Pompey’s Fight Against Piracy


Did Pompey or Caesar do more of importance to fight piracy in the Roman Mediterranean? Consider piracy as an actual threat to shipping, as a source for propaganda, and as a basis for establishing and maintaining power in Rome and in the broader eastern Mediterranean coastal world.

During the final century of the Roman Republic, piracy was a serious threat in the waters known to the Romans as mare nostrum.[1] A young Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey are two particular figures of the late Republic whose fight against piracy is focused on by the ancient sources early in their public careers. Caesar’s encounter with the pirates is often presented as theatrical anecdote, used to enhance the vital traits, being his speed and ruthlessness, presented of Caesar the general during his propaganda campaign later in his career. Subsequently, his confrontation with the pirates did not impact greatly on the fight against piracy. Comparably, Pompey’s campaign against the pirates was also aimed at gaining prestige in Rome, through his swift securing of the grain supply, in order to enable him to gain command in the war against Mithridates. However, his

hasty encounter allowed him to promptly subdue the pirates foreboding the Mediterranean without resorting to warfare. Thus, Pompey is seen to have done more of importance in the fight against piracy through resettlement and employing the virtue of clementia, opting to provide the pirates with a means of starting a new agriculturally driven life, and, therefore, ensuring the restoration of Roman power throughout the Mediterranean.

Writing in c.AD 14, around the time of the emperor Augustus’ death, the Greek historian and geographer Strabo divided the known world into two sections.[2] The ‘better’ part was that which belonged to the Romans. It was here that order had been installed and the populus was prosperous, utilizing the sea as a means for peaceful and civilized trading.[3] The remaining section, in his opinion, was a nation of uncivilized, barbaric people who were said to have practised piracy and, thus, did not deserve the benefits of Roman rule. The absence of a single, stable political authority throughout the Mediterranean created an environment in which piracy could successfully flourish, as did the frequent wars between the surrounding kingdoms and city-states.[4] Thus, pirates could easily establish a base within the territory of one state, and attack the inhabitants of another without fear of being reprimanded.[5]

Historical sources, such as the writings of Cicero, Plutarch, Strabo, and Cassius Dio, provide much evidence detailing attacks and remarkable instances of kidnappings and ransoms by pirates throughout the 70’s and 60’s BC.[6] Historians and biographers record one such anecdote involving kidnapping of the young Roman aristocrat Julius Caesar by Cilician pirates in late c.75BC.[7] Often presented as a straightforward victory over piracy, Caesar’s tale was said to reflect his audacity, energy, and the beginnings of the ruthless general he would later become.[8] Yet, as the anecdote surely originated with Caesar himself, it should also be noted as an instrument of propaganda, aimed at emphasising the desired skills of Caesar the general, one that would adopt additional meanings and lend itself to rewriting, dependent on the authors purposes, as time progressed.[9]

The use of this anecdote as a form of propaganda for Caesar’s later career is particularly emphasised in the works of Suetonius and Plutarch. As the former records[10], the kidnapping occurred near the island of Pharmacusa[11], while the latter[12], noting this too, specifies that the ransom to freed Caesar derived from the bordering polis of Miletus.[13] Furthermore while Suetonius writes that after his release, Caesar launched a fleet, pursued the pirates, and crucified them, Plutarch incorporates another segment of the chronicle: having taken command of a fleet, Caesar set sail and captured a large majority of the pirates; however instead of killing them immediately, he himself “went in person to Junius, the governor of Asia, on the ground that it belonged to him, as praetor of the province, to punish the captives.[14] When Junius postponed passing a judgment on the matter, Caesar returned to Pergamum, released the robbers from their prison and ‘crucified them all, just as he had often warned them on the island that he would do, when they thought he was joking.’[15] Alongside such an intricate narrative as this, gaps in record of Caesar’s early public life – for instance, his service as military tribune during the Third Servile War goes unmentioned.[16] The recollection of this particular encounter may be due to ancient biographer and historians disinterest in exhaustive accounts of the adolescence of their subjects.[17] What counted, in the eyes of the authors, were res gestae; and perhaps, there were little worthy of mention from Caesar’s tribunate.[18]

Concurrently, the tale of Caesar’s kidnapping was vibrant and theatrical. It unquestionably leant itself to embellishment; Plutarch depicts Caesar writing poetry and speeches to recite to the pirates, thereby illustrating his educational accomplishments, a subject treasured by this biographer.[19] Nevertheless, the anecdotes greatest attraction, especially for ancient authors, was that it foreshadowed the man Caesar was to become.[20] The writings of Velleius Paterculus record how Caesar returned to the coast with ‘unbelievable speed’ and crucified the pirates before a message from the proconsul could be received.[21] It is Caesar’s speed that is emphasized within this passage, a concept which took on additional meaning after Caesar’s later campaigns, after which his celeritas became proverbial.[22] All the attention piracy received at the time in Rome assisted in the development of the anecdote of the young Caesar, his kidnapping, and the immediate reaction to it, as well as Iunius Iuncus’ alleged in action.[23] Thus, while Caesar’s tale may hold some truths in his encounter with pirates, it reveals an act of revenge, emphasized in his propaganda campaign, which lends itself to establishing himself as a man of power and ruthlessness, rather than contributing to the fight against piracy.

