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Roman Piracy

Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski

The piracy threat which came to a head in the decade of the 60's BC was in part due to Rome's complacency about the issue. Rather than stamping out small pockets of pirates early on, they allowed piracy to flourish into a large force of marauders. A poor economy and oppressive social conditions also fed the pirate forces as men who were on the verge of bankruptcy discovered more profit as robbers and pillagers. Rome was unwilling to act conclusively toward the reduction of pirate forces because those forces, along with tax companies, provided slaves for the large luxury markets. The pirates did not attack Rome as an enemy, but treated all targets equally, as opportunities for profit.

Vandal and, later, Muslim piracy disrupted the vital sea routes to Africa and the East; on land the impotence of local government made communications dangerous; and ever-heavier taxation crippled trade.

As a result of the weakening of Rhodes, piracy became rampant in the eastern Mediterranean (the young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates). During the next century Roman senators did not find the political will to suppress the piracy, perhaps in part because it served their interests; pirates supplied tens of thousands of slaves for their Italian estates and disrupted the grain trade, thus raising prices for their produce in Rome.

Although the pirates ranged over much of the navigable Mediterranean, they concentrated their raids on major shipping lanes. Upon these lanes goods were transported between the far western provinces of Spain and Africa, Rome and the rest of Italy, and the eastern provinces including Macedonia, Greece, Syria and Egypt. Preferred area to set base or home port, was on the coast of present day Turkey, in an area known as Cicilia Tracheia. This area afforded great protection for the pirates. The coastline was complicated and full of twists and turns and hidden ports. As Roman influence rose the influence of the native powers, such as Seleucid Syria and Rhodes, declined. These were the people who patrolled coastal waters and controlled pirate populations. As their power was replaced by that of the Romans, their patrols were not, and the pirates grew unchecked. With Rome reluctant to crack down on the pirates Mediterranean cities began to form alliances with the pirates to avoid being plundered and terrorized since they received little protection from Rome. Many port cities provided their services and facilities to the pirates, while others paid tribute as if they were conquered. In effect, these cities became centers of piracy.

Interestingly there was a Piracy Law during Roman Times. An inscription found at Delphi is a 100BC document that set the rules for dealing with pirates. The law stated that Roman citizens should be able to "conduct, without peril, whatever business they desire," presumably wherever they desire. A copy of the law was to be sent by messengers of Rhodes to the kings of Cyprus, Alexandria, Egypt, Cyrene, and Syria informing them that no pirate is to "use the kingdom, land, or territory of any Roman ally as a base of operation. No official or garrison will harbor pirates and should be considered zealous collaborators for the safety of all ".

Another inscription found at Cnidos seems to be either an extension or a lost portion of the Delphi text. The Cnidos text is quite broken in the beginning, but does exhibit certain similarities. This text states that the kings of Syria, Alexandria, Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus were to prevent the harboring of pirates. There was even a fine of 200,000 sestertii for non compliance with the law. This law gave Rome the basis for prosecution of pirates.

According to Roman writer Plutarch in 102BC, Marcus Antonius was given a command to reduce the pirates. It seemed to be more an effort to reduce capture of Romans and provincials by pirates primarily by making a deal with a certain pirate known as Nicomedes . Between the years of 77BC and 75BC, Servilius Roman commander was sent to assist the allies of Roman province Lycia in another attempt by Rome to curtail piratical escapades. However he did not do much to damage the hard core pirates in the area of Cilicia Tracheia because little evidence has been found to support him even entering the waters off that coast (Roman writer Ormerod). In 74BC preparations were made for an all-out assault on the Cilician coast under the command of Marc Antonius. These were abandoned with the coming of the third Mithradatic War ( according to Plutarch).

The number of pirates grew substantially during the wars created by Mithradates. While Mithradates was fighting on land, his navy and the pirates under his influence roamed the sea, plundering and pillaging. During his first war against Rome, Mithradates assisted the pirates by providing materials and expertise to begin coastal raiding . After the conclusion of the conflict, Mithradates' influence with the pirates declined, but the pirate menace continued. However, Mithradates surfaced twice more, and each time was closely allied with pirate forces. By the third war, the pirates were organized more like regular fleets, and less like bands of robbers. During that time, the pirates captured Iassus, Samos, Clazomenae, and Samothrace. They even plundered the temple at Samothrace and received the equivalent of 1000 talents.

