Piracy in the Ancient Mediterranean and the Notorious Cilicians
Piracy (in its maritime context) is thought to have existed ever since the seas were used by merchants as trade routes. The Mediterranean Sea was no exception, and piracy has been notorious in this region since ancient times. Tales of pirates in the Mediterranean were recorded by the ancient Romans (the most famous incident being the kidnapping of Julius Caesar by the pirates of Cilicia), the ancient Greeks, and the ancient Egyptians.
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Pirates in Egypt
The earliest known reference to piracy in the ancient Mediterranean is said to be found in the Amarna Letters. In one of these documents, numbered as EA38, the King of Alashiya (known as Cyprus today) mentions that the Lukki (possibly the Sea People of the Lukka) “year by year; seize villages in my own country” in response to the accusation by the Egyptian Pharaoh that men from his country were in league with the pirates.
The problem of pirates is also visible during the reign of later Egyptian pharaohs. Ramesses III, for example, is known to have battled these pirates, who are known also as the Sea Peoples, or the Nine Bows, as the ancient Egyptians called them. The pirates’ raids on the Nile Delta were so severe that Ramesses decided to do something about it. An account of this battle, which was fought in 1190 BC, can be found depicted and described on the wall of Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of the pharaoh at Thebes. The battle, which involved the use of archers and hand-to-hand combat, saw the Sea Peoples defeated by the Egyptian forces.
A large relief from the north wall of Medinet Habu, shows the Egyptian navy fighting the Sea Peoples during the reign of Ramesses II. (Public Domain)
Piracy in Archaic Greece
Piracy was also a common phenomenon during the archaic period in Greece. The word ‘pirate’ itself has been suggested by scholars to have been derived from the ancient Greek language. This word, however, is said to have originally been employed to refer to mercenaries who allied themselves with one political faction or city state against another.
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A famous black figure kylix by Exekias. It depicts the god of wine, Dionysus, on a ship. A myth says that pirates tried to abduct him, but he transformed them all into dolphins and made vine leaves spring from the mast to act as sails. (Carole Raddato/CC BY SA 2.0)
The Notorious Cilician Pirates
By the second half of the 2nd century BC, piracy in the Mediterranean became a serious problem once more. This period saw the rise of the notorious Cilician pirates, who are regarded as having been a destabilizing force in the Mediterranean.
Two main factors have been identified as contributing to the situation, the first being the disintegration of the Seleucid Empire, which had controlled the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean, around 150 BC. This lack of control allowed the Cilician pirates to fill the power vacuum. Secondly, there was a demand amongst the Roman elite for slaves to work on their plantations in Italy, and this was supplied by the Cilician pirates.
The Cilician pirates would normally target grain ships, which were slow-moving and ungainly. The crew would be captured, and sold to the Roman elite as slaves. Richer captives, however, would have been held as hostages, and would be released when their ransom was paid for. One of the most famous of these hostages was Julius Caesar. In 79 BC, the Roman leader was captured by the pirates, and was only released after a ransom of 25 talents (500 kg) of silver was paid. He was captured again four years later. This time, Caesar vowed to punish his captors. After he was released, Caesar got a few ships, went after the pirates, defeated them, and had them crucified.
Julius Caesar leading captives to their fate. ‘Caesar’ by Adolphe Yvon. (Public Domain)
The reign of the Cilician pirates came to an end in the early years of the 60s BC. The Romans, who had previously not bothered themselves too much with them, now regarded them as a threat, and were determined to exterminate them. This task was given to the military and political leader Pompey, who defeated the pirates, following which he was able to extend Roman rule in Asia, and at the same time, become, for almost 20 years, the most powerful man in Rome.
Top image: Artist's impression of Teuta, Queen of the Illyrian Ardiaei tribe, leads a pirate expedition against Rome. According to Illyrian laws, piracy was a legitimate trade, which led to war against the Roman Republic, who did not approve. Source: © The Creative Assembly / SEGA from Total War.
By Wu Mingren