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Rise and Fall of Mediterranean Piracy in Roman Times

Author: Krzysztof Wilczynski

The Setting Sun of Security: In the 60s BC, the Roman Empire's oversight led to the flourishing of pirates in the Mediterranean. While economic hardships and social oppression pushed desperate men to piracy, Rome's passive stance was somewhat intentional. Pirates, in collaboration with tax companies, supplied the luxury markets with slaves. These pirates did not specifically target Rome but saw every venture as a mere opportunity for profit.

Factors Favoring the Pirates: With the decline of naval powers like Seleucid Syria and Rhodes, pirates found more freedom to raid. As Rome grew but failed to patrol these waters, coastal cities opted for alliances with pirates for protection or paid tributes, turning many into pirate havens.

Rome's Feeble Laws and Efforts: Despite the establishment of piracy laws, as evidenced by inscriptions found at Delphi and Cnidos, the enforcement was weak. Notable Romans like Marcus Antonius made efforts against piracy, but they were sporadic and often inefficient.

Mithradates and the Surge of Piracy: The wars incited by Mithradates greatly bolstered the number of pirates. As he focused on land battles, his navy and aligned pirates took to the seas. Even after Mithradates’ influence waned, the pirates continued their plundering, capturing significant locations and amassing vast wealth.

The Boldness of Pirates: In the 70s BC, with Rome embroiled in civil wars, pirates became audacious. They began raiding on land, even capturing Roman dignitaries. Julius Caesar himself was once held ransom by them, a scenario he later turned to his advantage by crucifying the very pirates who had captured him.

The Opulence of Piracy: Piracy became so lucrative that even men of "wealth and good family" joined their ranks. With grand ships and gilded sails, pirates became a symbol of defiance against Roman might. Their audacity peaked when they duped Spartacus, the slave uprise leader, and halted trade across the Mediterranean.

Pompey's Campaign Against Piracy: Rome's answer to the menace was Pompey. Entrusted with vast resources, he ingeniously divided the Mediterranean into thirteen districts to isolate pirate populations. Pompey's campaign was so swift and effective that within three months, piracy was virtually eradicated.

Historical Perspective: Some historians believe the rise of piracy was an indirect consequence of Rome's conquests. With the destruction of Mediterranean kingdoms like Carthage, no naval power remained to maintain order, allowing piracy to thrive.

Conclusion: From Pliny the Elder's accounts to numerous historical records, the tales of piracy during the Roman era offer a glimpse into a turbulent time. While piracy in the Mediterranean was eventually quelled, the seeds of piracy traveled north, setting the stage for the notorious pirates of the Middle Ages.