Pirates in the Ancient World
The Origin of Piracy
Piracy has existed since very ancient times. Although we don’t know exactly when the first act of plundering at sea occurred, piracy is almost certainly one of the oldest professions. However, what is apparent is that piracy has always existed, ever since mankind took to the sea for fishing, shipping, and trade. As humans were actively engaged in sea-faring and navigation across the seas, piracy flourished as well. For that reason, in a sense, the maritime history corresponds with that of piracy. Supposing that the history of navigation that transports people and goods by ship goes back 4,000 to 5000 years, we can conjecture that piracy has such a long history as well.
We can also use historical records to figure out that piracy was widespread across the ancient world. In the ancient world, pirates were a thorn, threatening not only the safety of navigation but also the security of people and territory. Most historical records about ancient piracy available today are about the Mediterranean and the western world. This could lead to a misconception that piracy had been widespread only in the West. This by no means implies that ancient Asia and other regions were excepted from piracy – as we will see in a later chapter, piracy thrived in ancient Asia as well.
The history of pirates goes back to the era of mythology. Greek myths tell of an episode of the god Dionysus, who encountered pirates on his journey to conquer islands. He was held by Tyrrhenian pirates who mistook him for the son of a wealthy merchant. He turned the savage pirates into dolphins as a punishment. Given that the god Dionysus was worshipped as early as 1500–1100 B.C. by Mycenaean Greeks, the episode may be a clue as to the long history of piracy, showing its origins in the ancient world.
The center of piracy in the ancient western world was the eastern Mediterranean. To be more specific, the main hotspot of piracy spans from the Adriatic and Aegean seas to the coast of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The presence of piracy, paradoxically, indicates how wealthy and prosperous this region was in terms of shipping and trade – pirates are always lured by abundant prey.
The Ancient Mediterranean
Before exploring ancient pirates, it’s important to understand the overall political circumstances in the Mediterranean, as piracy was itself a critical aspect of those circumstances. The initial explorers of the Mediterranean were Phoenicians who had inhabited the coast of modern-day Lebanon. By the early 2000s B.C., they were engaged in shipping and trade in the southern and middle of the Mediterranean. They had built warships for the first time and held a number of colonies across the Mediterranean, which included Sardinia, Corsica and Carthage. Following the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks who had developed outstanding navigational skills took to the seas south of the Italian Peninsula and the Black Sea and finally drove the Phoenicians out of the region.
Prior to the Greeks, the people of Crete who had migrated from Asia Minor blossomed into a highly sophisticated sea-faring civilization, called the “Minoan Civilization.” It prospered from about 2600 to 1100 B.C. and has been described as the cradle of the European civilization. The term ‘Minoan’ was derived from King Minos of Crete. A myth tells that he was the first son of the god Zeus and Europa, princess of Phoenicia. Europe was named after the region where she had traveled. Minos was associated with the legendary labyrinth and the Minotaur, a creature with the head of a bull and the body of man. King Minos, who competed with his brothers for the throne, prayed to the sea god Poseidon to send him a snow-white bull as a sign of support. After he had ascended to the throne, however, he did not keep the promise that he would send the bull back. Infuriated by his behavior, Poseidon made Pasipha?, wife of Minos, fall in love and mate with the bull as a punishment. The offspring was the Minotaur. Astonished, King Minos ordered a labyrinth built to hold him.
Then the Athenians, under control of Crete, were forced to send seven boys and seven girls each year to serve the Minotaur. The prince of Athens, Theseus, volunteered to kill the Minotaur and save the Athenians who were held in the labyrinth. In Crete, Minos’ daughter Ariadne, who fell in love with Theseus at first sight, gave him a ball of thread, allowing him to retrace his path through the maze. With her help, he was successfully able to complete his mission and sailed back to his own country. However, he neglected his promise to his father King Aegeus that he would put up a white sail if he was successful. Looking at the black sail from a vantagepoint high on a hill, Aegeus fell into such deep despair that he threw himself into the Aegean Sea, which is named after him.
The main players of sea-faring in the ancient Mediterranean were a large number of city-states scattered along the coast. They built booming economies and enjoyed political development and stability. As the city-states took to the sea, however, they fought fiercely against each other in an effort to establish control over the eastern Mediterranean. Among those, Mycenae and Rhodes were able to take advantage of their strategic locations situated in between the Mediterranean and the Aegean, and thereby first established a hegemony over the eastern Mediterranean. Afterwards, these city-states and coastal states of Asia Minor, like Phoenicia, were engaged in fierce clashes to gain control over the eastern Mediterranean. As land states also sought to take to the Mediterranean, clashes between maritime and land powers were inevitable. The first hegemonic struggle was a war in 2000 B.C. between Egypt and Cretan Minos. In 1650 B.C., Crete Minos waged a war with Mycenae to pursue the expansion of its colonies. By 500 B.C., the struggle for the hegemony of the Mediterranean escalated into a number of wars between Greek city-states and states in Asia Minor. The Persian Wars between the Persian and Greek city-states, which started in 499 B.C. and lasted until 449 B.C., and the Peloponnesian War (431–404 B.C.) between Athens and Sparta, are examples. The Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage, which lasted from 264 to 146 B.C., were the most prominent instances of these types of struggles. Triumphing in three wars during the period, Rome conquered Carthage and was able to gain full control over the Mediterranean, rising as undisputed leader in the area. As a result, the Mediterranean turned into the Mare Internum (the Inner Sea) of Romans.
