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Were There Pirates in the Ancient Mediterranean World?

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Were There Pirates in the Ancient Mediterranean World?. Philip de Souza Keynote Address Indiana Classical Conference April 1, 2005. Piracy defined as: armed robbery normally involving the use of ships. Moral & political use of the terms pirate/piracy in Classical World

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Were There Pirates in the Ancient Mediterranean World?

Philip de Souza

Keynote Address

Indiana Classical Conference

April 1, 2005


Piracy defined as:

  • armed robbery normally involving the use of ships

Moral & political use of the terms pirate/piracy in Classical World

O strangers, who are you? From where have you come along the sea lanes? Are you travelling for trade, or are you just roaming about like pirates, who risk body and soul bringing harm to other people? (Homer, Odyssey 3.71-4; 9.252-5; Homeric Hymn to Apollo 452-5)

Farming I never cared for, nor life at home, nor fathering fair children. I revelled in long ships with oars; I loved polished lances, arrows in the skirmish, the shapes of doom that others shake to see. Carnage suited me; heaven put those things in me somehow. Each to his own pleasure! Before we young Achaians shipped for Troy I led men on nine cruises in ships to raid strange coasts, and had great luck, taking rich spoils on the spot, and even more in the division. So my house grew prosperous, my standing therefore high among the Cretans (Homer, Odyssey 14.222-34).

But Zeus the son of Kronos brought me down. No telling why he would have it, but he made me go to Egypt with a company of pirates – a long sail to the South – for my undoing. Up the broad Nile and into the riverbank I brought my dipping squadron. There, indeed, I told the men to stand guard at the ships; I sent patrols out – out to rising ground; but reckless greed carried my crews away to plunder the Egyptian farms; they bore off wives and children, killed what men they found. (Homer, Odyssey 17.424-33)


What kinds of things did those labelled as pirates do?

Resolved by the council and the people; Soterides, son of Phidias, of Kosyllos was president, Philoxenos, son of Philothemis of Alsos moved: since, when pirates made an incursion into the countryside at night and captured a total of more than thirty girls, women and other persons, free and slave, and scuttled the ships in the harbour and captured the ship of Doreios, in which they sailed off with their captives and the rest of their booty; when all this had happened Hegesippos and Antipappos, the sons of Hegesistratos, who were themselves prisoners, persuaded Sokleides, the captain of the pirates, to release the free persons and some of the slaves, and volunteered to act as hostages on their behalf, and showed great concern that none of the citizen women should be carried off as booty and be sold, or suffer hardship, and that no free person should perish; thanks to these men the prisoners were saved and returned home without suffering harm... (Inscription from Amorgos c. 250 BC)


All your generals who have ever sailed from here (or, if not, may I suffer any penalty) take money from the Chians and Erythraians, from whomsoever, I say, they possibly can among the peoples living in Asia. Those who have only one or two ships exact less than those who have a more powerful fleet. The providers do not give their large or small contributions for nothing (they are not so crazy) but on the understanding that they will not be harmed when they leave harbour, nor plundered, or that their ships will be escorted, that is the sort of thing expected. They speak of favours being granted and that is what they call their gifts. (Demosthenes, On the Chersonese 24-5; 340 BC)


How widespread was piracy?

  • Did anyone try to put a stop to it?

The politics of ancient piracy

He (Kallias of Euboia) captured and sold as slaves all those sailing to Macedonia, treating them as enemies. And you decreed him a vote of thanks! So I find it hard to imagine how things could be worse if you were actually to declare war on me. For when we clearly had our differences you also used to send out pirates and makes slaves of those sailing to us, you helped my enemies and harmed my territory. ([Demosthenes] 12.2)

Treaty between Rhodes and the Cretan city of Hierapytna dating to c. 200 BC:

And if pirates establish bases in Crete and the Rhodians wage war at sea against the pirates or those who provide shelter or assistance to them, the Hierapytnians shall take part in the operations by land and sea with all possible strength and at their own expense. The pirates who are captured shall be handed over to the Rhodians together with their ships, while each of the allies shall take half of the rest [of the booty]

And if during a campaign which the Hierapytnians are waging with the Rhodians to destroy a pirate base, any of those who provided shelter or assistance to the pirates wage war on the Hierapytnians because of this campaign, the Rhodians


