow to dedicate herself to protecting, leading and guiding the clan. She could lead bands of armed warriors into battle and throw herself into the fray, and exact vengeance on those who challenged the honor of the fis, the unit of extended families related by blood and intermarriage that comprised the clan. This custom of the sworn virgin has survived in the Albanian mountains into the 20th century and it is said that there are even a few such women yet alive now, in the 21st. While the custom is finally dying out as the isolated herding and small plot farming lifestyle of the mountaineer has been transformed by the internet and the cell phone, the tradition of the sworn virgin can be traced back to the days of the Illyrians who, like the Spartans, encouraged their women in the arts of war and fighting skills. Perhaps we could similarly note the role of virgin queens, as in the example of England's virgin queen Elizabeth I who united the warring Protestant and Catholic religious factions in her country, lead England in war to defeat the mighty Spanish Armada- making her nation a force to be reckoned with in the politically tumultuous world of the 16th century, and who ushered in an era of literature, art and music noting the names of two 'Williams' such as Shakespeare and the composer Byrd that rivaled the glory of Renaissance Italy. It was under her reign that England would become known not simply as Britain, but Great Britain. 

 

The Illyrian settlements were becoming overpopulated and the crowded mountain citadels could no longer support the increase in human population, as blood feuds among the clans and war with the neighboring Greeks, Thracians and the encroaching Celts on their borders became the norm for the people living in the mountains. Driven by necessity as the predominantly rocky soil was difficult to farm and unable to provide enough food for all they were forced to move and migrate as ancient people did and modern people still do, and find new prospects. To do this and succeed, however, they needed organization and the unity that only a genius leader could provide. The unwritten code of the mountains provided a sense of order in that environment but it didn't unite warring clans and tribes into a nation with common goals and aspirations.

The Greek city states, though divided, already achieved that sense of cultural unity and linguistic identity and across the Adriatic sea the Latin tribes came together and created what was to become the new power in the Mediterranean and eventually much of Europe and the Near East- Rome. Our word piracy is from the ancient Greek language, meaning a brigand, this in turn stemming from the Hellenic verb for 'attempt'. There has always been piracy in the Mediterranean but in particular Illyrian piracy was condoned by the kings and queens of that ancient society. What the Illyrians began to do was claim their waters as their own, as in the word etymology of the Ionian Sea, Deti Jone (lit. our sea) and demand tribute as their neighbors did for plying those waters. More than just demanding tribute though, the Illyrians became fierce and aggressive pirates who would not only stop vessels and demand tribute, but would attack and board ships at will, taking cargo and booty as well as slaves back to their rocky ports along the Dalmatian coast. Their tactic was to set out of their well concealed harbors, surround a ship with their smaller craft like hornets. These vessels were quite speedy as they utilized both sail and oars. Sometimes four or five of these ships would be tied together and attack as one, abreast. The impact of the unified galleys ramming into a larger one was enough to frighten the victim, as such an impact would disable the vessel. If the ship being attacked refused to acknowledge the danger the other Illyrian vessels would attack from all directions, board the galley and engage in fierce hand to hand combat until most of the crew was either killed or enslaved. If the merchant galley was damaged due to the tactic of ramming it was abandoned, otherwise it would be taken as booty and added to the Illyrian fleet. The historian Polybius wrote of the effects of Illyrian piracy in his records, which covered the tumultuous era from 240 BC to about 146 BC: “So powerful did the Illyrians become that by 230 BC no honest traders wished to participate in maritime commerce.”

 

Needless to say, this became an annoying problem to Greek and Roman business as supplies and profits from the east- from Phoenicia, Egypt and Persia were threatened. No vessel sailing the Mediterranean from any nation at the time was immune from Illyrian attacks and plundering. To counter the threat the new rising power in the West called Rome chose to lead and take advantage of the opportunity so as to be seen the vanguard and savior who would vanquish the pirates and bring stability and safety to Mediterranean shipping. Of course, Rome was on the rise and this endeavor was for imperialistic purposes in as much as it was for the display of moral principle. 