Pompey was yet another prominent Roman of the Republican period whose bout against the Cilician pirates is widely documented by ancient sources, reported as having a serious effect upon the business of piracy. Piratical attacks continued to be widespread throughout the Mediterranean in the years after 75BC, however it was not until c.67BC that the Romans took decisive action to attempt to rid the Mediterranean of piracy.[24] The Greek biographer Plutarch pinpoints the primary reason the Romans perceived the pirates as a serious threat:

The pirates’ power was felt in all parts of the Mediterranean, so that it was impossible to sail anywhere and all trade was brought to a halt. It was this which really made the Romans sit up and take notice. With their markets short of food and a great famine looming, they commissioned Pompey to clear the seas of pirates.[25]

While pirates frequently harassed their provincial allies, Rome and Italy were left relatively untroubled. Consequently, the Romans were content to profess concern for their allies and subjects, yet take little action to prevent piracy.[26] However, as Plutarch suggests, the one thing that the Romans could not ignore was a threat to their grain supply. Appian, too, stresses this notion, allotting the blame for the resulting distress to the incessantly increasing population of the city.[27]

In the same year, one of Rome’s most ambitious generals, Pompey, was appointed under a law proposed by Aulus Gabinius to exonerate the Mediterranean of pirates. Under the lex Gabinia, he was granted extensive provincial command and vast resources[28]; he was appointed for three years with the authority to raise a legion in all provinces and overriding imperium in all provinces for up to fifty miles inland.[29] Sources recording Pompey’s strategy confirm that securing the grain supply was his first priority. He assembled his naval forces and concentrated them in the western Mediterranean, safeguarding the regions of whom Rome depended on for her food supply, specifically North Africa, Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily.[30] Plutarch writes:

He divided up the coasts and seas into thirteen regions, assigning a number of ships to each one, with a commander. His forces were spread out, threatening the pirate hordes from all sides so that they were swiftly caught and brought to land. The more elusive ones were driven together towards Cilicia, like bees swarming to their hive. Pompey made ready to move against them with sixty of his best ships.[31]

The sources are remarkably concise in what is recorded about the Cilician segment of the campaign. Cicero encapsulates it in one sentence: ‘he himself going in person, added all Cilicia to the dominions of the Roman people, on the forty-ninth day after he set out from Brundusium.’[32] Additional details are provided by later sources, such as Plutarch and the historians Cassius Dio and Appian, yet they do not suggest that the campaign involved extensive fighting.[33] A majority of the sources agree that the first part of the Cilician campaign was completed within a period of 40 days, a huge feat in light of the previous campaigns of Roman magistrates in the area.[34] A possible approach to understanding this phenomenal accomplishment is found in the cursory manner in which the sources treat the Cilician part of the campaign. Immediately after the grain supply had been secured, the Roman people were far less concerned about the progress of the war against pirates.[35] What Pompey did after the initial 40 days was of little interest to them or to the ancient historians and biographers, especially as the subsequent war against Mithridates was of greater significance.[36]

Pompey’s campaign was highly praised by the likes of sources such as Cicero, however, as he later stated in his speech On behalf of Flaccus, Pompey did not eradicate pirates from the Mediterranean and it was suggested that due to the notable speed with which Pompey cleared the seas before proceeding to Cilicia, it was unlikely that he carried out a thorough campaign. One possibly flaw in Pompey’s campaign was his resettlement of the former pirates. According to sources such as Appian and Cassius Dio, he settled the pirates in cities that were suitable for agriculture, rather than piracy; specifically, these sites included Soli[37], Adana, Mallos, Epiphaneia, and Dyme.[38] On the surface it appears to be an effective solution to the problem of piracy, truly worthy of a statesman like Pompey.[39] However, it is abundantly clear that these poleis were idyllically suited not for farming, rather for piracy. Dyme is positioned on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, adjacent to the mouth of the gulf of Corinth.[40] Soli is located north-east of Seleukeia, on the coast of Cilicia, while Adana and Mallos, despite not being coastal cities, both lie close to the sea on navigable waterways; Epiphaneia, the most remote of these cities, is less than 15km inland.[41]

