P is for Pirates in the Ancient World


Hello! My name is Christy, and I am obsessed with pirates. I’m working on writing a book that teaches world history through a focus on pirates. My book will be dealing with history from 1500 – 1800 AD., but many of the issues that comes up in reading about pirates in that early modern time come up in reading about pirates in the ancient world too.

P is for Pirates



For example, one major theme within my book is the question of what is a pirate. Who are pirates? Typically people think of pirates as thieves working outside the law, using boats to attack ports or other boats. Privateers do the same thing as pirates but have the permission of their government to steal as long as their victims are part of enemy nations. If the government owned the ship, we might say it was just a naval action. Even those definitions get broken down by questions of what is a legitimate government or what is not, and whether the person followed the conditions the government gave them or preyed on neutral or peaceful parties. In ancient times, the distinction would have been even muddier. The Roman Pompey was given the job of eliminating piracy in the Mediterranean and he did as best he could. After his death the senate gave his son the job. According to Velleius Paterculus, Roman History:

[Sextus] supported himself and his army on plunder, and through the agency of Menas and Menecrates, his father’s freedmen, who were in charge of his fleet, he infested the seas by predatory and piratical expeditions; nor was he ashamed thus to infest with piracy and its atrocities the sea which had been freed from it by his father’s arms and leadership.

The pirate hunter becomes the pirate by moving beyond what he was supposed to do, but one is left to wonder, how was he supposed to support the fleet? Did those who send him out provide for the fleet financially or did they assume that there would be enough real pirates for him to attack that he could pay for his fleet from the legitimate plunder?

According to the book Pirates through the Ages: Almanac, the early ancient Greens and Romans didn’t distinguish between pirates and privateer, and they sometimes referred to whole nations or tribes as pirates. Pirates were enemies who raided by sea. Pirates were thieves who attacked them.

When people attacked others they did not see themselves as being pirates but rather warriors and heroes. Odysseus acted like a pirate at Ismaros, land of the Kikonians, but not called one. At other times though, he was asked if he was a pirate. “O strangers, who are you? From where have you come along the sea lanes? Are you travelling for trade or are you just roaming about like pirates, who risk body and soul, bringing harm to other people?”


There is a story about Julius Caesar being captured by pirates and taken to Pharmacusa. He thought the ransom they asked for him was too low for someone of his rank, so he suggested they ask for much more. For a month he waited while the ransom was raised, and then when his friends returned with the money he sailed off. He hired a fleet, returned to the island where he had been prisoner and captured his captors. He had them brought to Pergamon. The pirates were crucified.

Pirates were a threat to travellers, to fishermen and those living near the sea, but piracy also provided a way of life for many people, and the economic basis for the communities that sheltered them. Individuals captured by pirates could find themselves sold as slaves and end up working for wealthy landowners, or if they were wealthy themselves they could be ransomed and freed. Rome relied on grain imported by sea, so controlling piracy was crucial, though some sources say there were wealthy landowners in Rome who appreciated it when the pirates slowed the grain imports and grain prices would rise.


Though there were various attempts to eliminate piracy during the Roman era, the most successful thing was the conquering of the territory surrounding the Mediterranean. Pirates could not remain at sea forever, and without ports to trade at they could not continue.

When you are talking with children about piracy, one thing to emphasis is that pirates of different times had different customs, and few conform to our stereotypes of pirates. The pirates that captured Julius Caesar did not fly the Jolly Roger. They did not have parrots perched on their shoulders or hook hands. Nor were they buccaneers.



About the blogger: Christy is a bookworm and homeschooling mother of three. She blogs at Christy’s Houseful of Chaos and hosts a facebook group about pirates.




Images are from the Wikimedia commons.
“Geometric krater Met 34.1.2 n03” by Marie-Lan Nguyen – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geometric_krater_Met_34.1.2_n03.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Geometric_krater_Met_34.1.2_n03.jpg
“Greek Bireme 500BC” by Illustrator not credited – Ancient and Modern Ships – Part I – Wooden Sailing Shipsby Sir George Holmes. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Greek_Bireme_500BC.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Greek_Bireme_500BC.jpg
Claude Lorrain (1604/1605–1682) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Very enjoyable article and I also love pirates. I also homeschool and one day I was taking a walk with my 4 year old son and walked by a man with an eye patch. You can guess what my son said – look Mama a pirate. The man laughed and said “Arrah”

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