 

Agron, chief of the Ardaiean clan, ruled from 250 to 231BC. He endeavored to unite the tribes and extend the reaches of the kingdom of Illyria. He vanquished all those Illyrian clans who stood in his way but succeeded in uniting many more by defeating the Greek Aoelians and others who sought the throne of the kingdom of Epirus, a border kingdom famed for it's brilliant former king Pyrrhus who attempted to conquer Rome itself but failed to bring that rising nation to it's knees. This was a time when the Mediterranean nations were locked in a struggle for power among themselves and none could have known the outcome. Greece was wracked by political chaos and war, the neighboring Illyrians, Macedonians and Thracians siding with each other or against each other, randomly giving their support to one city state or another hoping to be on the winning side so as to be the victor. Epirus was was conquered by Agron and added to his Adriatic empire. He then focused on increasing the plunder of both merchant and naval military ships of any nation, allowing his loyal captains to engage in piracy. They could keep much of the captured booty as long as a portion was sent to Agron in his capital city of Skodra. Many coastal port cities of the western Balkans submitted to his rule as the threat of state sanctioned piracy imposed on shipping was now at an all time high under the rule of Agron the king. Coastal towns in the Italian peninsula were forced to pay tribute. Illyria as a kingdom seemed to on the verge of becoming that power that everyone in the time period was expecting. Pyrrhus of Epirus already failed, and Hannibal and Carthage would take on Rome in a last bit to stop the rise of the empire founded by two brothers nursed by a she wolf. The Roman army was a war machine that was well funded and supplied and so far, unstoppable. The Illyrians, rather than fight the Romans in pitched land battles, cleverly sought to defeat and weaken Rome by attacking their very source of trade and business, and forcing them to acknowledge those who would leave them alone if a regular payment of tribute was secured. Proud Rome of course, would have none of this and soon they knew that if they were going to expand their empire they would have to deal with this piracy problem once and for all, and eliminate the threat and ever present danger. 

 

Agron was given to bouts of drinking and in 231BC after his victory over the Aoelians he developed pleurisy, which eventually lead to his death. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery as some maintain that he was poisoned. His young son Pinnes succeeded him but it was his beautiful wife Teuta who would rule in his stead. Illyria was at the height of her power and well entrenched in the ongoing power struggle for supremacy in the Mediterranean and the kingdom needed a strong ruler who would not be shaken by the boasts of neighboring kings and monarchs with their threats of invasion and enslavement. It seemed that the future of the Mediterranean was about to be revealed and something prophetic was about to happen. Teuta, her fate thrust before her, would be one of those who dared to stand against the power of a rising Rome, and prove herself to be one of the fiercest and bravest of ancient warrior queens. 

 

Teuta commanded that all ships which were confiscated by her pirates and forces be turned over to her command alone. In this way she created a huge navy with galleys numbering in the hundreds. She demanded that her subject cities in Illyria and Greece send her troops and supplies, with the promise of a share in the spoils of war and raiding. There were many who feared her as they feared Rome but nonetheless did give support at least half heartedly. Roman rule or Teuta? This was a major question at the time as Illyrian piracy was both feared and respected, while Rome was seen as a somewhat stable albeit an aggressive force in this chaotic era. 

 

In battle Teuta gained a reputation as a brilliant and daring naval commander and a ferocious warrior, having been taught from a young age how to use a sword quite proficiently. In hand to hand combat upon the decks of galleys Teuta slew dozens of opponents and boasted that any who dared to cross their sword with hers would be guaranteed of a quick and immediate death. She was renown for her martial prowess, agility and rapidity of movement as friend and foe alike compared her to the war goddesses Athena, Minerva or Diana, or called her the daughter of Ares. Brave warriors were rewarded in this martial society, and to be praised by Teuta was considered the highest honor. A warning to those who might contemplate cowardice was a known punishment whereby the accused were dressed as old women or sheep and paraded before their mocking comrades, in the style of the Spartans who did not tolerate any reluctance to engage in battle. Unlike their Greek sisters to the south, Illyrian women could engage in the martial arts and even swear an oath to follow such a life sometimes in lieu of marriage, as in the tradition of the burnesha where a woman took a vow of celibacy so as to lead her clan. Her people claimed Teuta was directly descended from Perit, the Illyrian goddess who hammered the mountains and carved the river valleys, who then after formulating and shaping the world we live in and see around us, separated her male half from her female half, Shiva like, thus creating man solely to keep her company. Teuta herself claimed descent and lineage from Dardanus and Achilles. On the day she was born it is said that the powerful rays of the Sun god Dielli burst open a huge dark water cloud that lingered over the then parched and dry citadel of her native Skodra, causing a flood of great proportions which eventually became the massive lake of the same city's name. This act of nature drowned the race of giants and their allies the jindi spirits who ruled the earth in those days. From atop the holy mountains of Tomor and Korabi her name could be heard chanted by Zana and Ora, the beneficial fairies of the forests, as her name echoed in the folk songs of her people as the bards known as rapsodi composed hymns in her honor. 


