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Ancient Mediterranean piracy

Piracy in the ancient Mediterranean has a long documented history, from the Late Bronze Age. According to the classical historian Janice Gabbert "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] However, they were frequently referred to by ancient Greeks as "leistes", the same word used for land-based thieves.

A number of geographic and economic characteristics of the classical world produced an environment that encouraged 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 development

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 its 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.

Egypt and Piracy

The early history of the Mediterranean includes many references to piracy and measures taken to deal with piracy. It has been suggested that the Pirate Articles, which structured the company democratically, "derived from ancient seafaring traditions", and originated sometime during this period.[11] Egypt is a prime source of many of these early accounts, both because of its greater level of documentation in comparison with the less developed states of the Greek Dark Ages, and because much of its documentation was carved into stone or preserved by the dry sands of the environment.

The Lukka and the Sherden in particular 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. This is clearly a reference to pirates in the sense of thieves, rather than just using a generic term for aggressors originating in the Mediterranean. 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."[13]

The diverse group known collectively as the "Sea Peoples", a term used by Ramesses III on his mortuary temple at Medinet Habu as well as on numerous obelisks and stelae, may have also been pirates. It was there he recorded the accounts of attacks by named enemies of the Peleset (Philistines), and even the Hittites, but several of the enemies he is shown to be subjugating are only given the uncertain epithet "of the sea". Ramesses III describes how he defeated them by drawing them inland, "like the sand on the shore".[14] Possible members of the "Sea Peoples" include the Tjeker people of Crete, who left to settle Anatolia, the seat of the Hittite Empire, which is known to have clashed with the Egyptians.[15]

This negative view of sea peoples in Pharaonic texts follows the general pattern of Egyptian discussion of outsiders; they are viewed derogatorily until they become useful. There is evidence that as the power of Greece and Persia grew, it became more acceptable for Egyptian rulers to hire pirates for their own ends, and by the early Hellenistic period 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 professions, they were not synonymous with "criminal". The original Greek word for pirate was not incorporated into the language until 140 BC.[12] More often than not, "pirate" simply implied "other": an outsider, but not necessarily a lawbreaker.[17]

Piracy in Greece

The rulers of Minoan Crete were the first to raise a navy specifically for the purpose of battling piracy. Greek sources describe this navy as the product of the legendary king Minos, and suggest "it is likely he cleared the sea of piracy as far as he was able, to improve his revenues."[18] He is said to have effectively curbed piracy in his area until his fleet was destroyed by a tsunami around 1400 BC, and piratical activities resumed.

Many texts from bronze age and archaic Greece actually condone piracy as a viable profession. "In ancient Greece piracy seems to have been widespread and widely regarded as an entirely honourable way of making a living."[19] Numerous references are made to its perfectly normal occurrence in Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, thought to have been written sometime in the 7th or 6th century BC. 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.[20]

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.[20]

As this quote indicates, by Thucydides' era of Classical Greece, piracy was looked upon as a "disgrace" to have as a profession - partly (and perhaps hypocritically, given that the threat of slavery on land was seen as an inevitable and "universal law")[21] because it came with the threat of ransom and enslavement for citizens as they travelled. At the height of Athens' power though, we have few epigraphic reports of piracy and Thucydides does not mention the threat as a particular motive for the cultivation of the Athenian Empire's fleet, so it is possible that the relative safety of the Classical seas in comparison with Hellenistic times was a side-effect of, rather than a motivation for, the development of the Delian League that furnished the Empire with her power.[22]

Piracy in the Hellenistic period

Reports of piracy did not resurge in the Mediterranean until after Alexander the Great's death in 323 BC. He had set a precedent for an intentional effort to curb piracy during his conquests around the Mediterranean rim. In his De Civitate Dei, St. Augustine recounts an entertaining exchange between Alexander and pirate that he had captured:

For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, "What do thou meanest by seizing the whole earth? 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."[20]

