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The History of Maritime Piracy

Cindy Vallar, Editor & Reviewer
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Ancient Piracy
By Cindy Vallar

Eqyptian WarriorsAlthough pockets of civilization inhabited the continents of Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas long before, great cities of the ancient world emerged about five millennia ago and merchants in one urban center established trading links in another. When the first pirate attack occurred remains a mystery, but surviving historical records pinpoint these sea raiders in the Mediterranean. Ancient Egyptian and Minoan writings include tales of their raids at sea and on land. The earliest recorded incident – inscribed on a clay tablet while Akhenaton, an Egyptian pharaoh, reigned – depicts pirates attacking a ship in 1350 BCE. Another early account provides details of Ramses III’s attack against the Sea Peoples, whom the Egyptians called the Nine Bows, in 1190 BCE. Their raids on the Nile Delta were so devastating the land no longer sustained life. The bloody battle between Ramses’ forces and the Nine Bows involved archers and hand-to-hand combat, but the latter were eventually defeated. An inscription at Medinet Habu, the pharaoh’s mortuary temple at Thebes, records this battle and shows the Nine Bows’ vessels with prows shaped like birds’ heads and sails rather than oars.

Scholars trace the origins of “pirate” to the Ancient Greeks, who first incorporated it into their language around 140 BCE. Peirato referred not to the sea robbers we associate with “piracy,” but to mercenaries who allied themselves with one political faction or city state against another faction or city state. These fighting men were led by an archipirata (sometimes translated as archpirate, but meant “pirate captain”). For example, Plutarch wrote around CE 100:

 The power of the pirates [peiratiki] had its seat in Cilicia . . . until they no longer attacked navigators only, but also laid waste islands and maritime cities. And presently men whose wealth gave them power, and whose lineage was illustrious, and those who laid claim to superior intelligence, began to embark on piratical [peiratike] craft and share their enterprises, feeling that the occupation brought them a certain reputation and distinction . . . Their flutes and stringed instruments and drinking bouts along every coast, their seizures of persons in high command, and their ransoming of captured cities, were a disgrace to the Roman supremacy.” (Rubin, 8-9)

Plutarch, however, lived during Rome’s supremacy, and, while his view conformed to that of an earlier age, the Romans saw these “pirates” as enemies because they endangered the Roman State and the senate declared “war against the Pirates.” Even so, the Latin meaning of “pirate” still differs from our concept of the word, for they deemed the pirates “enemies” rather than “outlaws.”

Roman Merchant Ship
Roman Merchant Ship, CE 250

Merchant ships of the ancient world never ventured far from land in going from one destination to another, so pirate enclaves grew up along rocky shores that provided shelter and kept them hidden from view until it was too late for their victims to escape. Although not specific to this period, these safe havens or bases of operation had several things in common:

1. Close proximity to trade routes maritime shipping used.

2. Native peoples who were either in decline or friendly to pirates.

3. Isolated locations that discouraged pursuers from following.

4. A pleasant climate.

5. A trading post and/or tavern where pirates obtained supplies and spent their ill-gotten gains.

In the Antalya Province of present-day Turkey was the ancient land of Lycia, and some Lycians were pirates. Their coastline contained many coves and inlets where they could lie in wait for merchant ships that passed on a regular basis. The Lycians swooped down on their prey, plundered the ship, and returned from whence they had come. In 1194 BCE, Ramses III of Egypt destroyed these havens, but eventually the pirates returned and played an instrumental role in helping Xerxes invade Greece in 480 BCE. Several times the Romans also tried to suppress these pirates before finally succeeding in 67 BCE. Once the Roman Empire fell, Lycia again became a haven for pirates, and this time they attacked passing ships into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries until British warships began to patrol the coast.

Another area rife with pirates was Cilicia, located on the southern shore of Asia Minor (Turkey) near the trade route that connected Syria to Italy and Greece. In addition, its proximity to Egyptian and Palestinian sea lanes and many rocky inlets, jutting headlands, and hidden anchorages proved ideal for the raiders. Cilicia became the most notorious pirate haven of ancient times and was home to one of the largest enclaves of pirates in history.

Other ancient bases included Corfu, Santa Maura, Cephalonia, Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna, the Balearic Islands, and Sicily. The last refuge for pirates of this time period was in the Adriatic. Dalmatia’s coast made it difficult for pursuers to hunt down pirates. When Rome annexed Dalmatia in CE 9, it ceased to be a haven for pirates.

Mediterranean pirates sailed in galleys of various sizes with sleek, narrow hulls. (Galleys would continue to be used in these waters through the 1700s.) Although such a vessel often had a single sail, her primary means of propulsion came from oars. This meant men were needed to row, thus raids on villages provided slaves to do this job. The more warlike galleys of the Ancient Greeks and Romans – triremes – had long battering rams attached to the bows and up to 170 slaves, seated on three tiers of benches, who propelled the galleys through the water. Painted eyes adorned the prows so those aboard could “see” their prey.