Teuta was aggressive, hot headed and impetuous, and was not one to parley or compromise. She made a demand or gave a command and expected her word to be heeded. However, to ambassadors and those visiting her she showed the utmost respect and reverence as Illyrian rules of hospitality were considered to be an extension of the conscience of the besa. In 229 BC Rome, weary of the toll of Illyrian piracy upon commerce and eager to expand their empire into the east, sent two ambassadors to demand that Teuta put an end to the piracy and recognize Rome. She replied to their demand that "it is against the custom of Illyrian royalty to interfere with the practice and doings of our subjects". Surprised and angered by her dismissive comment, one of the ambassadors used vile language and cursed her, telling all in the court that she Teuta was "no more fit to rule a nation than the ox who bedded her mother." She ordered the ambassador's heads to be cut off and sent back to Rome in a basket with the message that "only excellent fruit is to be had in Illyria, please accept our rejects. Visit us after you learn respect and humility. Until then, Roman pigs are not welcome here." With that, Rome now had an excuse for the long awaited invasion of the Balkans and wasted no time in mobilizing their legions. They landed in Apollonia and were met with stout resistance in a land battle but were victorious nonetheless. The Illyrians, though individually hardy mountain fighters were a marine power at the time and all their organization and tactical endeavor was concentrated in their navy and maritime expeditions, and not so much in their land forces. In the area of naval attacks and ship boarding they were experts and used surprise attacks and swift motion. Yet, they lacked the cohesion of disciplined and well organized armies. So individualistic was Illyrian personality that often no two commanders could agree on what action to take when confronting an enemy. The Romans on the other hand were masters of the land battle, and the disciplined Roman war machine smashed through the brave but chaotic ranks of the Illyrians and their Macedonian allies. The phalanxes of the Macedonians, those large squares consisting of hundreds of men marching with their 16 foot long sarissa pikes bristling in front and on the sides were not flexible enough to maneuver as the Roman cohorts were. While a danger to anyone in front of the phalanx, these huge human squares were virtually incapable of turning around in time to confront the sudden charge of the more flexible Roman legions that might attack their flank or come from behind. It was while taking part in these battles that Teuta saw the terrible effects of the new personal Roman weapon of choice, the Iberian/Spanish sword known as the gladius and it's deadly precision. The Greek/Illyrian kopis sword was an excellent and deadly slashing weapon but the gladius could be used for both the slash and stab, inflicting horrific wounds on adversaries who were mostly lightly armed, thus less protected and more vulnerable than the Roman legionnaires who were all provided with armor. 


In a great naval battle Teuta risked all and led her navy into the fray herself, shouting orders from her command post on the deck of her galley. Drummers would beat their drums and set the pace as the rowers, all slaves, would work the oars and set the speed at which the vessel would move. The job of the rowing slave was indeed dangerous, as an enemy ship might decide to ram their vessel. The impact of a galley at full speed; the bows of ancient galleys were fortified with a metal prow that was designed for such a purpose, would certainly crush all those poor souls who happened to be chained to their posts on the rowing benches. The Illyrian ships were sometimes tied and lashed together in groups of three, four or five. They rammed the Roman ships and sunk a number of them. In many instances of naval warfare in the past there was always the danger that the rowing slaves might mutiny and attempt to escape their posts, and even join the enemy. The slaves who rowed and powered those galleys however were reluctant to join and support the Illyrians as they knew that they would simply become slaves of the victors if their ship was captured. If there was any promise of freedom on the part of the Illyrians perhaps the slave rowers would have willingly joined them and turned on their Roman masters. But Illyrian warfare was intent on plunder, not promises of freedom and most of the slave rowers simply remained where they were and didn't get in the way of the Romans fighting on the deck. In fact most willingly rowed extra hard to help the Romans win the battle, for to be a slave of an Illyrian or a Roman master made little difference. The promise of freedom perhaps could have decided the outcome of the battle but the haughty Illyrians, intent on plunder as a way of life, hadn't taken the time to apply psychological warfare regarding their subjects as the Romans did, who were known to sometimes free a slave who saved the life of a consul or displayed great courage. As the navies strove to come closer to each other the Romans shot great balls of flame from catapults on the decks of their galleys causing the sails on the ships of the Illyrian ships to catch fire. Stones shot from ballistas smashed the decks, severed the masts and cutting down all who stood in their path as long shafts shot from these war machines pierced and impaled the tightly packed opposing warriors on deck. Seeing her once orderly and strategically placed fleet now become a jumble of wooden vessels scurrying to escape the Roman artillery barrage, Teuta knew she had to make a quick decision if she was to save her fleet from annihilation. Standing on the prow of her flagship waving her sword, her fellow soldiers could see her figure urging her ships onward, ordering her soldiers to board the enemy vessels and engage the Romans in hand to hand combat. She ordered her own galley to steer for the Roman flagship which, if their admiral was captured, the rest of the Roman fleet might flee. She leapt onto the deck of the Roman flagship at the head of her warriors, her golden armor shining in the sun, slashing with her fearsome sword and moving forward seeking out the Roman admiral himself as the deck of the Roman flagship became as a battlefield upon the sea. At one point she spotted the admiral and in her ambitious endeavor to reach him slipped and fell, as the deck was covered in blood. A Roman soldier was about to bring his sword down upon her head when a cousin of hers named Ujkus (Little Wolf) saved her life by throwing a spear and hitting the the centurion in the neck. "Ujkus" she cried..."there is none braver than you, nor one more loved by me!" In the heat of the battle she embraced her cousin and kissed him for saving her life. Teuta and her comrades fought on but soon more Roman ships came to the aid of the besieged flagship. After a hard fight the Illyrian fleet was forced to withdraw into one of the rocky harbors closely followed by the Romans who, having achieved a costly victory at sea now secured and consolidated their forces on land. The fall of Illyria would now be only a matter of time. 

