Ancient Mediterranean piracy

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Piracy in the ancient Mediterranean has a long documented history, from the Late Bronze Age. The classical historian Janice Gabbert proclaimed “The eastern Mediterranean has been plagued by piracy since the first dawn of history.”[1] Though its prehistory is ambiguously differentiated from trade, this period in history marked the earliest documented wave of piracy.


The roots of the word “piracy” come from the ancient Greek πειράομαι, or peiráomai, meaning “attempt;” i.e. an attempt to rob for personal gain. This morphed into πειρατής, or peiratēs, meaning “brigand,” and from that to the Latin pirata, where we get the modern English word pirate.[2]

A number of geographic and economic characteristics of the classical world produced an environment practically necessitating piracy. First of all, “The coasts of the Mediterranean are particularly favourable to the development of piracy.”[3] The barren, rocky shoreline was not suitable for large scale agriculture and could not support a large population. Therefore, most villages were small and of humble means. Being coastal villages, the primary method of support came from fishing, so most of the able-bodied men had boats, seafaring skills, and navigational knowledge. When fishing wasn’t enough, many men turned to highway robbery and raids of nearby territories to support themselves. However, land trade routes were few and far between, given mountainous obstacles and few rivers. Therefore, most nations deemed “the principal lines of communication should be by sea, and the bulk of commerce should be carried by the same routes.”[4]

In the early days of maritime navigation, most trade vessels hugged the coasts. “Traffic was restricted to fixed lanes in a way impossible on the open ocean.”[5] The naukleroi, or ship-owning merchantmen, moved slowly along established trade routes with their heavy burdens weighing them down. Imagine a fisherman-raider seeing treasure-laden trade ships passing the shores he knows like no one else, day after day. With the motivation and the means to do so, it wasn’t hard for coastal natives to apply themselves to sea-robbery. They brought a thief’s mindset to the sea and simply changing their method of thievery. “The pirate was the robber of the sea highways: and the highways of the Mediterranean were well-defined and well-traveled.”[6]

Early period[edit]

The rocky coast that had been unsuitable for agriculture was perfectly suited to piracy, outfitted with hidden inlets that allowed quick access points to trade routes. “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.”[7]

These early maritime raiders were at the same time the first true pirates, attacking anyone of any nationality, owing loyalty to no one, but also quite unique. Because of their roots in land raiding, they were known not only to attack ships and coastal towns but also to venture further inland. This caused even the earliest large cities to relocate anywhere from 2 to 10 miles away from shore.[8] Pirates tended not to go any farther inland due to difficulties escaping. Speed was one of the most important elements of piracy. This relocation gave a relatively effective cushion of safety to major cities such as Athens, Tiryns, Mycenae and others. It protected them from the sea’s dangers, although it also cut them off from it benefits. The sea was still the primary, and practically only, area of major commerce. This caused twin cities to be built, one inland city paired with a coastal port, such as Rome and Ostia, Athens and Piraeus, etc. To protect their connection they built “‘long walls’ like those that enclosed the thoroughfare between Athens and Piraeus.”[8] The maritime historian Henry Ormerod said, “If we remember that piracy was, for centuries, a normal feature of Mediterranean life, it will be realized how great has been the influence which it exercised on the life of the ancient world.”[9]

Despite these efforts, they couldn’t completely remove contact between the pirates and the ports. Since they couldn’t effectively disrupt the pirates “business,” it only continued to grow. Men often joined the very pirate ships that attacked their own towns. Even the sailors on merchant ships attacked by pirates turned to piracy themselves when they were out of work. Piracy offered a free and lucrative career, a chance for those who were interested to try to change their lives and better their livelihood a hundredfold in a very short time. For example, the area around Crete, famous for its slave markets, was known as “the Golden Sea” because of how profitable the slave trade was.[6] Unsurprisingly, Crete was also notable for its pirates. In point of fact, if a city had a successful slave market it was most likely a pirate port. Notorious pirate havens like Cilicia and Delos had thriving slave markets. “According to Strabo, as many as ten thousand slaves were sold in Delos in just one day.”[10] Being kidnapped by pirates and sold into slavery was so common that it was a favorite theme of ancient Greek dramatists.