Ancient Mediterranean Pirates
The first appearance of pirates in the historical record dates back to before the Egyptian Pyramids were built. The Egyptian inscriptions tell that the Lukkans, a group of sea raiders based in the southeastern coast of Asia Minor, first appeared in the 14th century B.C. They invaded Cyprus. A century later, they disappeared from the historical record. Presumably, their sudden disappearance was linked to the emergence of the ‘Sea Peoples,’ who were believed to have assimilated them.
Greek historians claimed that the Sea Peoples were migrating tribes that originated from the Aegean and Adriatic seas or from the western Mediterranean. They sailed around the eastern Mediterranean and invaded Anatolia, Syria, Canaan, Phoenicia, Cyprus and Egypt. The Sea Peoples were blamed for the fall of the Bronze Age, bringing a dark age to ancient civilization. The Sea Peoples, widely known as the first organized pirate confederation, posed a grave threat to the Egyptian Empire. They invaded the empire in the late 13th century and early 12th century B.C. Egyptian inscriptions discovered in the tomb of Pharaoh Rameses II the Great tell that Egyptians won a decisive victory in a battle with the Sea Peoples off the Nile Delta around 1186 B.C., ultimately putting an end to them in the historical record. The Sea Peoples were not strictly pirates in a true sense, but were more like hostile migratory tribes with ships. Still, they are generally counted as pirates, given their aggression and looting.
Even after the disappearance of the Sea Peoples, piracy still flourished throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This happened because some ancient Greek city-states relied on piracy as a means of generating wealth. In response, others, such as the Athenians, formed anti-piracy fleets to keep the sea lanes safe for their own shipping. In the 10th century B.C., Crete was invaded by the Dorian Greeks, who raided the coast of the island in search of slaves. The raiders used the island as a piratical base where they were engaged in plundering throughout the Aegean Sea. The Cretan pirates continued this work until Athens rose to become the dominant naval power in the 5th century B.C. and were able to combat them. The Athenian navy destroyed pirates’ bases and cleared pirates from the Aegean Sea.
In the 4th century B.C., the Aetolian League was created. It was a confederation of tribal communities and cities centered in Aetolia in central Greece. During the Hellenic period, they emerged as a dominant power in central Greece and were expanded by the voluntary annexation of several Greek city-states. However, they were regarded by other Greeks as semi-barbaric and reckless because they used piracy to supplement their income due to the meager resources in the region. Aetolian pirates extorted protection money from coastal towns and cities on both the Greek and the Asian shores of the Aegean basin. Their piracy lasted until they were defeated by the Romans in 192 B.C. A majority of the Aetolian pirates moved to Cilicia (the southern coast of modern Turkey). Cilician pirates set up the largest pirate bases ever seen throughout the ancient world. Hiding in lairs in rugged coasts and small islands, Cilician pirates preyed on the ships that hugged the coast during their voyages. The Cilician pirates became the most notorious in the ancient world.
On the east side of the Greece, pirates from Illyria and Dalmatia (modern-day Croatia and Albania) flourished along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea. They looted settlements on the Greek and Italian coasts and took to the Mediterranean. The region continued to be plagued by these pirates even after Romans conquered it in 168 B.C.
The Roman Empire and Piracy
Origin of the Roman Empire
Before exploring piracy problems in the Roman Empire, we will briefly take a look at the early history of the empire itself, as well as its sea-going history. The origin of the Roman Empire began with the myth of the legendary twins ‘Romulus’ and ‘Remus.’ The twins, who had been abandoned in the Tiber River when they were babies, were cared for by a she-wolf. One day, a shepherd came across the twin boys who were suckled by the she-wolf, and the man took them home and raised them. As the twins grew up, they became the leaders of shepherds in the region. As their power expanded, they conquered a kingdom that had ruled the region. The twins decided to divide their territory and rule separately, but soon were in dispute. Romulus eventually killed Remus and founded the city of Rome in 753 B.C., making himself a king and naming it Rome in his own honor.Rome, which was only a small tribal state when it was founded, engaged in conquering tribal states around it and ultimately was able to create a unified state on the Italian Peninsula in 270 B.C.
Ancient states were eager to take to the sea to build trade networks. By the 8th century B.C., various trade networks centered in the Greek Peninsula, the Peloponnese Peninsula and along the coast of Asia Minor were built in the Aegean and the Mediterranean. They were engaged in fierce competition to take control of the seas, and this eventually led to wars.