 

While the Illyrian and Macedonian forces began to disband due to chaotic planning and as argumentative, disgruntled commanders were plagued by a severe lack of cohesion and mass desertions, Teuta attempted to flee from the port of Lissus but the the port was blocked by the Roman fleet. She returned to her fortress city of Skodra where she awaited their arrival. Unable to withstand, her generals arguing and her forces scattered Teuta sent word that she might be willing talk terms of peace. The clever Romans decided to keep Teuta alive if she would acknowledge their rule and send them tribute. This was meant to subdue the tribes and clans into finally accepting Roman domination. However, Teuta knew well that when she was no longer needed nor served Roman purposes she would be instantly killed. 

 

While the historical records are unclear, perhaps erased by the Roman historians themselves, in the folklore of her people Teuta's fate is remembered and kept alive in a number of varied stories about her. It is said she one day gathered her loyal supporters and asked them what was more important to them, living out their miserable existence as subjects or achieving fame and immortality by standing against tyranny. They agreed, echoing lines from Homer, that to stand against tyranny is a guarantee of immortality itself as life is short and death never far away. Only one of the companions, the same Ujkus who saved her life and whom she praised, her own beloved kin, surprisingly refused to partake in the oath of allegiance that all agreed to give as their besa to fight and if need be die together. Teuta and her companions once more armed themselves and planned to escape by boat so as to gather foreign support then come back to liberate Shkoder from Roman rule, all of the companions committing to the besa to fight and die in the process if need be. Yet all the while Teuta was pondering as to whether Ujkus was a traitor. She approached him and spoke, directly; "you act strange dear cousin, and I do not understand the sudden lack of fire in your soul. If you will not come with me, dear cousin, then convince me that you will stay here and defend our city, as I have loved you and sung your praise time and again. Give me your besa, your solemn word that you are still my ally and confidant, as we were children once you and I, playing together in the shade of the olive trees, under which you taught me to be proficient with sword and spear. Do you remember? I fear that I am in doubt as to your loyalty, but today I grant you life because you once saved mine. I trust you will stand firm. Farewell." 


On their way to the port Teuta and her small entourage were intercepted by a Roman cohort on the road. The road to the port was now blocked by this Roman force. Shockingly, Teuta's worst fears came true in front of her eyes. Sitting on a horse next to the grinning Roman consul was Teuta's own cousin, the beloved Ujkus, who offered her that if she lay down her arms she would be spared as promised by the Roman general, though all her companions must be killed as an example must be made of those who defy the power of Rome. Teuta stared directly at Ujkus, shocked and angered by his infidelity for he had broken the law of the besa. She continued to stare, not blinking an eye or showing the least bit of emotion or concern as the Roman general urged her to lay down her arms and surrender. Ujkus at first pleaded, then demanded an answer from her, again and again. Upset by her defiance yet desperate to save her, he begged her with tears in his eyes to surrender. Teuta responded to Ujkus "I do not wish to know what was offered for you to break your pledge to me and to your people". In her rage for which she was known she let out a wild scream then drew her weapon, urging on her horse and speedily rode up next to Ujkus and cut off his head with one swoop of her sword. She then stabbed the Roman commander and slashed at his bodyguard, killing the two of them instantly. Trapped and surrounded by hundreds of legionnaires, with her small handful of companions she sought refuge on a high barren, rocky limestone height. There the Romans attacked the group, climbing up the steep rocks as Teuta and her comrades threw down bolders and spears, or shot arrows at them. Eventually the Romans succeeded in reaching the top of the rock where a bloody hand to hand battle ensued that eventually saw all her warriors killed to the last. Teuta fought like the Illyrian lioness she was emitting roars, screams and hisses as she killed one legionnaire after another. With her sword still in her hand, her armor besmeared with blood and her comrades now all dead she climbed to the very tip of the rocky cliff. Rather than be taken as a captive and have her body abused through rape and torture as was the custom of the time or perhaps suffer the terrible death of crucifixion, she leaped from the cliff onto the rocks in the chasm below, screaming with her last breath as she jumped down into the gorge below- "I defy thee...freedom!" Her body made a thud as it slammed into the rocky canyon bottom. The queen remained defiant and triumphant, even in death. 

