The lembos (Lat. Lembus, Plautus, Mercator, I, 2,81 and II, 1,35) was an Illyrian fast ship, probably originally used in piracy and very important for the Romans for its carrying capacity of men, equipment and booty. It could be open and aphract, with a strong ramming capacity and rowed at two levels (biremis). From this the liburna was developed.
POMPEY THE GREAT DEFEATS CILICIAN PIRATES, 66 BC It was Pompey the Great who was to crush the Cilician pirates and give freedom and security to the waterways of the Roman Republic. To do this, Pompey received from the Senate, after long debates, extraordinary powers in 67 BC: the proconsular power (Imperium Proconsolare) for three years throughout the Mediterranean basin to the Black Sea with the right to operate up to 45 miles inland. Fifteen legates were put under him with the title of propraetores and 20 legions (120,000 men) and 4,000 riders, 270 ships and a budget of 6,000 talents. In a rapid and well-organized campaign he defeated the pirates. Two months sufced to patrol the Black Sea and root out troublemakers; then it was the turn of Crete and Cilicia (App., Mithridatic War, 96). The pirates were destroyed in their own territories and they surrendered to Pompey a great quantity of arms and ships, some under construction, some already at sea, together with bronze, iron, sail cloth, rope and various kinds of timber. In Cilicia 71 ships were taken for capture and 300 for surrender. This scene shows an amphibious operation of Pompey the Great’s fleet against the pirates. The main Roman ship is a `Three’. The burning Cilician ships are two myoparones.
The armies of the Republic had not always been filled with penniless volunteers. When the citizens assembled for elections on the Campus Martius, ranked strictly according to their wealth, they were preserving the memory of a time when men of every class had been drafted, when a legion had indeed embodied the Republic at war. Ironically, in those nostalgically remembered days, only those without property had been excluded from the levy. This had reflected deeply held prejudices: among the Romans, it was received wisdom that ‘men who have their roots in the land make the bravest and toughest soldiers’. The horny-handed peasant, tending to his small plot, was the object of much sentimental attachment and patriotic pride. Unsurprisingly, for the Republic had become great on his back. For centuries the all-conquering Roman infantry had consisted of yeoman-farmers, their swords cleaned of chaff, their ploughs left behind, following their magistrates obediently to war. For as long as Rome’s power had been confined to Italy, campaigns had been of manageably short duration. But with the expansion of the Republic’s interests overseas, they had lengthened, often into years. During a soldier’s absence, his property might become easy prey. Small farms had been increasingly swallowed up by the rich. In place of a tapestry of fields and vineyards worked by free men, great stretches of Italy had been given over to vast estates, the ‘wilderness’ through which Spartacus had marched. Of course, it was not truly a wilderness, being filled with chain-gangs — but it lacked free-born citizens. The sight of ‘a countryside almost depopulated, with a virtual absence of free peasants or shepherds, and no one except for barbarian, imported slaves’, was what had shocked Tiberius Gracchus into launching his reform project. He had warned his fellow citizens that the foundations of their military greatness were being eroded. Every peasant who lost his farm had meant a soldier lost to Rome. To generations of reformers, the miseries of the dispossessed had seemed a portent of the entire Republic’s doom. The crisis in Italian agriculture was so overwhelming as to prove virtually intractable, but the crisis in military recruitment, at least, had begged an obvious reform. In 107 bc Marius had bowed to the inevitable: the army was opened to every citizen, regardless of whether he owned property or not. Weapons and armour had begun to be supplied by the state. The legions had turned professional.
From that moment on, possession of a farm was no longer the qualification for military service, but the reward. This was why, when the first mutterings of mutiny began to be heard in the winter of 68 bc, the whispers were all of how Pompey’s veterans, merely for fighting rebels and slaves, were already ‘settled down with wives and children, in possession of fertile land’. Lucullus, by contrast, was starving his men of loot. The charge was patently untrue — Tigranocerta had fallen and been plundered only the previous year — but it was widely believed. After all, was Lucullus not notoriously mean? Had he not prevented the Greek cities back in Pontus from being looted? Were his men not ‘wasting their lives roaming across the world, with no reward for their service save the chance to guard the wagons and camels of Lucullus, and their freight of gold and gem-encrusted cups’?