Meanwhile, Rome gained a foothold to rise as a great empire across the Mediterranean by winning the Punic Wars against the Carthaginian Empire (located on the coast of modern day Tunis). The Carthaginian Empire, which had been a Phoenician colony, dominated the western Mediterranean during the first millennium B.C. As the emerging Roman Republic eagerly sought to take to the Mediterranean, the emerging and hegemonic powers inevitably went to war over control of the Mediterranean. They fought against each other in three wars, called the Punic Wars, over 120 years. During the first Punic War, which ran between 264 and 241 B.C., Romans invaded Sicily, which had been under control of Carthaginians, and annexed the island into its territory. During the second war (218–201 B.C.), Rome faced a true crisis, as the Carthaginian troops led by Hannibal marched into the Italian Peninsula from across the Alps and stayed there for 16 years. Eventually Romans maneuvered a landing on the coast of Carthage across the Mediterranean to cut off supplies and attack the mainland of Carthage. Hannibal withdrew his troops back to Carthage to defend his homeland. At the battle of Zama in 201 B.C., the Roman troops led by Scipio Africanus won a decisive victory. The Roman Republic was able to establish full control over the western Mediterranean, in addition to a massive amount of reparations from Carthage.
A half century later, as Carthage challenged Roman rule, a young Scipio organized the Roman troops and besieged Carthage. The Carthaginians surrendered after three years (149–146 B.C.) of resistance, and the Romans totally destroyed the city and slaughtered all living things there. Then they spread salt on the ground so as to prevent any living thing from growing there again. The Carthaginian Empire ultimately disappeared. On the day of the fall of Carthage, a young Scipio went up to a mountain and shed tears while looking down the 700-year-old city, now in flames. Historian Polybius, next to him, asked him why. With a deep sigh, he replied that he had a sense that Rome would someday share that fate. Scipio was applying the iron principle of history – any thriving state is doomed to decline.
The Early Roman Empire and the Piracy Problem
The conquest of the Carthaginian Empire allowed Rome, which had been a merely city-state, to expand to a gigantic empire that stretched across the Mediterranean, turning it into a ‘Roman Lake.’ Before the Punic Wars, Rome had remained a land power; with a limited number of warships and sailors, it was not a proper naval power at all. However, the Romans created fleets of warships with the Greeks’ assistance, and built up their naval power through the Punic Wars.
Meanwhile, the thriving Roman Republic had a major thorn in its side: pirates. During the Punic Wars in the western Mediterranean, and the decline of Mycenaean city-states after Alexander the Great’s death in the eastern Mediterranean, there was a power vacuum throughout the sea. Pirates, taking advantage of this circumstance, were rampant. Pirates throughout Roman provinces were so powerful that they could not be curbed by regional resistance. Since piratical damages across the Roman Republic were tremendous, the eradication of pirates became a national priority.
Following the establishment of full control over the Mediterranean, Romans looked for legal justification for how to use the sea and establish the oceanic order. In the 2nd century B.C., Roman jurist Marcianus claimed that the sea, as part of natural law, should be shared by everyone. By the 6th century, the Romans’ idea of the sea as common property was codified in Roman laws. Such views served as the foundation of marine policy in terms of the use of the sea. This open-mindedness toward the use of the sea was likely to be seen as natural, given the Romans’ openness towards the many different ethnicities, cultures, languages and religions that dotted its huge, cross-continental territory. Whatever position they took, however, there would be no difference at all in terms of the Romans’ control of the Mediterranean.
Pirates and Rivalry Between Pompey and Caesar
Interestingly, fateful events in the lives of Pompey Magnus (106–48 B.C.) and Julius Caesar (100–44 B.C.) were related to the Roman Republic’s piracy problem. The episode was derived from Pompey’s anti-pirate campaigns. Of the brilliant military successes that Pompey had achieved as a general, the eradication of pirates across the Mediterranean might be his foremost accomplishment.
First we need to get to know about his career, as well as his political rivalry with Caesar, to better understand his anti-pirate campaigns. Pompey, who formed a political alliance with Julius Caesar and Marcus Crassus, known as the First Triumvirate in the late Roman Republic, was one of the most powerful leaders. Pompey came from a noble and wealthy family, and he had engaged in many wars since he was very young. He achieved prominent success at the age of 18 during the Social War (91–88 B.C.) that the Roman Republic and several other cities in Italy had fought over Roman citizenship. His successes as a military commander helped him gain the nickname Magnus, (‘the Great’), leading him to attain consulship three times.
As a sign of political alliance with Caesar, Pompey married his daughter Julia. After she had died in childbirth, however, there was nothing to halt the two rivals’ contentious battle to become the first man in the Roman Republic. There is a maxim that even father and son may not share political power together. The two rivals, who had once been allies as well as family members, eventually engaged in fierce military campaigns against each other to see who would become the supreme leader of the Roman Republic. Apart from their political ambitions, both were supported by opposing groups of people in the Roman society. Pompey, hailing from a noble family, sided with other nobles and formed a political alliance with the conservative Senate. On the other hand, Caesar was supported by the common people.