Piracy in Archaic and Classical Greece

Murder, pillage and kidnap by seaborne raiders – i.e. pirates – were familiar terrors for many inhabitants of the Mediterranean basin during the Archaic (800–500 BC) and Classical (500–323 BC) Greek periods. The surviving historical records contain many instances of piratical attacks on both land and sea. From the earliest works of Homer describing aristocratic raiding, to Thucydides’Peloponnesian War, pirates and piracy are a recurring theme.

The Ancient Greek language contains two common words which can be translated as pirate: leistesand peirates. The former, found in Homer’s works and literature all through the Greek Classical era, means “booty” or “plunder”. It describes an armed robber or plunderer, for which the common English terms are bandit or pirate. Peirates, also used during the time, comes from the word peirameaning “trial” or “attempt”. From there it evolved in to the word brigand. Eventually the term pirate came to be distinguished from bandit or brigand by the former’s use of ships to facilitate maritime armed robbery.

Homeric pirates

As noted above, the Homeric poems are the first written sources which refer to indivuals and groups as pirates. In them, although regarded with some disapproval, they also show how it is possible for a pirate to achieve high social status as a result of his plundering. In other words, in the Homeric world – which also reflects the period of Homer’s Greece (750–700 BC) – piracy was not necessarily a shameful or deplorable activity. Further, in the Homeric universe, piracy is so closely associated with warfare in both aims and methods that they are virtually indistinguishable.

In Homer’s Odyssey, the author admits that pirates are “bringers of harm”, whose presence may be less beneficial than that of traders. But there is also a suggestion that pirates are more glamorous since they risk so much in their pursuit of gain. Although some specific persons in the Odyssey are called pirates, it is significant that no Achaean heroes, all of whom belong to a group called basileis(“princes”), is called a pirate. There seems to be a definite separation between heroes and pirates in the poet’s mind, although there is little difference between them in terms of their actions in the poems. In short, both pirates and heroes set off in their long ships to distant lands to plunder and kill (Od. 17.424–433). The difference between those who are heroes and those who are pirates seems only to be their fate ordained by the gods.

Later pirates

Herodotus makes mention of pirates when he remarks about Greeks from Ionia sailing to Egypt to plunder that country during the mid-seventh century BC. Equipped with bronze armour, according to him, they stayed in Egypt and then were recruited as mercenaries (Hdt. 2.152). His description of the wholesale plundering activities of Polycrates, tyrant of Samos in the second half of the 6th century BC, amounts to a kind of early form of imperialism, but blurs the line, as all the ancient writers on the subject do, between piracy and organized warfare (Hdt. 3.39).

Thucydides makes numerous mention of piracy in his account of the Peloponnesian War, starting off with the idea, although not explicitly stated, that Athens pursued a program to wipe out piracy outside of operations of the war with Sparta (431–404 BC). He does suggest that the Corinthians had such a policy and praised them for it since it brought in revenue to their city’s coffers by making seaborne trade safer.

To Thucydides, Homer’s heroes were pirates (Thuc. 1.5–8) and the suppression of piracy played a very important role in the rise of city-states, such as those in ancient Crete and of Corinth prior to the fifth century BC (Thuc. 1.5; 1.13).

Good hunting

During ancient times, the Mediterranean was a magnet for the development of piracy for a number of reasons.

First, much its shoreline is rocky and barren unable to support large populations, thus the inhabitants residing there took to the sea to become hunters and robbers instead of agriculturalists. Second, such nautical pursuits were highly profitable since the main lines of communication and routes of commerce and trade followed along established sea lanes with predictable wind and tides conditions.Third, the many small islands which abound in the Mediterranean are perfect locations from which to stage attacks on shipping, as well as serve as safe refuges for pirates.

Tools of the trade

Vessels used in the Mediterranean Sea by pirates during the Archaic and Classical Greek periods were usually small craft, since most of the work was done close to the shore. This was so since most ships travelling on the sea would put in to land, or very close off shore, at night in order to avoid the perils of travelling in the dark and/or to avoid rough weather and seas.

Pirate craft, as a result, only needed to be large enough to accommodate enough men who could surprise an unsuspected merchantman lying at anchor at night. For example, Megarian pirates during the Peloponnesian War employed boats small enough to be carried on a single wagon. The inhabitants of the Baleares Islands off the east coast of Spain used small rafts. Typical pirate ships were designed to have a shallow draft, holding no more than 25 to 30 men, and could be lifted out of the water and hidden in the scrub or marshland near the coast while the crew moved inland.

Of course, some pirates and pirate tribes, such as the Messenians, were more advanced than their fellow ocean brigands and used more sophisticated ships to ply their business. Their favourite craft was a thirty-oared craft called a celes, a small ship built for speed and used as a dispatch boat by Greek navies of the time.

