Tuesday, May 8, 2012

History: Rome and Piracy in the Mare Nostrum

In 67 BC [Pompey the Great] was granted an imperium, under the terms of a new anti-piracy law, the lex Gabinia de piratis persequendis. The imperium gave Pompey 6,000 talents (units of currency), control of 500 ships, 120,000 Roman troops, and the right to tax and raise militia in cities up to 50 miles (80km) inland. His mission was to completely eradicate piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. ~ from The History of Pirates by Angus Konstam.

On paper, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus’ attack on piracy in what the Romans referred to as the mare nostrum – our sea – was a resounding success. Cicero, the famous orator and advocate, sang Pompey’s praises to the hinterlands, and over 2,000 years later we’re still listening. Generally, historians have played along with the idea that Pompey, while still a hero before his fall from grace in bitter civil war against Julius Caesar, quite literally put a halt to piratical activity in the Mediterranean. In particular, he captured and relocated the worst of the freebooting lot: the Cretans and the Cilicians.

History has a way of remembering the truth; although it tends to wait a very, very long time to reveal its best kept secrets. That seems to be the case with the shift in perception about Pompey’s success as a pirate hunter, as this wonderful piece by Philip Souza for History Today illustrates.

The piracy of the Cilicians in particular was an ongoing thorn in the side of the Republic of Rome. The problem was that, as a Republic with nothing more solid than the political aspirations of praetorian Senators to move legislation forward, defending outlying provinces against piracy was often put on the back burner. If something truly heinous occurred, it was usually a provincial Governor or praetor who took the hit for the mess. As Souza notes:

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.

On average, it was only in the final instance of the wealthy and/or politically connected being held for ransom that Rome took any real note of piratical activity. That was, until the pirates of the eastern Mediterranean struck the Romans right where they lived: in the breadbasket. Souza continues:

So why were the Romans prepared to take such drastic action [in 67 BCE]? The main explanation seems to be sheer self-interest. While pirates regularly harassed the 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 BD, 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 ere easy pickings… One thing which no one could ignore in Rome was a threat to the grain supply.

Since the plebs lived by the bread made from the grain, and also saw to the popularity or utter downfall of their politicians, the Senators knew they had to do something. Thus Pompey, already a noted general with an able military mind and endless political ambition, was tapped to put a halt to the piratical invasions of Rome proper.

I won’t go into detail here as the Brethren are much better served by reading Souza directly. This quote from Cicero, whom Souza refers to as a Roman “spin doctor”, sums it up nicely:

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

Souza quickly adds:

Close scrutiny of the sources leaves the distinct impression that Pompey was in a hurry and not at all concerned about doing a good job.

Even after “resettlement” – to ports that seemed made for piratical activity no less – the Cilicians and Cretans returned to their old ways. Though generally they were more subtle after Pompey’s campaign and they studiously avoided the Italian coasts, they continued to be brazen in their kidnap and ransom strategies. Selling prisoners as slaves continued to be a prime source of income as well but Rome was willing to look the other way on this issue in particular as it was, essentially, a slave-run economy.

It was not until the rise of the Empire and the rule of Augustus that pirates were well and truly subdued in the mare nostrum. In fact Augustus, in a shrewd political move that was typical of the Roman government’s manipulation of the “pirate issue”, turned his arch-rival Sextus Pompeius (son of Pompey the Great) into a “pirate” in the Roman press. Once Sextus’ uprising and blockade of Rome had been ended, Augustus spread the word with inscriptions on monuments throughout the Empire:

I made the sea peaceful and freed it of pirates.

Header: The Slave Market by Gustave Boulanger c 1882


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! Interesting article. I paritcluarly liked the part about the Balearic islanders ‘spending the summer lying around naked’ (who wouldn't, given the opportunity?) and the popularity of ancient pirate fiction. What goes around...

Pauline said...

All of it pretty much just points out that our ancestors were not so very different from us at all. But we knew that, I think.