Pompey and Ancient Piracy


New Member
Feb 16, 2009
In the year 67 BCE, the Roman people were struggling to control a Cilician pirate menace who threatened their daily lives. In a miracles turn of events the Roman cause found their answer in Pompey, who eliminated the pirate threat in a campaign that lasted three short months. However, what is a common misconception were that the Cilicians were not a simple pirate group, but realistically a fearsome enemy, an enemy that required a strong leader and a swift campaign in order to pacify them. In a campaign that many historians over look as Pompey's greatest victory in a decisive campaign that succeeded were others failed before. This particular campaign lends itself to an even broader interpretation in the study of military strategy. Both the Cilicians and the Romans employed useful strategies to fight warfare that fit their unique abilities as warriors.

In order to narrate a clearer understanding we must explore the term piracy. Piracy in the Greco-Roman world is a term that is deep in meaning and difficult to understand. The Cilicians, for example, were regarded as one of the fiercest pirate groups in the ancient world, among their enemies. To their allies the Cilicians were regarded as aggressive warriors whose tactics shocked even Rome. The speed with which they fought was direct and swift; the rescue of Mithridates in 72 BCE is an example to their speed.[1] Their attacks were over before people even realized what had just taken place. The skills of which the Cilicians possessed made them master seamen, and had no shortage of groups willing to pay for their services in times of war. The Mithridatic Wars, as an example, saw the Cilicians in pay with King Mithridatic against the Romans. The Mithridatic Wars proved to be an effort of the Asia Minor nations to thwart Roman imperialistic advances into the region. Even once the principle forces of Mithridatic were defeated, the Cilicians continued on the struggle to defend their homeland.[2] The Cilicians tactics continued to use swift naval raids that paralyzed Roman commerce as the Roman had no clear naval strategy to counter the Cilician threat.

Neither Greek nor Latin provides a single word that explains piracy.[3] Greco-Roman writers such as Plutarch and Strabo do provide insights into why the Romans labeled groups pirates espically the Cilicians as one such group. Both writers give justification for the need of militarily expeditions; however, not all Roman claims of piracy were necessarily correct. As pointed out above, the Cilicians were not simple pirates, but used piracy to further warfare that benefited their skills as sailors, even if it meant warfare in the nontraditional way. When faced with an understanding of Piracy, the reader is ingrained with the idea of piracy based upon an Eighteenth Century idea of pirates as robbers sailing around the oceans. Within the framework of the English pirates of the Eighteen Century, historians place the Cilicians in the same category and this claim is neither fair nor correct definition of the Cilicians.

Given the Roman charge that the Cilicians were pirates, the Romans struggled to contain them for years, in peace or in war. The Romans sent numerous generals to the region, one in particular Lucullus was sent to pacify the Cilicians during the Mithridatic Wars; but found little success.[4]

In Pompey, the Romans found their champion against the Cilician menace. His victory ended the Cilicians' threat to Rome and Rome's allies in the Mediterranean Sea. In a campaign that lasted three months, Pompey put an end to Cilician piracy.[5] Pompey's victory was made only possible after the senate made him an admiral in control of the entire Roman navy with jurisdiction of fifty miles inland along every coast in the Mediterranean Sea.[6]

By using definitions of piracy in both Greek and Latin, Phillip De Souza shows through etymology that there were more kinds of piracy than just a simple all encompassing answer. In Greek the words leistes (armed robbery or plunder) and peirates (attempt at robbery or plunder) have become synonymous with piracy of today.[7] The Greek term katapontisties (to take from the sea) is the closest in meaning from Greek to English pirate terminology.[8] The Latin word preado (booty or plunder) derived from peirates in Greek.[9]

When we study the ancient definition of piracy, we learn what piracy was but not who the pirates were. The notion of placing the Cilicans under the same context of eighteenth century pirates does not fit the same definition. With this ambiguity of the term pirate, we see that the Cilicians are not simply pirates or armed brigands. The reality behind the Cilicans lies in complexity. The historian Strabo describes that Cilicians came from present day Turkey near the border with Syria.[10] This region was referred to in Roman times as the Cilician Trecheia.[11] Strabo describes the Cilician Trecheia surrounded by the Taurus Mountains; this range of mountains helped them to build well fortified cities to defend against land attacks and Zenicetus was one such fortress. The access from the sea to the land had few usable harbors; these harbors were only large enough to land troops against the Cilicians and these were dominated by the heights surrounding them.[13] As well the Cilicians built a series of watchtowers to provide an early warning system against incoming fleets. The construction of such elaborate defenses suggests that the Cilicians were more than a loose confederation of pirate bands. The Cilicians built these formidable defense for protection. These defenses are evidence that even Strabo considered the Cilician homeland as a permanent settlement, not just a simple pirate base.

