Criminals and Gangs

37 Pirates


Pirates were a perennial problem in the Mediterranean, especially in territory where they could hide in hidden harbours and dart out to capture passing ships (which was quite a lot of coastline along the coast of what is now Greece, Turkey, and Syria.) Ancient ships were vulnerable to them because they stayed close to land as much as possible, due to the fact that they weren’t very good at staying afloat. The geographer Strabo describes the lands of the pirates in the following passage:

After the Sindic territory and Gorgipia, on the sea, there is the coast of the Achaei and the Zygi and the Heniochi, which for the most part is harbourless and mountainous, being a part of the Caucasus. These peoples live by robberies at sea. Their boats are slender, narrow, and light, holding only about twenty-five people, though in rare cases they can hold thirty in all; the Greeks call them camarae. They say that the Phthiotic Achaei in Jason’s[1] crew settled in this Achaea, but the Spartans in Heniochia, the leaders of the latter being Rhecas and Amphistratus, the “heniochi” of the Dioscuri, and that in all probability the Heniochi were named after these. At any rate, by equipping fleets of camarae and sailing sometimes against merchant vessels and sometimes against a country or even a city, they hold the mastery of the sea. And they are sometimes assisted even by those who hold the Bosporus, the latter supplying them with mooring places, with market place, and with means of disposing of their booty. And since, when they return to their own land, they have no anchorage, they put the camarae on their shoulders and carry them to the forests where they live and where they farm poor land. And they bring the camarae down to the shore again when the time for sailing comes. And they do the same thing in the countries of others, for they are well acquainted with wooded places, they first hide their camarae in these and then themselves wander on foot night and day to kidnap people. But they readily offer to release their captives for ransom, informing their relatives after they have put out to sea. Now in those places which are ruled by local chieftains the rulers go to the aid of those who are wronged, often attacking and bringing back the camarae, men and all. But the territory that is subject to the Romans provides only little help, because of the negligence of the governors[2] who are sent there.

Strabo, Geography 11.2.12

Any period of political instability, such as when the Romans destroyed many of the Hellenistic powers that had ruled various along the coast of the Eastern Mediterranean since the conquests of Hellenistic Greece in the 200-100s BCE was likely to see a surge in piracy. Eventually the pirates became miniature states almost in their own right – and even managed to take advantage of chaos in the 80-30s BCE in Rome.

24 1 The power of the pirates had its seat in Cilicia at first, and at the outset it was daring and elusive, but it took on confidence and boldness during the Mithridatic war,[3] because it lent itself to the king’s service. 2 Then, while the Romans were embroiled in civil wars at the gates of Rome, the sea was left unguarded, and gradually drew and enticed them on until they no longer attacked sailors only, but also devastated islands and maritime cities. And presently men whose wealth gave them power, and those whose lineage was illustrious, and those who laid claim to superior intelligence, began to embark on piratical craft and share their enterprises, feeling that the occupation brought them a certain reputation and distinction. 3 There were also fortified stopping points and signal-stations for pirates in many places, and fleets put in here which were not merely fitted out for their work with sturdy crews, skilful pilots, and light and speedy ships; but even more annoyingly than the fear which they inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their gilded sails, and purple awnings, and silvered oars, as if they enjoyed their iniquity and prided themselves upon it. 4 Their flutes and stringed instruments and drinking bouts along every coast, their seizures of persons in high command, and their ransomings of captured cities, were a disgrace to the Roman supremacy. For, you see, the ships of the pirates numbered more than a thousand, and the cities captured by them four hundred. 5 Besides, they attacked and plundered places of refuge and sanctuaries before untouchable, such as those of Claros, Didyma, and Samothrace; the temple of Chthonian Earth at Hermione; that of Asclepius in Epidaurus; those of Poseidon at the Isthmus, at Taenarum, and at Calauria; those of Apollo at Actium and Leucas; and those of Hera at Samos, at Argos, and at Lacinium. They also offered strange sacrifices of their own at Olympus, and celebrated there certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first established by them.[4]

6 But they piled the most insults upon the Romans, even going up from the sea along their roads and plundering there, and sacking the neighbouring villas. Once, too, they seized two praetors, Sextilius and Bellinus, in their purple-edged robes, and carried them away, together with their attendants and lictors. They also captured a daughter of Antonius, a man who had celebrated a triumph, as she was going into the country, and exacted a large ransom for her. But their crowning insolence was this. 7 Whenever a captive cried out that he was a Roman and gave his name, they would pretend to be frightened out of their senses, and would strike their thighs, and fall down before him entreating him to pardon them; and he would be convinced of their sincerity, seeing them so humbly suppliant. Then some would put Roman boots on his feet, and others would throw a toga round him, in order, they said, that there might be no mistake about him again. 8 And after thus mocking the man for a long time and getting their fill of amusement from him, at last they would let down a ladder in mid ocean and bid him disembark and go on his way rejoicing; and if he did not wish to go, they would push him overboard themselves and drown him.

