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The Stupidest Mistake Ever Made by Pirates
By Guest Columnist David K. Bryant
You can imagine the conversation between the pirates.“Ah ha,” says one. “Look what we’ve got here. A Roman bigwig. We can hold him as a hostage.”
“Oh yes,” enthuses Pirate Number 2. “We’ll get a packet in ransom.”
Never has any pirate crew made a bigger mistake.
They didn’t know it, but their target was Gaius Julius Caesar, who would go on to conquer Gaul (modern France), bring Egypt under Roman control, take the Romans into England for the first time, and overcome his rivals to become dictator of Rome and all the states it controlled. Not only that, he invented the 365-day calendar.
One of the most accomplished men in history was not going to be intimidated by the ragtag bunch of miscreants who waylaid his ship on the Aegean Sea while he was on his way to learn rhetoric in Rhodes.
“So what do you want?” asked Caesar.
“I reckon we’ll get twenty talents of silver for you,” boasted the pirate chief.
Well, the only thing that overcame Gaius Julius at that point was laughter. He creased up, wiped the tears of hilarity from his eyes, and mocked: “Twenty talents. By Jupiter, you’re dumb. You just don’t realize who you’ve captured. Let me give you a tip – ask for fifty. You’ll easily make that.”
OK, I’ve paraphrased, but that’s pretty much the way it went.
The record of this historical treat from the year 75 BC is provided by the Greek author Plutarch in his Life of Julius Caesar. There is also reference to it by the Roman writer Tacitus.
Up until the misbegotten abduction of Caesar, the Romans had turned a blind eye to the pirates in return for a steady supply of slaves. The arrangement ensured that piracy became a burgeoning profession and the Mediterranean was infested with this early version of privateers.1
Plutarch tells us that the misguided kidnappers were from Cilicia, now part of southern Turkey and Cyprus. They were regarded as the most blood-thirsty villains in the world. So they must have been shocked at Caesar’s nonchalant reaction to them.2
He didn’t stop at acting as a financial advisor. While his followers were away raising the money, Caesar began bossing the pirates around. If they kept him awake with their chatter, he would send a “shut up” message. It got to the point where the man who would later prove his tactical abilities in many other ways became more like the pirate captain than their captive.
He joined in their games and exercises and even tried to improve their education by writing poems and speeches, which he read out to them. Now, anybody who has read Caesar’s turgid and self-serving memoirs will know what a torture that must have been for the wretched fortune-hunters. If they failed to admire his work, he told them straight that they were “illiterate savages.”
What a persona that man must have had. You can see why prominent Romans later feared he had ambitions of becoming their king, and he was bumped off as a result.
Anyway, back to the “blood-thirsty” pirates. “I’ll have you executed,” Caesar warned them.
“Is he simple, immature, or a joker?” they asked each other about their twenty-five-year-old guest.
The farce went on for thirty-eight days. Then, to what must have been the enormous relief of all concerned, the ransom arrived.
Caesar went off, put a fleet and an armed force together, then went back – to find his dim ex-captors languishing around in the same spot. This time they were taken prisoner and all their property, including the fifty talents, was confiscated as spoils of war.
Next, the intrepid Caesar went to Marcus Junius, the governor of Asia, and said: “This is your jurisdiction. Sit in judgment on these riff-raff.”3
Junius procrastinated. He had his eye on the treasure taken from the pirates.
So Caesar did a vigilante act. He unlocked the jail, marched out the pirates, and crucified the lot of them. But he showed some leniency – he had their throats cut first to spare them the prolonged pain of the cross. You can imagine him mocking: “I gave you fair warning.”
(Photographer: Veneratio, Source: Canstock.com)
Nine years later, the Mediterranean piracy problem was solved by Gnaeus Pompeius (later called Pompey the Great), who took out a massive fleet and defeated the pirates, taking many of them into custody. But he did not serve up the same retribution as Caesar; instead, he set up the Cilicians with plots of land and transformed them into farmers.
The ghosts of those scoundrels put on the cross by Caesar must have thought: “If only we’d waited…”
Caesar and Pompey were allies at that time and Caesar supported Pompey’s expedition against the pirates. Later, however, these two Roman titans became rivals as the Roman republic crumbled and the state moved inexorably towards being an autocracy.
After a battle won by Caesar, Pompey fled to Egypt and was betrayed by those who thought they would curry favor with Caesar. Pompey’s head was delivered to Caesar but, far from being pleased at the extermination of his competitor, Caesar was distressed that such a prominent Roman had met an ignominious end.
It left the field clear for Caesar to pursue his own ambition which, most likely, was to become a monarch.4 He probably displayed the same loftiness with his peers as he had done with the unfortunate pirates.
Those who wanted Rome to cling to its fading status as a republic had their say on the Ides of March when they murdered Caesar.
After more civil wars, Rome became an empire with Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, becoming the first emperor. The name Caesar was to live on, being inherited by the subsequent emperors. It survives to this day. Among the derivatives are czar and kaiser.
But the names of the pirates, who thought they were kidnapping some run-of-the-mill bigwig, have long been forgotten.
1. The Romans allowed the pirates to plunder merchant ships (in much the same way as 17th-century Britain allowed pirates to plunder other nations’ ships). In return, the pirates supplied Rome with slaves. For this reason, David chose to call the pirates “privateers.”
2. The Cilician pirates took Julius Caesar to Pharmakonisi in the Dodecanese Islands.
3. Plutarch referred to Marcus Junius as “the Governor of Asia.” In history classes, we were taught the region was called Asia Minor (Turkey today).
4. Caesar appointed himself “Dictator for Life,” a position which officially didn’t exist in the Roman constitution. The purpose of dictators (until the civil wars) had been to take office temporarily in an emergency. Therefore, by such a blatant breach of convention, Caesar was saying he wanted to be lifetime boss. The next step might well have been to seek kingship, a concept that was anathema to the Republicans – and the most likely reason they murdered him.
For additional information on Julius Caesar, David recommends the following:
Plutarch of Chaeronea. Life of Julius Caesar. G. Bell and Sons, 1914.
Tacitus Histories and Annals. Penguin, 1960.
David K. Bryant is the author of the Roman novel The Dust of Cannae to be published in 2015 by Christine F. Anderson LLC. His previously published book is Tread Carefully on the Sea, a prequel to Treasure Island. Visit David’s website.
© 2015 David K. Bryant
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