Discipline in the professionalised legions was even more merciless than it had been in the citizen levies of the past. Sentiments of mutiny were not lightly articulated. Fortunately for the resentful soldiery, however, there was a spokesman ready to hand. To Lucullus, his identity could not have come as more of a betrayal. The young Clodius Pulcher, unlike his elder brother Appius, had not been entrusted with flamboyant foreign missions. Nor had he been given the rapid promotion that he believed, as a Claudius, was his god-given right. Piqued by the perceived disrespect, Clodius had been waiting for the opportunity to stab his brother-in-law in the back. His revenge, when it came, was brazen. The patrician scion of Rome’s haughtiest family began to present himself as ‘the soldier’s friend’. His rabble-rousing had an immediate and devastating effect: Lucullus’ entire army went on strike.
Withdrawing their labour had always been the ultimate — indeed, the only — sanction available to disgruntled plebeians. In a camp on the very limits of civilisation, far from the frontiers of the empire, let alone from Rome herself, the primordial history of the
Republic was once again replayed. But the world in which the mutineers staged their strike was no longer that of their ancestors. Their own interests were almost the least of what was at stake. Not only was the mutiny hopelessly entangled with the snarl of aristocratic rivalries, but it was imperilling a vast swath of territories, containing millions of Rome’s subjects, and sending reverberations throughout the whole of the East. This was the potential greatness of a proconsul, that even in the hour of catastrophe the whole world might seem filled by the shadow-play of his downfall. As the legionaries sat on their weapons the news was brought to them that Mithridates had returned to Pontus and reclaimed his kingdom. And Lucullus, the aloof and haughty Lucullus, went from tent to tent, taking the hand of each soldier like a suppliant, and the tears streamed down his cheeks.
In the months following his soldiers’ strike, as Lucullus struggled to deal with Mithridates and mutineers simultaneously, a rare smile would have been brought to his face by the news that Clodius had been taken prisoner by pirates. The soldier’s friend’ had been quick to abscond from Lucullus’ camp. Heading west, he had arrived in Cilicia, a Roman province on the south-eastern Turkish coast. Another of his brothers-in-law, Marcius Rex, the husband of Clodius’ youngest sister, was the governor there. Marcius, who disliked Lucullus and was perfectly happy to cock a snook at him, had rewarded the young mutineer with the command of a war fleet. It was while out on patrol with this that Clodius had been seized.
Capture by pirates had recently become something of an occupational hazard for Roman aristocrats. Eight years previously Julius Caesar had been abducted while en route to Molon’s finishing school. When the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar had indignantly claimed that he was worth at least fifty. He had also warned his captors that he would capture and crucify them once he had been released, a promise that he had duly fulfilled. Clodius’ own dealings with pirates were to contribute less flatteringly to his reputation. When he wrote to the King of Egypt demanding the ransom fee, the response was a derisory payment of two talents, to the immense amusement of the pirates and the fury of the captive himself. The final circumstances of Clodius’ release were lost in a murk of scandal. His enemies — of whom there were many — claimed that the price had been his anal virginity.
