Campaign Against the Pirates, 66-67 BC

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, ordered to clear the seas of pirates, had full authority over the entire Mediterranean and Black Seas, and all land within 80km (50 miles) of the sea. He raised 500 ships, 120,000 soldiers and 5000 cavalry. He then divided this force into 13 commands. The only area left (deliberately) unguarded was Cilicia. Pompey took a squadron of 60 ships and drove the pirates from Sicily, into the arms of another squadron. Then he swept down to North Africa, and completed the triangle by linking up with another legate off the coast of Sardinia, thus securing the three main grain-producing areas that served Rome. Pompey then swept across the Mediterranean from Spain to the east, defeating or driving pirates before him. The remnants duly gathered in Cilicia, where Pompey had planned a full assault by both land and sea. A few pirate strongholds were destroyed, and there was a final sea battle in the bay of Coracesium, but thanks to Pompey’s clemency, most pirates surrendered easily.

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 early period of Roman expansion was marked by a succession of wars with neighbours near and far. First there were the other states in Italy and then Carthage. When Carthage was beaten, the Rome turned its gaze to the east. Macedonia, Greece and then Pontus (modern Asiatic Turkey) fell to Rome over a number of years. But it was while Rome was focused on these wars that piracy raised its head in the eastern Mediterranean.

For many years, the island of Rhodes had used its navy to suppress piracy in order to protect her position as a transit port in the lucrative east-west trade. However, Rhodes fell foul of the Macedonian kingdom and appealed to Rome, who sent a force of quinqueremes to defend her ally. The combined force compelled the Macedonians to sue for peace. Under the treaty, the Romans gained the small island of Delos, which they returned to Macedonia on the condition that it was run as a free port with no taxes or dues on goods entering or leaving. Unfortunately for Rhodes, the presence of this offshore tax haven undermined the revenues from her trade and the island and her navy went into long-term decline. With Rhodes no longer able to police the waters of the Mediterranean, the pirates spread their depredations beyond the eastern Mediterranean. Ports and coastal towns were sacked, shrines desecrated and cargoes, crews and ships taken at sea. The goods, ships and their crew were then sold off at various markets. Wealthy captives were held to ransom.

The ordinary merchants of the ancient world sailed in ships far simpler in design than the warships of the period. Such ships could not afford the expensive oarsmen of the warship and had to rely instead on the single main mast and single square sail with the optional refinement of bowsprit and second, smaller square sail. Later ships added a triangular sail above the main for extra propulsion. The merchant ships could be as much as 60m (200ft) in length, possibly with more than one mast, but were more usually just 30m (100ft) long and 8m (26ft) in beam, drawing just 3m (10ft) of water and carrying loads of around 100-150 gross tons. Built for capacity rather than speed, they were not fast – perhaps 5-6 knots if the wind permitted. Crews were kept to a minimum since they ate into the profits: 10-15 men were usual on a medium-sized ship; less on a smaller ship and more on a larger one.

While the sail-powered merchantman was dependent on the wind for speed, the oarpowered warship or pirate ship was unhampered by head winds or rough seas. Since the square sail meant the merchantman would sail fastest heading down wind, the pirate tactics were simple: cruise into the wind so that any prey coming the other way would find it next to impossible to escape. Alternatively, the pirates would lurk behind headlands for a quick spurt to catch any passing trader. Fear and intimidation were the best weapons to induce a quick surrender. Faced by a pirate ship apparently bristling with armed men and with no way to escape, most merchant ships would be forced to capitulate. The pirates could then use their oars to spin the ship around and bring their bows up to the victim’s stern, where it was safe to board. The crew would be bundled below and well trussed up and the pirates would install their own crew to sail the prize for home.

So widespread and powerful did the pirates grow that when the rebel leader Spartacus and his army of ex-slaves became trapped in the toe of Italy in 72 BC they negotiated with the pirates to evacuate the whole army – some 90,000 men, women and children – by ship. The pirates were then paid even more by the Roman politician Crassus not to fulfil the contract. The problem with piracy reached such a pass that two Roman Praetors, together with their staff, were captured by the pirates. Another squadron attacked Rome’s port at Ostia and sacked other towns in the region.

Pompey’s Appointment

In many ways, the Roman elite benefited from the pirate’s activities. For those who could afford to buy, piracy kept the price of slaves low and supply plentiful. On the other hand, it did interrupt trade. So the wealthiest classes in Rome, who needed to buy slaves to work their estates, benefited while the lower, merchant classes and their workers suffered. In 69 BC, however, the pirates excelled themselves and plundered the island of Delos. It comes as no surprise, then, that the consul Metellus was voted an army to reduce the pirate base in Crete. He headed off and set about his task, rounding up some pirates and settling down to besiege others in the main pirate base on the island.

In 67 BC, the Roman tribune Aulus Gabinus presented a bill to the Peoples’ Assembly to appoint the most famous general of the age, Pompeius Magnus – better known as Pompey – to sweep the pirates from the seas once and for all. The ramifications were enormous. Clearing the Mediterranean of the pirates would greatly ease the lot of the ordinary man. Indeed, prices in the markets of Rome fell significantly simply at the presentation of this bill. The Roman citizens, the plebs, were right behind the idea. However, the wealthy ruling classes, the senators and, to a lesser extent, the knights were almost universally against the bill. The one notable exception was Julius Caesar. Ever the populist, he supported the motion. It was passed.

