29 Jul 2016
Aaron Jaffer explores how the Romans reacted to piracy in the Mediterranean.
The sea does not always spring to mind when we think of the Romans, and we seldom picture them at the mercy of pirates. We tend to imagine them on land, doing things like building much-needed sewers or watching gladiators fight to the death. Certainly, the sea was never as important to the Romans and their way of life as it was to the Ancient Greeks but this did not stop them dominating Mare Nostrum or ‘Our Sea’, as they would eventually call the Mediterranean. In doing so, they came into conflict with some of the ancient world’s most troublesome pirates.
One group of pirates took their name from Cilicia, a rocky region in what is now south-east Turkey and an ideal base for launching attacks. They preyed on ships during the second and first centuries BC, plundering cargoes, taking captives and raiding coastal towns. Frustratingly, most of what we know about the Cilician pirates comes from descriptions written by their enemies.
Plutarch, a famous Greek historian, claimed that the Cilicians sometimes taunted captured Romans by pretending to be afraid of them. After enjoying this joke, they would lower a ladder into the sea, mockingly tell the unfortunate captive that he was free to go and then force him overboard to drown. It is difficult to know where Plutarch, who was born over a century after the Cilicians were defeated, got his information.
This method of execution sounds remarkably similar to ‘walking the plank', something often associated with the so-called Golden Age of Piracy of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, known for figures such as Edward Teach ('Blackbeard') and Anne Bonny (one of the most famous female pirates). Contrary to what many films might suggest, there is no evidence that the practice was in use during that period although pirates throughout history have taken pleasure in throwing captives overboard and torturing them in other ways.
The Romans became increasingly worried about the Cilicians during the first century BC. The Senate, Rome’s governing body, eventually gave general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – also known as Pompey – vast supplies of money, ships and soldiers to deal with the problem in 67 BC.
Pompey’s anti-piracy operation involved sweeping the Mediterranean from west to east and then attacking pirate strongholds in Cilicia. His men destroyed hundreds of ships before the Cilicians surrendered. The Mediterranean remained a dangerous place after this massive campaign but it would be centuries before piracy reached similarly threatening levels.
Unfortunately for Pompey, his success against the Cilicians did not save him from Roman politics. He sided against Julius Caesar in one of Rome’s many civil wars and lost. His flight to Egypt in 48 BC was cut short when he was assassinated by those eager to gain favour with Caesar.