Hi and thanks for listening, if you haven’t well, here’s a way to do so below:
I’ve got his work cited in the reading list below but Phil De Souza’s ‘Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World’ made this episode possible. If you’ve the faintest interest in piracy in antiquity you’ll need it!
Don’t forget to check out The History Buffs Corner – find it on your preferred platform and on Instagram (historybuffscorner).
Here’s the cup attributed to Exekias (circa 540 BCE), looks almost relaxing but if Dionysus is involved you need to be on your toes, or just not be there.
I’ve left Homer out of this as he’s a given, the later work I mentioned is Chariton by Callirrhoe, it’s a brilliant read in fact it seems quite modern in places. Helen McVeigh introduced me to it and you can hear talk about this and a whole range of things on an episode where she discussed her fantasy dinner guests from antiquity.
Here are some of the works I used for research.
De Souza, P. Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World.
Emanuel, Jeffrey P. Cretan Lie and Historical Truth: Examining Odysseus’ Raid on Egypt in its Late Bronze Age Context.
Gabrielsen, Vincent. Warfare, Statehood and Piracy in the Greek World.
Lewis, David M. Piracy and slave trading in action in Classical and Hellenistic Greece.
Watts, Christopher J. Polycrates, Pirate or Hero?
As ever – this comes with a caveat that during recording I occasionally go off script but this should be largely accurate.
What was piracy in ancient Greece, how did it manifest in the archaic, classical and hellenistic periods and who can trust Odysseus anyhow. Join me as I talk piracy in ancient Greece on the Ancient History Hound podcast.
Hi and thanks for joining me, my name’s Neil and in this episode of the ancient history hound podcast I’m going to be talking about a subject which is very close to my heart. Piracy in ancient Greece.
The reason it’s a personal one is that a main source for this episode is Philip de Souza’s Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World and I studied at Uni under him. In fact we even had a book launch at the University for the book on piracy. He was a great teacher in fact I still remember a lego pirate ship in his office.
Anyway, the normal stuff now, you can find the episode notes, sources cited and a full transcription on ancientblogger.com and you can find me on twitter @ancientblogger and the podcast @houndancient. Finally there’s more ancient history content on my TikTok where I am ancientblogger. Yeah, you can roll your eyes but if you curate your content you might find some really interesting stuff on there, not just me talking ancient history.
More importantly, thanks for downloading. Podcasters are always told to get more listeners, that would always be great but I really appreciate the listeners I have. I have people telling me all the time to listen to this or subscribe to that so it means a lot that people take the time to join me.
Right. The plan for this episode is as follows, I’m going to be discussing what Piracy was in ancient Greece. This includes how it was experienced, how it manifested, the practicalities of piracy and what could be done to counter it. As this is couched within ancient Greece I start off with Homer and continue through to around the second century BCE, or mid Hellenistic period and that’s mainly because the discussion starts to move more into the context of Rome’s experiences with pirates. This means that all dates are BCE unless specified otherwise.
So I’ll start with a question. What is or what was a pirate?
A definition I found in a dictionary at home gave the following answer: “a person on a ship who attacks other ships at sea in order to steal from them”. This probably chimes with the definition in your mind, or at least an image. Let’s face it pirates have tended to exist in the modern culture through the book Treasure Island or the recent film franchaise Pirates of the Caribbean. Piracy is also a modern thing, for example cargo ships being targeted in certain trade routes.
But for the ancient Greeks things weren’t as clear cut. De Souza points to three words used in antiquity and they are leistes, peirates and katapontistes. You might recognise pierates and it’s this one which evolved into our modern word pirate. But both leistes and peirates have a more general use as referring to a plunderer – it didn’t have the specificity that the word pirate does in our time. Ironically the word which did mean pirate as we understood it was katapontistes but this is rarely used. Leistes was more common and then in the Hellenistic period peirates started to appear. For the purposes of this episode I’m going to stick with pirate, even if the word is somewhat anachronistic.
