Pirates of the Mediterranean

caesar and piratesReeking of rum and tottering like the earth beneath his feet is inflatable, a salty cove approaches you on the quayside. But the quayside is in Cambridge and his eyepatch is made of tweed. The bandoliers slung athwart his chest are stuffed with Loebs, green and red cloth tattered and stained by wind and salt. You look down and see that the man has only one true leg. From the knee down his right has been replaced with one taken from a plaster-cast of the Aphrodite Kallipygos, shapely white curves gleaming in the sunlight.[1]

‘Avast, Jim-lad!’ the strange man says, swigging something dark and strong-smelling from a canteen with ‘This is a Wug’ written on it. He frowns. ‘Or is it Gem-lass? I finds it hard to tell with undergrads such as ye.’

He grins, displaying teeth as grimy, crooked and uneven as the Roman judicial system. He seems to expect a response.

‘Avast,’ you reply, a little self-consciously.

‘Ye looks worried, lad,’ he says in an accent which surely cannot be real. ‘Has ye never seen a pirate classicist afore?’

‘It’s 2014 and we’re a long way inland,’ you point out. ‘So no. Are you sure you’re a pirate? It’s not Rag Week or something?’

‘For a pirate, every week is Rag Week!’ he declares, looking delighted. ‘Arrrrrgh! And East Anglia barely counts as land, Jim-lad. Pirates have plied the fenlands ever since a roguish marshman, found himself a big stick, nailed a Jolly Roger to his coracle and set out for a life of freedom and adventure. Until the Navy came in 1685, you wouldn’t have found a more dangerous port of scum and villainy than Ely anywhere east of Tortugaaaaaghhh.’

‘You know, I really don’t think that’s true.’

‘Maybe it be true, and maybe it b’ain’t.  Who can say?’

‘I’m sure historians have a view on it.’ The more you look at him, the more familiar the pirate looks. ‘Have I seen you on TV?’ You ask. ‘Without the eyepatch and the beard and presenting documentaries on BBC 4?’

‘No,’ the pirate replies, a little too hurriedly. ‘When ye’ve felt the East Wind in yer hair while ye stalk a Spanish lorry full of European Classics journals down the A14, ye has no need of BBC 4 documentaries.’

‘You’re a very odd fellow,’ you point out. ‘Even by Cambridge standards. Why are you here?’

‘I did surprisingly well in me A-levels!’

‘No. I mean, well done and everything, but why are you here? Now?’

‘I’ve come to tell ye about the pirates of the ancient East Mediterranean,’ he says, flashing you another toothsome grin.

‘But I just wanted to hire a punt to show my mum the river.’

‘Well I’m afraid ye’ve come to the wrong place.’

‘This is the punt hire place.’

‘Well then I’ve come to the wrong place. It makes no odds. I’m going to tell ye anyway. The full story of pirates and Classics. From Blackbeard to Mary Beard.’

‘Oh joy.’

‘Arggghhhh!’ He offers you the Wug canteen. ‘Tea?’


Most people thinks of pirates as a Caribbean kind of thing (he says, waving a cutlass around to emphasise his points). Though why ye’d want to go to the Caribbean when the Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk are ripe for the plunder is a mystery to the likes o’ me. Precious little Aristotle on the Spanish Main. But we Classicist pirates likes to keep alive the tales o’ the Mediterranean in days o’ yore. Not so much o’ yore as ye might think, neither: as late as the 19th century, Barbary Corsairs sailing out o’ the North African coast were still such a peril to shipping that the British, Dutch, French and even the Americans launched a concerted effort to stamp them out.

c4_largeBut like as not, buccaneers and corsairs had made their lives and their fortunes on Mediterranean waters since afore the Old Man o’ the Sea were so much as a glint in the Old Milkman o’ the Sea’s eye. ‘Pirate’ is, as ye’ll doubtless know, from a Greek word πειρατής – meaning a cove who tries it on, so to speak. As a pirate meself I can attest to the appropriateness of the term. I’ve tried on everything from a tricorn hat to an old washer woman’s oversized bloomers. Arrrr, truly: she had avast behind!

It were a cringing Egyptian landlubber, name of Wen-Amon, who told what I reckons be the first real tale of piracy and adventure on the high seas. His account claims to be a factual report on a real diplomatic mission to the Phoenician coast around the year 1076, but it spins a yarn, picaresque as ye like, of corsairs, stolen treasure, shipwreck and murderous natives. Sit back, pour yeself another tot of tea, and I’ll tells ye.

