BMCR 2000.10.30

Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World

De Souza, Philip., Piracy in the Graeco-Roman world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. x, 276 pages : maps ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521481376 $59.95.

It has taken more than seventy years, but finally someone has produced a rival to H. Ormerod’s 1924 Piracy in the Ancient World. Philip de Souza’s Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World is the first book in English since Ormerod’s to attempt to cover the topic of ancient piracy with the same breadth. Admittedly, the two books represent different scholarly generations and approaches. Ormerod’s work is long on narrative and short on analysis but scholarly in its own way, with a good presentation of the sources and of the variety of forms and practitioners of ancient piracy. De Souza’s book seeks to go beyond narrative to analyze the role played by piracy in the ancient world, not only in its effect on trade but also, and perhaps more importantly, how the fear of pirates influenced political policy and propaganda. It is de Souza’s understanding of the political side effects of piracy and his re-analysis of the sources in light of this understanding that make this book valuable.

De Souza presents his material chronologically in six chapters with an “Introduction” (Chapter 1, 1-14) and a short “Conclusion” (Chapter 8, 241-242) and substantial bibliography (243-253) to round things out. The “Introduction” is very useful and is not to be ignored as introductions often are. In it de Souza sets out his intentions and some of the questions he means to address: “From the poems of Homer to the works of St. Augustine pirates and piracy are a recurring theme in Classical literature. Why was piracy such a problem in the Graeco-Roman world? What efforts were made to suppress it, and how successful were they?”(1) He also complains about his predecessors’ approaches and presents his claims about his own work.(2) Finally, he considers the Greek and Latin terms for piracy and pirates.(2ff) The history of the use of the two Greek words, leistes and peirates, is illuminating, especially since they really refer to the act of plundering, whether by land or by sea. Thus references to leistes or peirates must be taken in context (if there is one) in order to determine whether pirates (in the modern English sense) or “plain” raiders are involved.

Chapter 2 (15-42) covers “The origins of piracy from the Bronze Age to Alexander.” This is the weakest chapter of the book and demonstrates the great difficulty which exists for anyone trying to analyze or identify piracy in the period. In the end, de Souza probably would have achieved better results if he had divided the chapter into two and dealt with the fifth and fourth centuries separately. The reasons for this are obvious. Our sources for the later period are fuller. Legally speaking, piracy was a recognized and serious crime subject to capital punishment. Piracy and naval warfare were normally distinct, and it is possible to point to indisputable examples of each, which is very much in contrast with the Archaic period, at least as de Souza presents it. Nevertheless, the almost constant warfare of the fifth and fourth centuries makes the “legal status” of much of what was going on hard to determine. Is an act to be judged piracy or a legitimate act of reprisal if it is perpetrated against the shipping of an enemy or the ally of an enemy or the enemy of an ally? Some readers may feel that at times the author is “hedging” just a bit too much; some actions are described as “close to warfare” while others are “more like piracy.” The reasons for these descriptions are not always as clear as they could be, and the reader becomes a little frustrated. A separate chapter covering the material for the years from 499 to 323 would have allowed for a more coherent discussion of these problems.

As for the earlier period, the author himself suggests that discussing piracy in the Bronze Age is impossible. According to de Souza, there is no mention of piracy in the surviving sources. The reason for this absence, in his opinion, is that there was no such concept as piracy in the second millennium BC because “warfare and piracy had not come to be differentiated in this early period”(16). Bronze Age experts might not necessarily agree with this statement, and the question of naval warfare itself in the Late Bronze Age needs more study. If the matter is going to be brought up at all, it deserves more than the page that it receives. Even though de Souza’s predecessors cover the topic, it would have been better to ignore the Bronze Age entirely — there is nothing here to indicate that Bronze Age conditions are relevant — and to begin the discussion with Homer. References to apparently Bronze Age conditions in the works of fifth century and later writers tell us more about the interests and concerns of later periods than about the Bronze Age. De Souza sensibly refuses to follow his predecessors into this “trap” and leaves the stories of King Minos and others with the wise observation that, “legendary exploits of the ancestors of the Greeks reported in the authors of the Classical period cannot be taken as evidence for the history of piracy in the Bronze Age”(16).

One small mistake in the chapter is the reference to “the Middle Minoan II, IIIA and IIIB (c. 1700-1400 BC)” (15). Has a “Late Minoan” fallen out of the text here? According to the chronologies provided by Dickinson1 or Rehak and Younger2 the Late Minoan period begins sometime between 1700-1600 BC.