Whatever the rewards it was capable of bringing them, however, kidnapping was only a sideline for the pirates. Calculated acts of intimidation ensured that they could extort and rob almost at will, inland as well as at sea. The scale of their plundering was matched by their pretensions. Their chiefs ‘claimed for themselves the status of kings and tyrants, and for their men, that of soldiers, believing that if they pooled their resources, they would be invincible’. In the nakedness of their greed, and in their desire to make the whole world their prey, there was more than a parody of the Republic itself, a ghostly mirror-image that the Romans found unsettling in the extreme. The shadowiness of the pirates’ organisation, and their diffuse operations, made them a foe unlike any other. ‘The pirate is not bound by the rules of war, but is the common enemy of everyone,’ Cicero complained. ‘There can be no trusting him, no attempt to bind him with mutually agreed treaties.’ How was such an adversary ever to be pinned down, still more eradicated? To make the attempt would be to fight against phantoms. ‘It would be an unprecedented war, fought without rules, in a fog’; a war that appeared without promise of an end.
Yet for a people who prided themselves on their refusal to tolerate disrespect, this was a policy of unusual defeatism. It was true that the rocky inlets of Cilicia and the mountain fastnesses that stretched beyond them were almost impossible to police. The area had always been bandit country. Ironically, however, it was Rome’s very supremacy in the East that had enabled the pirates to swarm far beyond their strongholds. By hamstringing every regional power that might pose a threat to its interests, and yet refusing to shoulder the burden of direct administration, the Republic had left the field clear for the triumph of brigandage. To people racked by the twin plagues of political impotence and lawlessness, the pirates had at least brought the order of the protection racket. Some towns paid tribute to them, others offered harbours. With each year that passed the pirates’ tentacles extended further.
Only once, in 102 bc, had the Romans been provoked into tackling the menace head on. The great orator Marcus Antonius, Cicero’s hero, had been dispatched to Cilicia with an army and a fleet. The pirates had quickly fled their strongholds, Antonius had proclaimed a decisive victory, and the Senate had duly awarded him a triumph. But the pirates had merely regrouped on Crete, and they soon returned to their old haunts, as predatory as before. This time round the Republic chose to turn a blind eye. An all-out war against the pirates promised to be as hopeless as ever, but there were also powerful interest groups in Rome that positively encouraged inactivity. The more that the economy was glutted with slaves, the more dependent it became on them. Even when the Republic was not at war this addiction still had to be fed. The pirates were the most consistent suppliers. At the great free port of Delos it was said that up to ten thousand slaves might be exchanged in a single day. The proceeds of this staggering volume of trade fatted pirate captain and Roman plutocrat alike. To the business lobby, profit talked louder than disrespect.
Many Romans, particularly in the upper reaches of the aristocracy, were naturally appalled by this blot on Rome’s good name.
Lucullus was merely the boldest to take a stand against it. But the Senate had long been in bed with the business classes. It was for this reason, perhaps, that the most far-sighted critic of the Republic’s hunger for human livestock was not a Roman at all, but a Greek. Posidonius, the philosopher who had celebrated the Republic’s empire as the coming of a universal state, recognised in the monstrous scale of slavery the dark side of his optimistic vision. During his travels he had seen Syrians toiling in Spanish mines, and Gauls in chain-gangs on Sicilian estates. He was shocked by the inhuman conditions he had witnessed. Naturally, it never crossed his mind to oppose slavery as an institution. What did horrify him, however, was the brutalising of millions upon millions, and the danger that this posed to all his high hopes for Rome. If the Republic, rather than staying true to the aristocratic ideals that Posidonius so admired, permitted its global mission to be corrupted by big business, then he feared that its empire would degenerate into a free-for-all of anarchy and greed. Rome’s supremacy, rather than heralding a golden age, might portend a universal darkness. Corruption in the Republic threatened to putrefy the world.
