Ancient Rome and the Pirates

By de Souza, Philip | History Today, July 2001 | Go to article overview

Ancient Rome and the Pirates

de Souza, Philip, History Today

Philip de Souza considers the impact of piracy on Roman economic and political life.

THE GREEK HISTORIAN and geographer Strabo, writing around the time of the death of Augustus in AD14, divided the known world into two parts. The better part was that which was subject to the Romans. Here they had installed order and people were prosperous, using the sea for the peaceful and civilised purpose of trading with each other. The rest of world, in his view, was the home of uncivilised, barbarian peoples who practised piracy and did not deserve the benefits of Roman rule.

The stable conditions which prevailed in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas under the Roman emperors were a relatively recent development. In the preceding century, to judge from literary evidence and inscriptions, pirates were a serious problem in the waters which the Romans liked to refer to as `our sea' (mare nostrum).

For merchants piracy was more than just an economic hazard. It was not only the cargo that would be vulnerable to pirates, they might easily kill the crew and any passengers, or sell them as slaves, or if they were wealthy or important ransom them. Similar perils faced the inhabitants of the many coastal communities of the Mediterranean. A ruler with the power to suppress the menace of piracy, therefore, deserved to be honoured alongside the gods, as Roman emperors frequently were.

The idea that powerful rulers should keep the seas safe had a long history in the classical world. Many states and rulers claimed to be suppressing piracy for the common good, although often they seem to have been acting more out of self-interest. Yet not all those whom the ancient sources called pirates were mere armed robbers using ships. The term `pirate' was a useful label which could be applied to political opponents in order to illegitimise them. Suppression of piracy was also used from time to time by Greek city-states as a justification for acts of imperialism.


Although true piracy was a form of armed robbery, like banditry, the use of ships by pirates made them more of a problem for ancient societies than bandits. Piratical raids could be larger in scale, range over far greater distances and were much harder to anticipate and defend against than those of bandits. The lack of a single, stable political authority made it easier for piracy to flourish, as did the frequent wars between the kingdoms and city-states of the Mediterranean, which tended to encourage piracy at their margins. Pirates could base themselves in the territory of one state and attack the inhabitants of another with little fear of being chastised or evicted. Many maritime communities seem to have been content to trade with or even host groups of `pirates'. The sale of the booty taken on pirate raids, whether it was slaves, luxury goods, or basic commodities, could contribute significantly to local economies.

The independent island state of Rhodes, which was heavily dependent on maritime trade, earned widespread praise for her long-running conflict with the piratical Cretans in the third and second centuries BC, but the Rhodians had limited resources. By the end of the second century SC Rome was the leading political power in the Mediterranean.

Recent scholarship has stressed the extent to which the Romans' militaristic culture and highly competitive political system encouraged the senatorial aristocracy to seek overseas wars and the conquest of new enemies. The Romans are generally viewed as an aggressive, acquisitive people whose leaders depended heavily on the fruits of war to maintain their dominance.

Yet they liked to portray themselves as the benefactors and protectors of weaker communities, only embarking on wars with a just cause. They claimed, for example, to have gone to war with the Illyrians in the latter part of the third century BC in part to protect Italian traders and the smaller Greek cities of the Adriatic from Illyrian attacks. …

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