Steve G.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF PIRACY

In History, Law, War on April 28, 2009 at 8:37 am

Being a very brief account of pirates, corsairs, privateers, Vikings and other sea-wolves their fame, occupation, and close relation to the rise and fall of empires from antiquity to post-modern times.

PART ONE: PIRACY IN ANTIQUITY

Scholars assure us that the condition of post-modernity is that of the old becoming suddenly new, life lived as a fever dream where the repressed returns with such regularity that it seems never to have been repressed at all, and a globalization of the imagery of fear. If so, then piracy is the poster-child of post-modern crime.

Plunder at sea is perhaps as old as man’s discovery that things float, with the corresponding realization that valuable things float, and that some other chap’s floating valuables might be had for the taking. Piracy on the other hand, awaited a framework of law that condemned the taking of others’ waterborne wealth. In that absence of law, sea-raiding appears as no more than the routine intercourse between the strong and the weak.

Such were the ways of Homer’s heroes who toppled Troy and bore off its women to slavery in Greece. Bronze Age Vikings were not merely legend. The raiders known as the Sea Peoples smashed the Hittite Empire, brought fire and sword to the Levantine coast, and were finally halted in a massive naval battle on the coast of Egypt in 1180 BC. The Sea Peoples left their tribal names such as Sherden, Seklesh, and Peleset in the familiar names of Sardinia, Sicily, and the Philistines.

When Mediterranean civilization recovered from the collapse of the Bronze Age empires, the principal maritime powers were the Greeks and the Phoenicians. These two cultures existed in a perpetual war at sea. Both Greek and Phoenician city-states sought to expand by plating colonies on any stretch of coastline that could be taken from poorly-armed barbarians. Neither Greek nor Punic mariners were about to give an inch of contested sea-space to the other.

Other groups such as the Tyrhennian raiders of Etruria and the barbaric Illyrian warriors contributed to the chaos. But to the Greeks, “Punic” was a synonym for pirate. A lack of Punic records has no doubt been beneficial to Greek reputations.

One Illyrian tribe, the Liburnians, invented a type of vessel that became the basic pirate craft of the ancient world. A liburnian had fifty oars arranged in one bank and a ram on the prow. It was fast, maneuverable, capable of shallow water operations, yet with enough space to pack a horde of blood-mad Illyrian vikings. With due allowance for advances in weapons and sailing technology, these were the basic parameters of a pirate vessel throughout the ages.

As in many other aspects of Western culture the Greeks were the leaders. They originated the concept of privateering. Surprisingly, privateering predates piracy. It has its roots in the concept of reprisal. Greek cities offered recourse to law only to their own citizens. If for example a Corinthian robbed an Argive, the Argive had no standing in a Corinthian court. Therefore Argive law allowed the injured party to recover his damages from the next Corinthian he met. Thus the Argive had a legal (in Argive eyes), private, and limited sort of war on Corinth. Gradually Greek cities limited this legalized brigandage by offering reciprocity (asylia in Greek, hence asylum) under the law.

While Greeks faced criminal sea-robbers and barbarian raiders from early times, the concept of a pirate emerged in the era of Alexander the Great around 300 BC. The word “peirates”-pirate-comes from the Greek verb meaning “to attempt” as in “to make a violent attempt.” The early pirates were not so much outlaws as combined-arms military contractors, or mercenaries. The transformation of words meaning “mercenary” to “robber” is a common lexical progress. Thus “brigand” derives from a term for a Medieval armored soldier-of-fortune, while the Spanish word “ladrone” comes from Latin “latro”, which originally meant a hired soldier. All of which indicates what ancient mercenaries did when they weren’t employed on authorized pillage and slaughter.

The pirates quickly became an independent power in the Mediterranean. They established independent bases in Cilicia on the southeastern coast of Asia Minor. The Cilician pirates reached their peak of power in the later Roman Republic. They specialized in kidnapping Roman citizens for ransom, most famously a young Julius Caesar. When they took Caesar he asked what his ransom was to be. The pirates replied ten talents of gold. Caesar sneered at that. Ten was for riff-raff, Caesar was worth sixteen!

The Cilicians managed to become pop-culture icons of the ancient world. The adventure stories and dramas of the Hellenistic era regularly featured pirates, either of the Greek or Punic variety, who spent their days separating star-crossed lovers. Given the prevalence of piracy, it’s a wonder anyone hooked up.

The Cilician pirates had a surprisingly long run as a thorn in Rome’s side. The rugged terrain where they hid and the Roman preference for land warfare gave the pirates an advantage. Another reason might be found in what the pirates did with people who couldn’t afford a ransom. They were sold as slaves. The voracious market for human chattel ensured the pirates could consider any coastal village a profit center. The Homeric rape of the Trojan women had become a routine commercial venture.

The pirates could also pose a serious threat to Rome. Cities such as Rome and Athens had growing populations with limited cropland. They relied on overseas grain to feed their populace. A massive pirate coalition like the Cilicians could choke off the food supplies and impose a famine. The Roman Senate finally dealt with this threat in 60 BC by giving Pompey the Great dictatorial powers over the entire Mediterranean and coastal areas. Seaside crucifixions surged and piracy abated. A lucky few were enslaved, though in reality they were incorporated onto Pompey’s staff as naval consultants.

The Roman Civil Wars from 48 BC to 32 BC, in part fueled by audacious power-grabs such as Pompey’s, nearly undid Pompey’s work. The Civil Wars ended with Augustus’s defeat of Pompey’s son, Sextus and Marc Antony in a pair of sea battles in 35 BC and 32 BC. In the new order piracy was no longer to be tolerated. Along with elite imperial bodyguards (the Praetorian Guard) and military police (the Urban Cohorts and Vigiles), Augustus gave Rome a navy.

-Dave Hardy

  1. I didn’t think of the roots of piracy going back so far, although of course, Dave Hardy is correct in this. Made me think a little deeper in time.

  2. Once I started thinking about piracy, I realized the concept was contingent. Our view isn’t neccessarily the only one, just the one that works for us. So I started reeling back, to see if there were unifying forces, typical processes, or recurring methods that would illuminate the current problem.

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