You won’t be surprised that piracy was practised long before the Greeks had words for it. Correspondence dating back to 1350 from the King of Babylon bemoaned sea raiders making attacks on coastal towns and cities. On the Tanis Stele of Ramses II there is a similar comment about sea raiders. The Mediterranean must have obliged those with a mind to the nefarious arts of piracy some good options. The difficulty must have been to know who was a pirate and who wasn’t, after all the Mediterranean was criss-crossed by cargo ships, particularly following the Phoenician cities developing strong maritime trade networks.
This question of friend or foe is something which is found in Homer and where we find the earliest surviving Greek reference to piracy, though as you’ll hear it was a slippery term.
In Book three of the Odyssey Telemachus, the son of Odysseus has been given a kick up the backside from Athena and ventures out to find out about his father. He travels to Pylos on the south west coast of the Peloponnese and to the court of Nestor who you may remember from the Iliad.
He comes across Nestor hosting a banquet. After joining with the feast Telemachus is asked who he is and I quote:
“Who are you friends? From which port have you sailed over the highways of the sea? Is yours a trading venture; or are you sailing the seas recklessly, like roving pirates, who risk their lives to ruin other people?”
This line of questioning might seem curious but it existed elsewhere in the Odyssey. When Odysseus is confronted by Polyphemus the cyclops asks:
“And who are you? Where do you come from over the watery ways? Is yours a trading venture; or are you cruising the main on chance, like roving pirates, who risk their lives to ruin other people”
This isn’t without some irony as Odysseus has wandered into the home of the cyclops and started eating his cheese, but more of that later. This formula of establishing whether someone was a pirate or not existed outside the Odyssey, in Homer’s Hymn to Apollo the god asks some sailors from Crete pretty much the same question and perhaps with some justification – much like the Cyclops I’ll be taking about Crete later.
Early on in the Odyssey Telemachus greets a guest, a sailor called Mentes who is actually Athena in disguise. Upon receiving his guest Telemachus asks a flurry of questions and again, I quote:
“But tell me honestly who you are and where you come from. What is your native town? Who are your parents?And since you cannot have come on foot what kind of vessel brought you here? How did the crew come to land in Ithaca?”
Telemachus continues with a few more questions but by now we can get an idea of what he’s trying to ask without asking it directly. The reason he doesn’t may lie in the characterisation of Telemachus, namely a character who never feels that he is fully developed in the social context. It’s actually something he admits to later in the poem. If so then this is a lovely detail, here’s a character not yet adept at asking the obvious questions.
Oh – and Mentes, or Athena disguised as Mentes, handles the questions with the nous you’d expect, even going so far to reassure Telemachus that he is a trader and even going to the extent of naming what he’s trading. In short, no I’m not a pirate, not that you asked me that directly but just in case.
What this suggests is that identifying a pirate wasn’t easy. Perhaps there wasn’t a designated ship type which would clearly define you. You might expect a military style bireme to have been used but pirates were about getting in and out and carrying as much as they could so perhaps the ships used were similar to trading ones which would suffice in both speed and cargo space? The greetings also suggested that piracy was a concern, there’s no real need for Telemachus to ask Mentes or to be asked about his seafaring status. But perhaps those in archaic Greece understood this or that it made the poem more relevant to them. It was the sort of thing a person might ask in the real world, perhaps not as directly, but still something you’d want to know.
In a quite wonderful way Homer shows us the other side of the coin and he does this through a cover story Odysseus gives. When he arrives back home to Ithaca Odysseus doesn’t do so in style, when he lands on the beach he has a meeting with Athena who points out that he is still in a lot of danger and so she changes his appearance to that of a beggar. She also informs him that he should pay a visit to Eumaeus, the loyal swineherd.
When Odysseus arrives at Eumaeus’ hut he is seated and fed and listens as Eumaeus complains about the suitors, even describing them as worse than pirates. Eumaeus then asks his guest to introduce himself. It’s at this point that Odysseus invents a fictional backstory for himself, remember, he still appears as a beggar. This fictional backstory includes a fair amount of piracy and I’ll give a quick summary of it.