Plutarch, Life of Pompey

As a result, Pompey the Great was set in charge of putting down the pirates across the Mediterranean in the 67-66 BCE. He had basically no restrictions on his power during that period, and managed to crush them – or at least give the illusion of that – in a very short period:

3 Pompey divided the waters and the adjacent coasts of the Mediterranean Sea into thirteen districts, and assigned to each a certain number of ships with a commander, and with his forces thus scattered in all quarters he encompassed whole fleets of piratical ships that fell in his way, and straightway hunted them down and brought them into port; others succeeded in dispersing and escaping, and sought their hive, as it were, hurrying from all quarters into Cilicia. Against these Pompey intended to proceed in person with his sixty best ships. 4 He did not, however, sail against them until he had entirely cleared of their pirates the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Libyan Sea, and the sea about Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily, in forty days all told. This was owing to his own tireless energy and the zeal of his lieutenants.

27 1 But the consul Piso at Rome, out of rage and envy, was interfering with Pompey’s equipment and discharging his crews; Pompey therefore sent his fleet round to Brundisium, while he himself went up by way of Tuscany to Rome. On learning of this, the citizens all streamed out into the road, just as if they had not escorted him forth only a few days before. 2 What caused their joy was the unhoped for rapidity of the change, the market being now filled to overflowing with provisions. As a consequence Piso came near being deprived of his consulship, and Gabinius had the requisite law already written out. But Pompey prevented this, as well as other hostile acts, and after arranging everything else in a reasonable manner and getting  what he wanted, went down to Brundisium and set sail. 3 But though his immediate business was urgent and he sailed past other cities in his haste, still, he could not pass Athens by, but went up into the city, sacrificed to the gods, and addressed the people. Just as he was leaving the city, he read two inscriptions, each of a single verse, addressed to him, one inside the gate:—

“As you know you are mortal, in so far you are a god;”

and the other outside:—

“We awaited, we saluted, we have seen, and now conduct you forth.”

4 Some of the pirate bands that were still rowing at large begged for mercy, and since he treated them humanely, and after seizing their ships and persons did them no further harm, the rest became hopeful of mercy too, and made their escape from the other commanders, betook themselves to Pompey with their wives and children, and surrendered to him. All these he spared, and it was chiefly by their aid that he tracked down, seized, and punished those who were still lurking in concealment because conscious of unpardonable crimes.

28 1 But the most numerous and powerful had bestowed their families and treasures and useless folk in forts and strong citadels near the Taurus mountains, while they themselves manned their ships and awaited Pompey’s attack near the promontory of Coracesium in Cilicia; here they were defeated in a battle and then besieged. At last, however, they sent suppliant messages and surrendered themselves, together with the cities and islands of which they were in control; these they had fortified, making them hard to get at and difficult to take by storm. 2 The war was therefore brought to an end and all piracy driven from the sea in less than three months, and besides many other ships, Pompey received in surrender ninety which had brazen beaks. The men themselves, who were more than twenty thousand in number, he did not once think of putting to death; and yet to let them go and suffer them to disperse or band together again, poor, warlike, and numerous as they were, he thought was not well. 3 Reflecting, therefore, that by nature man neither is nor becomes a wild or an unsocial creature, but is transformed by the unnatural practice of vice, whereas he may be softened by new customs and a change of place and life; also that even wild beasts put off their fierce and savage ways when they partake of a gentler mode of life, he determined to transfer the men from the sea to land, and let them have a taste of gentle life by being accustomed to dwell in cities and to till the ground. 4 Some of them, therefore, were received and incorporated into the small and half-deserted cities of Cilicia, which acquired additional territory; and after restoring the city of Soli, which had lately been devastated by Tigranes, the king of Armenia, Pompey settled many there. To most of them, however, he gave as residence Dyme in Achaea, which was then bereft of men and had much good land.

29 1 Well, then, his critics found fault with these measures, and even his best friends were not pleased with his treatment of Metellus in Crete.  Metellus, a kinsman of the Metellus who was a colleague of Pompey in Spain, had been sent as general to Crete before Pompey was chosen to his command; for Crete was a kind of second source for pirates, next to Cilicia. Metellus hemmed in many of them and was killing and destroying them. 2 But those who still survived and were besieged sent suppliant messages to Pompey and invited him into the island, alleging that it was a part of his government, and that all parts of it were within the limit to be measured from the sea. Pompey accepted the invitation and wrote to Metellus putting a stop to his war. He also wrote the cities not to pay any attention to Metellus, and sent them one of his own officers as general, namely, Lucius Octavius, 3 who entered the strongholds of the besieged pirates and fought on their side, thus making Pompey not only odious and oppressive, but actually ridiculous, since he lent his name to godless miscreants, and threw around them the mantle of his reputation to serve like a charm against evil, through envy and jealousy of Metellus. 4 For not even Achilles played the part of a man, men said, but that of a youth wholly crazed and frantic in his quest of glory, when he made a sign to the rest which prevented them from striking Hector, “Lest some one else win honour by the blow, and he come only second”; 5 whereas Pompey actually fought in behalf of the common enemy and saved their lives, that he might rob of his triumph a general who had toiled hard to win it. Metellus, however, would not give in, but captured the pirates and punished them, and then sent Octavius away after insulting and abusing him before the army.

