Piracy in the Ancient Mediterranean

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Late Roman ship wreck
Late Roman ship wreck

Cilicia in Anatolia has an ancient history involving pirates and plunder; though likely no pirates like Johnny Depp. Mores the pity. So let us continue research into the area by having a look at piracy in the Ancient Mediterranean.

The ancient origins of piracy are still seen clearly in the modern world. The term ‘pirate’ has its roots in the Greek word πειράομαι meaning ‘I attempt’ which developed into πειρατής meaning ‘Brigand’ (LSJ: brigandPlb.4.3.8LXX Jb. 16.10(9); esp. piratePlb.4.6.1, Supp.Epigr.3.378B11 (Delph., ii/i B.C.), Str. 14.3.2, Plu.Luc.2,13). πειρατής developed into the Latin term ‘pirata’ and then into the English term ‘pirate’. But while the modern view of pirates is quite romanticised the reality was quite different in the beginning.

Piracy in the ancient Mediterranean stemmed from a necessity based on conditions of the coastlines of Anatolia. The shorelines were unsuitable for agriculture and large populations and the people who did live there were of humble means. These peoples turned to fishing as a primary industry and when this wasn’t enough to support them, the men turned to piracy. As such, piracy was often ambiguously differentiated from trade industries; it was the industry of the ancient Mediterranean. The earliest documents detailing the turn to piracy are in reference to the notorious Sea Peoples who threatened the Aegean and the Mediterranean in around the fourteenth century BC.

Queen Teuta – Queen of the Illyrian Pirates

The most famous of these pirates were the Illyrians and the Tyrrhenians who were often generalised as races of pirates. These were accompanied by the Greek and Roman pirates who appear around Cilicia. The Illyrians raided the Adriatic Sea frequently and caused multiple conflicts in the time of the Roman Republic. The Phoenicians were also known to commit acts of piracy in connection to the Slave trade. With time, the pirates of the Mediterranean became more organised and formed companies derived from their ancient seafaring traditions. The Egyptians often had clashes with these Sea Peoples who they referred to as the ‘Nine Bows’. Some of these pirates were Egyptian subordinates such as escaped Hebrews who were known as the Habiru. The Egyptians also dealt with the Tjeker people from Crete and the earliest known pirate companies, the Lukka and the Sherden. The Lukka and Sherden are mentioned in the Amarna letters detailing the correspondence between the king of Babylon to Pharaoh Amenhotep.

The Hellenistic period saw a rise in piracy following the death of Alexander Great and the issues that followed concerning succession. This created what could be deemed as endemic in Cilicia and the rest of the Southern Anatolia of piracy. During this period there was a popular use of a boat called the Lembus among pirates which was a small and fast ship built to zip in and out of small inlets and attack bigger vessels before disappearing before they could be caught. In the third century BC there was a pirate attack on Olympos in Anatolia which caused much devastating.

The second century BC saw the Roman’s ending the threat of the Illyrians by finally conquering Illyria and making it a Roman province. But piracy continued along the Anatolian coastline into the first century BC. Plutarch tells the story in his Parallel Lives that in 75 BC Julius Caesar was kidnapped for thirty-eight days by Cilician pirates and held in the Dodecanese islet of Pharmacusa to the south west of Anatolia. The Cilician pirates originally are said to have demanded a ransom of twenty talents of gold but this was raised to fifty talents on the word of Caesar himself that he was worth at least Fifty. This ransom was payed and Caesar was released but then he turned on the pirates, pursued and crucified them.

The Roman period saw several changes in the history of Mediterranean piracy starting in 67 BC when Rome’s port of Ostia was attacked and set on fire by pirates and two of its most prominent senators were kidnapped. By the Roman period the general feeling towards pirates was of fear and distrust and this event was the final straw and Rome started to fight seriously against them. This led to piracy being completely outlawed so the pirates could no longer benefit from the slave trade and instead turned to heavy ransoming. An anti-piracy law was proposed by Aulus Gabinius and pirates were declared communes hostes gentium ‘enemies of all mankind’. And the Lex Gabinia granted Pompey the Great unprecedented authority which was a conflicting decision as it allowed Pompey full access to the Roman treasury.