Odysseus describes how he was the son of a rich man in Crete but an illegitimate one. When his father died he only received a paltry inheritance and was more inclined to what he refers to as ‘terrible things’ of ships and fighting. He describes how he led fleets 9 times in raids on Egypt, making him rich. He then joined with the Greeks at Troy and though he returned home his fleet was scattered by a storm. Arriving home he immediately go itchy feet and set out once more to Egypt. Here he carried out raids carrying off women and loot. It was here he met his downfall, being caught and surrendering himself. There are a few more dramatic turns after this which aren’t important here but eventually Odysseus, or his fictional version, found himself a captive and escaped whilst his captors docked at Ithaca.
What Odysseus describes in his fictional backstory is the life of a pirate. He raided overseas and established himself as a wealthy man through this activity. There’s no sense of this being done as part of some heroic code. But there’s also something very familiar with his backstory. The elements of travelling to Troy, a scattered fleet, the return home and then almost immediately setting off again. Well, that’s a basic summary of the Odyssey itself. Later in the Odyssey, the real Odysseus will tell Penelope that he’s going to leave Ithaca once more. The fictional backstory he offers isn’t that different to how the Odyssey pans out.
This backstory is repeated when the still disguised Odysseus arrives at the palace accompanied by Eumaeus and is asked who he is. The fabricated tale involving his time as a pirate isn’t the only instance of them being mentioned. One misbehaving suitor is rebuked directly by Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, she calls out the behaviour of the suitor which is even more disagreeable because they once protected the suitor’s father in this very palace. His crime? Well, joining a pirate raid.
But there is another reference to pirates which almost becomes a bit too meta. Early on I mentioned Mentes, a sailor who was in fact Athena in disguise. When he reassured Telemachus that he was a merchant he described himself as a Taphian, a people in ancient Greece. Well, that pirate raid undertaken by the father of one of the suitors is described as being one led by the Taphians. And in Eumaeus’s hut a slave is mentioned, bought by the swineherd from Taphians. Even the repeated story Odysseus gives the suitors, which is much the same as that which he gave Eumaeus includes an extra detail where the Taphians are again referred to as pirates.
It’s curious how the initial conversation had in the Palace between Telemachus and Mentes involved Taphians and one of the last conversation there before it all kicks off also includes them. The only difference being that initially they are merchants but later are pirates and perhaps this speaks to the blurred lines between a merchant who might take advantage of a situation and a full blooded pirate?
And then there’s that business with the fictional backstory. It may have been a narrative device to have it mirror the plot of the Odyssey, remember that these were poems which were memorised and performed and so it might have been easier for Odysseus’ fictional backstory to shadow that of the Odyssey. But what if it was a comment by Homer about how close Odysseus was to being a pirate? As a Homeric hero he couldn’t be called one as this wasn’t the sort of thing which heroes did, but perhaps there’s an underlying point here that Odysseus’ epic journey home wasn’t that far from have the whiff of a pirate about it.
And I say this because there are certainly instances in the Odyssey where piracy can be argued as happening. In Book 9 he raids Ismaros, carrying off loot and women. A central theme of piracy, the acquisition of goods through theft is something his men are very tuned into. In the land of the Cyclops it’s their first instinct when arriving at the cave of the cyclops and though Odysseus talks them out of it he still sits there and starts eating his absent host’s cheese. In the incident with the bag holding the winds the rationale behind his men opening it is again greed, they think there’s gold in it.
And finally, what about the island of Hyperion? This was full of wonderful cattle which belonged to the sun god and Odysseus had been explicitly warned not to land there in case they steal or eat the cattle. However, when sailing past his men almost mutiny, leaving Odysseus to acquiesce but make them swear an oath that they will not eat the sacred cattle and almost immediately you know where this is heading. In fairness the crew find themselves in a state of starvation but they do eat those cattle, or at least some of them. But Odysseus’ account is full of how it wasn’t anything to do with him. If any of his crew were still alive perhaps they might have given a different version, but knowing what we do of Odysseus it’s difficult not to find him culpable in some way. Supporting this is that he didn’t put up much opposition when his men asked to land, in fact it’s quite odd how the master of debate and wits puts up very little to counter their demand.