However, as Cicero states in his speech On behalf of Flaccus, Pompey combatted this by proposing a fleet for the protection of Italy in 62 BC; the following year 4, 300, 000 sesterces were spent on the protection of the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian seas: ’Did not we, at the very same time that Lucius Flaccus was levying sailors in Asia, exact four millions three hundred thousand sesterces for fleets to defend the Mediterranean and Adriatic?’[42] Through providing fleets to monitor the seas around which the former pirates were settled, Pompey enabled the Romans to keep a watch on the Cilicians. Thus, as Cicero goes on to state, Pompey’s overall aim and undiminished ‘glory’ comprised of the fact that the pirates were no longer free to wander over the seas at will, rather than their eradication.[43]

Despite this possible flaw in the resettlement of the pirates, Pompey, however, did succeed in subduing them without the need for war, a fact that won him much prestige in Rome. This victory was particularly assigned to famous Roman virtue clementia, a trait later closely associated with Pompey’s political rival Julius Caesar[44]:

For he had at his disposal great forces, both in his fleet and his army, so that at sea and on land he was irresistible. Just as great was his clemency towards those who made terms with him, so that he won over many of them by this policy. For those men who were beaten by his forces and experienced his great benevolence, put themselves at his disposal most readily.[45]

According to both Cassius Dio and Plutarch, Pompey never planned on sentencing his prisoners to death, the punishment regularly meted out to pirates.[46] Appian states that he was able to distinguish between those pirates who were ‘wicked’ and those ‘who had evidently fallen into this way of life … from poverty consequent upon the war.’[47] Consequently, as is stated by Cassius Dio, any pirates who surrendered at once would be treated leniently instead of being executed or sold into slavery. This policy was clearly aimed at subduing Cilicia, as well as the security of the Romans grain supply, with minimum warfare.[48] In this manner, Pompey would retain the prestige of victory and be well placed to receive command in the war against Mithridates.[49]

In the end, it can be seen that, whilst Pompey did not completely eradicated the pirates from the Mediterranean, his campaign did more of importance in contributing to the eradication of piracy throughout the Mediterranean. Caesar’s encounter with the pirates is often presented as vibrant and theatrical, lending itself to be adapted to emphasize the speed and ruthlessness of Caesar the general, shown through the capture and crucifixion of the pirates. Consequently, his encounter with the pirates did not impact greatly on the fight against piracy. Similarly, Pompey’s encounter with the Cicilian pirates, too, was aimed at gaining prestige in Rome, through quickly securing the Roman grain supply, to enable him to gain command in the war against Mithridates. However, his swift campaign also subdued the pirates menacing the Mediterranean and secured the grain supply for the Romans. Thus, through resettlement and employing the virtue of clementia, Pompey was able to quickly subdue the pirates without resorting to warfare, opting to provide the pirates with a means of starting a new agriculturally driven life, and thus ensuring the restoration of Roman power throughout the Mediterranean.


Ancient Sources

Appian. Roman History. Trans. White, H., Vol. 3. London: William Heinmann Press, 1912.

Cicero. The Speeches: Pro lege Manilia, Pro Caecina, Pro Cluentio; Pro Rabirio    perduellionis. Trans. H. Grose Hodge. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1927.

Cicero. The Speeches: In Catilinam I-IV, Pro Murena, Pro Sulla, Pro Flacco. Trans. E. Lord.        London: Heinemann, 1946.

Plutarch. Lives: Demosthenes and Cicero, Alexander and Caesar. Trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 7. London: Heinemann, 1914.

Plutarch. Lives: Agesilaus and Pompey. Pelopidas and Marcellus. Vol. 5. Trans. Bernadotte Perrin. Vol. 7. London: Heinemann, 1914.

Dio Cassius. Roman History. Trans. E. Cary. Vol. 6. London: Harvard University Press,             1927.

Suetonius. “The Deified Julius”. In Lives of the Caesars. Trans. Catharine Edwards. New            York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Strabo, The Geography. Trans. Horace Leonard Jones. Vol. 8. London: Harvard University           Press, 1944.

Modern Works

Casson, L. Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World. Reprint of 1971 ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.

De Souza. P. Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Forsythe, G. A Critical History of Early Rome. Berkeley 2005.

Horden, P. & N. Purcell. The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History. London:             Wiley-Blackwell, 2000.

Jones. H. S. “A Roman Law Concerning Piracy.” The Journal of Roman Studies.    16.1926: 155-73. http://www.jstor.org/stable/295703

Natanson, A. “Roman Naval Power: Raising the Ram.” History Today 61, 2011.

