The Romans’ first crossing with an army to Illyria

It was at this period that the Romans first crossed with an army to Illyria and that part of Europe. This is a matter not to be lightly passed over, but deserving the serious attention of those who wish to gain a true view of the purpose of this work and of the formation and growth of the Roman dominion. The circumstances which decided them (233-232 B.C.) to cross were as follows : Agron, king of Illyria, was the son of Pleuratus, and was master of stronger land and sea forces than any king of Illyria before him. Demetrius, the father of Philip V., had induced him by a bribe to go to the assistance of the town of Medion which the Aetolians were besieging.


The Aetolians being unable to persuade the Medionians to join their league, determined to reduce them by force. Levying all their forces they encamped round the city and strictly besieged it, employing every forcible means and every device. The date of the annual elections was now at hand, and they had to choose another Strategus. As the besieged were in the utmost extremity and were expected to surrender every day, the actual Strategus addressed the Aetolians, maintaining that as it was he who had supported the dangers and hardships of the siege, it was only just, that, on the town falling, he should have the privilege of dealing with the booty and inscribing with his name the shields dedicated in memory of the victory. Some, more especially the candidates for the office, disputed this, and begged the people not to decide the matter in advance, but leave it, as things stood, to Fortune to determine to whom she should award this prize. The Aetolians hereupon passed a resolution, that if it was the new Strategus whoever he might be, to whom the city fell, he should share with the present one the disposition of the booty and the honour of inscribing the shields.

This decree had been passed, and next day the election was to be held, and the new Strategus was to enter at once into office, as is the practice of the Aetolians, when that night a hundred boats containing a force of five thousand Illyrians arrived at the nearest point on the coast to Medion. Anchoring there they landed, as soon as it was daylight, with promptitude and secrecy, and forming in the order customary in Illyria, advanced by companies on the Aetolian camp. The Aetolians, on becoming aware of it, were taken aback by the unexpected nature and boldness of the attack, but having for many years ranked very high in their own estimation and relying on their strength, they were more or less confident. Stationing the greater part of their hoplites and cavalry on the level ground just in front of their lines, they occupied with a portion of their cavalry and their light-armed infantry certain favourable positions on the heights in front of the camp. The Illyrians, charging the light infantry, drove them from their positions by their superior force and the weight of their formation, compelling the supporting body of cavalry to fall back on the heavyarmed troops. After this, having the advantage of attacking the latter, who were drawn up on the plain, from higher ground, they speedily put them to flight, the Medionians also joining in the attack from the city. They killed many Aetolians and took a still larger number of prisoners, capturing all their arms and baggage. The Illyrians, having thus executed the orders of their king, carried off to their boats the baggage and other booty and at once set sail for home.

The Medionians, thus unexpectedly saved, met in assembly and discussed, among other matters, that of the proper inscription for the shields. They decided, in parody of the Aetolian decree, to inscribe them as won from and not by the present Aetolian chief magistrate and the candidates for next year’s office. It seemed as if what had befallen this people was designed by Fortune to display her might to men in general. For in so brief a space of time she put it in their power to do to the enemy the very thing which they thought the enemy were just on the point of doing to themselves. The unlooked-for calamity of the Aetolians was a lesson to mankind never to discuss the future as if it were the present, or to have any confident hope about things that may still turn out quite otherwise. We are but men, and should in every matter assign its share to the unexpected, this being especially true of war.

King Agron, when the flotilla returned and his officers gave him an account of the battle, was so overjoyed at the thought of having beaten the Aetolians, then the proudest of peoples, that he took to carousals and other convivial excesses, from which he fell into a pleurisy that ended fatally in a few days. He was succeeded on the throne by his wife Teuta, who left the details of administration to friends on whom she relied. As, with a woman’s (231 B.C.) natural shortness of view, she could see nothing but the recent success and had no eyes for what was going on elsewhere, she in the first place gave letters of marque to privateers to pillage any ships they met, and next she collected a fleet and a force of troops as large as the former one and sent it out, ordering the commanders to treat all countries alike as belonging to their enemies.