None of this equates to Grand Theft Aegean exactly but Odysseus and his men don’t cover themselves in glory and remember, this is Odysseus’ version which is always going to be the account which absolves him of any wrongdoing.
However, there is a difficulty Odysseus has – namely that the acquisition of wealth and goods was a prerequisite for any Homeric hero. This was done though receiving gifts but also through acts of valour. When Telemachus visits the palace of King Menelaus he is in awe of the treasures there and the king explains how hard it was to amass the wealth and bring it home. The nuance was how you went about gaining all this treasure. The more honourable means might be through defeating an opponent, winning a prize in some games or sacking a city to avenge a wrong. Similar activities, namely gaining wealth through force and for the sake of greed, well, that was a no-no. In short a Homeric hero couldn’t be a pirate because they were coming from different perspectives, even if the acts they undertook to achieve their goals mimicked each other.
Piracy or non-piracy wasn’t so much in the act itself, but the rationale and context behind it.
The Odyssey with its nautical theme might be the obvious place to find piracy but the Iliad wasn’t bereft of it. In fact a raid made prior to the poem was hugely consequential. The poem starts with a debate over returning the daughter of a priest of Apollo. She was taken in a raid, but not from Troy or much near it. What exactly was the rationale for the raid then? This raid was doubly consequential because when the priest’s daughter is returned to the chagrin of Agamemnon he demands a captured woman from Achilles to replace her. This woman was captured on the same raid, and if you know the poem it’s this squabble over women taken from a raid which causes Achilles to up tools and sit in his tent.
I’ll finish up with Homer by recounting a myth which was captured on a vase and is a famous image you may have seen. It dates to around 540 and is attributed to the painter Exekias. The scene features a ship in the centre with a figure lounging on his side. Looking closer you might pick out vines growing out from the mast with grapes hanging down. Below him dolphins swim and at first glance it seems a nice peaceful scene. But remember, this is Greek art and Greek myth.
The figure on the ship is in fact Dionysus and those dolphins? Well, they were pirates. In the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus a myth is told which features Dionysus standing by the sea in the form of a handsome young man. A ship of Tyrrnehean pirates, often this word mean Etruscan though we’ll meet this term later, spot a young man stood alone on the beach wearing a purple robe. Now this is an important detail because this item would have indicated he was wealthy and the motivation from the pirates seems to be to get him to tell them where his wealth is or where his wealthy friends are. They jump ashore and sieze him and him take him to their ship, as they start to tie him up the reality, or unreality, sets in.
First wine ran in streams about the ship, then a vine grew up the mast and grapes appeared. The young man turned into a lion and a great bear appeared alongside. The pirates leapt overboard and as they hit the water they turned into dolphins.
This myth introduces us to a reality of piracy which could be used as a narrative tool, that people could end up in different part of the Mediterranean.. It was also a feature in other myths – if you have listened to my episode on the Oracle at Dodona you might remember that one foundation myth for it involved the abduction of priestesses from Egypt.
Before I start with the Classical and Hellenistic period I need to give a mention to one figure who may have kickstarted a new way to think about piracy. In the mid 6th century an individual came to power on the island of Samos. His name was Polycrates and he became a household name in ancient Greece. His renown was in part because of how he came to power, you see Polycrates was a famous tyrant and though this term probably isn’t as pejorative as it is today even back in ancient Greece it wasn’t exactly a compliment. And yet tyrants could also benefit a city in some ways, a good case is Piesistratus who was a tyrant of Athens and is associated with the founding of the Panathenaic games there. Polycrates was associated with some big improvements on Samos, the temple of Hera, a tunnel carved through a mountain to provide water and an upgraded harbout. Though these do come with a caveat – it’s not certain how involved he was with each of these. In any case he did bring wealth and power to the island and he did so with a newly built fleet.
