Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Ancient Rome and the Pirates

Ancient Rome and the Pirates | 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 bc 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. The Roman conquest of the Balearic islands in 123-22 bc also seems to have been presented as the suppression of piracy, although it is hard to see how the islanders, whom the historian Livy described as ‘spending the summer lying around naked’, could have posed a serious threat to anyone. It is not surprising, however, that the Romans were put under pressure to do something about piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean by their subjects and allies, especially the Rhodians whose very existence was dependent on maritime commerce.

Although the main priority for Roman armies at the end of the second century bc was combating the incursions of Germanic tribes into northern Italy, the pressure from allied communities, combined with the Roman aristocracy’s hunger for military glory, produced an expedition, led by Marcus Antonius the Orator, to the area of southern Turkey known as Cilicia. The Cilicians had acquired a reputation for piracy since they were recruited as allies in the 140s BC  by Diodotus Tryphon, a pretender to the Syrian throne. Their raids against the prosperous Levantine cities had not done much to help his cause, but they encouraged the Cilicians to plunder the coastal communities and shipping of the eastern Mediterranean.

Marcus Antonius had completed a year in office in 103 BC as one of the middle-ranking city magistrates of Rome, called praetors, and he was assigned the war against the Cilicians as his ‘province’ (provincia), or area of responsibility, for the next year. He was anxious for military success on a scale that would allow him to celebrate a formal triumph and give a major boost to his candidacy for the consulship, Rome’s highest magistracy. With a force made up largely of contingents supplied by Rome’s Greek allies, particularly the Rhodians, Antonius attacked cities on the southern coast of Turkey which were identified as pirate bases. No detailed account of his campaign survives, but at least one Roman officer, an uncle of Marcus Tullius Cicero, the famous Roman orator, was killed in action.

Antonius earned his triumph, and he was elected to the consulship in 99 BC.

In 100 BC a statute was passed by the Roman citizen assembly concerning the assignment and administration of provinces for magistrates of praetorian rank. Among other things that this statute, the lex de provinciis praetoriis (statute concerning the praetorian provinces), announces is the  decision to make Cilicia into a praetorian province by referring to the need to deny bases to pirates and to enable the citizens and friends of Rome to sail the sea in safety. It instructs the senior consul to write to these allies, notably the kings of Cyprus, Syria, Egypt and Cyrene, inviting them to do their utmost to assist the Romans. The sections of the lex de provinciis praetoriis relating to piracy seem to have been framed as a response to the demands of the Rhodians, whose ambassadors were given special treatment by the terms of the statute. The Romans seem to have decided to take a leading role in the suppression of piracy.

There is another interpretation of the statute, however, which is to see it as a manifestation of Roman imperialism. By claiming to be interested in suppressing piracy the Romans were justifying the expansion of their empire in southern Turkey in a way that would both encourage their allies to fight for, or supply them, and at the same time present their opponents unfavourably as pirates, or the supporters of pirates.

After 100 BC there was plenty of Roman military activity in the eastern Mediterranean, but there is little evidence that it was directed against pirates. From 78 to 74 BC Publius Servilius Vatia, one of the consuls of 79 BC, campaigned strenuously in a province designated ‘Cilicia’. Servilius is credited with defeating pirates but, while it is clear that he captured some coastal cities which were used as bases for piracy, his main priorities were to enhance his own prestige and to assert Roman control over a strategically important area. The same was true of other Roman aristocrats who campaigned in the region in the 80s and 70s BC.

Many of those designated as ‘pirates’ by sources for this period were allied to, or in some way associated with, Mithridates VI, King of Pontos. Mithridates was a long-standing enemy of the Romans who fought a series of wars against them from 89 to 63 BC. At times he controlled most of Anatolia and parts of mainland Greece. He used a variety of mercenaries and military allies, and was often accused by the Romans of recruiting Cilician and Cretan pirates to his cause and promoting piracy, in much the same way as Diodotus Tryphon. It made sense for the Romans to exploit the fear  piracy engendered among citizens of the Greek cities by presenting Mithridates as an ally of pirates.