Sea Peoples[edit]

Expanded, pirates began to organize differently from common brigands, who were bands of mixed nationalities loyal to no one but themselves. There is evidence that the Pirate Articles, which structured the company democratically, “derived from ancient seafaring traditions”, and most likely originated sometime during this period.[11] Over time, this diverse group came to be known collectively as the “Sea Peoples”. They were always referred to in the plural, not as just the “Sea People,” because they were made up of diverse sets of people. They are particularly well known for their clashes with the Egyptians, who called them the “Nine Bows”.[12] It is believed that many were Egyptian subordinates, particularly escaped Hebrews[citation needed], who are thought to be the group referred to in ancient sources as the Habiru. Other possible members include Tjeker people out of Crete, who left to settle Anatolia, the seat of the Hittite Empire, which is known to have clashed with the Egyptians. “The Tjeker of the Egyptian sources…are mentioned among the Sea Peoples attacking Egypt in the fifth and eighth year of Ramesses III (= 1179 and 1176 BC).”[13] With Crete’s reputation of harboring pirates, it is not too surprising to find much evidence of their involvement with the Sea Peoples.[citation needed]

Two of the earliest groups to be mentioned in connection with the Sea Peoples are the Lukka and the Sherden. They are mentioned in the Amarna letters, a series of 362 clay correspondence tablets from the king of Babylon to Pharaoh Amenhotep or his son Akhenaton, about the fact that these sea raiders were beginning not just to plunder ships but capture towns. One of “the earliest recorded incident[s] – inscribed on a clay tablet while Akhenaton, an Egyptian pharaoh, reigned depicts pirates attacking a ship in 1350 BCE.”[12] Nearly a century later, Ramesses II recorded on the Tanis Stele, “the unruly Sherden whom no one had ever known how to combat, they came boldly sailing in their warships from the midst of the sea, none being able to withstand them.”[14]

A lot of early information about the spread of piracy comes from Egyptian sources first because they were so well documented on non-perishable materials like sandstone temples. Also, Egypt’s dominance as a sea power at this time made them an obvious target. By far the majority of knowledge about the Sea Peoples comes from Ramesses III, who reigned for the large part of the early 12th century BC. Many of his campaigns are recorded on the walls of his mortuary temple, the Medinet Habu, as well as on numerous obelisks and stelae, large stone monuments chronicling battles. It was there he recorded the accounts of attacks by the Tjeker, the Peleset (Philistines), and even the Hittites. To describe the scale of the destruction wrought by Sea Peoples: “No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Kode, Carchemish, Arzawa, Alashiya on being cut off.”[15] It is theorized that the simultaneous destruction of the Hittite, Mycenaean and Mitanni kingdoms all around 1175 BC was a result, at least in part, of repeated Sea People attacks. One inscription from 1190 BC describes a great victory over the Nine Bows, from whom he took hostages. However, there is evidence that he instead asked for their military advice, and later hired them as mercenaries.[citation needed]

They were so widely employed as extra-legal forces that “there seemed to be no real distinction made between a pirate and a mercenary.”[16] Despite the closeness between these two unsavory professions, they were not synonymous with "criminal". Texts like the Medinet Habu and stelae, which are basically billboards of military accomplishments, are quick to denounce the Sea People when they are on the opposing side, but when used against one's enemies, they are a valuable resource. The original Greek word for pirate was not incorporated into the language until 140 BC.[12] Before then, the various cultural labels (like Egypt’s “Nine Bows”) that all basically referred to the Sea Peoples were applied to such persons by their victims and enemies, not titles they assumed themselves. More often than not, “pirate” simply implied “other”: an outsider, but not necessarily a lawbreaker.[17]

Many ancient texts are actually quite sympathetic to piracy, and even condone it. “In ancient Greece piracy seems to have been widespread and widely regarded as an entirely honourable way of making a living.”[18] Numerous references are made to its perfectly normal occurrence in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, thought to have been written sometime in the 6th or 7th century. Odysseus recounts an incident he himself took part in:

We boldly landed on the hostile place, And sack’d the city, and destroy’d the race, Their wives made captive, their possessions shared, And every soldier found a like reward.[19]

After taking their fill in all they desired, they quickly boarded their ships again and sailed away without any twinge of compunction, just like typical seafaring lowlifes. Over a century later, the Greek historian Thucydides (460–395 BC) tells of great men like Odysseus, settling upon this as a profession in his History of the Peloponnesian War:

For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands, as communication by sea became more common, were tempted to turn pirate…indeed, this came to be the main source of their livelihood, no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.[19]

Plutarch (46–120 AD) writes that piracy had become not just an occupation of poor desperate men, forced into it by necessity, but rather a glorious expedition taken on by those already of high status, seeking further advancement:

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.[12]

Apparently, it was also during this time that the idea of a seagoing mercenary morphed into that of a privateer. Almost another two centuries after Thucydides, this practice is referred to in PolybiusHistories, which covers the period of 220–146 BC. His description of Teuta, Queen of the Illyrians, however, sounds[according to whom?] like it could from a 1500s text about Queen Elizabeth: “Her first measure was to grant letters of marque to privateers, authorising them to plunder all whom they fell in with.”[19]

The Sea Peoples were just valuable as assets to be bothered with as detriments. A few rulers did a better job than Ramesses III at trying to rid their kingdoms of the threat of piracy. King Minos of Crete was the first to raise a navy specifically for the purpose of battling piracy. Sources suggest “it is likely he cleared the sea of piracy as far as he was able, to improve his revenues.”[20] He effectively curbed piracy in his area until his fleet was destroyed by a tsunami around 1400 BC, and piratical activities resumed. Alexander the Great also had a run-in with pirates during his campaign to clear his waters of danger. In his De Civitate Dei, St. Augustine recounts an exchange between Alexander and a captured pirate:

For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "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."[19]

Piracy in the Hellenistic period[edit]

Unlike Ramesses’ numerous but ineffectual campaigns and Minos’ brief success, piracy did not resurge again in the Mediterranean until after Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC. Though it followed quick on the heels of the anarchy created by his failure to name an heir, he set the precedent for a real effort to curb piracy. He also contributed to the foundations for Rome’s future empire, showing that such a thing as “seizing the whole earth” could be achieved.

The phenomenon spread like the plague, but was particularly endemic in certain areas, notably Cilicia (southeastern Turkey) and Illyria (western Balkans) There is evidence that “the coastal Illyrian tribes had created their own type of vessel, the lembus, in which to carry out their depredations.”[21] It was a small, fast ship built to serve the purpose of zipping out from hidden inlets to attack the heavier vessels and then disappearing just as quickly.

“So powerful did the Illyrians become that by 230 BC no honest traders wished to participate in maritime commerce.”[12] But Rome paid little attention to what it initially considered a rag-tag band of amateur brigands harassing a few merchants, partly because the empire’s strength lay in its land-bound forces. However, when Illyrian forces attacked a convoy of ships with grain intended for the military, the Senate decided to send two envoys to Queen Teuta, who promptly had one killed. Outraged, “Consul Gnaeus Fulvius sailed for Illyria with two hundred ships, while Consul Aulus Postumius and 20,000 soldiers marched overland.”[12] By 228 BC, Teuta had surrendered, and the Romans had decimated the forces of one of the most notorious pirate havens in the Mediterranean.

Piracy in the Roman period[edit]

By this point, pirates were looked on with fear, distrust and hatred. When Rome started to fight them seriously, Pirates were declared communes hostes gentium, or enemies of all mankind.[22] With ports becoming less friendly, pirates became more brazen, attacking anyone and everyone to protect themselves. Slave markets dwindled, with their primary suppliers now outlawed. Instead of selling their captives into slavery, pirates discovered that it was not only easier but more profitable to ransom. They came to learn that “the higher the status of the person kidnapped and the more prominent his or her family, the higher the price for their safe return.”[23]

This may have been what Cilician pirates were thinking when in 78 BC they attacked a Roman galley bound for Rhodes, one of Rome’s allies and famous for upholding a zero tolerance policy towards pirates. On board was a young 25-year-old Roman named Julius Caesar, who apparently “sat and read while his fellow passengers cowered before the sea robbers.”[12] When the Pirate Captain named the ransom of 20 talents, varying sources say Caesar was either offended or laughed at them (or both) for underestimating his value and voluntarily offered 50 talents. While they waited for the ransom to arrive on the island of Pharmacusa, Caesar maintained a superior but good-natured air; his captors thought he was joking when he told them how he was going to punish them when he was released. When the sum was delivered, Caesar immediately gathered four ships of 500 legionnaires and returned to where the Cilician fleet was still docked at Pharmacusa, making it easy for Caesar to capture more than 350 of the pirates and reclaim the ransom. He crucified every one of captors, 30 in all. He was made Tribune on his return to Rome.