Wen-Amon were a priest of the god Amon, based at Thebes in the Third Intermediate Period. The Late Bronze Age had ended and the Iron hadn’t quite got going as yet. In Egypt, the New Kingdom of the Ramessides had ended in unrest and partition. There were still a pharaoh, Smendes, ensconced at Tanis, but southern Egypt was ruled by the priesthood, and by Wen-Amon’s boss, the high priest Herihor. In days gone by Egypt had commanded respect and prestige on the international stage. Like the other great powers, it had taken part in a flourishing web of trade and diplomacy. Banner days for pirates, they would have been, and pirates may have been what ended ‘em.

But by the days of Wen-Amon, the golden age was long gone, and the diplomatic networks weren’t what they had been. Even so, the god Amon needed a new sacred river-barque, and that meant cedar-wood had to be obtained from Egypt’s age-old trade partner, Byblos. Herihor selected Wen-Amon for the task and dispatched him northwards on a hired ship with only the wooden god Amon-of-the-Road for company. Wide-eyed and naïve as an English country vicar in the pirate republics of the West Indies, Wen-Amon describes his adventures and misfortunes in the uncivilised waters of the Eastern Med.

A lily-livered and none-too-wise sort, Wen-Amon was robbed at his very first port of call. On landing in the Tjeker port of Dor, in what’s now northern Israel, one of his crew absconded with a sizeable haul of the treasure brought to pay for the timber. Wen-Amon waited over a week for the local potentate to investigate the theft and restore his property, but to no avail. With nothing else to do, he resumed his voyage and went on to the Phoenician harbour-town of Tyre. Encountering a Tjeker ship there, he seized money in compensation and proceeded to Byblos.

At Byblos it’s made clear that Egypt’s glory days are over. Wen-Amon was made to wait for near three weeks in the harbour before the local ruler Zakarba’al deigned to see him. Eventually, five months after leaving Egypt, he was granted an audience. In a throne-room with the Mediterranean visible through the great window behind him, Zakarba’al boasted of the size of his fleet and told the Egyptian that ‘I’m not your servant and I’m not the servant of the one who sent ye!’ Still, an arrangement was eventually made, and further treasure were sent from the land o’ the Nile to pay for it.

By the time the wood were cut and his ship were laden, the sailing season was almost at an end. Zakarba’al encouraged Wen-Amon to stay for the winter, but the impatient landlubber had no respect for the sea. Homesick and hounded by Tjeker pirates, he put to sea once more. But a storm raged and shattered his ship on the coast of Cyprus. The only survivor, he woke on the beach, surrounded by murderous natives, who dragged him up before their queen…

Here the account breaks off, my lad. But it’s written in the first person, so I reckon Wen-Amon must’a got home in the end.

Ah, that’s a sceptical face. Ye’re thinkin’ that were just so much sailors’ tales. Why should ye believe a word of it? Ye ain’t the only one. There’s those as believes near every word of it; and plenty others think it’s a tale too tall and too lively in the telling to be ought but a fireside romance. But there’s doubloons o’ gold among the dross, in my reckoning. Sure enough, these dying days o’ the second millennium were a golden age for pirates in the Eastern Med. Like I said before, there’s some who think piracy and the buccaneering spirit might have been what ended the Bronze Age in the first place. That the old powers were too stolid and too set in their ways, reliant on the old networks of trade and diplomacy. In places like Phoenicia and Cyprus, the theory goes, a different kind of trade were on the rise. A freebooting, buccaneering trade of the common man. Nimble sailors and merchants and pirates – all at once, one and the same – operated out of small ports. Byblos, Kition and Enkomi were like the Tortuga, Port Royal and King’s Lynn of the Eastern Med. They undercut the great powers and stole trade from under their noses, replacing the rigid, formalised ties of old wi’ somethin’ more dynamic. As the old empires fell, so too did their control of the sea-lanes. The Mediterranean was free for the corsairs.

That’s one theory, anyway.