Cretan pirates were blamed for many incidents of piracy. Another commander, Quintus Caecilius Metellus, was sent in 69 BC, with orders to bring the whole island under Roman control. The official reasons for his expedition were the suppression of piracy and the punishment of the Cretans for helping Mithridates, but in fact the Senate had been on the verge of clearing the Cretans of these charges and declaring them  allies of the Roman people. It was only at the last moment that an ambitious politician, Lentulus Spinther, intervened and forced the Senate to declare war. The conquest of Crete should not, therefore, be seen simply as a further measure to suppress piracy. An extended campaign of this kind offered numerous opportunities to obtain booty and, for the victorious general, prestige and influence in Rome. The Romans had recently annexed the wealthy kingdom of Cyrenaica and an expedition against Crete had already been attempted in 72 BC by the son of Marcus Antonius the Orator. It is reasonable to surmise that many Romans saw Crete as a profitable addition to their growing empire.

Historical sources provide evidence of continuing attacks and spectacular cases of kidnap and ransom by pirates in the 70s and 60s BC. The story of one famous victim illustrates the extent to which most Roman provincial governors were indifferent to the problem. In late 75 or early 74 BC, an aspiring Roman aristocrat called Gaius Julius Caesar was sailing to Rhodes, where he was to study rhetoric, when he was captured by pirates who held him for about forty days until he was ransomed. Having been released, he collected together a small fleet in Miletos and went after the pirates, and captured them. He took them to the Roman governor of the province of Asia, Juncus, to demand that he deal with them, but got no satisfaction. Juncus appears to have been more interested in obtaining the pirates’ loot than in punishing them, so Caesar had to organise the executions himself. We are not told what became of the plunder, but my guess is that it may have been used to fund Caesar’s rhetoric lessons.

A similar lack of enthusiasm for dealing with pirates was displayed by Gaius Verres, the Roman governor of Sicily between 73 and 71 BC. Verres was put on trial for extortion when he returned to Rome. He had made himself so wealthy, through corruption, extortion and even murder, during his period as a governor that he expected to have little difficulty in bribing the jury to acquit him, but he had to give in to a vigorous prosecution mounted by Cicero (106-43 BC). A recurrent theme of Cicero’s case against Verres was his neglect of his duty to protect the province from pirates. During his governorship, Cicero claimed:

Well fortified harbours and the securest of cities lay open to pirates and bandits; Sicilian sailors and troops, our allies and friends, were starved to death; the finest and most excellently turned out fleets were lost and destroyed, bringing great disgrace to the Roman people.

Verres pocketed the money which the Sicilian cities had set aside for a fleet of warships to deal with pirates, and he had accepted bribes to discharge most of the sailors. When one of the remaining ships eventually did manage to seize a pirate vessel (‘laden with booty and sinking under its own weight’, according to Cicero) Verres could not restrain himself. Cicero described what followed in his published version of the prosecution speeches:

The whole night is taken up with emptying out the ship. The pirate captain himself, who ought to be executed, is seen by no one. To this day everyone believes – you may judge for yourselves what truth there is in this conjecture – that Verres secretly accepted money from the pirates in exchange for their captain.

Piratical attacks continued to be widespread and the Romans, for all their claims to be concerned to protect their allies, were more interested in increasing their own wealth and power. Yet in 67 BC, one of Rome’s most ambitious generals, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great), was given a special, Mediterranean-wide command to rid the seas of pirates. He was allotted huge resources for three years and, despite the enormous opposition it provoked from within the Senate, he was given overriding authority in all provinces for up to fifty miles inland. Piracy was a serious problem in 67 BC, but it had been so five or ten, or even twenty, years earlier. So why were the Romans prepared to take such drastic action now?

The main explanation seems to be sheer self-interest. While pirates regularly harassed their provincial subjects and allies, but left Rome and Italy relatively untroubled, the Romans were content to profess concern but take little action. In the early 60s BC, however, pirates were striking at targets on the Italian coast.

Places like Brundisium, Caieta and even Ostia, at the mouth of the river Tiber, were attacked. The harbours, cities, roads and villas of Italy were easy pickings. Cicero, describing with a rhetorical flourish the background to Pompey’s commisssion in a speech of 66 BC, said:

We used to guarantee not just the safety of Italy, but were able, through the prestige of our imperial power, to preserve unharmed all our far-flung allies … yet we are now not only kept out of our provinces, away from the coasts of Italy and its harbours, but we are even driven off the Appian Way!

The Greek biographer Plutarch, whose Life of Pompey was written in the second century AD, pinpoints what the Romans perceived as the most urgent problem:

The pirates’ power was felt in all parts of the Mediterranean, so that it was impossible to sail anywhere and all trade was brought to a halt. It was this which really made the Romans sit up and take notice. With their markets short of food and a great famine looming, they commissioned Pompey to clear the seas of pirates.

