As soon as sea faring vessels made their way through the waters of the Mediterranean on newly established routes for trade and travel, the wealth and prosperity of ancient civilizations such as the Greeks, Egyptians, and Phoenicians began to blossom. With valuable goods, especially precious metals, being traded back and forth between kingdoms on a regular basis, the high seas were fertile grounds for pirates looking for control of these powerful trade routes.
The First Pirates
One of the earliest indications of ancient piracy comes from an inscription on an Egyptian clay tablet from the 14th century BCE, detailing how pirates often attacked the waters off the coast of Egypt. Other evidence shows that pirates were not only renegades working solo or in gangs, but they were also wealthy individuals looking for a piece of the prosperous trade pie. In addition, pirates took the form of tyrannical rulers. Take the case of Polycrates. This tyrant seized the Greek island of Samos around 540 B.C. He was an oppressive and greedy despot, and was known to have used ships from Samos’ own fleet in order to plunder other ships in the surrounding waters.
Ancient pirates didn’t limit their dirty work to the Mediterranean waters, however. In addition to attacking and stealing from merchant ships, they were also known to attack cities with vulnerable ports as well. This sort of piracy and pillaging would continue well into Roman times, coming have a great affect on commerce in the Republic.
Rome & Piracy
One might think that piracy would not be tolerated by such a powerhouse as Rome, especially with its powerful naval fleet and large port at Ostia. However, piracy was often not only endured, but it was even quietly encouraged by some unsavory Senators who appreciated the steady supply of slaves that came from plundered ships and ports. In addition, the highly profitable grain industry was in a constant state of upheaval thanks to the pirates, thus raising prices in Rome, and padding the noble pockets.
As a result of Rome’s complacency where pirates were concerned, (that, and having overthrown the powerful kingdom of Carthage, annihilating their strong fleet of ships that fiercely protected the North African waters from pirates), piracy ran amok. Since Rome was less than willing to protect or support its provinces from pirates, the weaker cities around the Mediterranean were often forced to ally with pirate gangs, paying them tribute in exchange for keeping their cities and ports intact. This helped keep the pirates in business, allowing them to grow more powerful, sort of like a pirate mafia controlling their areas or “turf”.
Despite Rome’s seeming blind eye to piracy, there was a Roman law against the offense on the books. The Roman piracy law simply stated that Romans should be able to do business without fear of piracy, and that pirates could not use any port or province as a home base. This law was enacted and supported by the Romans, but not enforced very well apparently.
When Rome was embroiled in civil war during the 70’s BCE, their attention otherwise focused, pirates began to venture onto dry land, plundering and thieving anything in their paths, including political officials and even Julius Caesar himself in 75 BCE. The Roman pirate problem grew so bad that land and sea trade nearly came to a standstill at one point in time. Finally, the great Roman general and statesman Pompey was called upon to take care of the piracy problem in the Mediterranean once and for all.
Pompey assembled an impressive fleet of troops, cavalry, and ships, and was able to combine that with his formidable reputation to frighten all pirates into submission. It took three months to curb the pirate problem in the Mediterranean. But, as we know, the pirates never really went away!