The expedition began by making a descent on Elis and Messenia, lands which the Illyrians had always been in (230 B.C.) the habit of pillaging, because, owing to the extent of their sea-board and owing to the principal cities being in the interior, help against their raids was distant and slow in arriving; so that they could always overrun and plunder those countries unmolested. On this occasion, however, they put in at Phoenice in Epirus for the purpose of provisioning themselves. There they fell in with certain Gaulish soldiers, about eight hundred in number, at present in the employ of the Epirots.

They approached these Gauls with a proposal for the betrayal of the city, and on their agreeing, they landed and captured the town and its inhabitants by assault with the help from within of the Gauls. When the Epirots learnt of this they hastened to come to help with their whole force. On reaching Phoenice they encamped with the river that runs past the town on their front, removing the planking of the bridge so as to be in safety. On news reaching them that Scerdilaïdas with five thousand Illyrians was approaching by land through the pass near Antigonia, they detached a portion of their force to guard Antigonia, but they themselves henceforth remained at their ease, faring plenteously on the produce of the country, and quite neglecting night and day watches. The Illyrians, learning of the partition of the Epirot force and of their general remissness, made a night sortie, and replacing planks on the bridge, crossed the river in safety and occupied a strong position where they remained for the rest of the night.  When day broke, both armies drew up their forces in front of the town and engaged. The battle resulted in the defeat of the Epirots, many of whom were killed and still more taken prisoners, the rest escaping in the direction of Atintania.

The Epirots, having met with this misfortune and lost all hope in themselves, sent embassies to the Aetolians and to the Achaean league imploring their succour. Both leagues took pity on their situation and consented, and shortly afterwards this relieving force reached Helicranum. The Illyrians holding Phoenice at first united with Scerdilaïdas, and advancing to Helicranum encamped opposite the Achaeans the Aetolians who had come to the rescue, and were anxious to give battle. But the ground was very difficult and unfavourable to them, and just at this time a dispatch came from Teuta ordering them to return home by the quickest route, as some of the Illyrians had revolted to the Dardanians. They therefore, after plundering Epirus, made a truce with the Epirots. By the terms of this they gave up to them the city and its free population on payment of a ransom; the slaves and other goods and chattels they put on board their boats, and while the one force sailed off home, Scerdilaïdas marched back through the pass near Antigonia. They had caused the Greek inhabitants of the coast no little consternation and alarm; for, seeing the most strongly situated and most powerful town in Epirus thus suddenly taken and its population enslaved, they all began to be anxious not, as in former times, for their agricultural produce, but for the safety of themselves and their cities.

The Epirots, thus unexpectedly saved, were so far from attempting to retaliate on the wrongdoers or from thanking those who had come to their relief, that, on the contrary, they sent an embassy to Teuta, and together with the Acarnanians entered into an alliance with Illyria, engaging in future to co-operate with the Illyrians and work against the Achaeans and Aetolians. Their whole conduct showed them not only to have acted now towards their benefactors without judgement, but to have blundered from the outset in the management of their own affairs.


To return to the Illyrians. For a long time previously they had been in the habit of maltreating vessels sailing from Italy, and now while they were at Phoenice, a number of them detached themselves from the fleet and robbed or killed many Italian traders, capturing and carrying off no small number of prisoners. The Romans had hitherto turned a deaf ear to the complaints made against the Illyrians, but now when a number of persons approached the Senate on the (230 B.C.) subject, they appointed two envoys, Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius, to proceed to Illyria, and investigate the matter. Teuta, on the return of the flotilla from Epirus, was so struck with admiration by the quantity and beauty of the spoils they brought back (Phoenice being then far the wealthiest city there), that she was twice as eager as before to molest the Greeks. For the present, however, she had to defer her projects owing to the disturbance in her own dominions; she had speedily put down the Illyrian revolt, but was engaged in besieging Issa, which alone still refused to submit to her, when the Roman ambassadors arrived by sea. Audience having been granted them, they began to speak of the outrages committed against them. Teuta, during the whole interview, listened to them in a most arrogant and overbearing manner, and when they had finished speaking, she said she would see to it that Rome suffered no public wrong from, Illyria, but that, as tor private wrongs, it was contrary to the custom of the Illyrian kings to hinder their subjects from winning booty from the sea. The younger of the ambassadors was very indignant at these words of hers, and spoke out with a frankness most proper indeed, but highly inopportune:

O Teuta,” he said, ” the Romans have an admirable custom, which is to punish publicly the doers of private wrongs and publicly come to the help of the wronged. Be sure that we will try, God willing, by might and main and right soon, to force thee to mend the custom toward the Illyrians of their kings.”

Giving way to her temper like a woman and heedless of the consequences, she took this frankness ill, and was so enraged at the speech that, defying the law of nations, when the ambassadors were leaving in their ship, she sent emissaries to assassinate the one who had been so bold of speech. On the news reaching Rome, the woman’s outrage created great indignation and they at once set themselves to prepare for an expedition, enrolling legions and getting a fleet together.

Teuta, when the season came, fitted out a (229 B.C.) larger number of boats than before and dispatched them to the Greek coasts. Some of them sailed through the strait to Corcyra, while a part put in to the harbour of Epidamnus, professedly to water and provision, but really with the design of surprising and seizing the town. They were received by the Epidamnians without any suspicion or concern, and landing as if for the purpose of watering, lightly clad but with swords concealed in the water-jars, they cut down the guards of the gate and at once possessed themselves of the gate-tower. A force from the ships was quickly on the spot, as had been arranged, and thus reinforced, they easily occupied the greater part of the walls. The citizens were taken by surprise and quite unprepared, but they rushed to arms and fought with great gallantry, the result being that the Illyrians, after considerable resistance, were driven out of the town. Thus the Epidamnians on this occasion came very near losing their native town by their negligence, but through their courage escaped with a salutary lesson for the future.

The Illyrian commanders hastened to get under weigh and catching up the rest of their flotilla bore down on Corcyra. There they landed, to the consternation of the inhabitants, and laid siege to the city. Upon this the Corcyreans, in the utmost distress and despondency, sent, together with the peoples of Apollonia and Epidamnus, envoys to the Achaeans and Aetolians, imploring them to hasten to their relief and not allow them to be driven from their homes by the Illyrians. The two Leagues, after listening to the envoys, consented to their request, and both joined in manning the ten decked ships belonging to the Achaeans. In a few days they were ready for sea and sailed for Corcyra in the hope of raising the siege.

The Illyrians, now reinforced by seven decked ships sent by the Acarnanians in compliance with the terms of their treaty, put to sea and encountered the Achaean ships off the island called Paxi. The Acarnanians and those Achaean ships which were told off to engage them fought with no advantage on either side, remaining undamaged in their encounter except for the wounds inflicted on some of the crew. The Illyrians lashed their boats together in batches of four and thus engaged the enemy. They sacrificed their own boats, presenting them broadside to their adversaries in a position favouring their charge, but when the enemy’s ships had charged and struck them and getting fixed in them, found themselves in difficulties, as in each case the four boats lashed together were hanging on to their beaks, the marines leapt on to the decks of the Achaean ships and overmastered them by their numbers. In this way they captured four quadriremes and sunk with all hands a quinquereme, on board of which was Margus of Caryneia, a man who up to the end served the Achaeans most loyally. The ships that were engaged with the Acarnanians, seeing the success of the Illyrians, and trusting to their speed, made sail with a fair wind and escaped home in safety. The Illyrian forces, highly elated by their success, continued the siege with more security and confidence, and the Corcyreans, whose hopes were crushed by the repulse of their allies, after enduring the siege for a short time longer, came to terms with the Illyrians, receiving a garrison under the command of Demetrius of Pharos. After this the Illyrian commanders at once sailed off and coming to anchor at Epidamnus, again set themselves to besiege that city.