The wars between the Romans and the Cilicians ran from 102 BCE to 67 BCE. In 102, the war began when the Roman legislature sent Marcus Antonius on a special mission to quell the start of the Cilician threat.[14] At the time, Marcus Antonius governed the province and by sending him to quell the region illustrates how a simple local problem grew into a problem that threatened Rome and Italy with Antonius' failure. The crisis began to spiral out of control when the Romans became involved in the Mithradates wars, a series of three wars against King Mithradates. Mithradates aligned himself with the neighboring Cilicians to fight against Roman expansion into Asia Minor.[15]

The notion of a unified front against Roman expansion exuded the charges of piracy leveled against the Cilicians. The Cilicians do not demonstrate pirate behavior by defending of their homeland, this would undermine one of the key principals of piracy in the Eighteenth Century. The pirates of the Eighteenth Century had no nation to claim unto their own, let alone would pirates defend that homeland. The pirates of this era were rebelling from corrupt monarchies not out to defend the status quo. The only commonality they shared was the tactics that they implemented. The use of small raiding parties and taking of loot and hostages were vary useful for small scale military operations, these proved to have widespread ramification against their enemies. The Cilician use of small scale raiding froze the people of Rome into a state of panic that demanded prompt action. The use of quick strikes from the sea onto the Italian peninsula proved an ingenious strategy. The Cilicians, being life-long mariners, knew they could not fight by conventional land battles against Rome and so turned to fighting the way that they knew best. The wars ended in 67, when Pompey finally pacified the region and ended the warfare.

By the year 67, the conflict between the Cilicians and Rome had proven to be an even greater threat than Rome had imagined. The Cilicians had threatened to cut Rome off from their food supply and starve them by disrupting the Mediterranean Sea trade.[16] The growth of disparities in Rome, such as the civil wars, left itself unguarded from the sea and it could not defeat the Cilicians in open naval warfare. The Roman defense could not even prevent the Cilician from kidnapping two Roman praetors, Sextilious and Bellinuns, from the Italian peninsula.[17] The very threat of starvation and kidnapping drove the populace to demand retribution and protection against the Cilicians. The problems that Rome faced were to be blamed upon themselves. The defensive strategy employed by the Romans was a revolving form of defense, one based on active defense against passive defense in order to secure the Italian peninsula.[18] The definition of active defense against passive defense will be described in detail.

Both strategies can be effective forms of defense; however, employing both strategies is extremely expensive. The use of active defense pits an active military out waging war against an enemy. An example of active defense is sending a navy or army to battle the enemy instead of waiting for the enemy to attack you. The use of passive defense eliminates large standing armies and navies. In passive defense, building fortifications are used to protect fixed points of territory. These fortifications are placed in expected positions that the enemy will attack. For the Romans, the use of both forms of defense was too much to maintain. The means to fund large navies and armies was extremely hard to fund let alone maintain fixed fortifications that require large numbers of troops to garrison them became overwhelming. The cost of the army was larger than the Roman budget could afford. The use of either form of defense is a viable strategy of defending oneself. In face of the cost, active defense during the Second Punic War proved to be the only effective way to win.[19] In times of peace, passive defense is a more viable option because military budgets are considerably less during these times. This became the standard form for Rome when no longer challenged in the Mediterranean.[20]

By 67, the Romans passive defense had been in place so long that the Cilicians were able to build up a strong naval force, thus proving the downside of passive defense and threatened Rome directly. The need to change strategy back into an active defense was apparent. In order for the Romans to switch from a passive defense to an active defense, new laws were needed to bring the military back from its long hibernation. The Roman military needed to be revamped, the vessels needed to be repaired and the army needed to be retrained to fight in open combat instead of defending forts. A tribune by the name of Gabinius proposed that the Senate should take bold action against the Cilicians, known as the Lex Gabinia.[21] Under the law, the Senate would choose Pompey to deal with the pirate threat. He was made an admiral and fifteen legates were put under his command.[22] The Senate gave Pompey the ability to draw as much funds as he required to fight the war as well as the jurisdiction of all the Mediterranean Sea up to and including fifty miles inland of every coast.[23] The nomination of Pompey was met with contention; tribunes Trebellius and Roscius attempted to veto the law. Pompey made a speech to quell these critics before the Roman people and then allowed to engage the war unquestioned.

