Book Review: Piracy In The Ancient World

Piracy In The Ancient World:  An Essay In Mediterranean History, by Henry A. Ormerod

While a great many people get worked up about piracy in the modern world, piracy in the ancient world is something that does not get a lot of attention.  Yet as soon as people took to the sea in large amounts there were people whose poverty on land and general lack of respect for property led them to see piracy as a means of improving their lot at the cost of the safety and well-being of others and of trade.  The Mediterranean world has long been noted as a haven for pirates and this appears to have been true for at least the last 4000 years, at least as far as we have recorded history.  The author does a great job at showing the texts and what ancient people thought of piracy and the way that piratical ways showed a certain consistent set of qualities and also encouraged rather consistent approaches to dealing with them, generally fading away only when there was effective power that was directed at rooting them out from sea and land.  Sadly, this sort of effort was not very common over the course of ancient Meditteranean history, as this book details.

This book is about 250-300 pages long and it is divided into seven chapters of unequal length.  After a short preface the book begins with a lengthy chapter that discusses the depredations on the seas that go back to the history of ancient Greece and Crete and Egypt, the behavior of pirates from the beginning, and efforts that were made to counter them (1).  The author then turns his attention to ancient piracy, privateering, and reprisals as the ancient records allow us to see this ambiguity (2).  This leads to a regional approach that discusses Greek piracy in the Eastern Mediterranean first to the Persian wars with a look at Homer and the Egyptian records (3) and then up to 200 BC during the time where Rhodes was allied frequently to pirates (4).  After that the author discusses piracy in the Western seas, the Adriatic, and Rome, looking at the dangers of the Adriatic coasts as well as the way that the Romans fought against the Ligurian and Balaeric pirates (5).  The author spends an entire chapter on the pirates of Cilicia (6), famous in the ancient world, and then closes with a discussion of the temporary destruction of ancient piracy that took place with the establishment of the Roman empire (7).

There is a fair amount of romance about the pirates of the Caribbean, and plenty of news stories over the past few years about the pirates of Somalia.  When it comes to historical antiquity, though, it is hard to beat the pirates of the Mediterranean for the longevity that they had in engaging in their craft.  The ancient world was not shy about discussing the means with which it sought to counteract piracy, including settlements at some distance from the sea, well-guarded towers that provided a refuge for villagers while troops mobilized for a response, as well as the occasional naval and army action to destroy the bases of piracy.  The author also demonstrates that frequently pirates were in collaboration with authorities who benefited from their naval expertise as well as their ability to obtain valuable kidnapped slave labor.  Obviously, not everyone was equally happy with the behavior of the pirates, though the problem of a lack of centralized power made it hard to coordinate efforts against them except at rare occasions throughout ancient history, such as the time of the Minoan supremacy or the period of Roman anti-piracy efforts starting in the late republic.  These efforts were rare, though, whatever scorn historians and others felt towards the pirates of the Mediterranean.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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