Cilician pirates dominated the Mediterranean Sea from the 2nd century BC until their speedy suppression by Pompey in 67-66 BC. Although there were notorious pirate strongholds in Cilicia, on the southern coast of Asia Minor, the term "Cilician" was long used to generically refer to any pirates.
Rise of piracy
With the destruction of Ancient Carthage, the demise of the Seleucid Empire, and Ptolemaic Egypt on the wane, there was no strong naval power left in the Mediterranean. Rome was the only major Mediterranean power left, but at this time her navy was reduced and Rome relied on hiring ships as necessity required. Rome only protected the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas, on account of their proximity, with expeditions sent against the pirate bases on the Ligurian and Illyrian coast. The Balearic Isles were cleared in 120 BC for the same purpose.
As a result, the pirates became consolidated and organized. The smaller communities of the Greek and African waters were left to make their own arrangements. Communities unable to fend off the pirate incursions were forced to come to an understanding with the pirates, and thus became havens.
Crete at this time was still an independent Greek territory. Civil wars had devastated the land, and much of the population turned to piracy. Crete became a major haven for piracy, with its strategic position in the midst of the Mediterranean and because it did not fall under the control of any of the Mediterranean empires.
Cilicia was the other major pirate refuge. Like Crete, Cilicia enjoyed excellent natural harbors which geography rendered easily defensible. The Seleucids were too weak to suppress them, and Diodotus Tryphon, king of the Seleucid Empire from 142-138 BC, actually supported them, in order to strengthen his position.
Around 140 BC, Rome sent Scipio Aemilianus to assess the situation. He reported that the governments of the region were too weak or unwilling to settle the issue. Rome at this time was unwilling to spend the effort needed to reduce the Cilician pirates, perhaps because of the benefits piracy afforded the Romans.
Consequently, the pirates remained the only considerable naval power in the Eastern Mediterranean. They eventually had bases all throughout the Mediterranean.
The main trade of the pirates was slavery. Roman merchants bought the most slaves. Roman land owners held large plantations worked by slaves. Sicily was notorious for its slave plantations owned by Romans.
Delos became the center of the Mediterranean slave market; other markets included those of Rhodes and Alexandria. In its heyday, 100,000 slaves passed through its markets in a single day. With the plantations came a harsher system of slavery and greater demand. Western Asia was the main supply, and was reduced by piracy and Roman tax farmers.
Rome and the pirates
By the 1st century BC, what began as a nuisance became a plague on the Mediterranean commerce. The Cilician pirates roamed across the entire Mediterranean, and began to attack the towns of Italy itself. In fact, even Ostia was plundered.
Finally, after heated debate, Pompey was granted extraordinary powers to eliminate the Cilician pirates. Pompey divided the Mediterranean into thirteen districts, to each of which he assigned a fleet and a commander. Pompey then swept through the western Mediterranean with his own powerful fleet, driving the pirates out or into the paths of his other commanders. By keeping vigilance over all the sea at the same time (and at great cost), there was nowhere to run or hide. Those Cilician pirates that did escape fled to the eastern Mediterranean. Pompey completed this first part of his campaign in 40 days.
Pompey then turned to the eastern Mediterranean. He gave mild terms to those pirates who surrendered to him personally, as opposed to his other commanders. Some pirates surrendered their ships, their families and themselves up to Pompey. From these, he learned about where others were hiding. Many pirates retreated to their strongholds of Asia Minor, where they gathered and waited for Pompey to attack them. At Coracesium Pompey won a decisive victory and blockaded the town. The Cilician pirates surrendered all their harbors and fortified islands. The Romans took the wealth the pirates had collected, and released many of their prisoners, whom the pirates intended to ransom; other prisoners were sold into slavery. Strabo writes that Pompey destroyed 1300 pirate vessels of all sizes.
Pompey spared numerous Cilician pirates who had been taken prisoner, realizing that many had been driven to such recourse by desperation. Those who surrendered were settled in various parts of the southern coast of Asia Minor, where the population was sparse. Settlements were created at Mallus, Adana, and Epiphaneia in Cilicia. Many were settled at Soli, which was thereafter called Pompeiopolis.
The eastern campaign lasted 49 days. In total, Pompey's campaign removed the Cilician pirates, who had held a stranglehold on Mediterranean commerce and threatened Rome with famine, in a mere 89 days, the summer of 66 BC.
When Quintus Sertorius, the renegade Roman general, was driven from Hispania, he fell in with Cilician pirates who were using the Balearic Islands as a base. After they were driven out by a Roman fleet, Sertorius went to Africa and fought against them, where they were helping to reinstall a tyrant to the throne of Tingis.
When Sulla died in 78 BC, Julius Caesar returned to Rome as a lawyer, prosecuted Sulla's supporters, and headed to the Greek city of Rhodes to study oratory. Pirates seized the vessel in 75 BC, kidnapped Caesar, and held him for ransom. Caesar was insulted at the ransom demand, which he saw as too low, and promised to crucify the pirates after he was free. At his insistence, the pirates raised the ransom demand to a level in accordance with his station; his friends quickly raised the sum. After his freedom was purchased, he assembled a small army, which captured the pirates and crucified them.
During the slave rebellion known as the Third Servile War, Spartacus was said to have brokered a deal with the Cilician pirates, hoping to smuggle a force of rebels across to Sicily. Sometime in 71 BC, the pirates deserted Spartacus.
Plutarch recounts a particular custom of the Cilician pirates. When a prisoner of theirs called out he was Roman, the pirates would pretend to be scared and beg for mercy. If the prisoner took the pirate's mockery in earnest, they would dress him in Greek athletic shoes and a toga, that they might not repeat the mistake. After they were satisfied mocking him, they would lower a ladder into the sea, and, wishing him a fortuitous journey, invite him to step off. If the man would not go of his own accord, they would push him overboard.
According to Plutarch, the Cilician pirates were the first to celebrate the mysteries of Mithras. When some of these were resettled in Apulia by Pompey, they might have brought the religion with them, thus sowing the seeds of what would in the latter part of the 1st century AD blossom into Roman Mithraism.
- Plutarch, Vita Pompeii 24.7-8.
- Plutarch, Vita Pompeii 24.5.
- (See R. Turcan, The Cults of the Roman Empire, Blackwell, 1996; pp. 201–203)
- de Souza, Philip. Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge University Press, 2002. Limited preview online.
- Mattingly, Harold B. "C. Verres and the Pirates." Reprinted in From Coins to History: Selected Numismatic Studies. University of Michigan Press, 2004. Limited preview online.
- Ormerod, H.A. "The Campaigns of Servilius Isauricus against the Pirates." Journal of Roman Studies 12 (1922) 35–56.
- Ward, Allen M. "Caesar and the Pirates." Classical Philology 70 (1975) 267–268.