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: brigand, Plb.4.3.8, LXX Jb. 16.10(9); esp. pirate, Plb.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.
Origins of Piracy
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. 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.
Famous Ancient 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.
Piracy in Hellenistic Times
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.
Piracy in Roman Times
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.
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.
Late Antiquity Pirates
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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69 BCEThe pirate Athenodoros sets up his base in the Cylades.
67 BCEThe Gabinian Law is passed, giving Pompey great power to deal with pirates.
Pirates in the Ancient Mediterranean Books
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