At about the same time one of the Consuls, (229 B.C.) Gnaeus Fulvius, sailed out from Rome with the two hundred ships, while the other, Aulus Postumius, left with the land forces. Gnaeus’ first intention had been to make for Corcyra, as he supposed he would find the siege still undecided. On discovering that he was too late, he none the less sailed for that island, wishing on the one hand to find out accurately what had happened about the city, and on the other hand to put to a test the sincerity of communications made to him by Demetrius. Accusations had been brought against the latter, and being in fear of Teuta he sent messages to the Romans undertaking to hand over to them the city and whatever else was under his charge. The Corcyreans were much relieved to see the Romans arrive, and they gave up the Illyrian garrison to them with the consent of Demetrius. They unanimously accepted the Romans’ invitation to place themselves under their protection, considering this the sole means of assuring for the future their safety from the violence of the Illyrians. The Romans, having admitted the Corcyreans to their friendship, set sail for Apollonia, Demetrius in future acting as their guide. Simultaneously Postumius was bringing across from Brundisium the land forces consisting of about twenty thousand foot and two thousand horse. On the two forces uniting at Apollonia and on the people of that city likewise agreeing to put themselves under Roman protection, they at once set off again, hearing that Epidamnus was being besieged. The Illyrians, on hearing of the approach of the Romans, hastily broke up the siege and fled. The Romans, taking Epidamnus also under their protection, advanced into the interior of Illyria, subduing the Ardiaeans on their way.

Many embassies met them, among them one from the Parthini offering unconditional surrender. They admitted this tribe to their friendship as well as the Atintanes, and advanced towards Issa which was also being besieged by the Illyrians. On their arrival they forced the enemy to raise the siege and took the Issaeans also under their protection. The fleet too took several Illyrian cities by assault as they sailed along the coast, losing, however, at Nutria not only many soldiers, but some of their military tribunes and their quaestor. They also captured twenty boats which were conveying the plunder from the country. Of the besiegers of Issa those now in Pharos were allowed, through Demetrius’ influence, to remain there unhurt, while the others dispersed and took refuge at Arbo.

Teuta, with only a few followers, escaped to Rhizon, a small place strongly fortified at a distance from the sea and situated on the river Rhizon. After accomplishing so much and placing the greater part of Illyria under the rule of Demetrius, thus making him an important potentate, the Consuls returned to Epidamnus with the fleet and army.

Gnaeus Fulvius now sailed for Rome with the greater part of both forces, and Postumius, with whom forty ships were left, enrolled a legion from the cities in the neighbourhood and wintered at Epidamnus to guard the Ardiaeans and the other tribes who had placed themselves under the protection of Rome. In the early spring Teuta sent an (228 B.C.) embassy to the Romans and made a treaty, by which she consented to pay any tribute they imposed, to relinquish all Illyria except a few places, and, what mostly concerned the Greeks, undertook not to sail beyond Lissus with more than two unarmed vessels. When this treaty had been concluded Postumius sent legates to the Aetolian and Achaean leagues.

On their arrival they first explained the causes of the war and their reason for crossing the Adriatic, and next gave an account of what they had accomplished, reading the treaty they had made with the Illyrians. After meeting with all due courtesy from both the leagues, they returned by sea to Corcyra, having by the communication of this treaty, delivered the Greeks from no inconsiderable dread; for the Illyrians were then not the enemies of this people or that, but the common enemies of all.

Such were the circumstances and causes of the Romans crossing for the first time with an army to Illyria and those parts of Europe, and of their first coming into relations through an embassy with Greece. But having thus begun, the Romans immediately afterwards sent other envoys to Athens and Corinth, on which occasion the Corinthians first admitted them to participation in the Isthmian games.

(Source: Polybius, The Histories, Vol.I, Loeb Classical Library)


Research–Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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