As an example of what he feared, Posidonius pointed to a series of slave revolts, of which that of Spartacus had been merely the most recent. He might just as well have cited the pirates. Bandits, like their prey, were most likely to be fugitives from the misery of the times, from extortion, warfare and social breakdown. The result, across the Mediterranean, wherever men from different cultures had been thrown together, whether in slave barracks or on pirate ships, was a desperate yearning for the very apocalypse so feared by Posidonius. Rootlessness and suffering served to wither the worship of traditional gods, but it provided a fertile breeding ground for mystery cults. Like the Sibyl’s prophecies, these tended to be a fusion of many different influences: Greek, Persian and Jewish beliefs. By their nature, they were underground and fluid, invisible to those who wrote history—but one of them, at least, was to leave a permanent mark. Mithras, whose rites the pirates celebrated, was to end up worshipped throughout the Roman Empire, but his cult was first practised by the enemies of Rome. Mysterious threads of association bound him to Mithridates, whose very name meant ‘given by Mithra’. Mithras himself had originally been a Persian deity, but in the form worshipped by the pirates he most resembled Perseus, a Greek hero, and one from whom Mithridates, significantly, claimed descent. Perseus, like Mithridates, had been a mighty king, uniting West and East, Greece and Persia, orders far more ancient than the upstart rule of Rome. On Mithridates’ coinage there appeared a crescent and a star, the ancient symbol of the Greek hero’s sword. This same sword could be seen in the hand of Mithras, plunging deep into the chest of a giant bull.
In a distortion of the original Persian myth, the bull had become the symbol of the Great Antagonist, the Principle of Evil: was this how the pirates saw Rome? The cloak of secrecy that veiled their mysteries makes it impossible to know for sure. What is certain, however, is that the alliance between the pirates and Mithridates, which was very close, went far beyond mere expediency. And what is equally certain is that the pirates, preoccupied with plunder as they were, also saw themselves as the enemies of everything embodied by Rome. No opportunity was wasted to trample upon the Republic’s ideals. If a prisoner was discovered to be a Roman citizen, the pirates would first pretend to be terrified of him, grovelling at his feet and dressing him in his toga; only when he was wearing the symbol of his citizenship would they lower a ladder into the sea and invite him to swim back home. Raiding parties would deliberately target Roman magistrates and carry off the symbols of their power. Because Antonius had abducted treasures to lead in triumph through Rome, the pirates struck back by seizing his daughter from her villa on the coast. These were carefully calculated outrages, reflecting a shrewd awareness of Roman psychology. They struck at the very essence of the Republic’s prestige.
Honour, naturally, demanded a response—but so too, increasingly, did commercial self-interest. Roman business, having sponsored a monster, now began to find itself menaced by its own creation. The pirates’ growing command of the sea enabled them to throttle the shipping lanes. The supply of everything, from slaves to grain, duly dried to a trickle and Rome began to starve. Still the Senate hesitated. Such had been the growth in piracy that it was clear that nothing less than a Mediterranean-wide command would prove sufficient to deal with it. This, to many senators, seemed to be a proconsulship too far. In the end, a second Marcus Antonius, the son of the great orator, was awarded the command in 74 bc, but his chief qualification was certainly not any hereditary talent for fighting pirates. Rather, it was his very incompetence that recommended him — as it was waspishly observed, ‘it is no great deal, the promotion of those whose power we have no cause to fear’. Antonius’ first measure was to indulge in some lucrative free-booting of his own off Sicily; his second to be roundly defeated by the pirates off Crete. Roman prisoners were bound in the fetters that they had brought to chain the pirates, then left to dangle from the yardarms of the pirates’ ships.
Even this bobbing forest of gibbets was not to be the most humiliating symbol of superpower impotence. In 68 bc, as Lucullus was striking east against Tigranes, the pirates responded by launching an attack against the very heart of the Republic. At Ostia, where the Tiber met the sea, barely fifteen miles from Rome, the pirates sailed into the harbour and burned the consular war fleet as it lay in dock. The port of the hungry capital went up in flames. The grip of famine tightened around Rome. Starving citizens took to the Forum, demanding action on the crisis and the appointment of a proconsul to resolve it—not a paper tiger like Antonius, but a man who could get the job done. Even now, the Senate dug in its heels. Catulus and Hortensius understood perfectly well who their fellow citizens wanted. They knew who was waiting in the wings.
