Pirates of the Mediterranean

Some people think that the 17th century invented pirates.  Avast, me hearties!  ‘Tis not so.  Long before William Kidd, Blackbeard, Peter Blood, and Jack Sparrow sailed the seas, long before the pirates of the Caribbean, there were the Pirates of the Mediterranean!

Piracy is, technically, theft that occurs at sea — generally of ships, such as giant oil tankers, for instance.  Of course, ships have cargo, and this was generally what the pirates were/are after.  Booty.  Gold.  Grain from Egypt or the Black Sea.  Spices.  Silk.  Purple dye.  The usual.  And a ship doesn’t sail itself; thus, piracy also involves the taking of hostages.

One such hostage was C. Julius Caesar, most of famous of the Romans.  He vowed that he would hunt down the pirates who kidnapped him and crucify them.  No doubt they laughed at the slender, epileptic aristocrat with his comb-over and carefully-tailored fringed sleeves.  However, once Caesar was free, being a man of his word, he raised a ship of his own and hunted his piratical captors.  They died of asphyxiation, hanging on Roman crosses.

However, most pirates tend to engage in other activities as well.  In the ancient Mediterranean, they would sail along the coast, kidnap freeborn people, and then sell them as slaves somewhere else.  This would cause some trouble in Sicily in 135 BC when a bunch of freeborn slaves who had been promised their freedom didn’t get it (through bureaucratic mismanagement — deliberate or otherwise).  They revolted.  Twice.

The fortunes of pirates and the fortunes of empires are, in fact, closely related.  When Rome conquered Greece (146 BC), the fleet of Rhodes was destroyed.  Rhodes had previously been the pirate police of the Eastern Mediterranean.  As a result, piracy increased.

Increasing piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean was a real problem for the Romans.  Rome was a large, overpopulated city, and Italy could not produce enough grain to feed both itself and Rome.  Thus, the City bought grain from elsewhere, chiefly Egypt and the Black Sea.  The route for the grain to Rome from both of these places took the ships through the Eastern Mediterranean.  Piracy would affect the amount of grain to reach Rome as well as the price of that which did.

Therefore, to keep the grain supply secure and the prices low, Rome declared war on the pirates.  Unfortunately, lacking control of such things as the kraken or sea goddesses, they had to rely on aristocratic generals in charge of the fleet to do the job.  Most of them failed until Pompey the Great in 67 BC.  Pompey was at last successful at eradicating the Eastern Mediterranean of piracy.

Along the way, he also succeeded in taking various Eastern territories on behalf of the Roman Republic and then engaged in the Third Mithridatic War.  Were it not for the pirates and the necessity of a steady grain supply, he may never have annexed the island of Cyprus or set foot in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem, let alone conquer large portions of Asia Minor on behalf of Rome.

Thus, the war against piracy was an integral part of Rome’s ascendancy in the Mediterranean world.

And when empires begin to fade and fall, piracy increases.  Thus, in the later days of Roman Britain in the 300s, a young man named Patrick was abducted by Irish pirates and sold into slavery.  Thus, in the 700s, when Byzantium and Persia were exhausted from warring with one another, Cyprus was forced to move her capital inland to Nicosia in order to avoid the incessant raids of Arab pirates.

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