Pompey's force comprised of 500 ships, 120,000 infantry, 5,000 cavalry, 24 legates, and two quaestors.[24] The entire campaign lasted only three short months to clear the entire Mediterranean of Cilicians. The law effectively revived Rome back into active defense and allowed for an aggressive campaign. In order for Pompey to move with such swiftness, he divided the Mediterranean into thirteen quadrants, each one lead by a legate. By dividing the Mediterranean into individual quadrants, Pompey was able to achieve flexibility of command. Each legate was able to eliminate the Cilician pirates in piece meal. For Pompey dividing the Cilicians into small bands helped him to focus on the larger picture of the war without having to be caught up in minute details. The strategy as well allowed the legates to retain a semblance of autonomy that would normally be allowed for independent commanders and kept cohesion in command ranks and thus avoided rebuking his lieutenants' concerns of their personnel status to that of Pompey. The move by Pompey was shrewd politically; the brilliance of the strategy caught the Cilicians off guard and prevented them from reinforcing themselves.

The Cilician strategy varied differently against that of Rome. They called for independent fleets to act as raiding parties. The Cilicians were no match against the Romans in land warfare and prompted them to fight by other means. By combing their best assets as seaman and their tenacious skill as warriors, they were more than a match for the Roman navy. These small raiding parties kept the Romans off balance for years and prevented them from gathering their forces for a decisive blow. Pompey realized this, but if he could keep the Cilicians from reinforcing the small raiding parties, he could change the direction of the war. Through flexibility of command and concentration of Roman forces, he was able to regain the Roman strengths that the Cilicans had subdued. Once the small raiding bands were defeated, Pompey was then quickly able to combine his forces against the Cilicians home bases in Asia Minor. The disappearance of the Cilician fleet eliminated the troops needed to defend the fortress and watchtowers, thus leaving Pompey's army virtually unopposed.

Another key importance of Pompey's strategy allowed him to capture the Cilicians in droves. The speed of the campaign not only caught the raider off guard, this prompted thousands to surrender without even a fight. The ability for the Cilicians to surrender with their families allowed Pompey to move quickly across vast areas of the Mediterranean.[25] By not executing them in mass, he was able to avoid further unrest from the Cilicians.[26] The speed of the campaign would be comparable to that of the German blitzkrieg of World War Two.

After the campaign had been completed, Pompey dispersed the surrendered Cilicians to other parts of Cilician Trecheia.[27] By sending them away from their cities along the coast and into the nearby city-states, this allowed the Romans to keep an eye on the Cilicians. In Pompey's quick campaign, he finally defeated the Cilician threat where other Roman generals failed. Upon Pompey's arrival back to Rome he was heralded as a champion and the campaign led him to the triumvirate of Rome. The victory that Pompey achieved was short-lived however, and after the troops were sent home and the fleet disbanded the Romans once again turned toward passive defense. The attention that was once on Asia Minor soon faded and Rome again faced civil war and the so-called pirates were back at it again.

This study has looked at the misunderstanding of piracy in the Roman world. Through language barriers in Greek and Latin, we are left with no clear definition of which pirates were. The perceived notion of piracy in the Greco-Roman world is vastly different from the understanding of piracy in the Eighteenth Century. The labeling of the Cilicians as pirates does not justly fit their status in history. The similarities that pirates of the Eighteenth Century and the Cilicians shared were in tactics not in motivation. The cause of defending a homeland united the Cilician people around a single cause; pirates only defend themselves and their brethren. The Cilicians might not have been able to defeat the Romans in pitched land battles, but they were more than a match for them at sea. Pompey became the first Roman to devise a plan to decisively defeat the Cilicians. He beat them at their own strategy and adapted his own through political skill and battlefield maneuver. His victory in three months over the Cilicans has proved just as impressive as the German blitzkrieg of the Twentieth Century. Another unbelievable feat lies in the fact there were so few casualties. By taking a few ships, he convinced thousands that surrender was the best option and did not foul it up by killing the surrendered thousands.

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Copyright © 2008 Caleb Klingler.

Written by Caleb Klingler. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Caleb Klingler at:
[email protected].

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