Ormerod, H.A. Piracy in the Ancient World. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1997.

Osgood. J. “Caesar and the Pirates: Or How to Make (and Break) an Ancient Life.” Greece & Rome. 57 no.2. Oxford: Cambridge University Press. 2010. 319-36.

Shaw, B. D. “Bandits in the Roman Empire.” Past and Present. 105. no. 1. 1984: 3- 52. http://past.oxfordjournals.org.ezproxy.library.uq.edu.au/content/105/1/3 

Starr. C. G. The Influence of Sea Power on Ancient History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Ward. A. M. “Caesar and the Pirates.” Classical Philology. 70. no. 4. 1975.: 267-8. http://www.jstor.org/stable/268230

[1] Shaw, 1984: 13.

[2] De Souza, 1999: 95; Ward, 1975: 258; Strabo. Geography. 8.7. 1 – 4.

[3] Jones, 1926: 149; Ormerod, 1997: 47.

[4] Ward, 1975: 264; For merchants in the Mediterranean piracy was not only an economic hazard due to the vulnerability of the cargo, it also proved to be a great hazard to the crew and any passengers, with the ever present threat of being killed, sold into slavery, or, it they were wealthy or of great importance, ransomed. The inhabitants of many of the coastal communities of the Mediterranean faced similar perils. By the 70’s BC the region of Southern Anatolia[4] and the neighbouring polis of Pamphylia were infamously known as the homeland of pirates of whose exploits terrorized the populaces of the Mediterranean.

[5] Shaw, 1984: 15.

[6] Ward, 1975: 267.

[7] Osgood, 2010: 333; Casson, 1995: 261.

[8] Ibid: 334.

[9] Jones, 1926: 157.

[10] Suet. Iul. 4.

[11] Casson, 1995: 268; Just off the coast of Asia Minor.

[12] Plut. Vit. Caes. 1.4 – 2.

[13] Osgood, 2010: 318.

[14] Plut. Caes. 2.6 – 7; Vell. Pat.. 2.42.1, 51.2.

[15] Plut. Caes. 2.7.

[16] Osgood, 2010: 319; Horden,and Purcell, 2000: 81.

[17] Shaw, 1984: 22.

[18] Osgood, 2010: 319.

[19] Jones, 1926: 161.; Plut. Caes. 2.4.

[20] Jones, 1926: 162.

[21] Ibid: 163; Vell. Pat. 2.41.1.

[22] Osgood, 2010: 321.

[23] Horden,and Purcell, 2000: 81.

[24] Shaw, 1984: 25; Forsythe, 2005: 83.

[25] Plut. Pomp. 24.1 – 3.

[26] Jones, 1926: 159.

[27] De Souza, 1999: 166; App. Mith. 93.

[28] Ward, 1975: 267; The matter of suppressing piracy had become so urgent that the Romans risked, in the eyes of some, creating a second Marius or Sull in order to manage the issue.

[29] De Souza, 1999: 161; Up to 25 legates were proposed for the commander, as well as a large budget to pay for raising a large fleet and army. In the end, Pompey did not make use of the entirety of resources available to him.

[30] Shaw, 1984: 27.

[31] Plut. Pomp. 26.3.

[32] Cic. Leg. Man. 12.

[33] Ward, 1975: 268; Horden,and Purcell, 2000: 81.

[34] App. Mith. 95.

[35] Ormerod, 1997: 51; Forsythe, 2005: 85.

[36] Natanson, 2011: 25.

[37] Later renamed Pompeiopolis.

[38] Shaw, 1984: 49; Plut. Pomp. 29.1 – 4; The places he is said to have chosen for the new settlements were thinly populated or deserted sites, some as a result of the Mithridatic wars (App. Mith. 96; Dio 36.37.6).

[39] Plut. Pomp. 28.4; Dio. 36.37.6; App. Mith. 96 and 115; De Souza, 1999: 176.

[40] De Souza, 1999: 167.

[41] De Souza, 1999: 167; Plut. Pomp. 28.4.

[42] Cic. Flacc. 30.

[43] Ibid: 30.

[44] Ormerod, 1997: 237; Ormerod, 1997: 49.

[45] Dio. 36.37.4.

[46] As had been the case when Julius Caesar had encountered pirates; Plut. Pomp. 28.2.

[47] App. Mith. 96.

[48] Jones, 1926: 165.

[49] It was Pompey’s “soft” approach to his enemies that enabled him to complete a three-year mission in less than three months, and it was this campaign that greatly enhanced his reputation as a military genius.

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