Military Battles

The Illyrian Wars

By Johndisp

When the First Punic War ended (241 BC), Rome was left with a massive navy that had no enemy to fight. In 238 BC, Rome decided to put this navy to use and set out to conquer Corsica and Sardinia. The navy was used primarily to transport the troops to these islands, but it showed that Rome was concerned with the usage of sea trade.

In 230 BC, the Romans decided to deal with the Illyrians. The Illyrian King Agron started to gather together a strong land and naval force in 233 BC, and by 231 BC he had his forces prepared for combat. At first the Illyrians went after the Aetolians with their 100 pirate class ships. These ships were wider than typical warships of the period, and they did not have rams. The Greek historian Polybius tells us that after beating the Aetolians, King Agron became sick and died. He was succeeded by his wife Teuta, who gave her army free range to attack as they saw fit. With this "green light", Illyrian pirates began to attack Italian merchants more and more, seriously damaging the profits of Rome.

Two Roman envoys were sent to Queen Teuta. These men were Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius. Amidst a fine and glorious celebration, Queen Teuta assured the men that the forces of Illyria would make no attacks, but that she had no control over privateers. When one of the envoys angrily made accusations at the queen, she secretly ordered that he be slain. And so it came to pass that during the voyage home, Illyrian pirates stopped the Roman vessel and slew Gaius before leaving with their plunder.

Upon the consul's return to Rome, the senate appealed to the Comitia Centuriata for permission to undertake an armed action against Illyria. This group of people held control of any military actions taken outside of Italy. While merchants had been suffering lost profits for some time, the average citizen cared little for their troubles and would not grant their consent. But with the murder of their representative, the committee readily agreed to an armed response.

In 229 BC, a Roman force led by consul Gnaeus Fulvius set off to attack Illyria with 200 quinqueremes. The other Roman consul was Aulus Postumius and he left Italy with the soldiers. Fulvius had hoped to relieve the Roman forces at Corcyra that were besieged by the Illyrians, but he was too late. The Illyrians didn't hold Corcyra for long though, as it was surrendered to the Roman consul. Fulvius was therefore able to link up his naval forces with Postumius' land forces at Apollonia. The combined army moved north and relieved the besieged towns of Epidamnus and Issa. With the Roman army approaching, Queen Teuta fled to her winter quarters of Rhizon. When spring arrived, the queen sued for peace and received it. In return, she had to give up 120 miles of Illyrian coast from Lissos to Epirus. The Romans also placed Demetrius of Pharos, the Illyrian governor who had surrendered Corcyra to them, with his own kingdom to the north of Illyria.

Many years would pass during which time the Romans would fight off both a massive Gaul invasion and Hannibal during the Second Punic Wars. It was at this time that Demetrius felt that Rome was weak enough to strike against. He organized 90 Illyrian pirate ships and attacked the Roman settlement of Pylos. His attacks were unsuccessful and so he took 50 of the ships and attacked the Cyclades. The Romans were quick to react however, and sent Lucius Aemilius across the Adriatic in 219 BC. The Romans captured the Illyrian town of Dimale, and moved toward Pharos. Unfortunately for Demetrius, was encamped near Pharos. Aemilius sent 20 ships to block the harbor of Pharos, and landed the rest of his troops behind Demetrius.

While all of Demetrius' forces raced to the harbor to meet the Romans, the troops to his rear attacked. Demetrius' forces were defeated and he escaped aboard a pirate ship to the hospitality of Philip of Macedon. This defeat marked the end of the Second Illyrian War.