Piracy in ancient Greece

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by Dr Michael Scott

Piracy has been in the headlines in the UK a lot recently, particularly following the on-going abduction of a British couple, Paul and Rachel Chandler, by Somali pirates in the Indian Ocean in 2009. The realities of this gruesome situation are a far cry from the romanticised notion of pirateering embodied in the Pirates of the Caribbean films.

In the ancient Greek world, however, piracy was, much more than just an occasional headline, it was an endemic part of how the ancient world operated. Alongside the continual military campaigns that crisscrossed the Aegean sea, a citizen of any city was perfectly free to fit out a private ship, capture enemy vessels and keep the spoils for themselves.

Often these ‘pirate’ ships would band together into their own pirate fleets to increase their chances of success. Certain islands in the Aegean were renown for providing safe harbour for pirates, like the island of Melos, and others were well known as places in which to trade stolen goods and slaves, like the island of Aegina just off the coast of Athens.

Outside the Aegean was no safer. The Adriatic sea, between Italy and Greece, had an even more cosmopolitan mix with Greek and Etruscan (the native inhabitants of Italy before the Romans) pirates sharing the waters. Indeed the city of Zankle (modern day Messina) on the coast of Sicily was well known for producing some of the most ferocious and successful pirates in the whole of the ancient world.

But what is even more interesting is the reaction of the city and state authorities of ancient Greece to the problem of piracy. There were occasional attempts to attack pirate vessels and ransoming captured individuals was not unheard of. But much more often, city authorities chose to work with the pirates.

Generals would sometimes employ pirate ‘fleets’ as a ‘shock and awe’ first wave of attack before sending in their own troops. Conversely the admirals of large city fleets would often extract protection money from islands in the Aegean to keep them safe from pirates.

But perhaps the most outrageous case is this. In 355 BC, according to the orator Demosthenes, Athenian ambassadors were on their way to Karia in Turkey on state business when they made a detour to capture a ship sailing from Egypt and pocketed for themselves the wealth on board!

Dr Michael Scott is the Moses and Mary Finley Research Fellow at Darwin College and an affiliated lecturer at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge. His first book, From Democrats to Kings is out now in paperback and his second, on the sanctuaries of Delphi and Olympia, was published in April 2010 by Cambridge University Press. His website is www.michaelcscott.com/ www.historyextra.com