Egyptian GalleyGreek War Galley
Egyptian Galley 1600 BCE                                           Greek War Galley 500 BCE

During the winter, piratical activity subsided, but with spring the pirates set sail once again. One favorite tactic was to attack during festivals, times when people lowered their guards against attack. Another tactic was to pose as honest traders. At other times, pirates boldly sailed into port and attacked.

A navy has always been somewhat of a deterrent to pirates. The first ruler to keep such a force was King Minos of Crete. His ships patrolled the eastern Mediterranean, allowing trade to flow and restraining piracy. When Thera erupted around 1400 BCE, however, the resulting tsunami wiped out the Minoans and the pirates returned.

RhodesCirca 200 BCE Rhodes came to the fore in curbing piracy. Her traders armed their vessels and fought off attacks. Ships regularly protected maritime commerce around the Aegean Islands. The government also entered into treaties with other countries. One such treaty was made with Hieraphytna, Crete. The citizens of that town promised to help Rhodes suppress piracy. Any captured pirates and their vessels were turned over to Rhodes. The two groups evenly split the proceeds from captured booty, and if pirates attacked Hieraphytna, Rhodes came to its defense.

Ancient Greece
Greece wasn’t a unified country with a single government in ancient times. Rather it was a collection of city-states. Pirates collected tributes for these individual governments and, in times of war, utilized their skills and ships as navies to fight their battles. Sometimes these pirates wished to acquire greater wealth, so they attacked coastal villages on their own. The frequency of such raids eventually led the inhabitants to move their homes and businesses farther from the coast. When they rebuilt their cities in these new locations, they also fortified them.

Aristotle equated piracy to hunting or fishing. Thucydides, a Greek historian, said of it, “This employment did not yet involve any disgrace, but rather brought with it somewhat of glory.” (Lewis, 15)
When Alexander the Great asked a captured pirate “what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea,” the pirate answered: “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (Augustine, De Civitate Dei). By 331 BC piratical raids had become such a problem Alexander decided to do something to stop them. He ordered Admiral Amphoterus to deal with the problem, and he did. The pirates did not resurface until after Alexander’s death.

Albania, Serbia, and Montenegro were once the kingdom of Illyria, which was ruled by Queen Teuta, who ordered her navy to attack ships and coastal towns along the Adriatic and Ionian Seas. She considered anyone not Illyrian her enemy and sometimes led the attacks against them. One time she and her men, laden with large clay jugs, approached the gates of Epidamnos and begged entry into the city to fill the jugs with water. Since the gatekeepers saw no weapons, they heeded the request. Once inside, Teuta and her men broke the jars and grabbed the weapons concealed in them. The Illyrians slew the guards, but reinforcements soon arrived and drove them from the city.
So powerful did the Illyrians become that by 230 BC no honest traders wished to participate in maritime commerce. The Roman Empire, however, did little to stop the attacks, in part because their military might was concentrated on land targets, rather than the sea. After Illyrians attacked a convoy of Roman ships laden with grain in the Adriatic Sea, Rome reevaluated this tendency. Two Roman envoys – Gaius and Lucius Coruncanius – visited Queen Teuta and asked that her men cease their attacks. During the meeting, one brother lost his temper and threatened the queen. Unafraid of the Romans and insulted by the envoy’s tactlessness, she had him killed. The murder outraged Roman senators, who decided to teach Teuta a lesson. Consul Gnaeus Fulvius sailed for Illyria with two hundred ships, while Consul Aulus Postumius and 20,000 soldiers marched overland. Along their route, various city-states, that Teuta ruled, offered their loyalty to Rome in exchange for protection from the Illyrians. These combined forces overwhelmed the Illyrian forces, but she fled to Rhizon. When Teuta finally surrendered in 228 BC, she agreed to pay an annual tribute to Rome and relinquish most of her territories. Rome only permitted her the use of two unarmed galleys whenever she put to sea.

The next major infestation of and danger from pirates came from Cilicia, located between present-day Syria and Armenia. Since the pirates supplied much needed slaves, many Roman ports welcomed the Cilicians and their plunder. The demand for slaves became so great that small piratical bands began to work together to supply captives of all ages and sexes. Finally, the towns from which these citizens were taken offered to pay the pirates to protect against such raids. The Cilicians often accepted the money, but didn’t always cease their attacks.