 

Illyria was reduced to a conquered province of the Roman empire. The neighboring nations who all feared Illyrian piracy nonetheless knew that Teuta was a last defense against the expanding imperialism of mighty Rome. The sons of Romulus and Remus defeated the mighty queen of the Adriatic, the daughter of the mythical heroes of the past. The era and glory of ancient Greece finally came to an end as Roman armies added province after province to their empire, marching on to colonize Dacia and leave their language and their genes in a region which would become known as Romania. Then they would march on to confront Persia in a series of wars that would in a few centuries set the stage for a new epoch in Mediterranean history, the age of late antiquity marked by the rise of Christianity and eventually Islam. A few centuries after Teuta in 6 AD, an Illyrian warrior named Bato would raise the standard of revolt and once again challenge the power of Rome. His soldiers would cry out Teuta's name as they went into battle. Though the rebellion was crushed, Rome was reminded of the audacity of the Illyrians and knew that the memory of their warrior queens was still alive and well. 

In the Syrian state of Palmyra Rome would be confronted by another warrior queen named Zenobia, and in Britain they would face Boudicca. The armies of these warrior queens would defeat the mighty Roman legions again and again. But Roman discipline carried the day and they would subdue their subjects with a combination of strategy and cruelty. Indeed Rome had built a reputation of near invincibility after defeating virtually all her enemies, including Pyrrhus of Epirus and Hannibal of Carthage. Interestingly, within those Roman armies marching east, south, north and west conquering or quelling rebellions were many Illyrian soldiers recruited in the Balkans and known for their determination and steadfast, bulldog defense. along with Iberians or Spaniards who also held a reputation for ferocity. The Illyrian sense of loyalty, stemming from the code of besa would guarantee that a number of the Praetorian bodyguards of the Caesars would be from Illyria. They would eventually provide the empire with four emperors including Diocletian and a good number of generals. Centuries later when Christianity would become the state religion of the empire the first Pope named Elefterios and one scribe named Jerome, who would translate the Bible from the original Greek into Latin, both of Illyrian origin, would set the religious and intellectual tone of the later Roman state. Illyrian will and determination as exemplified by Teuta was well understood by the Romans as she clearly left her mark upon their consciences.

 

 

The story of Teuta is an example of how the victors wrote the story which would become history according to their accounts. There is little documented historical evidence of Teuta's career in the Roman accounts yet among her people her name is still known and in fact is a popular name for girls in modern Albania, Croatia and Montenegro. In the illiterate world of the past the vanquished were represented in a negative fashion by the victors, who sought to persuade the masses to forget that person who may have actually proved to the victor to be more than a mere annoyance. As one can plainly see in modern politics, it remains customary for the victor to eradicate what he or she can of their opponent's deeds and legacy. We haven't changed all that much. The folklore of these peoples of the western Balkans is replete with tales of Teuta's bravery and her mighty reign, her exploits and her personality. These are tales, true, but we must take into account the tales that have survived or were created over the centuries about this remarkable woman who chose to manifest her will and defy the inevitable fate which succeeded in bringing about her end. Like the ancient Amazon warrior of Illiad fame Penthesilea, or the Syrian Palmyran queen Zenobia, Boadicca queen of the Britains or the fabled warrior of India Rani of Jhansi, Teuta has earned a place in the roster of brave women who have confronted their fate with dignity and honor and remain an example of those human values which can be applied to our own modern though somewhat comfortable and less colorful lives. Such people continue to inspire and encourage us, as the constructed stories propagated by their enemies sink into an abyss and the heroine once again rises to manifest glory through the efforts of those who loved and continue to love her. The folk tales and songs that tell of Teuta's bravery are the alternative history to what has been officially recorded by the victors who were the masters of war. For the centuries of listeners however, her ballad was and remains the only history that is true. 

Model, Lizza Hasan

 

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