The Roman invention of piracy

The senior consul is to send letters to the peoples and states to whom he may think fit, to say that the Roman people will have care, that the citizens of Rome and the allies and the Latins, and those of the foreign nations who are in a relationship of friendship with the Roman people may sail in safety, and that on account of this matter and according to this statute they have made Cilicia a praetorian province… he is to send letters to the effect that it is also right for them to see that no pirate (peirates) use as a base of operations their kingdom or land or territories and that no officials or garrison commanders whom they shall appoint harbour the pirates (peiratas) and to see that, insofar as it shall be possible, the Roman people have them as contributors to the safety of all… (lex de provinciis praetoriis, Knidos III, lines 28-37; Delphi B 10-12; 100 BC)


One man, Publius Servilius, captured alive more pirates than all the previous commanders put together. And when did he ever deny to anyone the pleasure of seeing a captured pirate? On the contrary he displayed the most enjoyable spectacle of captives enemies in chains to all and sundry. And so they came from all around, not just from the towns through which the pirates were being led, to behold the sight. (Cicero, II In Verrem 5.66)


All pirates (praedones) wherever they were suffered capture and death, or handed themselves over to this singularly powerful commander. Even the Cretans, when they sent emissaries to him in Pamphylia to plead their case, learned that there was hope for their surrender, and were ordered to give hostages. (Cicero, de imperio Cn Pompei 35)


If, for example, you do not hand over to pirates (praedonibus) the amount agreed upon as the price for your life, this is not perjury, not even if you have sworn an oath and do not do so, for a pirate (pirata) is not included in the category of lawful enemies, but they are the enemies of all mankind. (Cicero, de Officiis 3.107)

Indeed, she (Rhodes) attained such a position of power that she took up the war against the pirates (peiratas) by herself, and cleared the sea of their evil manifestation. (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 20.82.3)

I made the sea peaceful and freed it of pirates (praedonibus). In that war I captured about 30,000 slaves who had escaped from their masters and taken up arms against the republic, and I handed them over to their masters for punishment. (Augustus, Res Gestae 25)

On top of that there is the current state of peace, for piracy has been suppressed, so that those sailing (between Spain and Italy) are beginning to relax. (Strabo, Geography 3.2.5)


Revising the history of piracy

It would take too long to tell of Caesar’s many bold plans for the punishment of the pirates, or how obstinately the timid governor of Asia refused to second them… although he was but a private citizen without authority, and his fleet had been collected on the spur of the moment, he directed his course to the place where the pirates themselves were, put to flight part of their fleet, sank part and captured several ships and many men… (Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.42)

Through his father’s freedmen, Menas and Menekrates, the commanders of his fleet, Pompeius infested the seas with raiding and piracy (latrociniis ac praedationibus), using plunder to support himself and his army. Nor was he ashamed to plague with the wickedness of piracy (piraticis sceleribus) the very sea which had been cleared of it by his father’s arms and leadership. (Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2.73.3)


…but what was most offensive of all about them was their hateful arrogance – their gilded sails, purple coverings, silver oars – the general image that they projected of delighting in their way of life and taking pride in their malicious acts. Roman power was ridiculed by their flute-playing, cithara-plucking and drunken debauchery, by their captures of prominent Roman magistrates and their demands for ransom from captive cities. (Plutarch, Life of Pompey 24)


Modern imperialism masquerading as the suppression of piracy?

Their occupation is piracy, and their delight murder; and to make it worse they give you the most pious reasons for every villainy they commit… If you are their captives and offer all you possess to save your life, they say, “No! It is written in the Koran that it is unlawful to plunder the living, but we are not prohibited in that sacred work from stripping the dead.” So saying they knock you on the head. (Captain John Malcolm’s description of the Qawasimi or “Joasmees”)

Article 1 – There shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs, who are parties to this contract, for ever.

Article 2 – If any individual of the people of the Arabs contracting shall attack any that pass by land or sea of any nation whatsoever, in the way of plunder and piracy and not of acknowledged war he shall be accounted an enemy of all mankind and shall be held to have forfeited both life and goods. And acknowledged war is that which is proclaimed, avowed and ordered by government against government; and the killing of man taking of goods without proclamation, avowal and the order of a government is plunder and piracy. (General Treaty with the Arab States of the Persian Gulf; 1820)