Pirates of the Aegean

The Greeks get credit for inventing a lot of things, but did you know one of them is piracy?

There've been pirates in the Aegean Sea for at least three thousand years. The Aegean is ideal for this sort of thing. There are a zillion islands, the coastlines are rocky, and the only way for trade to move about is by sea.

The world's first known pirate was a Greek: a guy called Piyamaradus. He's mentioned in a tablet written by the King of the Hittites to the King of Mycenae. That tablet has to be older than 1,200 BC! The Hittite king complains that Piyamaradus has been using the Greek city Miletus, in Ionia, as a base to raid Hittite towns, and he expects the King of Mykenae to do something about it. The Mykenaeans agreed to hand over the pirate, but Piyamaradus escaped, no doubt in a daring escapade.

Pirates were still a major problem more than 1,100 years later. It's a well known story that the young Julius Caesar was captured by pirates from Cilicia, which lies along the Aegean, and he had to be ransomed. In fact, when he discovered how much they were asking for him, Caesar was offended and demanded the pirates more than double their price. While they waited for the ransom, Caesar hung out with his captors and joked to them that when he was free he'd return and kill them all. Caesar was duly ransomed, at which point he returned and killed them all.

The Roman Senate eventually sent Pompey to clear out all the pirates. Pompey offered them lots of money to go away. The pirates took the money, and then ten years later they were back.

Pretty much every ship on the sea was a potential pirate if a safe opportunity arose. If a larger merchant ship came across a smaller, much weaker one from another city, why not take their cargo? If it led to fighting, well, tough luck for the small guy.

Nor was piracy necessarily frowned upon; in archaic times it was an acceptable way for a noble chap to behave. Mary Renault in The Bull From The Sea has her hero King Theseus spend time raiding merchant ships after he's tossed out as king of Athens. In the Odyssey, Homer has characters boasting of their skill at piracy.

Pirates made their money in the traditional way by stealing from other ships. But they also exacted tribute from nearby towns in return for not raiding them, and raided towns that didn't feel like paying. Pirates took any rich men they came across for ransom, and they collected innocent victims to sell as slaves. It's said that Plato himself was once captured in a pirate attack when he travelled overseas. They sold Plato as a slave, and his friends had to buy him back.

By classical times there were highly organized pirates with for-real pirate bases. I'm afraid you'll have to do away with ideas of eye patches, peg legs and parrots screeching for pieces of eight. Your average pirate looked like any other sailor. Successful pirate chiefs became wealthy and could marry well.

I suspect one of the reasons the island states stuck with Athens, even through the hard times, was that the Athenian fleet could suppress piracy. The Athenians ripped off their client cities something chronic; so it was totally in their interest to keep trade flowing to increase their own takings, and when you've got 300 triremes to work with, you can afford to assign a few to patrolling trade routes.

No pirate in his right mind would have taken on a trireme. The most powerful pirate ship would have been a pentekonter at most. As the name suggests, a pentekonter has 50 oars arranged in a single row (pente: 50). But even a pentekonter is expensive; the vast majority of pirate ships would have been converted merchantmen.

Even the word "pirate" comes from Ancient Greek. When he wrote about pirates, Plutarch uses the word peiratiko (πειρατικo) to refer to a pirate.


Amalia T. said...

Great Post, Gary!

I love the respectability of piracy in ancient and archaic times. It seems like it isn't too terribly dissimilar to the Vikings and their raids-- head out, get booty, come home wealthy and enjoy the fruits of your labors. Not so fun for the people being raided, but not bad for the raider!

C. N. Nevets said...

Love the history.

Also, did you know the Mandarin word for pirate is haidao, which sounds remarkably like "hideout."


Sarah W said...

Piyamaradus sounds like marauder . . . it's probably just a happy coincidence, but it's a great mnemonic---which is Greek in origin, yes?

L. T. Host said...

Man, all this overflow research for you = most of my knowledge about the Ancients now. I thought I was well-versed but I mostly know the mythos.

Those Ancients, they thought of everything . . . :)

Gary Corby said...

You're right, Amalia, the Vikings do seem to have seen things the same way.

Sarah, Piyamaradus probably does mean something in Mykenaean Greek. I don't know what, but marauder won't be it, I'm afraid. Mnemonic is indeed Greek.

Gary Corby said...

Hi LT, yes I do go a bit over the top, but when you write historical novels you need the itty bitty details, even if you can't use them, so you know the background. It does stop me from making mistakes. Sometimes.

If anyone's interested, that tablet I mentioned is often called the Tawagalawas Letter. It caused much excitement when it was discovered, because Tawagalawas is another name for Eteokles, who just happens to be one of the characters who appears in the Iliad by Homer.

In the Hittite tablet Tawagalawas is described in an offhand way as brother to the King of Mykenae, which is mildly consistent. If so, then this is a for-real contemporary reference to a Homeric person.

Amalia T. said...

THAT is really cool. REALLY REALLY cool!

Stephanie Thornton said...

Very cool post!

I'm not surprised pirates outsmarted Pompey- I've never really liked him and always thought he kind of deserved what Ptolemy gave him.

I knew the Greeks had pirates, but not how far back they went. I actually wanted pirates in my current WIP, but it seems there was a bit of a gap in the piracy timeline. Drat!

Gary Corby said...

Stephanie, there are recorded pirates in the Aegean at least up to Napoleonic times. So you should be totally safe to use them, but you might need to make up quite a bit.

Gary Corby said...

Amalia, if you google around you'll find translations of the Tawagalawas Letter, and some incredibly technical debate on the identification of Eteokles. Ventris and Chadwick declared in favour of the connection in their Documents in Mykenaean Greek, and that's good enough for me.

Amalia T. said...

Thanks Gary! I will definitely take a look and see what I can read!

David J. West said...

I love posts like this. I need to finish The Bull from the Sea (and get a copy of The Pericles Commission)

Geoff Carter said...

The Greeks, in some form, probably formed part of 'The Sea Peoples', who, behaved very much the Vikings, mentioned above, and wreaked havoc in Egypt and further afield in the 1200s BC.
They are another interesting historical and archaeological mystery. Some even depicted with horned helmets.

Gary Corby said...

Yes, exactly, the Sea Peoples!

I decided to skirt around the whole subject in the post, because a short lesson in cognate nouns across archaic dialects didn't entirely appeal for a light and breezy article about pirates.

Whether the name Ahhiyawā is cognate with the Achaeans that Homer uses to refer to Greeks is worth an article on its own.

I really want to write something about early Indo-European languages some time, but I need to build up the strength for it.

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Excellent post, Gary. Totally enjoying your research overflow!

dipylon said...

The Hittite letters mention a Piyama-Radu, an Alaksandu, a god Apaliunas, and two cities called Milawata and Wilusa. Rumor has it that these words concern Priam, Alexander-Paris, Apollo, Miletus and Ilios-Troy.