This world of independent merchant-warriors survived for centuries. Ye’ll have read the Odyssey, I’ll warrant? Every freebooter worth his salt from Byblos to Bermuda knows that shanty. As you’d expect from a poem about adventures on the high seas, it’s fair lousy with pirates. They’re not always called that, but the line between merchant and marauder were ever blurred. Especially in the ancient world the ‘honest’ trader’s just one good opportunity away from turning corsair. Many a scholar’s mused that Homer’s ‘pirates’ behave in ways all-but-indistinguishable from the exploits o’ his heroes. And I don’t just mean coz Odysseus spends years on a sunny island cheating on his missus and enjoying Calypso. Just take a look at Book 9, where Odysseus and his crew launch a murderous seaborne raid on the Kikones, plundering their homes for booty and making off with their women. Much like I did last year in Bury St. Edmunds.

When I had set sail from there, the wind took me first to Ismaros, which is the city of the Kikones. There I sacked the town and put the people to the sword. We took their wives and also much booty, which we divided equitably amongst us, so that none might have reason to complain.

Od. IX 39-46. Adapted from Samuel Butler’s translation

Like all pirates, I places great store in buried treasure, so for me, Jim-lad, I always wants a bit of archaeology to back up what the texts be tellin’ me. Sure enough, the richest graves of the Iron Age are buccaneers if e’er I saw ‘em! In Phoenicia, Euboea, Italy and dozens of places in between, the richest graves belong to what some learned folk call warrior-traders. They’re filled with weaponry, drinking equipment, loot and trinkets from all around the sea. The idea is that these men reached the top o’ society’s crow’s nest by trading and fighting and drinking, and they wasn’t shy about showing off their booty. Warrior-traders? Heroes? Pirates, I calls ‘em! Pirates o’ the Iron Age. Arrrr!!!


I don’t need me second eye to see ye’re getting restless, lad. Lass. Whatever. Pass me back that tea and I’ll hoist the moonrakers and make all haste on into the Classical period. The Iron Age world of warrior pirate-lords gave way to the polis and all the stifling rules that brought, but sure as death and krakens, there were still pirates on the Mediterranean. Stories of people bein’ captured or kidnapped by pirates are ten-a-penny in Classical myth and literature. From gods to smallfolk and all in between.


Does ye know the story of Dionysos? The god o’ booze and rowdiness. A buccaneer’s god if ever there were one. An’ right enough, he seemed to attract corsairs. In one story he was kidnapped from the seashore by pirates who meant to sell him as a slave; he let loose a bear on their ship and turned the unfortunate fellows into dolphins. In another version o’ the tale, he hired an Etruscan ship to sail to Naxos, but the sailors weren’t to be trusted and made for the East, where they meant to sell him. This lot ended up as dolphins too, and their ship sprouted vines.

Or what about Plato? A dull old philosopher who spent all his days pontificating round Athens. Least that’s what ye’d think to read him. But there’s a story he was taken by pirates and sold as a slave in Aigina. Can ye imagine that?! Plato as yer slave? I’d rather do me own washing-up! There’s a similar yarn about the poet Arion too. That old rogue Herodotos tells that pirates robbed him of his prizes while he was returning home from a music competition. He leapt into the sea and was rescued by dolphins. Just as well for him they wasn’t Dionysos’s pirate dolphins! Arrr!

The Corinthians say (and the Lesbians agree) that the most marvellous thing that happened to him in his life was the landing on Taenarus of Arion of Methymna, brought there by a dolphin. This Arion was a lyre-player second to none in that age; he was the first man whom we know to compose and name the dithyramb which he afterwards taught at Corinth. They say that this Arion, who spent most of his time with Periander, wished to sail to Italy and Sicily, and that after he had made a lot of money there he wanted to come back to Corinth. Trusting none more than the Corinthians, he hired a Corinthian vessel to carry him from Tarentum.


Arion Riding on a Dolphin,
by Albrecht Dürer

But when they were out at sea, the crew plotted to take Arion’s money and cast him overboard. Discovering this, he earnestly entreated them, asking for his life and offering them his money. But the crew would not listen to him, and told him either to kill himself and so receive burial on land or else to jump into the sea at once. Abandoned to this extremity, Arion asked that, since they had made up their minds, they would let him stand on the half-deck in all his regalia and sing; and he promised that after he had sung he would do himself in. The men, pleased at the thought of hearing the best singer in the world, drew away toward the waist of the vessel from the stern. Arion, putting on all his regalia and taking his lyre, stood up on the half-deck and sang the “Stirring Song,” and when the song was finished he threw himself into the sea, as he was with all his regalia. So the crew sailed away to Corinth; but a dolphin (so the story goes) took Arion on his back and bore him to Taenarus.