This was not the end of the Cilicians, however. In 67 BC, Rome’s port of Ostia was set on fire and two prominent Roman senators were kidnapped.[22] Up until this point, Rome secretly tolerated piracy, particularly the Cilicians, because of its demand for slaves. But the ransoming had finally gone too far. “Their seizures of persons in high command, and their ransoming of captured cities, were a disgrace to the Roman supremacy.”[12] Aulus Gabinius, a tribune and lieutenant of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, proposed what amounted to an anti-piracy law to the Senate. The Lex Gabinia (or Gabinian Law) granted the 38-year-old Pompeius, the best soldier in Rome and better known as Pompey the Great, with unprecedented authority, causing a riot in the Senate. When the bill was passed, Pompey was given unlimited access to the Roman treasury, 500 ships, 120,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry. He alone held total control of the Mediterranean from sea to 50 miles/75 kilometers inland. He subdivided the fleet into 13 squadrons and rooted the last remaining pirate strongholds in the Mediterranean including Cilicia, Crete, Illyria, and Delos. “Historical documents record that Pompeius captured at least 400 vessels while destroying more than 1,000 others.”[12] He accomplished this in three months.

Pompey was not only a skilled soldier; he was also a student of history. Instead of trying to wipe out every last pirate, he tried to change their way of life. Ten thousand pirates died in battle, but surrender was met with not only pardon but reward, and twice that number surrendered.[12] “He [was] determined to translate these pirates from sea to land, and give them a taste of an honest and innocent course of life, by living in towns, and tilling the ground.”[22] So the descendants of the first Mediterranean pirates were back to where their ancestors started.

Out of all the attempts to curb piracy, this was the most successful. The resulting Pax Romana enabled the Mediterranean to experience several centuries of relative safety, but piracy is cyclical in nature; it is never fully extinguished, merely postponed. The fall of the Roman Empire sometime around the 5th century AD marked a renewal of piratical activities in the Mediterranean, which continued to grow through the Middle Ages.


  1. ^ Gabbert, Janice J. "Piracy in the Early Hellenistic Period: A Career Open to Talents", Greece & Rome 33.2) (October 1986)): 156-63.
  2. ^ DeSouza, Philip. Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  3. ^ Ormerod, Henry Arderne. Piracy in the ancient world: an essay in Mediterranean history. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
  4. ^ Ormerod, 15.
  5. ^ Semple, Ellen Churchill. '"Pirate Coasts of the Mediterranean Sea". Geographical Review 2.2 (August 1916): 134-51. 135.
  6. ^ a b Semple, 135.
  7. ^ Vallar, Cindy. "Ancient Piracy." Pirates and Privateers: the History of Maritime Piracy. 2009.
  8. ^ a b Semple, 136.
  9. ^ Ormerod, 14.
  10. ^ Panagakos, Katherine. "Criminal Elements: The Evolution of the Outlaw in Ancient Novels." OhioLink: Digital Resource Commons. 2004.
  11. ^ Antony, Robert. Pirates in the Age of Sail. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007. 91.
  12. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Vallar.
  13. ^ Woudhuizen, Frederik Christiaan. "The Ethnicity of Sea Peoples." dissertation; Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, April 2006. 107.
  14. ^ Kitchen, Kenneth. “Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt.” Aris & Phillips, 1982: 40–41.
  15. ^ Beckman, Gary. Hittite Chronology. Akkadica, 2000: 119,120. 120.
  16. ^ Gabbert, Janice J. 1986. Piracy in the Early Hellenistic Period: A Career Open to Talents. Greece & Rome 33, (2) (Oct.): 156-63. 156.
  17. ^ DeSouza, 2.
  18. ^ Møller, Bjørn. "Piracy, Maritime Terrorism and Naval Strategy." Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, November 16, 2008. 10.
  19. ^ a b c d Møller, 10.
  20. ^ DeSouza, 15.
  21. ^ Dell, Harry J. 1967. The Origin and Nature of Illyrian Piracy. Historia: Zeitschrift Für Alte Geschichte 16, (3) (Jul.): 344-58. 345.
  22. ^ a b c Møller, 11.
  23. ^ Panagakos, 41.