Magazine article The Spectator

Anciet & Modern

Magazine article The Spectator

Anciet & Modern

Article excerpt

A HUGE shipment of plutonium is leaving London for Japan, and the shippers, terrified of pirates, have armed the vessel and are doing their best to keep the route secret. The Romans knew how to deal with pirates.

Ancient pirates attacked shipping routinely, but since they rarely knew whether a ship would contain gold ingots or (say) a consignment of animal hides, they preferred to go for human targets. This was where the real money lay either in capturing the Great and Good and holding them to ransom, or rounding up large numbers of people and selling them off on the lucrative slave market. The island of Naxos, for example, once suffered a pirate swoop that removed 280 of its inhabitants (it may be one reason why Greek island towns have such narrow, winding and tortuous backstreets - to give people an instant escape-route or trap to deter raiders).

But it did not always go the pirates' way. The most famous detainee of the ancient world was Julius Caesar, captured by pirates en route from Bithynia (northern Turkey) to Rome. When the pirates suggested 20 talents as a ransom, Caesar fell about laughing and said 50 would be a more appropriate valuation. For the 38 days of his captivity Caesar behaved as if he were their leader and the pirates thought him a great card, especially when he boasted that, on his ransom being paid, he would track down and execute them. …

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