Piracy – Roman Republic


Pirates were nonstate naval raiders. They were a potential problem for sea trade but were a much greater threat to coastal communities, which they raided. Pirates were more interested in acquisition of movable booty rather than territorial control. Ships permitted them freedom of movement to strike without warning and evade land-based patrols. Piracy was a problem throughout the ancient world but one that occasionally became serious enough to acquire military attention.

Pirates, like brigands, took advantage of weak military control wherever they could. As a result, they thrived on the fringes of warfare and on neglected coastlines wherever there was a power vacuum. Pirates would raid coastal communities or even lone travelers, pillaging and taking captives to ransom or sell into slavery elsewhere. Caesar, for example, was a victim of pirates while he was traveling to Anatolia.

Rome ignored piracy for centuries because it did not rise to a sufficient level of concern, but it became Rome’s problem because of earlier policies in the eastern Mediterranean. During the third and second centuries, Rhodes was especially active in suppressing piracy in the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean. However, in 167 BCE Rome took lucrative territory from Rhodes as well as its control of the mercantile center at Delos. The result was a loss of revenue, which led to Rhodes no longer being able to fight pirates as effectively, so pirates became an even greater problem.

Rome only acted when the situation deteriorated completely. Antony’s father, Marcus Antonius Creticus, was sent to Cilicia in southern Anatolia in 102 to fight pirates. There were further campaigns, but in 67 Pompey was given overall command against the pirates for up to three years. He successfully defeated the pirates after three months, settling them elsewhere and cutting them off from traditional ports. Despite Pompey’s success, actual pirates continued to be a problem of varying intensity until the end of the Roman Republic.

Pirate was not just an occupation; it was a label. Powerful leaders sometimes called their rivals pirates as a way of diminishing their status and legitimacy. The triumvirs labeled Domitius Ahenobarbus as a pirate in 43–42 when he led the fleet supporting Brutus and Cassius in 43–41. Domitius Ahenobarbus considered himself a liberator. Despite also fashioning his image as a liberator, Sextus Pompey received the same label from Octavian for the seizure of Sicily and the blockade of Italy, before and after 39. These labels were effective propaganda and political tools.


Sicilian revolt, campaign of 38/37 BC.

  Sextus Pompeius’ possessions (territories that went over to Octavianus before the war with Menodorus are painted in pink and beige)
Sicilian revolt, campaign of 36 BC.

Red — actions of Octavianus and his admirals;
Blue — actions of Sextus’ admirals.

Sextus Pompeius Magnus

Sextus Pompeius Magnus was born circa 67 BCE in Rome, the youngest son of Pompey. When Pompey lost at Pharsalus in 48, Sextus fled to the Roman province of Africa, where he played a role in organizing opposition. After Caesar’s victory at Thapsus, Sextus joined his older brother Magnus in Spain, the last holdout of Pompeian forces. Their army faced Caesar at Munda in 45, while Sextus commanded the garrison of Córdoba. After Caesar won big again, his officers pursued the survivors, catching and executing Magnus, but Sextus escaped again.

In the following year, Sextus organized a naval and land force in Sicily. He won some minor victories against Caesar’s governors in Hispania. After Caesar’s assassination, the Senate pardoned Sextus and made him a naval commander, but the following year he was one of the enemies pro- scribed by the Second Triumvirate. Sextus welcomed fugitives to join him as he occupied Sicily.

Sextus built up a naval force sufficient to blockade grain shipments from reaching Italy and defeated several efforts by the triumvirs to stop him. In 39, facing food shortages and popular discontent in Rome, Antony and Octavian agreed to the Pact of Misenum, which ended the blockade and gave Sextus control of Sicily, Sardinia, and Achaia.

Once Octavian was secure in Rome, he accused Sextus of violating the agreement. In 38, Octavian unsuccessfully attacked Sicily several times, losing at sea each time. With the help of his friend Agrippa, who organized a fleet and training, in addition to receiving some ships from Antony and even Lepidus invading Sicily from Africa, Octavian arranged a new campaign. After maneuvering and skirmishes, Agrippa caught Sextus’ fleet at Naulochus and destroyed it. Lepidus invaded successfully and moved against Messina, capturing it. Sextus was no longer a threat to Italy.

Sextus escaped to Anatolia, where he started raising forces, but was captured and executed by one of Antony’s commanders in 35. The elimination of Sextus gave Octavian a free hand in the west.


Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was born circa 63 BCE to an obscure family, and little is known about his childhood. Agrippa accompanied Octavian to Rome in 44 and helped him raise a private army later that year. Theirs was a close friendship that would last until Agrippa’s death in 12.

Agrippa played a role in the Perusine War of 41. He was governor of Gaul in 38, crushing a revolt of the Aquitani in Gaul and crossing the Rhine to subdue the Germanic tribes. As consul in 37, Agrippa rebuilt Octavian’s fleet and created an artificial harbor by linking Lake Avernus to the sea near Baiae so that his rowers had a safe place to train. He also in- vented a new form of grapnel that could be shot from a ballista and then used to pull the enemy close for deck-side combat.

With Agrippa’s help, Octavian moved against Sextus in 36. Defeating Sextus’ fleet near Mylae and then winning decisively the following month at Naulochus in a huge battle, Agrippa contributed immensely to Octavian’s victory in Sicily. Agrippa was awarded a naval crown for his accomplish- ments in Sicily. He then served in Illyria during Octavian’s campaign there in 35–34. As an aedile in 33, Agrippa undertook numerous popular public works that contributed to Octavian’s success in winning over the Roman people.

By 31, Agrippa had established himself as a superior naval commander. In a series of naval actions, he seized important coastal bases in Greece and used them to disrupt Antony’s sea routes of supply and communication. Agrippa’s control of the sea made it possible for Octavian to safely transfer his army to a base north of Actium. Then he and Agrippa blockaded Antony and Cleopatra’s force on the Actium Peninsula. Their attempt to break out be- came the Battle of Actium on September 2. Agrippa’s strategy successfully neutralized most of the enemy fleet and resulted in Octavian’s complete victory, in which it did not matter that Antony escaped. Agrippa thus made it possible for Octavian to take sole control of the Mediterranean Sea and most of the Roman world.


de Souza, Philip. Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

de Souza, Philip. “Rome’s Contribution to Piracy.” In The Maritime World of Ancient Rome, edited by Robert L. Hohlfelder, 71–96. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008.

MacKay, Christopher. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Powell, Anton, and Kathryn Welch, eds. Sextus Pompey. Swansea, UK: Classical Press of Wales, 2002.

Welch, Kathryn. Magnus Pius: Sextus Pompeius and the Transformation of the Roman Republic. Swansea, UK: Classical Press of Wales, 2012.

MacKay, Christopher. The Breakdown of the Roman Republic: From Oligarchy to Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Osgood, J. Caesar’s Legacy: Civil War and the Emergence of the Roman Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Roddaz, Jean-Michel. Marcus Agrippa. Rome: École Française de Rome, 1984.

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