Piracy, or robbery on the sea, was widespread throughout the ancient world. Pirates were a constant threat to travelers and traders and to the safety of coastal communities. Although the naval power of Athens, Rhodes, and the Roman Empire solved the problem of piracy for short periods of time, piracy continued to cause hardships during most of ancient Greek and Roman history.
The earliest references to piracy are found in the poems of Homer. In ancient times, piracy brought no shame to those who practiced it. Although the heroes* in Homer’s epics* are never referred to as pirates, they often acted as such, raiding and plundering* coastal towns. In the Odyssey, after Odysseus and his men left Troy to return home, they sacked* a city in Thrace. There they “killed the men and, taking the women and plenty of cattle and goods, divided them up.” According to the Greek historian Thucydides, early Greeks and non- Greeks engaged in piracy and the sacking of towns. “This was a lifelong pursuit for them,” he wrote, “one that had not as yet received any stigma but was even considered an honorable profession.” Widespread piracy forced the people who lived on islands and along the coasts of the mainland to build their homes either a safe distance from the sea or on defensible sites next to the sea.
During the classical* period of Greek history, piracy came to be viewed as dishonorable. Athens, with its powerful navy, succeeded in keeping the Aegean Sea relatively free of pirates. However, with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War and Athens’s defeat in 404 B.C., piracy revived. During the 300s B.C., the Athenians were eventually able to reestablish a naval base in the Adriatic Sea to protect their trading ships from raids by Illyrian pirates who operated along the coast.
Attacks on ships in the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic* period are mentioned only occasionally in ancient sources. The main threats of piracy continued to be raids on coastal towns and settlements. Numerous inscriptions* from islands in the Aegean Sea and from coastal communities record incidents of raiding by pirates in search of booty* and prisoners to be ransomed or sold into slavery. The kidnapping of young aristocrats* by pirates became a common subject of Greek and Roman literature.
The island state of Rhodes succeeded in keeping the eastern Mediterranean Sea free of pirates during the late 200s and early 100s B.C. Rhodes did not have the heavy ships that required hundreds of rowers, common in the navies of the large Hellenistic kingdoms. Instead, the navy of Rhodes used squadrons of lighter and faster ships that could more easily chase and capture pirate ships. However, the growing power of the Roman Empire ended the wealth and independence of Rhodes. With the decline of the Rhodian navy, piracy revived and even flourished.
The Romans before about 30 B.C. made little attempt to check piracy in the western Mediterranean. Although the Romans strengthened their fleet during the Punic Wars of the 200s and 100s B.C., the new fleet declined after Rome’s victory over Carthage in 146 B.C. By the first century B.C., pirates roamed the Mediterranean at will, raiding ships and coastal communities and kidnapping and holding wealthy Romans for ransom. Pirates even plundered the Roman port of Ostia, which was only 16 miles from Rome. When piracy threatened the Roman grain supply, officials finally took steps to eliminate the problem. In 67 B.C., the Roman general Pompey successfully rid the Mediterranean of pirates, but the Roman civil wars that followed soon afterward left the region in disarray and enabled piracy to return. Augustus, the first Roman emperor, built a permanent Roman fleet that finally halted piracy in the region. However, when the Roman Empire began to break apart during the A.D. 400s, piracy once again became a major problem for the peoples of the Mediterranean. (See also Naval Power, Greek; Naval Power, Roman; Ships and Shipbuilding; Trade, Greek; Trade, Roman.)
* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god
* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style
* plunder to steal property by force, usually after a conquest
* sack to rob a captured city
* classical in Greek history, refers to the period of great political and cultural achievement from about 500 B.C. to 323 B.C.
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
* inscription letters or words carved into a surface as a lasting record
* booty riches or property gained through conquest
* aristocrat person of the highest social class
Piracy was such a difficult problem in the Mediterranean that the Romans imposed the maximum penalty to stop it. Under Roman law, a captured pirate was to be crucified, beheaded, or thrown to wild animals. The law recommended that the punishment be inflicted in public and that the body be displayed on a cross or post "so that the sight will deter others from the same crimes."
Sometimes angry people did not bother to wait for the law. When they caught a pirate, they either beat their captive to death or burned him alive.