Chapters 3, “Hellenistic Piracy” (43-96), through 6, “Pax Romana” (179-224), demonstrate de Souza’s ability to pick away at ancient propaganda. This process leads to some very interesting results. De Souza shows not only how “pirate” became a useful term of abuse for Hellenistic and Roman writers and politicians, but also how it was used to “up the emotional ante” — everyone was afraid of pirates — and to lower an opponent’s status from that of a legitimate rival to that of a renegade, a revolted slave. An early example may be the “arch pirate” Ameinias who served under Antigonas Gonatas(47). At the siege of Kassandreia in 277/6 he betrayed the city to Antigonas’ forces and is called an arch pirate by Polyaenus(4.18). Some time later, an Ameinias is found as a general in Antigonas’ army.(Plut. Pyrr. 29.6) If it is the same man, what can be said about his career? Is he a Hellenistic Henry Morgan, a pirate made good? A mercenary who did a bit of piracy on the side when there were not enough wars to go around? Or was he the victim of the poisoned pen of a lost Hellenistic historian? Similar pirate-propaganda, according to de Souza’s arguments, was used against many of the “losers” of ancient conflicts such as Mithridates IV of Pontos (116ff) and Sextus Pompeius (185ff). Whether or not the reader decides to accept de Souza’s arguments, it is refreshing to be compelled to re-think the sources and to see the skill of the ancient “spin-doctors” at work. Their success can be measured by the degree to which even sophisticated modern readers are bewitched.

Chapters 4, “Cilician Piracy” (97-148), through 7, “Piracy in Late Antiquity” (225-240), describe the path by which Rome came to lead the fight against piracy in the Mediterranean. Rome was not an eager protector of shipping, and her assumption of the role was both slow and based on self-interest. Often she was moved only by the need to preserve the security of her grain supply and thus maintain or re-establish peace at home. De Souza shows very clearly that pirates are not easy to get rid of. It is necessary to make a serious commitment to their eradication, for otherwise they merely sail away and “set up shop” some place else. De Souza rightly emphasizes the importance of destroying pirate bases as the most successful method for dealing with the problem. It is nearly impossible for even the best navy to find pirates on the open water (the exception appears to be in the English Channel where the narrowness of the passage and the limited choices for destinations made the task of patrolling a reasonable proposition [225-229]), although few earlier scholars appear to have realized this. Thus de Souza argues that many naval expeditions which have been interpreted as actions primarily intended to control piracy must have had other goals. The claim that an action was aimed at curbing piracy was good publicity but not necessarily the whole truth. As a result, de Souza questions the success of many of these campaigns, qua anti-piracy campaigns, including Pompey the Great’s famous effort (Chapter 5, “Pompey and the pirates” [149-178]).

Were the effects ever more than temporary? Perhaps not. Even Pompey’s success, which was due as much if not more to his willingness to accept the surrender of the pirates and to give them a second chance by relocating them as to his military skills, is unlikely to have had long-lasting positive results.(167-170) And de Souza demonstrates how Pompey’s supporters tried to talk around the fact that piracy had indeed survived Pompey.(179-185) It is, however, perhaps a little unfair to Pompey to suggest that his resettlement program was not thought out clearly(176). While it is true that relocating former pirates on the coast at Soli or on rivers might encourage a “relapse,” it is also true that farmers are more successful if they can deliver their produce to market easily — which means living near some kind of waterway. Perhaps Pompey had the good sense to see that if these pirates were to be reformed successfully, they would need all the help that they could get.

Piracy is an excellent, even “sexy” topic. Pirates are still able to capture the imagination of readers and movie-goers: they remain both romantic and terrifying. The study of ancient piracy opens a number of windows onto life in the Graeco-Roman world, from the sufferings and fears of traders, travelers and the inhabitants of coastal settlements to the role of pirates in the mental landscape of rhetoricians, politicians and novelists. De Souza’s work, particularly the chapters on Hellenistic and Roman piracy, touches on many of these subjects in an interesting and enlightening manner.


1. O. Dickinson The Aegean Bronze Age, New York: Cambridge University Press: 1994.

2. P. Rehak, J. G. Younger, “Neopalatial, Final Palatial, and Postpalatial Crete,” AJA 102 (1998): 99.