With this he raided and intimidated the Greeks and non-Greeks near Samos, he built alliances and doubtless was able to influence trade in the Aegean. In a sense he acted much like Odysseus in his fictional backstory, albeit in a real and bigger scale. Herodotus commented that Polycrates wanted to dominate the sea and whilst it may have been a slight exaggeration it wasn’t exactly untrue. So what we have here is a sort of pirate tyrant who turned things up a notch and using the practices of piracy as a sort of financial policy. Here the benefits from it didn’t benefit an individual or small group but an entire island. Of course it did make Polycrates very wealthy and famous so it wasn’t all about altruism.
Piracy, or actions associated with it, were something which could be upscaled and in the Classical period there was a change in the political landscape of Greece – an new type of political entity called the city state or polis. These were place such as Athens, Thebes, Corinth and Sparta who evolved into more complex political centres with a citizen base and their own way of ruling. There weren’t kings as such anymore, and yes, I know Sparta has to be different but stick with me, instead the citizen was a political element and involved in decision making to some degree. I know this is a very loose definition by the way but you can wander down numerous rabbit holes arguing what made a polis or city state. In short these cities got big and evolved into mini-states who interacted with each other.
For the city states the idea of piracy was out of the question, unless it was being done to you. No-one professed to being a pirate, but there was a lot in the piracy tool kit which these city states could make use of and did. Next then I’m going to talk about what piracy was in the Classical and Hellenistic periods, how the city states employed elements of it, how they reacted when it was used against them. But I’m also going to go over some examples of how it manifested in the purer sense, by that I mean away from the city states and how pirates operated and what you could do about them.
I’m going to start with Thucydides, a 5th century historian who wrote the following about piracy in the years prior and how it still existed in his time. It’s a bit of a long quotation but an important one. Here it goes.
“So piracy became a common profession both amongst the Hellenes and amongst the barbarians who lived on the coast and in the islands. The leading pirates were powerful men, acting both out of self interest and in order to support the weak among their own people. They would descend upon cities which were unprotected by walls and indeed consisted only of scattered settlements: and by plundering such places they would gain most of their livelihood. At this time such a profession, so far from being regarded as disgraceful, was considered quite honourable. It is an attitude than can be illustrated even today by some of the inhabitants of the mainland among whom successfull piracy is regarded as something to be proud of; and in the old poets too, we find that the regular question always asked of those who arrive by sea is “Are you pirates?”.
The last line, the reference to the question about whether you were a pirate is now familiar to us. Elsewhere Thucydides does provide some form of rationale, that piracy was done to support a wider community and so we might think of piracy as almost an industry in itself or perhaps aligned with how Polycrates utilised it. Piracy or raiding could bring economic and political gain and the latter of the two as repackaged within how a state conducted war against another. In the 5th century there was one such theatre of war between Greek city states and one which Thucydides famously covered, the Peloponnesian War.
In the conflict Sparta and Athens clashed as did their respective allies. It started in 431 and ended in an Athenian defeat in 404. I should mention that there was a truce during it but in many ways this was a war during which seafaring and raiding became an important element.
When Athens fought Sparta it had a big advantage in naval deployment. The Athenian navy was well drilled, skilled and numerous and by the time they locked horns the Athenians were committed to using their navy as a main strategy. In 424 Athens caused a sensation by capturing a small island near Pylos in the south west of Greece, just off the coast of Messania, in essence Sparta’s back yard. If you recognise Pylos it’s because that’s where Nestor was based in the Odyssey.
From this island Athens established a base where they launched raids on the countryside, these weren’t conducive to provoking the enemy to battle, if anything they were the opposite. Thucydides reported how the Spartans had no response to this, not only in repelling the raids but it from his account the Spartans were dumbfounded by it all. To add to this Thucydides also noted how these raids were very profitable. Years later when Demosthenes sailed past with a force on his way to Sicily he stopped at Laconia, the Spartan heartland to raid and even build an outpost for any helots looking to escape.
This last point firmly poked Sparta in a very sensitive spot, the thing Sparta feared and was paranoid about, with reasonable justification I may add, was that the helots would rise against them. Sparta relied on the enslaved helot population, the state couldn’t have existed without it.