Suetonius, Life of Pompey 24-29


Julius Caesar was captured by pirates in 75 BCE. As was usual when they captured those they could get more money for in ransom than as slaves, they allowed him to send out people to try and raise the money for him.

2.1 First, when the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar burst out laughing. They did not know, he said, who it was that they had captured, and he volunteered to pay fifty. 2 Then, when he had sent his followers to the various cities in order to raise the money and was left with one friend and two slaves among these Cilicians, nearly the most bloodthirsty people in the world, he treated them so highhandedly that, whenever he wanted to sleep, he would send to them and tell them to stop talking. 3 For thirty-eight days, with the greatest nonchalance, he joined in all their games and exercises, just as if he was their leader instead of their prisoner. 4 He also wrote poems and speeches which he read aloud to them, and if they failed to admire his work, he would call them to their faces illiterate savages, and would often laughingly threaten to have them all hanged. They were much taken with this and attributed his freedom of speech to a kind of simplicity in his character or boyish playfulness.5 However, the ransom arrived from Miletus and, as soon as he had paid it and been set free, he immediately manned some ships and set sail from the harbour of Miletus against the pirates. He found them still there, lying at anchor off the island, and he captured nearly all of them. 6 He took their property as spoils of war and put the men themselves into the prison at Pergamon. He then went in person to [Marcus] Junius, the governor of Asia, thinking it proper that he, as praetor in charge of the province, should see to the punishment of the prisoners. 7 Junius, however, cast longing eyes at the money, which came to a considerable sum, and kept saying that he needed time to look into the case. Caesar paid no further attention to him. He went to Pergamon, took the pirates out of prison and crucified the lot of them, just as he had often told them he would do when he was on the island and they imagined that he was joking.

Plutarch, Julius Caesar 2.1-7

Pirates could be well organized and surprisingly bold in seeking out targets. In the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a philosopher and all round wise man and miracle worker, Philostratus tells of one encounter he had where he outwitted pirates who wanted to make a deal for a ship he was piloting:

3.24 But Apollonius replied: “Since you tempt me to talk about piloting ships, I would have you hear what I consider to have been my soundest exploit at that time. Pirates at one time infested the Phoenician Sea[5] and were hanging about the cities to pick up information about the cargoes which different people had. The agents of the pirates spied out accordingly a rich cargo which I had on board my ship, and having taken me aside in conversation, asked me what was my share in the freight; and I told them that it was a thousand drachmas, for there were four people in command of the ship. “And,” said they, “have you a house?” “A wretched hut,” I replied, “on the Island of Pharos, where once upon a time Proteus used to live.” “Would you like then,” they went on, “to acquire a landed estate instead of the sea, and a decent house instead of your hut, and ten times as much for the cargo as you are going to get now? And to get rid of a thousand misfortunes which beset pilots owing to the roughness of the sea?” I replied that I would gladly do so, but that I did not aspire to become a pirate just at a time when I had made myself more expert than I ever had been, and had won crowns for my skill in my profession. However they persevered and promised to give me a purse of ten thousand drachmas, if I would be their man and do what they wanted. Accordingly I egged them on to talk by promising not to fail them, but to assist them in every way.

Then they admitted that they were agents of the pirates, and begged me not to deprive them of a chance of capturing the ship, and instead of sailing away to the city whenever I departed from there, they arranged that I should cast anchor under the promontory, under the lee of which the pirate ships were riding; and they were willing to swear that they would not only not kill myself, but spare the life of any for whom I interceded. I for my part did not consider it safe to reprehend them, for I was afraid that if they were driven to despair, they would attack my ship on the high seas and then we would all be lost somewhere at sea; accordingly I promised to assist their enterprise, but I insisted upon their taking oath to keep their promise truly. They accordingly took an oath, for our interview took place in a temple, and then I said: “You take yourselves to the ships of the pirates at once, for we will sail away by night.” And they found me all the more plausible from the way I bargained about the money, for I stipulated that it must all be paid me in current cash, though not before they had captured the ship. They therefore went off, but I put straight out to sea after doubling the promontory.”

“This then,” said Iarchas, “Apollonius, you consider the behaviour of a just man? “Why yes,” said Apollonius, “and of a humane one too! For I consider it was a rare combination of virtues for one who was a mere sailor to refuse to sacrifice men’s lives, or to betray the interests of merchants, so rising superior to all bribes of money.”

Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 3.2

Sources and Further Reading:



  1. Jason was a mythical Greek hero and sailor. He is best known for marrying and deserting Medea.
  2. Roman governors in the Republic tended to treat their provinces as places that would fund their lives once they returned to Rome.
  3. The Romans fought three wars with King Mithradates of Pontus in the first century BCE, winning them all, but at quite great cost.
  4. Mithras was an Eastern God who became very popular in the Roman army.
  5. The sea close to Lebanon and Judea.


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