Pirates vs. Rome

By Johndisp

The pirate threat in the Mediterranean Sea that was finally put down in 67 BC, had plagued Rome for almost 100 years. Had it been dealt with earlier, the threat wouldn't have posed nearly as great a problem. The hows and whys that led to this being such major obstacle in the Mediterranean will be addressed below.

For many years, the pirates worked to the benefit of Rome. Their most important contribution was slaves. They brought thousands of slaves in the Roman markets, which were necessary to work on the luxurious palatial estates. They also drove up the market prices for these same landowners. Every time the pirates raided a shipment, the prices that the landowners could charge for their goods went up. In short, for a time, the pirates were good for Rome.

The pirates were smart in that the raids on shipping that they conducted didn't target the Roman interests. They made sure to attack everyone equally. This kept Rome from seeing them as a threat, and so the only power strong enough to stop them, saw no need to do so.

Another contribution Rome made to the menace, although indirectly, was the weakening of Crete. The largest groups of pirates, the Cilicians, operated from hidden bases all along the coast of modern Turkey. For many years, the navies of Crete held the pirates in check. But the Roman conquests weakened the navy to such an extent, that it could no longer pose a threat to the pirates.

Thus it came to be that ports started to bribe the pirates to stay away, or to pay the pirates to protect them and attack rivals. These actions made it impossible to track the pirate ships when a nation would decide to pursue them. The ships would make for a friendly port and hide themselves, and the pursuers would continue empty-handed.

Recently a Roman tablet was found that detailed an anti-piracy law. The law advised that all Roman citizens were allowed to prctice any business they desired and to prohibit this was a violation of the law. It went further to say that no ports were allowed to aid or do business with pirates and to do so would result in a fine of 20000 denari. Copies of this tablet have been found in Syria, Alexandria, Cyprus, Egypt and Cyrene. All parts of the Roman Empire and all major trade centers.

Finally in 102 BC, Rome decided to take action. They ordered Marcus Antonius to take the navy and destroy the pirates. However, instead of eliminating the overall threat, the Senators made a deal with the pirate leader, Nicomedes to have Roman interests left alone, but permit raiding of other areas. By 77 BC, Rome ordered Publius Servilius Vatia to assist Lycia in eliminating the pirate threat to them. However since no evidence could be found connecting the pirates of Cilicia Tracheia with any actual attacks, Servilius was not given permission to attack their lands. By 74 BC, Marc Antonius was about to launch a campaign to invade the Cilician coast, but it was cancelled due to the third Mithradatic War.

While Mithradates kept Rome busy, pirates under his control plundered like never before. But with the end of the war, their numbers declined. But in the following two wars involving Mithradates, pirates navies raided the Roman supply lines, and sacked coastal townships. By the time Mithradates was finally destroyed, the pirates had gathered and functioned more like a regular navy instead of individual forces. They even captured and held Iassus, Samos, Clazomenae, and Samothrace. From Samothrace alone, they captured almost 50000 denari.

The Roman lifestyle even promoted the success of piracy. Their constant wars so far from home led thousands of young men to abandon them homes and take to a life upon the seas. What made the pirates more successful was that these new forces had intimate knowledge of the lands the pirates raided and could provide the location of sheltered coves to hide from pursuers and during storms.

The pirates even started raiding on Roman lands and along the roads frequented by so many citizens. During one such raid, two praetors Sextilius and Bellinus were captured and ransomed back to Rome for a handsome amount of money. Even Marc Antonius' daughter was captured and ransomed back. In 73 BC, Julius Caesar was captured by pirates, and held for over a month and a half. It appears that his charisma and style made his stay hardly uncomfortable. He demanded and received the finest furnishings and food. He wrote poetry and if the pirates failed to appreciate it, he would chastise them. He even made them change the amount of ransom they demanded from 20 talents to 50 talents because "the amount was closer to my value". When he was returned to Rome, he organized an expedition, hunted down his captors, and had them crucified.

Finally the pirates became so successful that they all but completely shut down trade in the Mediterranean Sea. Within 30 years, 1000 pirate ships had captured or raided almost 500 coastal towns. Something had to be done!

Pompey was selected to rid the seas of the pirate menace once and for all. He was given license to recruit 120000 men, 4000 cavalry, 270 ships and 7000 talents to achieve this purpose. He split these forces into 13 geographical districts and made each group responsible for eliminating pirates in their area. This left the avenues of escape very limited to the pirates. The rumors of death that came ahead of Pompey, led many pirates to stop their activities and retreat to the pirate strongholds of Cragus and Anticragus. When they were trapped in these locations, the pirates were quickly defeated. In less than three months, Pompey swept the pirates from the tradeways of the Mediterranean Sea. It was in 67 BC, that Pompey took the pirate bases in Cilicia and finally eliminated the threat forever.