Here then Athens achieved a political outcome as well as getting some much needed coin out of it. But there were instances when pirate-style actions were more practical. In 410 when Alcibiades made raids into the country of a Persian satrap he did so for much needed funds in order to pay his fleet. This was a fleet far from Athens and so piracy became almost a requirement to survive.
And this aspect, the use of what I’ll call pseudo-piracy for economic gain was always an option. Athens was rebuked by Philip of Macedon in the 4th century for supporting Kallias who was plundering the trade ships making their way to Macedonia. It wasn’t just Athens though, the Peloponnesians such as Sparta got in on the act and so merchants were in peril from both rogue pirates acting independently and city states who backed pirates and most likely were behind them. Piracy became a sort of proxy war which had a number of advantages, it was much easier to prosecute without committing to full scale war against a state. It also allowed action by a state against another without treading the fine line of being seen as an agressor. The irony was that while the ancient Greeks were happy to fight with each other there was always a concern about being seen to break treaties or just act as an agressor. Far easier to weaken and destabilise an enemy through this pseudo warfare.
And don’t forget plain old fashioned greed. In 355 a group of Athenian ambassadors captured a ship from Egypt and seized 9.5 talents wort of goods, a sizeable sum. But Athens wasn’t at war with Egypt and their justification was that Egypt was in revolt with Persia who they were on good terms with. Perhaps this nonchalance had consequences as Demosthenes complained that it was this type of attitude which was making it difficult for ordinary Athenians to travel in the Aegean anymore, that said he was still happy to fling some muck at Philip of Macedon, calling him the pirate of the Greeks. But that’s Athenians for you.
Though city states publicly abhorred pirates they were happy to use them both through support and sometimes in an outright fashion. Take the end of the Peloponnesian War, the final naval battle at Aegospotami in 405 saw Athens defeated near the Hellespont, far from Athens and Sparta. The message of victory was delivered back home by a Milesian pirate called Theopompus. Around a century later the general Demetrios besieged Rhodes and his navy was joined by a large number of pirates. Presumably these weren’t on the naval payroll but were happy to lend a hand if they got their share of the spoils.
There’s a great example of how pirates might be used and also not trusted by a general in the siege of Ephesus in 287. The general Lykon couldn’t take the city but was able to do so by bribing pirates who were defending the city. The leader of these pirates, a man called Andron agreed to take some of Lykon’s soliders into the city as captured men. However, they were in fact armed and were able to open the gates to let Lykon in.
Though Lykon was successful he was in no way trusting of the pirates and after paying them they were escorted out of the city and this goes to show how pirates may have been useful but ultimately never to be trusted.
The traditional pirate, as per the example mentioned, could have a formal, almost business side to them. They were, after all, able to link in with city states to act in their best interests. But they extended this formality to the places they had raided. Take Teos, city on the Ioanian coast, that’s modern day Turkey. Teos was raided in the 3rd century by pirates who made off with a number of their community. The pirates not only supplied a fixed amount for ransom which they had calculated based on their estimates of the town’s worth but gave Teos 23 days to raise the funds and pay them. In the meantime a few of the pirates stayed in the town.
This example provides an insight into an essential aspect of piracy, that being Greek didn’t mean you couldn’t be captured and sold into slavery. I’ll expand on this shortly but consider the business plan in action – it would be an option to sail away but the easier option was to sell the people back to the place they had been taken from. There is also another reason why this was a good option for a pirate and that was because where you could sell those you had captured could get tricky.
You might have wondered how and where the pirates were selling the people they’d captured and the answer was pretty much anywhere. There were a number of examples of individuals receiving acclaim from a community for paying the ransom. Eumaridas paid a whopping 20 talents for one set of hostages taken and even covered their travel home to Athens. Eumaridas was honoured by Athens and what makes this more interesting is that he wasn’t an Athenian himself. Eumaridas was from Kydonia, on Crete. Now Crete had a huge reputation for being the place where pirates sold their wares, be it people or stock goods and you might be thinking whether Odysseus pirate backstory was an earlier reference to this. Perhaps in the time of Homer this was still the case, hence Odysseus having his fictional backstory based there.
