The Pirates of Antiquity

The Pirates of Antiquity

In recent years many movies and books have depicted the notorious Golden Age of Pirates, during the 16th Century, but less commonly acknowledged is the fact that pirates were also actually common during the times of Ancient Greece, Egypt, and Rome. There is evidence, found on a clay tablet dating back to the reign of Akhnaton at around 1340 BCE, which describes pirates attacking ships in the waters off the coast of North Africa.

Why was piracy common in Ancient Greece and Rome?

These were the richest, and most influential societies during their times, and their dominance meant that they covered vast tracts of land and sea, and the wealth of goods coming and going from their ports made such places prime targets for pirates. Furthermore the wars of the era meant that pirates would often attack enemy ships “legitimately,” or at least with the support of their countries.

Ancient Greek Pirates

There was an ancient Greek pirate base on the Lipari (now Aeolian) Islands, found just to the North of Sicily, from where pirates dominated for over two thousand years. Grecian pirates were also dominant in Illyria (on the Adriatic Sea) and Crete. The Lycians, from what is now Turkey, were also known for their piracy, and they were pretty successful, too, until their havens were destroyed by Rameses III in 1194 BCE.

Julius Caesar Kidnapped by Pirates

The Cilician pirates were some of the most famous of ancient times; they were responsible for the kidnapping and ransom of Julius Caesar in 78 BCE. They succeeded in getting their ransom, but after his release, Caesar hunted them down and killed the pirates for their trespass. The end of any pirate’s career tended to be less glorious than the rest of it.

The End of Greek Piracy

The Greek pirates enjoyed a long heyday lasting hundreds of years until the Roman Empire rose to dominance and began to crack down on pirate activity in around 70 BCE. Piracy hung on, though the Mediterranean was more peaceful, until around 476 CE when the Romans fell to the German Goths.