The origins of the modern term “piracy” can be traced back to the ancient Greek word peiráomai, meaning attempt (i.e., “attempt to steal”). Gradually this term morphed into a similar sounding term in Greek meaning “brigand,” and from that to the Latin term pirata. Ancient pirates left no archaeological records. The historical evidence for what they did, why they did it, and the attempts that were made to quell them is obtained entirely from written sources. These help build a picture of the threat that pirates presented and reveal that the practice was prevalent throughout antiquity.

Piracy in the ancient world can be linked, in part, to geography. The ruggedness of the Mediterranean region often favored maritime rather than agricultural livelihoods. During the Bronze and Early Iron Ages, occupants of coastal settlements such as Byblos, Sidon, and Tyre in Lebanon, and Athens, Aegina, and Corinth in Greece, relied on marine resources such as fish, molluscs, seaweed, and salt for their survival. Most people living in such places would have owned a boat and possessed both seafaring skills and an unsurpassed knowledge of local navigation and sailing conditions. If times were particularly hard, these skills could be easily used in piracy. (This virtually-intact Roman shipwreck was raised after 2,000 years.)

Models and images of sailing vessels found in Greece, Egypt, and the Levant reveal that by 3000 B.C., a wide assortment of craft were regularly sailing the Mediterranean. During the early millennia of seafaring, when maritime navigation was in its infancy, ships were unable to cross long distances over open water and so kept close to the coast. Shipping was therefore restricted to a few navigable routes, such as the one that connected Egypt with the island of Crete.

Merchant vessels laden with goods moved along these shoreline thoroughfares. The rugged coastlines of the Mediterranean were another advantage to pirates. Numerous hidden inlets allowed their ships to remain hidden from view until it was too late to escape. Merchant ships lacked speed and dexterity, and pirates were quicker and nimbler.

Attitudes to piracy in ancient  Hellas are reflected in the Homeric epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, composed around 750 B.C. Although pirates are often spoken of with disapproval in these works, on a few occasions their actions and activities are not only condoned but praised.

The historian Thucydides later wrote of the different motives for coastal dwellers to practice piracy, “some to serve their own cupidity and some to support the needy.” Like Homer, Thucydides suggests that marauders could be held in esteem: “They would fall upon a town unprotected by walls and would plunder it; indeed, this came to be the main source of their livelihood, no disgrace being yet attached to such an achievement, but even some glory.”

By the end of the sixth century B.C., Greek trade spanned the length and breadth of the Mediterranean. The marked increase in the volume and value of goods being traded meant that, for the first time, large coastal cities such as Athens, Corinth, and Aegina were almost wholly dependent on maritime trade. With piracy now posing a significant threat to their commercial interests, these cities introduced a number of measures to fight it. (Barbarossa would later become the most feared pirate in the Mediterranean.)

According to Thucydides, the Corinthians were the first to use their navy to suppress piracy. The huge expense and impracticality of large-scale naval campaigns, however, would have precluded many other states from these kinds of efforts. Consequently, throughout the fifth and fourth centuries B.C., the Greek states tried to curtail piracy using less expensive measures, including sporadic campaigns designed to “clear the seas of pirates”; the creation of alliances and pacts with specific language outlawing maritime banditry; the construction of naval outposts in regions popular with pirates; and the use of naval escorts to protect merchant shipping.

These measures proved fruitless in stopping the pirates. In the fourth century B.C., Alexander the Great believed attacks on his merchant shipping would threaten his planned invasion of Persia. He created the first truly international coalition against piracy to which his allies were expected to contribute. But following his death in 323 B.C., no power was strong or affluent enough to suppress piracy. In fact, Alexander’s successors found that pirates could be turned to their advantage, either to directly menace their enemies, or by being incorporated into their own navy as auxiliary units.

Demetrius I of Macedon regularly employed pirates among his naval forces. The first-century B.C. historian Diodoros Siculus records that the spectacular array of vessels Demetrius deployed when blockading Rhodes included a number of pirates, the sight of which “brought great fear and panic to those who were watching.”

For an in-depth look at piracy in the Egyptian and Roman world, please go here.