Pompey had already enjoyed a very distinguished military career. He had first been appointed commander of an army at the age of 24, supporting Sulla’s side in an earlier civil war. Although he was occasionally accused of cruelty, he proved so successful during campaigns in Sicily and in Africa that he was acclaimed ‘Great’ by Sulla. He even asked for and was granted a triumphal procession that should not have been permitted given his youth and junior rank. No sooner had Sulla died than another civil war loomed and Pompey found himself in Spain, leading an army against Sertorius. Although he was supported by a second army under Metellus, it was Pompey who gained a second triumph. It was a truly remarkable achievement.

The resources initially proposed for Pompey in this next task were huge. They comprised some 200 ships plus oarsmen, sailing crew and marines totalling over 40,000 men. He was to be given 15 legates (military commanders), an unlimited treasury, and unlimited powers over the whole of the Mediterranean and up to 7km (4.5 miles) inland. However, the vote was postponed for a day and when the final amended version was passed the Assembly voted through an even bigger force. This consisted of no less than 500 ships, 120,000 infantry and 5000 cavalrymen, 24 senior military commanders and a pair of quaestors (magistrates responsible for military finances). Against this, however, the pirates were reputed to have 1000 ships at their disposal and bases both large and small all around the Mediterranean.

Pompey versus the Sea Pirates 67 BC

The pirates needed to avoid contact with more powerful military elements so that they could continue to extract plunder from less well defended ports and communities in the Mediterranean, while the Roman squadrons sought to round up the pirates and bring them to a very rudimentary justice. Pompey chose to divide the Mediterranean into discrete areas and conquer each in turn, starting in the far west off the coast of Spain. This drove the pirates steadily towards the southern shore of Turkey and the final bloody confrontation happened near Soli, in modern-day southern Turkey. There, Pompey’s assault routed the pirates, destroying their strongholds in the area. Although hailed as a great victory Empire, it was not successful in the long term. Just a few years later in Sicily, Anthony and Octavian had to combine to combat Pompey’s son, who had turned to piracy.

Planning and preparation are key to the success of any enterprise and Pompey’s orders were decisive. The Mediterranean was divided into 13 areas and each one was allocated a commander and a force appropriate to the threat in that area. Pompey retained direct control over a reserve of 60 of his best ships – almost certainly quinqueremes with well-trained crews. Starting with the waters west of Italy, the local commanders restricted the seaborne movements of the pirates and forced them ashore, where they were destroyed. It took only 40 days to sweep these seas clean of the menace. Those pirates that escaped, made their way back to bases along the inhospitable Cilician coast in what is now Turkey.

The greatest threat to Pompey’s success came from inside Rome. The general’s wide powers were both envied and feared, especially by those who benefited most from the activity of the pirates. The consul Piso, safe within the walls of Rome, went so far as to countermand Pompey’s orders, paying off some of the ships’ crews. While Pompey’s fleet sailed south around the foot of Italy to tackle the pirates in the Adriatic, Pompey himself hurried back to Rome. There, his friend and supporter Gabinius had already started the process of dismissing Piso from his position as consul. This would have been a dreadful and permanent stain on his family honour and reputation. Having got his crews back, however, Pompey had the bill withdrawn, and thus Piso lwas let off. Meanwhile, Rome had been transformed – the markets were full of foodstuffs from all over the Mediterranean and prices were almost back to normal. From Rome, Pompey made his way to Brundisium on the east coast of Italy and took ship for Greece and the final part of the war.

Some of the more cut-off pirate squadrons surrendered to Pompey, who confiscated their ships and arrested the men. He stopped short of having the pirates crucified – the normal form of execution for such a crime (all the survivors of Spartacus’ rebellion had been crucified). Thus encouraged, a large number of pirates also sent a message of surrender from Crete, where they were sitting out a siege by Metellus. Pompey accepted their surrender and despatched one of his own commanders, Lucius Octavian, with instructions that no one should pay heed to Metellus but only to Octavian. Mettelus was understandably livid and continued the siege. Octavian, following Pompey’s orders, now masterminded the defence of the city on behalf of the pirates. Eventually the city – and Octavian – were forced to surrender. Metellus humiliated his rival in front of the assembled army before sending him back to Rome with a flea in his ear.

Pompey’s rehabilitation worked. Around 20,000 former pirates were eventually settled in underpopulated inland areas like Dyme in Achea, on the northern coast of the Peloponnese, and Soli, in what is now Turkey. However, a substantial body of the miscreants occupied the mountain fastnesses of Cilicia with their families. The inevitable battle with Pompey’s men took place at Coracesium in Cilicia in 67 BC. That there was a battle and that the pirates lost it is about all that is known. Pompey’s victory was not surprising, however. The trained and experienced men of Pompey’s army and navy, with their proper equipment, were more than a match for the undisciplined pirates. It is worth recording that among the spoils of war after that last battle were 90 ships equipped with bronze-headed rams.

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