Hdt. 1.23-34. Translation by A. D. Godley

Me favourite, though, is Julius Caesar, who were captured by pirates in 75 BC. He reacts with all the outraged arrogance of the Roman patrician:

To begin with, then, when the pirates demanded twenty talents for his ransom, he laughed at them for not knowing who their captive was, and of his own accord agreed to give them fifty. In the next place, after he had sent various followers to various cities to procure the money and was left with one friend and two attendants among Cilicians, most murderous of men, he held them in such disdain that whenever he lay down to sleep he would send and order them to stop talking.

For thirty-eight days, as if the men were not his guards, but his royal body-guard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to hang them all. The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth.

But after his ransom had come from Miletus and he had paid it and was set free, he immediately manned vessels and put to sea from the harbour of Miletus against the robbers. He caught them, too, still lying at anchor off the island, and got most of them into his power. Their money he made his booty, but the men themselves he lodged in the prison at Pergamum, and then went in person to Junius, the governor of Asia, on the ground that it belonged to him, as praetor of the province, to punish the captives. But since the praetor cast longing eyes on their money, which was no small sum, and kept saying that he would consider the case of the captives at his leisure, Caesar left him to his own devices, went to Pergamum, took the robbers out of prison, and crucified them all, just as he had often warned them on the island that he would do, when they thought he was joking.

Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 2. Adapted from Bernadotte Perrin’s translation.

As the Roman Empire tightened its grip on what they vainly called Mare Nostrum, real piracy may have become harder. But by then kidnap by pirates was firmly established as a regular topos of romance and adventure. Yeah, I knows the word “topos”. What of it? I told ye I did well in me A-levels. No self-respecting Greek novel would be without a few pirates to imperil its star-crossed lovers. Achilleus Tatios’ Leukippe and Cleitophon is a fun example: that has a (faked) beheading. But there’s also pirates in Daphnis and Chloe, Petronius’ Satyricon and others.


 The pirate leans back, raising a spyglass to his good eye. ‘Well,’ he growls. ‘The sun’s getting low over the yard-arm.’

‘That’s not the yard-arm,’ you say. ‘That’s King’s College chapel.’

He looks again, does a double-take in astonishment. ‘Good lord!’ he exclaims. ‘This sea’s full o’ wonders, an’ no mistake. Still, it’s getting’ late. I were gonna tell ye o’ Greek mermaids and sea-monsters an’ other prodigies o’ the deep. But I can see ye’ve had yer fill fer now and I’ve an appointment at a tavern.’ He tips his hat and totters back along the quay. Just before the end he hesitates, turns back. ‘It ain’t far, actually. Just the other side o’ that headland. Ye could run away wi’ me if ye like?’

‘Run away with you?’


‘To the pub?’

‘Aye. An’ then maybe on to me ship. She’s moored just off Mill Road. What do ye say, Jim-lad? We could be hunting down motorway-galleons by nightfall.’

You glance at your mum and dad and gran, standing next to you on the quay and looking distinctly impatient.

You shrug. ‘Yeah, go on then. It’s a pirate’s life for me!’


A smattering of further reading:

Translations of Wen-Amon can be found in Aubet, M. E. 2001 – The Phoenicians and the West, or Pritchard, J. B.  1969 – Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (3rd. ed.)

For Cyprus, piracy and economic change, see Sherratt, S. 1998 – ‘“Sea Peoples” and the Economic Structure of the Second Millennium in the Eastern Mediterranean’ in Gitin, Mazar & Stern (eds.) Mediterranean Peoples in Transition. Thirteenth to Early Tenth Centuries B.C.E, 292-313 and Sherratt, S. 2003 – ‘The Mediterranean Economy: “Globalization” at the End of the Second Millennium BCE’ in Dever & Gitin (eds.) Symbiosis, symbolism, and the power of the past: Canaan, ancient Israel and their neighbours from the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palaestina, 37-62.

For warrior-traders in the Iron Age, see (among others) Popham, M. R. & Lemos, I. S. 1995 – ‘A Euboean Warrior Trader’. OJA 14, 151-7

de Souza, P. 1999 – Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World. CUP.

[1] In this context, best translated as Aphrodite of the Wonderful Booty.

One thought on “Pirates of the Mediterranean

  1. Pingback: Previously On… | Ancient Worlds

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