Ever since his consulship, Pompey had been deliberately lying low. His displays of modesty, like all his displays, were carefully staged for their effect. ‘It was Pompey’s favourite tactic to pretend that he was not angling for the things which in fact he wanted the most’, a shrewd gambit at the best of times, but especially so when his ambitions aimed as high as they did now. Instead of vaunting himself, he had adopted Crassus’ stratagem of employing proxies to do the boasting on his behalf. Caesar was one of these, a lone voice in favour of Pompey in the Senate — less out of any great enthusiasm for Pompey than because he could see clearly how the dice were going to fall. Now that Sulla’s reforms had been rolled back, the tribunes were back in play. Not for nothing, during his consulship, had Pompey restored their ancient powers. The tribunes had helped him to dismantle Lucullus’ command, and it was a tribune, in 67 bc, who proposed that the people’s hero be given a sweeping licence to deal with the pirates. Despite an impassioned appeal from Catulus not to appoint ‘a virtual monarch over the empire’, the citizens rapturously ratified the bill. Pompey was granted the unprecedented force of 500 ships and 120,000 men, together with the right to levy more, should he decide that they were needed. His command embraced the entire Mediterranean, covered all its islands, and extended fifty miles inland. Never before had the resources of the Republic been so concentrated in the hands of a single man.
In every sense, then, Pompey’s appointment was a leap into the dark. No one, not even his supporters, quite knew what to expect. The decision to mobilise on such a scale had in itself been a gesture of despair, and the pessimism with which the Romans regarded even their favourite’s prospects was reflected in the length of his commission: three years. As it proved, to sweep the seas clear of pirates, storm their last stronghold and end a menace that had been tormenting the Republic for decades took the new proconsul a mere three months. It was a brilliant victory, a triumph for Pompey himself and an eye-opening demonstration of the reserves of force available to Rome. Even the Romans themselves appear to have been a little stunned. It suggested that no matter how hesitant their initial response to a challenge might be, there was still no withstanding them should their patience be pushed too far. Campaigns of terror were containable. Rome remained a superpower.
Yet, even though Pompey’s victory had demonstrated once again that the Republic could do pretty much as it pleased, there was none of the savagery that had traditionally been used to drive that lesson home. In a display of clemency quite as startling as his victory, Pompey not merely refrained from crucifying his captives, but bought them plots of land and helped to set them up as farmers. Brigandage, he had clearly recognised, was bred of rootlessness and social upheaval. For as long as the Republic was held responsible for these conditions, there would continue to be a hatred of Rome. Yet it hardly needs emphasising that the rehabilitation of criminals was not standard Roman policy. Perhaps it is significant that Pompey, midway through his campaign against the pirates, should have found the time to visit Posidonius on Rhodes. We know that he attended one of Posidonius’ lectures and then spoke privately with him afterwards. Since it was not the role of philosophers to challenge Roman prejudices, but to give them an intellectual gloss, we can be certain that Pompey would have heard nothing that he did not want to hear — but Posidonius must have helped him, at the very least, to clarify his opinions. Posidonius himself was deeply impressed with his protege. In Pompey he believed that he had finally found the answer to his prayers: a Roman aristocrat worthy of the values of his class. ‘Always fight bravely’, he advised the parting proconsul, ‘and be superior to others’, a pithy admonition from Homer that Pompey was delighted to accept. This was the spirit in which he pardoned the pirates. So it was that the town where he settled them was titled Pompeiopolis: his mercy and munificence were to contribute eternally to the greatness of his name. Stern in war, gracious in peace, it was no wonder that Posidonius could hail him as the hero of the hour.
But Pompey, greedy as ever, wanted more. It was not enough to be the new Hector. From his earliest days, teasing his quiff in front of the mirror, he had dreamed of being the new Alexander. Now he was determined to seize his chance. The East lay all before him, and with it the prospect of glory such as no Roman citizen had ever won before.