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Impearls: Pompey and the Pirates

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Earthdate 2004-05-26

Pompey and the Pirates

Note:  the so-called Gabinian Law, by which Pompey was granted extraordinary powers for dealing with piracy, was passed by the Roman popular assembly in the year 67 b.c.

Plutarch: 1  The power of the pirates first started in Cilicia {i.e., modern Turkey adjacent to the northeasternmost corner of the Mediterranean Sea} from precarious and unnoticed beginnings, but gained arrogance and boldness in the Mithridatic War, when they manned the king’s crews.  Then while the Romans were clashing in civil war with one another about the gates of Rome, the seas lay unguarded and they were little by little enticed and led on no longer merely to fall upon those plying the seas, but even to ravage islands and seacoast towns.  And now even men of great wealth, of noble birth, of outstanding reputation for good sense, embarked on and shared in these freebooting adventures as if this occupation brought honor and distinction.  The pirates had anchorages and fortified beacon-towers in many places, and the fleets encountered there were fitted for their special task with excellent crews, skilled pilots, and swift, light vessels.  But the envy they aroused and their ostentation were even more irksome than the dread they caused.  Their ships had gilded flagmasts at the stern, purple hangings, and silvered oars, as if they reveled and gloried in their evildoing.  There was music and dancing and carousal along every shore, generals were kidnaped, and cities were captured and freed on payment of ransom, to the disgrace of the Roman Empire.  The pirate ships numbered over 1,000, and the cities taken by them, 400.  They attacked and pillaged sanctuaries previously inviolate and unentered….

Appian: 2  Thus, in a very short time, they increased in number to tens of thousands.  They dominated now not only the eastern waters, but the whole Mediterranean to the Pillars of Hercules.  They now even vanquished some of the Roman generals in naval engagements, and among others the praetor of Sicily on the Sicilian coast itself.  No sea could be navigated in safety, and land remained untilled for want of commercial intercourse.  The city of Rome felt this evil most keenly, her subjects being distressed and herself suffering grievously from hunger by reason of her populousness.  But it appeared to her to be a great and difficult task to destroy such large forces of seafaring men scattered everywhither on land and sea, with no heavy tackle to encumber their flight, sallying out from no particular country or visible places, having no property or anything to call their own, but only what they might chance to light upon.  Thus the unexampled nature of this war, which was subject to no laws and had nothing tangible or visible about it, caused perplexity and fear.  Murena had attacked them [84-83 b.c.], but accomplished nothing much, nor had Servilius Isauricus, who succeeded him [77-75 b.c.].  And now the pirates contemptuously assailed the very coasts of Italy, around Brundisium and Etruria, and seized and carried off some women of noble families who were traveling, and also two praetors with their very insignia of office.

Cicero: 3  Who sailed the seas without exposing himself to the risk either of death or of slavery, sailing as he did either in winter or when the sea was infested with pirates?  Who ever supposed that a war of such dimensions, so inglorious and so long-standing, so widespread and so extensive, could be brought to an end either by any number of generals in a single year or by single general in any number of years?  What province did you keep free from the pirates during those years?  What source of revenue was secure for you?  What ally did you protect?  To whom did your navy prove a defense?  How many islands do you suppose were deserted, how many of your allies’ cities either abandoned through fear or captured by the pirates?

But why do I remind you of events in distant places?  Time was, long since, when it was Rome’s particular boast that the wars she fought were far from home and that the outposts of her empire were defending the prosperity of her allies, not the homes of her own citizens.  Need I mention that the sea during those years was closed to our allies, when your own armies never made the crossing from Brundisium save in the depth of winter?  Need I lament the capture of envoys on their way to Rome from foreign countries, when ransom has been paid for the ambassadors of Rome?  Need I mention that the sea was unsafe for merchantmen, when twelve lictors fell into the hands of pirates?  Need I record the capture of the noble cities of Cnidus and Colophon and Samos and countless others, when you well know that your own harbors — and those, too, through which you draw the very breath of your life — have been in the hands of the pirates?  Are you indeed unaware that the famous port of Caieta [present-day Gaeta, c. 70 miles {115 km} southeast of Rome], when crowded with shipping, was plundered by the pirates under the eyes of a praetor, and that from Misenum the children of the very man [Marcus Antonius] who had previously waged war against the pirates were kidnaped by the pirates?  Why should I lament the reverse at Ostia {Rome’s own port}, that shameful blot upon our commonwealth, when almost before your own eyes the very fleet which had been entrusted to the command of a Roman consul was captured and destroyed by the pirates?