Roman historian Appian suggests that the oppressive conditions set up by Rome's constant warfare prompted many to renounce their hopeless lives and join the pirate forces . Thus pirates gained detailed knowledge of many ports and coastlines, providing a wider range of profitable raids. The pirates had become quite brash by this point, owning garrisons and supply depots manned by "fine crews and expert pilots" (Plutarch).

During the turbulent 70's, the Romans were engaged in various civil wars. While the Romans were thus employed, pirates grew bolder still, leaving the water they knew so well and venturing onto land, raiding islands and coastal cites. They marched up Roman roads and captured those they encountered. These included the two praetors Sextilius and Bellinus with their lictors and servants on the Appian Way (Plutarch). A ransom was demanded (and delivered) for the return of the daughter of Antonius. This was the very same Antonius who led the first campaign against the pirates (Cicero).

Caesar too, was captured by the pirates near the island of Pharmcusa shortly after escaping from Sulla's soldiers in 75BC. For some reason, the pirates took a liking to Caesar and instead of executing him for his insolence, they tolerated his posturing. When the pirates set a ransom of 20 talents, Caesar scoffed them and set it at 50, claiming he was worth more. During the month and a half he was detained, Caesar joined the pirates in their revels. He wrote poetry and presented it to the pirates. If they didn't respond properly, he would chastise them. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered them to be quiet. Indeed, he hardly seemed a prisoner. He even joked that he would come back and kill them all. After his release, Caesar took ships from the harbor of Moletus, and captured those pirates as they lay on the beach. Caesar didn't agree with Junius, governor of Asia, as to the fate of those pirates and therefore went off and did as he wished. He crucified the lot, although Ormerod says Caesar first slit their throats in an apparent act of mercy (Plutarch).

Men of "wealth and good family," in the words of Plutarch, joined the pirate forces as "soldiers of fortune" gained a reputation of glory and wealth. Ships with gilded sails, purple draping and silvered oars became the mark of the pirate ship as their standard of living rose.

Plutarch's Life of Crassus describes an event whereby the pirates managed to help the Romans and profit at the same time. The slave uprise leader Spartacus booked passage for himself and 2,000 of his troops with pirates to the island of Sicily, where he planned to lead a slave revolt. According to Plutarch after being paid, or "receiving gifts" the pirates skipped town and no doubt celebrated their deception.

The supremacy of Rome was threatened by "drunken revels and flute playing" of the pirates (Plutarch). The pirates were so prevalent that trade throughout the Mediterranean was virtually halted. With 1,000 ships in service, the pirates captured or raided 400 cities, including Ostia.

Finally Rome had to do something. Roman commander Pompey was given the task to get rid of pirates. All allies were compelled to submit to his authority. He was given twenty-four proprietors and the authority to raise 120,000 troops, 4,000 cavalry, commission 270 ships, and had 6,000 talents at his disposal. Pompey devised an excellent plan to squash the pirate threat. He set up thirteen districts designed to isolate the various segments of the pirate population. The praetor, or commander, of each district was responsible for the reduction of pirates in his own district. In forty days, according to Appian, Pompey swept through the western blocks and headed to the eastern waters. His name and reputation traveled faster though, and the pirates became terrified. They quickly ceased their pillaging and fled to their garrisons. The thirteen praetors easily able to subdue their regions. Pompey chased the die-hards to their large strongholds of Cragus and Anticragus. Appian reports that most pirates surrendered quickly, lending credence to the slogan "the sea was cleared without a fight". Pompey completely eliminated the pirate threat in a mere three months time. Clearly the pirates were not a threat to the naval forces of Rome.

Some historians argue that because Romans destroyed Mediterranean kingdoms there was nobody to keep law and order on the seas. Especially after Romans destroyed the powerful fleet of Carthage which kept in check piracy on the shores of North Africa pirates flourished and practically dominated big parts of Mediterranean. They even began to intercept the Roman shipments especially grain from Africa and in one instance destroyed Roman fleet in Ostia. At last in 67 BC Roman dictator Pompey had swept the pirates from the Western Mediterranean and eventually captured their strongholds in Cilicia and hunted them from the waters east of Italy.

Another account of piracy is given first hand by Pliny's (the elder) whose last assignment was that of commander of the fleet in the Bay of Naples, where he was charged with the suppression of piracy.

Pre Roman and Roman pirates were mainly (except for the English Channel) confined to Mediterranean Sea. However, in early Middle Ages the most notorious pirates operated in the North.


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