BARBARIANS AT THE GATE; SATURDAY ESSAY Politicians Love Threats to National Security. They Allow Them to Cloak Naked Ambition in Patriotism. Here a Historical Novelist Draws Chilling Parallels between the Death of Democracy in Rome and Our Loss of Liberty

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By Robert Harris

THE Roman war fleet, in the autumn of 68BC, lay peacefully at anchor in its harbour at Ostia, at the mouth of the River Tiber, about 15 miles south-west of Rome.

Two of the most senior members of the senate, Bellinus and Sextillius, were visiting the port on government business, attended by a score of clerks and a dozen bodyguards carrying the bundles of rods and axes which symbolised their authority as magistrates.

At some point - I imagine it was just before dawn, to achieve maximum surprise - the entrance to the harbour was suddenly filled with a mass of threatening low, grey shapes, moving quickly and quietly across the waves.

These were not big warships but the small, highly manoeuvrable open-decked sailing barques known as myopiarones, which were favoured by pirates.

Before the Roman legionaries could be roused from their barracks onshore, the surprise attack was under way. What followed was a military disaster for the Romans, a Pearl Harbor and 9/11 combined, as the pirates torched the fleet and the docks, and kidnapped Bellinus and Sextillius, along with all their bodyguards and official insignia.

The flames would have been easily visible for miles around, leaping above the flat and marshy ground of the Tiber delta.

That night in Rome - for which Ostia served as the main port - it must have seemed as if there was a second sunset glowing red in the western sky.

Although not particularly well known nowadays, the burning of Ostia was to be as significant a turning-point in Roman history as 9/11 threatens to be in ours, and for exactly the same reason.

The world's sole superpower, the richest and greatest empire on earth, had been struck in its heart, not by a conventional military foe, which would never have dared attempt such an outrage, but by stateless desperados, unfettered by treaties.

It was a shattering blow to Roman prestige, and it spread terror throughout the Mediterranean - for if the pirates could hit the capital, where else was safe?

In the words of the great German historian, Theodor Mommsen, writing in the 19th century: 'The Latin husbandman, the traveller on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae [on the Bay of Naples] were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment.' The pirates of the 1st century BC were a kind of criminal version of Al Qaeda. They were, in Mommsen's words, 'the ruined men of all nations', operating without a unified command structure, but always ready to come to one another's aid - 'a piratical state with a peculiar esprit de corps'.

AMONG their recent outrages were a raid on the island of Delos, in which the whole population had been seized and sold into slavery; the carrying-off of all the temple treasures from the Italian town of Croton; and, most shocking of all, a raid on the port of Misenum in which they had kidnapped, from her coastal villa, the daughter of Antonius, the last commander the Romans had sent against the pirate fleets.

'Terrorism' is not a bad word to describe the pirates' methods, which included - anticipating by more than 2,000 years those hideously graphic videos posted on the internet by Al Qaeda - the taunting and murder of hostages.

'The way in which they treated their prisoners was the most outrageous thing of all,' wrote the Greek historian, Plutarch. 'If a prisoner cried out that he was a Roman and gave his name, they would pretend to be absolutely terrified; they would smite their thighs with their hands and fall down at his feet, begging him to forgive them.

'The prisoner, seeing them so humble and hearing their entreaties, would believe that they meant what they said.

They would then put Roman boots on his feet and clothe him in a Roman toga in order, they said, that there should be no mistake about his identity in the future. …