Ancient History & Civilisation

4. THE ILLYRIAN PIRATES

Before and after, but luckily not during, Rome’s struggle with the Gauls, her attention was diverted to Greece and a new world entered her purview. Although in the course of the third century she had become arbiter of the destinies of a multitude of Greek towns in Magna Graecia and Sicily; although many of her nobles and many even of the general rank and file that had served abroad had become interested in Greek culture, nevertheless she had no direct dealings with Greece proper and no Roman embassy set foot in Greece before 228 BC.9 But events occurred which forced Rome out of her indifference to the Hellenistic world. During the First Punic War an Illyrian chieftain named Agron had built up a very considerable kingdom, centred at Scodra (Scutari or Skhöder), and stretching from Dalmatia in the north down to the coast opposite the heel of Italy. In 231 by co-operating with Demetrius II of Macedonia he was enabled to interfere much further south, though the unwise celebration of a victory brought about his death. His widow, the queen-regent Teuta, aided by an unscrupulous chieftain, Scerdilaidas, carried on his imperialistic policy: in 230 they took Epirus and Acarnania and thus extended Illyria’s sphere of control to the Corinthian Gulf.

It was not, however, the territorial expansion of Illyria that drew Rome’s first glance across the Adriatic. The immemorial pursuit and chief industry of the Illyrians was piracy. Their rugged broken coast with its screen of islands formed a perfect base from which their light and speedy little galleys (lembi) could prey on passing merchantmen. Checked in earlier days by the fleets of various Greek cities, they now roved the seas unhindered until Rome at length assumed the role of policeman. As long as they victimized only Greek shipping in the Adriatic, Rome was unmoved. But when they ravaged the coast of southern Italy and ventured into the Ionian Sea to rob, capture and even kill Italian traders, popular indignation at last forced Rome’s hand. But the Senate preferred diplomacy to force. Two envoys were sent to Teuta, who was busy besieging Issa in an attempt to annex all the neighbouring Greek cities not yet under her control (aut. 230). The queen repudiated responsibility for any outrages committed by her subjects and refused to guarantee the future safety of Italian commerce; angered by a threat from the ambassadors she broke off negotiations. On their return home the envoys were attacked by pirates and one of them was killed. Whether or not Teuta was directly responsible for this outrage, she sealed her doom by refusing to offer any explanation. But Rome was still slow to act. It was not until the queen had besieged and captured Corcyra and had defeated a relieving Greek fleet that a Roman navy sailed into Illyrian waters.10

In the summer of 229 Cn. Fulvius Centumalus sailed to Corcyra with 200 vessels. Resistance in face of this fleet was useless and even Teuta was not rash enough to attempt it. A Greek of Pharos named Demetrius, whom the queen had left in command at Corcyra, promptly betrayed the town to the Romans who received the willing surrender of the townsfolk. Fulvius then sailed to Apollonia where the other consul, L. Postumius Albinus, landed from Brundisium with 22,000 troops. Apollonia like Corcyra at once surrendered, and Epidamnus (Dyrrhachium) followed suit. The army advanced northwards perhaps to the Drilo (Drin) without meeting any serious opposition; the fleet received the surrender of Issa, Pharos and Corcyra Nigra. Teuta fled to her fortress at Rhizon where she held out till the spring of 228; her capitulation was inevitable, so that only one consul and 40 ships remained in Illyria during the winter. The terms granted her were that she should retain her crown, but pay tribute to Rome and renounce all claim to districts taken by the Romans; further, only two Illyrian vessels might sail beyond Lissus (Alessio), perhaps fixed as the southern limit of her kingdom.

Rome had thus freed the passage between Italy and Greece from the danger of Illyrian pirates. Future protection was secured by guarding the two flanks of the Illyrian kingdom. In the north the traitor Demetrius was given his native island, Pharos, together with other islands and mainland towns; here he reigned by permission of Rome. In the south the Romans themselves established a protectorate: a coastal strip from Lissus to the frontier of Epirus, together with the islands they had taken. The inhabitants of this district were made neither allies nor subjects; they were free from tribute and retained their autonomy, but had to supply troops on demand.11 Thus almost without striking a blow Rome had confined Illyrian shipping to the Adriatic without destroying the kingdom, and had established a base on the Albanian coast from which she could keep an eye on her neighbour. The slowness with which she entered upon the war and the conditions she imposed after it are sufficient to disprove the theory that she deliberately cultivated an aggressive eastern policy. The Senate, although perhaps conscious that if the need arose the new protectorate would block Macedon, had only intervened when and in so far as it was necessary to maintain order.