One thing which no one could ignore in Rome was a threat to the grain supply. The masses of poorer Romans living in the crowded city, whose approval made Senatorial proposals into law in the citizens’ assembly, were delighted to vote for a statute putting a popular commander in charge of restoring their main sources of food. Pompey’s strategy confirms that securing the grain supply was his first priority. He gathered his naval forces and concentrated them in the western Mediterranean, securing the regions on which Rome depended for her food supply, namely North Africa, Sardinia, Sicily, and Corsica. Plutarch continues:

He divided up the coasts and seas into thirteen regions, assigning a number of ships to each one, with a commander. His forces were spread out, threatening the pirate hordes from all sides so that they were swiftly caught and brought to land. The more elusive ones were driven together towards Cilicia, like bees swarming to their hive. Pompey made ready to move against them with sixty of his best ships.

The sources are remarkably brief in what they say about the Cilician part of the campaign. Cicero sums it up in one sentence:

He himself, however, set out from Brundisium and in 49 days he had brought Cilicia into the Roman Empire.

A few more details are given by later sources, like Plutarch and the historians Appian and Cassius Dio, but they do not suggest that there was a hard struggle, or even much fighting. The conquest of Cilicia and the removal of the threat of piracy in forty-nine days seems incredible, especially in the light of the long campaigns fought by previous Roman magistrates in this area, such as Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus.

Close scrutiny of the sources leaves the distinct impression that Pompey was in a hurry and not at all concerned about doing a thorough job. The main contemporary source, Cicero, was the Roman equivalent of a ‘spin doctor’, able to take any Roman aristocrat’s public career and present him as either the embodiment of corruption and incompetence, as with Verres, or the model of virtue and military excellence, as with Pompey. In his speech delivered in support of Pompey in 66 BC, Cicero argued before the Roman citizen assembly that Pompey was the only man capable of ending the war with Mithridates, and that the secret of Pompey’s success was his reputation, which caused most of the enemy to give up without a fight:

All pirates, wherever they were, suffered capture and death, or handed themselves over to this singularly powerful commander. Even the Cretans, when they sent emissaries to him in Pamphylia to plead their case, learned that there was hope for their surrender, and were ordered to give hostages.

The Greek senator and historian Cassius Dio, writing in the third century ad, elaborates further:

For he had at his disposal great forces, both in his fleet and his army, so that at sea and on land he was irresistible. Just as great was his clemency towards those who made terms with him, so that he won over many of them by this policy. For those men who were beaten by his forces and experienced his great benevolence, put themselves at his disposal most readily.

The policy of clemency which Cassius Dio refers to meant that all any supposed pirates had to do was surrender at once and they would be treated leniently instead of being executed or sold into slavery, which were the traditional punishments for piracy. It was clearly aimed at allowing Pompey to subdue Cilicia with the minimum of fighting. He would still have the prestige of victory and be well placed to assume the prize of command in the war against Mithridates. The Cretans were still trying to resist another Roman commander, Quintus Caecilius Metellus, when they got news of Pompey’s amnesty. Their attempt to surrender to him resulted in the absurd situation of one Roman general ordering his forces to engage those of another so that he could claim the honour of defeating the Cretans.

Pompey’s next step was to ‘resettle’ the former pirates. He supposedly chose places which would be suitable for agriculture, rather than piracy, but some of the sites chosen for the resettlements seem more like ideal pirate bases. In particular Soli on the coast of Cilicia, which was renamed Pompeiopolis, and Dyme at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth were perfectly positioned for attacking shipping and vulnerable coastal settlements. No wonder the Cretans were so anxious to surrender to him.

Even Cicero was forced to admit that Pompey’s war against the pirates in 67 BC had been less than entirely successful. In a speech of 59 BC he defended the actions of Gaius Valerius Flaccus, governor of the Roman province of Asia (western Turkey) in 62 BC.

One of the accusations against Flaccus was that he had extorted money from the Greek cities of the coastal region in order to maintain a fleet to guard against pirates. Since Pompey had supposedly ended the pirate menace, the prosecution argued, this fleet was unnecessary. Cicero had to defend Flaccus’s policy without seeming to criticise Pompey, the most powerful man in Rome since his victory over Mithridates. He explained the fleet was part of Pompey’s grand plan:

He bestowed peace upon the maritime world through his great courage and incredible speed. But he never undertook, nor should he have undertaken, to be held responsible if a single pirate ship should happen to appear somewhere. Therefore he himself, when he had already brought an end to all the wars on land and sea, nevertheless ordered those same cities to provide a fleet.