Ancient RomansIn 78 BC a band of Cilician pirates attacked a merchant galley bound for Rhodes. One of the passengers was a young Roman named Julius Caesar, who sat and read while his fellow passengers cowered before the sea robbers. When the pirate captain named the amount of Caesar’s ransom – twenty talents (about £1,200) – Julius was offended. He deemed himself worth at least fifty talents (about £3,000). While the Cilicians waited for that amount of ransom to arrive, Caesar remained with them at Parmacusa. Payment arrived about five weeks later, and Caesar vowed to return and slay his captors. To that end he acquired the services of four galleys and 500 legionnaires to track down the Cilicians. About 350 pirates were captured, but the Roman Praetor Junius didn’t wish to upset his fragile relationship with them. Knowing Junius would release them once they paid a stiff fine, Caesar secretly seized thirty Cilicians, slit their throats, then crucified them. He also recovered the ransom money.

At the height of their power, these pirates almost crippled Ancient Rome’s maritime trade. Then in 69 BC, they attacked Delos, the legendary birthplace of Apollo and Artemis and an important commercial center in the Aegean, even though the port was also a principal market for slaves the pirates captured.

Roman Sword and HelmetAware that such power could well destroy the empire, Rome decided to destroy the Cilicians. The Senate granted Gnaeus Pompeius, or Pompey the Great, never before seen powers to accomplish this. For three years, he had total control over the Mediterranean from the sea to fifty miles inland. His twenty-five assistants held senatorial rank and, according to Plutarch, Pompeius amassed 6,000 gold talents, 500 warships with sailors to crew them, 120,000 soldiers, and 5,000 cavalry to accomplish the task.

After securing the routes that supplied food to Rome, he began his campaign against the Cilicians. He divided the Mediterranean and Black Seas into thirteen regions, each under the command of one of his officers. Their orders: destroy all pirate strongholds and force the Cilicians to surrender. Historical documents record that Pompeius captured at least 400 vessels while destroying more than 1,000 others. Ten thousand pirates died in battle, while twice that number surrendered.
Thrown to the lionsCaptured pirates were often beheaded, crucified, or thrown to the lions, but Pompeius chose neither to imprison nor execute the Cilicians. Instead he distributed them and their families throughout the empire to inland locations where they could farm or conduct an honest livelihood. Although the Senate gave him three years to accomplish all that he did, he achieved his goals in only forty-nine days.
Unless governments are willing to maintain navies, though, the pirates will return. Such was the case in Ancient Rome. After Julius Caesar’s death, civil wars led to an upsurge in piracy. Sextus Pompeius (Gnaeus Pompeius’ son) decided to take on Caesar’s heir, Octavian, because he was the better man to rule Rome. Sextus built a fleet of ships and with the help of pirates and escaped slaves, he attacked. Not as adept at tactics and strategy as his father, Sextus was defeated in 36 BC. Thereafter, the Mediterranean enjoyed three centuries of freedom from piratical attacks.

For additional information on Ancient Piracy, I recommend the following:

Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Oared Vessels since Pre-Classical Times. Chartwell, 2000.
Ancient Greek Trireme
Atauz, Ayşe Devrim. Eight Thousand Years of Maltese Maritime History: Trade, Piracy, and Naval Warfare in the Central
     Mediterranean. University Press of Florida, 2008.
Bunson, Margaret R. Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt. Fact on File, 2002.
Bustamante, Sebastián Ignacio Donoso. “How the Greatest of All Romans was Captured by Pirates,” No Quarter Given XIII:5
     (September/October 2006), 4-5.
Casson, Lionel. “Ancient Naval Warfare,” Quarterly Journal of Military History 4:1 (Autumn 1991), 74-81.
Culver, Henry B. The Book of Old Ships: From Egyptian Galleys to Clipper Ships. Dover, 1992.
De Souza, Philip. Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge, 1999. (Excerpt)
Druett, Joan. She Captains: Heroines and Hellions Of The Sea. Simon & Schuster, 2001.
Gosse, Philip. History of Piracy. Rio Grande Press, 1995.
Illyrian Piracy: Ancient Endemic or Historical Construct?
The Incursions of the Sea Peoples
Julius Caesar
Klausmann, Ulrike, Marion Meinzerin, and Garbriel Kuhn. Women Pirates and the Politics of the Jolly Roger. Black Rose Books, 1997.
Lycia and the Lycians
Mediterranean Ship Types
Ormerod, Henry A. Piracy in the Ancient World: An Essay in Mediterranean History. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Pirates of the Mediterranean
Pitazzi, Michael. The Navies of Rome. Boydell & Brewer, 2009.
Rauh, N. K., R. W. Townsend, M. Hoff, and L. Wandsnider. Pirates in the Bay of Pamphylia: an Archaeological Inquiry. 
Sea Peoples and the Phoenicians
Selinger, Gail. Complete Idiot’s Guide to Pirates. Alpha, 2006.
Ships of Ancient Greece
Tunis, Edwin. Oars, Sails and Steam: A Picture Book of Ships. World Publishing, 1952.

Warzeski, Jeanne Marie. “Ancient Sea-zures,” Circa 2:1 (Spring/Summer 2009), 4-5.

Copyrighted © 2009 Cindy Vallar
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