For close quarter fighting pirates armed themselves with daggers and short spears. Long rang weaponry included throwing spears, javelins, small crossbows, and slings casting stones or lead balls. Grappling hooks were used to catch interned victim ships and hold them in place so the pirates could board them. Of course, destruction of a merchant ship(s) or any other floating target was not the pirate’s main purpose. On the contrary, a fight was to be avoided if at all possible Capture of the ship and its cargo for resale or consumption by the pirate attacker, as well eventual ransom of its crew and passengers (villagers if the pirate assault was on a coastal town or port) was the only way the pirate business turned a profit.

Of paramount importance to the ancient pirate’s trade was his knowledge of sea navigation. Even hugging close to the shoreline would be a difficult proposition if the pirate did not have expert knowledge of the rocks and currents he had to contend with close in shore. Familiarity with the lay of the land away from the coast was essential if a raider was to safely come ashore, hide his boat, make his way to the target, and rapidly and securely make his way back out to sea and safety.

War and piracy

In his Peloponnesian War, Thucydides details the course of the greatest war fought in Greek history, noting the wide area in which it took place and the diverse forms of fighting which occurred during it. Combat ranged from full-scale hoplite battles on land to large fleet engagements on seas, to guerrilla actions and plundering raids by forces Thucydides calls pirates. He distinguishes between what he terms formal warfare and what he calls leisteia (plundering) (Thuc. 2.32; 2.69; 3.51; 3.85; 7.26; 8.35). The struggle between Sparta and Athens also saw the widespread use of taking reprisals, against an enemy’s territory for injuries perceived to have been committed, by carrying out plundering expeditions on land, and against opposing shipping.

Pirate raids were of two main types during the Peloponnesian War. The political raid was designed to undermine the existing authority of a city or region with the view of bringing it down and replacing it with the raiders in control. Another objective of seaborne raids was to obtain funds/and or supplies needed to carry on the struggle.

The Athenians, as they became more and more desperate for revenue to continue the conflict, resorted to piracy to obtain the money to finance their war effort. The primary victim of these energetic and at times violent measures tended to be the Greek settlers of Asia Minor, and the Hellespontine cities and towns. The famous Athenian politician/soldier Alcibiades is a good example of a general turned plunderer. In 410/09 BC he raided the territory of the Persian satrap Pharnabazos. Finding little cash there (the citizens anticipating the Greek’s visit had shipped their money and goods to neighboring Bithynia) Alcibiades next invaded Bithynia, captured its gold, including that of Pharnabazos’, and forced its governor to sign a treaty of friendship with Athens. (Plut. Alc.29.3) He next sailed to the Hellespont, and then the Aegean Sea where he extorted funds from friends and foes of Athens alike (Diod 13.69.5). It can be seen that Alcibiades exploited the mobility of his ships, and the intimidation his army provided, to get what he and Athens wanted. Although he may not be termed a pirate in the narrowest sense, his acts were certainly piratical.

A series of raids and counter raids in the first half of the 4th century BC bedeviled the Greek world and made clear how the distinction between war and piracy was almost nonexistent at that time. For example, in 389 BC, during the Corinthian War, the Spartans enlisted volunteers from Aegina to plunder Attica because Athens still owed reparations to Sparta from the Peloponnesian War which ended in 404 BC. A full sale conflict ensued with an Athenian attack on land and sea against Aegina, a siege of her major city, a counter attack by a Spartan fleet, several naval engagements between Athens and Sparta, as well as a few land battles, capped off by a Spartan plundering expedition which ravaged the coast of Attica including a direct attack on Athens’ port of Piraeus, before the undeclared war between the two cities ended (Xen. 5.1.14–24).

Piratical reprisals during the Classical Greek Period were routinely initiated even against a city or region where no declaration of war had been made, thus threatening the seizure of property, since the opportunist would strike, in the best tradition of pirates, wherever and whenever the opportunity arose. The result, everyone living on the coast, working on the sea in ships, or in harbor was fair game with piracy, during this period, whither in the guise of a declared war, or in its most naked form – opportunistic seaborne robbery – was a common scourge commonly afflicting the inhabitants of the Greek Mediterranean world.

Arnold Blumberg is an attorney from Baltimore, Maryland, USA. He is a visiting scholar at the History and Classics Departments at the John Hopkins University. He has written numerous articles on military history, including several for Ancient Warfare and Medieval Warfare magazines.

Further reading

  • Henry A. Ormerod, Piracy in the Ancient World (Liverpool 1978).
  • Philip de Souza, Piracy In the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge 1999).
  • Philip D. Garnsey, Famine and Food Supply in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge 1988).

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