Piracy in the Ancient World: from Minos to Mohammed

Piracy in the Ancient World: from Minos to Mohammed

By Philip Charles de Souza

PhD Dissertation, University College London, 1992

Mosaic of a Roman galley, Bardo Museum, Tunisia, 2nd century AD.

Mosaic of a Roman galley, Bardo Museum, Tunisia, 2nd century AD.

 

Abstract: This thesis is an historical analysis of the phenomenon of piracy in the ancient world from the Bronze Age to the Arab conquests. It is based on detailed examination and discussion of the ancient sources. There is a short introduction (Part One) which establishes the scope of the enquiry, defines the subject and surveys modern scholarly literature.

Part Two (The Image of Ancient Piracy) consists of a study of the Greek and Latin vocabulary for piracy, and six separate studies of Classical literature, from Homer to the fourth century A.D. These studies analyze the development of the literary image of pirates and piracy, from the ambivalent attitude of the Homeric poems, to the wholly negative presentation of pirates and piracy found in the works of later writers. Part Three (War and Piracy) analyzes the early similarity between warfare and piracy, the gradual emergence of distinctions between the two, warfare as a promoter of piracy, and the involvement of pirates in warfare. Part Four (Trade and Piracy) is an analysis of the relationship between piracy and various forms of trade. The importance of piracy as both a contributor and a threat to long-distance maritime trade is analyzed, as well as the involvement of pirates in the slave trade. The link between trade and the suppression of piracy is also discussed. Part Five (The Suppression of Piracy) examines in detail attempts to suppress piracy from the Classical period to the end of the Roman Empire. Emphasis is laid upon the practical and political implications of suppression, and the relative ineffectiveness of most measures until the Late Republic and Early Principate, when piracy was suppressed with considerable success. There follows a brief statement of the general conclusions (Part Six) and suggestions for further research. One map and a bibliography are included.

Introduction: I define piracy as armed robbery involving the use of ships. This definition embraces three important elements. Violence, acquisition and maritime travel. Piracy combines all of these elements and it is this combination which distinguishes it from other forms of violence, especially banditry, which is armed robbery on land and lacks the maritime dimension.

Ships require harbours or anchorages, crews and materials to maintain and operate them. They are potentially expensive items in terms of money, men and resources. They provide mobility and range, allowing pirates to attack and plunder far away from their homeland. Pirates are also likely to enjoy considerable surprise as result of their mobility. Even if a constant watch is kept out to sea, rugged coastlines and poor weather may hide pirates approaching the land. Similarly, the ships of antiquity, which almost invariably sailed as dose to land as possible, would have found it difficult to detect pirates at sea until the last moment. The subject of piracy is, therefore, a distinctive one and capable of analysis and discussion in isolation from banditry.

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