Cilician Ancient Pirate Cove

Pompey the Great organised the raiding of the remaining pirate strongholds in the Mediterranean including in Cilicia, Crete, Illyria and Delos. The most interesting act that Pompey implemented was one of clemency. Though thousands of pirates died in the raids, those that surrendered were given pardon and reward. Reward involves the movement of the pirates from the sea to the land and the establishment of them in honest and innocent courses of life. This was the most successful method of fighting against piracy in the Roman period but piracy never completely died out. In fact, in the first century AD it morphed into an idea close to privateering in some areas.

There were a number of pirate threats in later centuries including the attacks of the Gothic-Herulic fleet which ravaged the coast of the Black sea and the Sea of Marmara around 258 AD. And there were attacks by the Goths around 264 AD also in Galatia and Cappadocia, Cyprus and Crete. The fall of the Roman Empire around the fifth century AD saw a renewal of pirate activity which continued through to the middle ages.

While piracy is generally viewed as malevolent, several ancient texts were in part sympathetic to it and describe it in a way that deemed it almost honourable. Homer for instance makes it a normal occurrence in his Iliad and Odyssey. And Plutarch tells us that piracy became not just an occupation of poor and desperate men but rather a glorious expedition for those of high status seeking further advancement and adventure. It seems in part that the ancients romanticised the concept of piracy as much as the modern mind does.

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Additional Reading

Gabbert, Janice J. “Piracy in the Early Hellenistic Period: A Career Open to Talents”, Greece & Rome 33.2) (October 1986)): 156-63.

DeSouza, Philip. Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Semple, Ellen Churchill. ‘”Pirate Coasts of the Mediterranean Sea”. Geographical Review 2.2 (August 1916): 134-51. 135.

Kitchen, Kenneth. “Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt.” Aris & Phillips, 1982: 40-41.

MØller, BjØrn. “Piracy, Maritime Terrorism and Naval Strategy.” Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, November 16, 2008. 10.

Woudhuizen, Frederik Christiaan. “The Ethnicity of Sea Peoples.” dissertation; Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, April 2006. 107.

Dell, Harry J. 1967. The Origin and Nature of Illyrian Piracy. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 16, (3) (Jul.): 344-58. 345.

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11 thoughts on “Piracy in the Ancient Mediterranean

    rsmease said:
    June 2, 2012 at 11:57 am

    Good luck in Cilicia!

    The Big Board said:
    June 12, 2012 at 11:33 pm

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    Samuel Runge said:
    July 4, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Cool post Jenni, another reason for Rome’s new found extreme aggression towards piracy could have been that a few years prior to the attack on Ostia they had been supported (and some still were) by and made common cause with the “rebel” general Sertorius in Spain, Spartacus in Italy (though in his case it was either just a trick to get his loot or they jumped ship;) before anything came of it) and (at greatest length and with greatest consistency) with Mithridates in the Eastern med. In a sense virtually the entire profession of piracy had already declared war on Rome and the number of pirates and the resources at their disposal had due to Rome’s temporary weakness and the support provided by the likes of Mithridates perhaps become greater than ever. Nothing that contradicts what you said in here but just some extra context I find interesting, though I should mention that prior to Pompey the famous Mark Antony’s father was sent out- though with lesser imperium than Pompey’s (mind saying your being sent out to fight piracy with less imperium than Pompey is like saying you have to write a tv script with less gratuitous sex than a HBO show…) to fight piracy and died in disgrace due to his failure (the disgrace part being due to his failure, don’t know about the death part).

    Regards,
    Samuel.

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    Amira said:
    January 11, 2014 at 11:07 am

    wow , i am Egyptian researcher, now i almost finish my Master thesis ( Egypt and piracy in Grace- Roman period ) ,and i can say with a satisfied mind that this article really very useful

      GraecoMuse responded:
      January 11, 2014 at 11:20 am

      Good to hear :) find my page on Facebook and join the conversations. I have degrees in ancient history.

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