That there were known markets or at least locations where pirates could sell their goods meant that City States could sign treaties. The city of Miletos had one such treaty in place in the mid 3rd century. It prevented anyone in Knossos, a place in Crete, from buying anyone who had been a free Milesian, if they did then they were entitled to a refund. The agreement referenced 19 other locations on Crete which this applied to. But this only related to people, not material goods. This type of policy might also extend to places literally harbouring pirates and by that I mean allowing pirates to use their harbours. Back in 427 Athens had this in place with both Mytilene and Haliesis which stated that neither could allow pirates to use their harbours.
It wasn’t just Crete, I should also mention the island of Aigina which sits between Athens and the Peloponnese. This also had a reputation for a place pirates might sell their goods and while you might think this to be counter productive it may have been helpful for those paying ransom to know where they should be headed or see if they had contacts in that location who could help. Perhaps this was how the Athenian Nikostrasos was ransomed, in a turn of irony he’d been captured by pirates whilst tracking down runaway slaves and himself sold as one before the ransom was paid.
Of course the more immediate option was to counter the pirates directly, through force. At the beginning of the Peloponnesian War Athens went to the lengths of fortifying a location on the eastern coast of Greece, near Locris to keep Euboea safe from raids. Further still they sent 6 ships to modern day southern Turkey to prevent pirates from attacking a vital trade route. A character called Diotimos was mentioned in Athenian naval records of 355 having been given the mission of guarding against pirates, though it doesn’t say much more or anything about who the pirates were or where he was based.
Speaking of named individuals, Polemarchos one of three brothers was killed fighting pirates and named on a monument at Rhodes in the 3rd century.
A final named individual was Epichares, he was in charge of coastal defence in north east Attica. This was the region which Athens sat in. And in the 3rd century made a deal with the pirates to return those they had taken, to coast came to 120 drachmai each. Now this may have nestled with the other accounts of ransom being paid were it not for his next actions. Punishment was dealt not to the pirates but to those locally who had worked with the pirates. The implication was that some locals had tipped off the pirates to an easy hit, perhaps a community who were more easily raided or perhaps a date when a group of people would be in a set location.
Another strategy, albeit a costly one, to sending ships against pirates was to found a colony or base to make shipping safe, a sort of upgrade on what Athens did for Euboea. Step forward Dionysus the second or younger of Syracuse, he founded two colonies in southern Italy to allow for safe trade between Greece and Sicily.
The seas between Greece and Italy had a reputation for piracy and a word often used in the context of pirates was ‘Tyrrenhian’. This was often used to describe Etruscans, but it’s likely that this was a catch all term to describe pirates in or around the Italian peninsula.
In conclusion piracy was a genuine issue for the peoples of the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods. It’s notable that throughout all these periods we have references in literature, there’s Homer who we’ve covered but the Tragedies and Comedies of Classical Greece mention pirates as do the comedies of the Hellenistic period. In the later comedies piracy was a plot device, explaining or giving rationale as to why a character was far from home. Though it exists after the timescale for this episode a special mention must go to the ancient work called Callirhoe which has pirates as a crucial plot device and if you get the chance I’d advise reading it. If you listened to my ‘Fantasy Dinner guests’ you’ll have heard a great pitch by Helen McVeigh all about it.
Piracy has been argued as almost an industry within itself particularly relevant to aquiring people to sell as slaves. In one sense it must have been terrifying knowing that you could be snatched and taken away, how often this occurred we cannot know but the idea of it as a possibility is haunting. The Greek response to it was inventive from establishing patrols, founding cities to legal agreements. But ultimately this can only have nibbled at it.
And there’s also the argument that piracy was useful for the powers in those periods. It had a political usefulness and as such perhaps the intent was never eradication of it but instead utilising it against your enemies.
Well I hope you enjoyed this episode. You know what I’m going to say next, review if you can, come say hi but more importantly and as ever. Keep safe and stay well.