26 January 2014

Piracy in the Hellenistic Age

Rhodes' antipiracy campaigns were complicated by the fact that pirates operated both on their own account and as mercenaries for foreign rulers. At the end of the third century BCE, for example, the island of Crete was a collection of cities joined in a loose commonwealth presided over by Philip V of Macedonia. So Cretans engaged in seizing merchantmen may have been in Philip's pay and therefore not, strictly speaking, pirates. During the Cretan War of 206-203 BCE, Rhodians faced pirates from at least half a dozen cities, some of which they managed to neutralise and bring into formal alliances. By this time, legitimate maritime commerce was vital to the well-being of individual city-states and kingdoms. No longer an honourable way to make a living, as Thucydides claims it was in Homer's day, piracy was something to which all those with a stake in sea trade paid close attention. Nonetheless, if the testimony of St Augustine is to be believed, the question of what differentiated pirates from recognised rulers was already current: "It was a witty and a truthful rejoinder which was given by a captured pirate to Alexander the Great. The king asked the fellow, 'What is your idea, in infesting the sea?' And the pirate answered with uninhibited insolence. 'The same as yours, in infesting the world! But because I do this with my tiny craft, I am called a pirate; because you have a mighty navy, you are called an emperor'".

- Lincoln Paine, The Sea & Civilisation: A Maritime History of the World, New York, 2013, p.116.

See also:
History: Roman Machines, 16 September 2013
History: Posting the empire as the royal word, 9 January 2013
History: Lysistrata's gambit, 25 November 2012
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