Cicero goes on to justify Flaccus’s levies as a response to the continued problem of piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean:

Should Flaccus still be censured for his conscription of rowers?

Even if a member of the aristocracy of Adramyttium was killed by pirates, someone whose name is familiar to almost all of us, Atyanas the Olympic boxing champion?

In reply to the point that no pirates were ever captured by Flaccus’s fleet, Cicero reminds the court that such things are a matter of luck, for it is a difficult job to find and pursue pirates across the sea. In this way he maintains the reputation of Pompey, whose luck in 67 BC must have been outstandingly good.

Other Roman governors also had to deal with piracy in the eastern Mediterreanean in the 50s BC, demonstrating still further the limitations of Pompey’s supposed eradication of the problem.

In 44 BC, long after Pompey had perished in his struggle for political supremacy with Julius Caesar, Cicero was again faced with the inadequacy of Pompey’s measures to suppress piracy. In a letter to his friend Atticus, written when he was contemplating travelling from Italy to Greece after the assassination of Caesar, Cicero remarks:

It is not surprising that the Dymaeans, having been driven out of their land, are making the sea unsafe. There should be some protection in a joint voyage with Brutus, but I imagine it will only be a matter of very small craft.

The Dymaeans he refers to were the pirates whom Pompey had sent to Dyme, in the northern Peloponnese as part of his resettlement programme. Having been deprived of their land by new colonists, installed by Caesar, they seem to have reverted to their former piratical practices, although it may be that they had never entirely abandoned them.

There is evidence of continued piracy in the 40s and 30s bc. For example, an inscription from the Cycladic island of Syros honours Onesandros, a man from nearby Siphnos, for the assistance he gave to a slave from Syros who had been the victim of a recent pirate raid. Furthermore, the civil wars which followed Caesar’s assassination and resulted in the establishment of Augustus as Rome’s first emperor promoted the kind of political instability in which piracy often flourished.

As rival aristocrats raised armies and fought each other for control of the Roman empire, the label ‘pirate’ or ‘friend of pirates’ was employed to illegitimise political opponents and justify protracted civil wars. From 43 to 36 bc Pompey’s surviving son, Sextus Pompeius, waged a campaign against Caesar’s heir Octavian, the future emperor Augustus. In a twist of fate, his strategy of blockading Rome and raiding the coast of Italy from bases in Sardinia and Sicily earned him the accusation of being a pirate. In a monumental inscription listing his achievements which was copied all over the Roman empire on his death, Augustus summarised his defeat of Sextus Pompeius with the words ‘I made the sea peaceful and freed it of pirates’.

In a sense it was Augustus’s victories over Sextus Pompeius and his other main rival, Mark Antony, that eventually made possible the effective Roman suppression of piracy in the Mediterranean. The creation of a monarchy and the subordination of aristocratic rivalry under Augustus enabled the emperor to maintain a permanant, professional army and navy which could turn Rome’s claim to be the guarantor of maritime security into a reality. Pirates could not find anywhere to base themselves beyond reach of the armed might of Rome.

Piracy still did not vanish entirely. While the Mediterranean became relatively pirate-free under the benign despotism of the Roman emperors, pirates found a literary home in ancient novels.

They feature  briefly in Petronius’ Satyrica, but they invade the pastoral idyll of Longus’s Daphnis and Chloe, Xenophon’s Ephesian Tale, or Achilles Tatius’s Klitophon and Leukippe, temporarily separating the young couple as they begin to discover the delights of love.

Further reading:  Philip de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge UP, 1999)

Michael Crawford, The Roman Republic (Fontana, 1992)

William V Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome 327-70 BC (Oxford UP, 1979)

Robert Kallett-Marl, Hegemony to Empire: The Development of the Roman Imperium in the East from 148 to 62BC (University of California Press, 1995)

John Rich & Graham Shipley eds, War and Society in the Roman World (Routledge, 1993)

JA Crook & others ed, The Cambridge Ancient History vol IX (Cambridge UP, 1994)

Alan K Bowman & others, eds - The Cambridge Ancient History vol X (Cambridge UP, 1996)

Philip de Souza is Senior Lecturer in classical  studies at St Mary’s College, Strawberry Hill.

Historical dictionary: Roman Empire