Appian: 4  When the Romans could no longer endure the damage and disgrace they made Gnaeus Pompey, who was then their man of greatest reputation, commander by law for three years, with absolute power over the whole sea within the Pillars of Hercules, and of the land for a distance of 400 stadia {perhaps 80 km or 50 miles 5} from the coast.  They sent letters to all kings, rulers, peoples, and cities, instructing them to aid Pompey in everything, and they gave him power to raise troops and collect money there.  And they furnished a large army from their own muster roll, and all the ships they had, and money to the amount of 6,000 Attic talents — so great and difficult did they consider the task of overcoming such great forces, dispersed over so wide a sea, hiding easily in so many coves, retreating quickly and darting out again unexpectedly.  Never did any man before Pompey set forth with such great authority conferred upon him by the Romans.  Presently he had an army of 120,000 foot and 4,000 horse, and 270 ships including hemiolii [these were swift vessels, lightly manned].  He had twenty-five assistants of senatorial rank, whom the Romans call legates, among whom he divided the sea, giving ships, cavalry, and infantry to each, and investing them with the insignia of praetors, in order that each one might have absolute authority over the part entrusted to him, while he, Pompey, like a king of kings, should move to and fro among them to see that they remained where they were stationed so that, while he was pursuing the pirates in one place, he should not be drawn to something else before his work was finished, but that there might be forces to encounter them everywhere and to prevent them from forming junctions with each other….

Thus were the commands of the praetors arranged for the purpose of attacking, defending, and guarding their respective assignments, so that each might catch the pirates put to flight by others, and not be drawn a long distance from their own stations by the pursuit, nor carried round and round as in a race, thus dragging out the task.  Pompey himself made a tour of the whole.  He first inspected the western stations, accomplishing the task in forty days, and passing through Rome on his return.  Thence he went to Brundisium, and proceeding from this place he occupied an equal time in visiting the eastern stations.  He astonished all by the rapidity of his movement, the magnitude of his preparations, and his formidable reputation, so that the pirates, who had expected to attack him first, or at least to show that the task he had undertaken against them was no easy one, became straightway alarmed, abandoned their assaults upon the towns they were besieging, and fled to their accustomed peaks and inlets.  Thus the sea was cleared by Pompey forthwith without a fight, and the pirates were everywhere subdued by the praetors at their several stations.

Pompey himself hastened to Cilicia with forces of various kinds and many engines, as he expected that there would be need of every kind of fighting and siege against their precipitous peaks; but he needed nothing.  His fame and preparations had produced a panic among the pirates, and they hoped that if they did not resist they might receive lenient treatment.  First, those who held Cragus and Anticragus, their largest citadels, surrendered themselves, and after them the mountaineers of Cilicia, and finally all, one after another.  They gave up at the same time a great quantity of arms, some completed, others in the workshops; also their ships, some still on the stocks, others already afloat; also brass and iron collected for building them, and sailcloth, rope, and timber of all kinds; and finally, a multitude of captives either held for ransom or chained to their tasks.  Pompey burned the timber, carried away the ships, and sent the captives back to their respective countries.  Many of them found there their own cenotaphs, for they were supposed to be dead.  Those pirates who had evidently fallen into this way of life not from wickedness, but from poverty consequent upon the war, Pompey settled in Mallus, Adana, and Epiphania, or any other uninhabited or thinly peopled town in Cilicia Trachea.  Some of them, too, he sent to Dymae in Achaea.

Thus the war against the pirates, which it was supposed would prove very difficult, was brought to an end by Pompey in a few days.  He took 71 ships by capture and 306 by surrender from the pirates, and about 120 of their cities, fortresses, and other places of rendezvous.  About 10,000 of the pirates were slain in battle.


1 Plutarch, Life of Pompey, xxiv. 1-6.  Quoted from Roman Civilization Sourcebook, Volume I: The Republic, Edited with Notes by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Harper Torchbooks: The Academy Library, Harper & Row, New York, 1966; p. 327.

2 Appian, Roman History, xii. xiv. 93; from LCL.  Quoted from Roman Civilization Sourcebook, Volume I: The Republic, Edited with Notes by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Harper Torchbooks: The Academy Library, Harper & Row, New York, 1966; p. 327-328.

3 Cicero, In Favor of the Manilian Law, xi. 31 − xii. 33; from LCL.  Quoted from Roman Civilization Sourcebook, Volume I: The Republic, Edited with Notes by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Harper Torchbooks: The Academy Library, Harper & Row, New York, 1966; p. 328-329.

4 Appian, Roman History, xii. xiv. 94-96; from LCL.  Quoted from Roman Civilization Sourcebook, Volume I: The Republic, Edited with Notes by Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, Harper Torchbooks: The Academy Library, Harper & Row, New York, 1966; p. 329-330.

5 1 Greek stadium varied locally between 154 and 215 meters, according to this article:  “The Earth: Its Properties, Composition, and Structure: The figure and dimensions of the Earth: Determination of the Earth’s figure: a historical review,” Encyclopædia Britannica, CD 2002 Edition, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.

Notes within curly braces {} are by Impearls editor Michael McNeil.

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