Walking the plank with the Roman pirates

“By such an occasion, the power of pirates on the sea began in the country of Cilicia; which was not reckoned of at the first, because it was not perceived, until they grew bold and venturous in King Mithridates’ wars, being hired to do him service. And afterwards, the Romans being troubled with civil wars, one fighting with another even at Rome’s gates, the sea not being looked to all this while; and by degrees enticed and drew them on not only to seize upon and spoil the merchants and ships upon the seas, but also to lay waste the islands and seaport towns. So that now there embarked, with these pirates, men of wealth and noble birth and superior abilities, as if it had been a natural occupation to gain distinction in.

“Now they had set up arsenals or storehouses in sundry places; they had sundry havens and beacons on the land, to give warning by fire all along the sea coast; and fleets were here received that were well manned with the finest mariners, and well served with expert pilots, and composed of swift-sailing and light-built vessels adapted for their special purpose. They were so gloriously set out that men hated their excess as much as they feared their force. Their ships had gilded masts at their stems; the sails woven of purple, and the oars plated with silver as if their delight were to glory in their iniquity. All the seacoast over, there was no sight of anything but music, singing, banqueting, and rioting…

“But yet the greatest spite and mockery they used to the Romans, was this: that when they had taken any of them and that he cried he was a citizen of Rome, and named his name, then they made as though they had been amazed, and afraid of what they had done. For they clapped their hands on their thighs, and fell down on their knees before him, praying him to forgive them. The poor prisoner thought they had done it in good earnest, seeing they humbled themselves as though they seemed fearful. For some of them came unto him, and put shoes on his feet: others clapped a gown on the back of him after the Roman fashion, for fear (said they) lest he should be mistaken another time. When they had played all this pageant, and mocked him their bellies full: at the last they cast out one of their ship ladders, and put him on it, and bade him go his way, he should have no hurt: and if he would not go of himself, then they would cast him overboard by force. These rovers and sea pirates had all the Mediterranean Sea at their commandment: insomuch there durst not a merchant look out, nor once traffic that sea.

“And this was the only cause that moved the Romans (fearing scarcity of victuals) to send Pompey to recover the seignory again of the sea from these pirates.”

The Plutarch Project Volume Seven: Pompey and Themistocles is now available on Amazon.

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