After Alexander's death and during the subsequent wars, piracy was a problem both from independent crews of brigands and from states hiring them for mercenary use.[16] Demetrius I of Macedon in particular used naval mercenaries to his advantage, and these mercenaries included crews who would otherwise have been engaged in piracy. According to Diodorus Siculus book 20, the pirates of Demetrius used 'deckless' ships, likely for increased speed.[23]

The famous wreck of the Kyrenia ship dates from around this period in the 4th century, and was found with spear shafts embedded in its hull and a lead 'curse tablet', which Katsev suggests was put there by a pirate as the ship sank, to ensure they would not face retribution for the crime.[24]

By the time Rhodes had become the dominant naval power of the Aegean, part of the function of the League of the Islanders (which was founded by Antigonus I Monophthalmus to be an allied force in the Wars of the Diadochi) was to deflect pirates from its member states. Rhodes was the central trading area of the Mediterranean at this time, with five harbours that could be accessed from all wind directions, and at a fairly even distance from most major Hellenistic powers, and it was imperative for their economy that the waters around them be seen by traders as safe from pirates.

In 167 BC Rome forcibly made Delos a 'duty free' port to undercut the power and wealth of Rhodes,[25] and Rhodian harbour-tax income dropped from 1 million drachmas to 150 000 drachmas in a year. Without its policing influence, piracy grew rampant even in the eastern Mediterranean.

Piracy had become something of a bogeyman, and defence from pirates is frequently given as one of the reasons for cities to set up honorific decrees for individuals, as with the c. 166 BC decree from Imbros: ""Lysanias is benevolent towards the people […] he stood firm and brought news of the descent of pirates" [26]

The phenomenon 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."[27] It was a small, fast ship built to serve the purpose of quickly emerging from or retreating to hidden inlets to attack heavier vessels.

Illyrian piracy could be more correctly termed privateering, as it was endorsed by the state. In PolybiusHistories, which covers the period of 220–146 BC, his description of Teuta, Queen of the Illyrians states "Her first measure was to grant letters of marque to privateers, authorising them to plunder all whom they fell in with."[20]

"So powerful did the Illyrians become that by 230 BC no honest traders wished to participate in maritime commerce."[12] Rome's attention was on land based conquests, and they did not initially seek to become the naval police that Rhodes and previously Athens had been for the Greek islands. 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.


  1. ^ Gabbert, Janice J. "Piracy in the Early Hellenistic Period: A Career Open to Talents", Greece & Rome 33 (2) (October 1986): 156-63. DOI: [].
  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 Vallar.
  13. ^ Kitchen, Kenneth. "Pharaoh Triumphant: The Life and Times of Ramesses II, King of Egypt." Aris & Phillips, 1982: 40–41.
  14. ^ Breasted, J.H. (2001). Ancient Record of Egypt Vol. 4. Chicago.
  15. ^ Woudhuizen, Frederik Christiaan. "The Ethnicity of Sea Peoples." dissertation; Rotterdam: Erasmus Universiteit Rotterdam, April 2006. 107.
  16. ^ a b 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. ^ DeSouza, 15.
  19. ^ Møller, Bjørn. "Piracy, Maritime Terrorism and Naval Strategy." Copenhagen: Danish Institute for International Studies, November 16, 2008. 10.
  20. ^ a b c d Møller, 10.
  21. ^ Xenephon. Cyropedia. p. 7.5.73.
  22. ^ Philip de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, Cambridge University Press, 2002, 28
  23. ^ Diodorus Siculus. Bibliotheca Historica. p. 20.97.
  24. ^ Katzev, Susan Womer. "The Ancient Ship of Kyrenia, Beneath Cyprus Seas." Great Moments in Greek Archaeology. Ed. Pavos Valavanis and David Hardy. Oxford University Press, 2007. 286-99.
  25. ^ Sherk, Robert K. (1984). Rome and the Greek East to the Death of Augustus. Cambridge University Press. p. 29.
  26. ^ De Souza, Philip. "Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World" (PDF). Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 24 May 2016.
  27. ^ Dell, Harry J. 1967. The Origin and Nature of Illyrian Piracy. Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte 16, (3) (Jul.): 344-58. 345.