Ancient Rome and the Pirates

Philip de Souza considers the impact of piracy on Roman economic and political life

The Greek historian and geographer Strabo, writing around the time of the death of  Augustus in AD14, divided the known world into two parts. The better part was that which was subject to the Romans. Here they had installed order and people were prosperous,  using the sea for the peaceful and civilised purpose of trading with each other. The rest of world, in his view, was the home of uncivilised, barbarian peoples who practised piracy and did not deserve the benefits of Roman rule.

The stable conditions which prevailed in the Mediterranean and surrounding areas under the Roman emperors were a relatively recent development. In the preceding century, to judge from literary evidence and inscriptions, pirates were a serious problem in the waters which the Romans liked to refer to as ‘our sea’ (mare nostrum).

For merchants piracy was more than just an economic hazard. It was not only the cargo that would be vulnerable to pirates, they might easily kill the crew and any passengers, or sell them as slaves, or if they were   wealthy or important ransom them. Similar perils faced the inhabitants of the many coastal communities of the Mediterranean. A ruler with the power to suppress the menace of piracy, therefore, deserved to be honoured alongside the gods, as Roman emperors frequently were.

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