After the war the Romans sent ambassadors to the Achaeans, Aetolians, Corinthians and Athenians to announce their victory and to explain their conduct; for the Greeks, no less than the Italians, had benefited by the suppression of piracy. Thus for the first time Rome came officially into contact with the leading powers of Greece by an exchange of diplomatic courtesies. The envoys were well received and Corinth admitted the Romans to the Isthmian Games, thus recognizing them as members of the Hellenic world. But no formal engagements were concluded, nor was any approach made to Macedon, which was now governed by Antigonus Doson, regent for the young Philip. Rome perhaps realized that the formation of her new protectorate had in fact annoyed the Macedonians, who in earlier days had controlled some of the Adriatic ports from which they were now excluded. Be that as it may, the Romans made no attempt to entangle themselves in Greek politics.12

During the next ten years Rome was too busy with the Gallic invasion and, as will be seen, with trying to check the growing power of Carthage in Spain, to think much of Greece where momentous events were taking place. Antigonus Doson had revived the power of Macedon and had asserted his hegemony in Greece; further, he had won the support of Demetrius of Pharos, who was quietly extending his power beyond the limits imposed by Rome. This adventurer, after the death or abdication of Teuta, had become regent for Agron’s son, and with Prince Scerdilaidas controlled the Illyrian kingdom. With a rash disregard for his safety Demetrius continued on his reckless course of aggression even when the young Philip, who had succeeded Antigonus on the throne of Macedon, was distracted with internal difficulties and could give little help to his Illyrian ally. Nothing daunted, Demetrius in 220 proceeded with Scerdilaidas to attack Pylos with a fleet of 90 vessels, thus perhaps violating the treaty of 228, and then sailed into the Aegean, where his pirate squadrons ranged far and wide. Further, he invaded some territory under the Roman protectorate. This could not be overlooked, and the situation was aggravated in Roman eyes by a visit which King Philip paid to Scerdilaidas in Illyria in the winter of 220–219. Relations with Carthage were becoming strained and it would never do to allow eastern affairs to become threatening. What if Carthage should make overtures to Demetrius or Philip? So once again Rome sent a force to check Demetrius and his Illyrian pirates.

A whirlwind campaign laid Demetrius low. The consuls of 219, L. Aemilius Paullus and M. Livius Salinator, sailed to Greece. Demetrius intended to resist in the south at Dimale and in the north at Pharos, where he himself remained. But Aemilius stormed Dimale in seven days, with the result that the surrounding district hastened to surrender. The consuls then sailed to Pharos which they captured by strategy; a ‘fixing’ frontal attack covered the approach of a body of men who had disembarked at the rear. Demetrius fled to Philip. The consuls, anxious at the news which came from Spain, where Hannibal was besieging Saguntum, hastily made a settlement. Pharos and other districts were put on the same basis as the towns which had been placed under Roman protection ten years before. Scerdilaidas and the young king Pinnes were left undisturbed in Illyria.

Philip, deeply occupied in a struggle with the Aetolians and Sparta, had not raised a hand to help Demetrius, but welcomed him after his flight and later lent a ready ear to that adventurer’s schemes for revenge on Rome. He also received help from Scerdilaidas who, disregarding his obligations to Rome, sailed south of Lissus to join him. Such happenings might have claimed Roman attention had it not been for Hannibal’s distracting activity; as it was, the Romans did nothing. Scerdilaidas, however, decided with cheerful inconsequence to attack Philip, his erstwhile ally (217). But he soon came to grief and thus gave Philip control of more territory bordering on the Roman protectorate, so that when the moment was ripe the Macedonian king was more ready to make common cause with Hannibal. Thus Rome’s two expeditions in eastern waters resulted in the suppression of piracy, the establishment of a protectorate in Lower Illyria and the stirring up of the enmity of Philip of Macedon.

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