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Pirates Infest the Roman Seas by Plutarch

by Jim Jones, West Chester University of Pennsylvania (c.2013)
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Plutarch (50-120 CE) came from a prominent family in central Greece. He became an important official in the Roman empire and later a priest of the Temple of Apollo. His most famous work is Parallel Lives, from which this selection was taken. It is part of his description of the life of Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius), a Roman general who became a member of the First Triumvirate (along with Julius Caesar and Crassus). Among his many successful campaigns, Pompey led the Roman counterattack during the latter part of the Mithridaean wars.



The Roman Empire got its start as a farming village located on hills near a good place to cross the Tiber River in central Italy, at the southern edge of the much larger Etruscan Empire. According to legend, the village of Rome was founded about 753 BCE and it revolted against the Etruscans in 509 BCE. From then until 265 BCE, the Romans fought to retain their independence and gradually defeated everyone else on the Italian peninsula south of the Alps. In the process, the Romans developed a monarchy, saw their monarchy "taken over" by the Etruscan nobility, revolted successfully and introduced their own version of democracy ("the Republic") at about the same time that Solon introduced his democratic reforms in Athens. After winning control over the Italian peninsula, the Romans continued to expand by challenging opponents throughout the Mediterranean region. They fought three wars against the Cathaginians (the "Punic Wars") and four against the Macedonian Greeks, and by 148 BCE they were the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean.

Map of the Mediterranean Sea showing
locations associated with the Rome-Mithridaean Wars from 88-64
The Mediterranean Sea, site of the Rome-Mithridaean Wars

Roman military success altered their society. Warfare produced captives who were turned into slaves, and conquered territory provided new farm land that made room for Rome's growing population. "Cheap" land meant the Romans had no need to develop more intensive forms of production or land use (i.e. unlike the ancient Egyptians, the Romans could spread out instead of developing larger towns or smaller farms), while "cheap" slaves meant the Romans had no reason to develop labor-saving technology. Constant warfare also enabled the wealthy to gain control over more land because military service took small farmers away from their homes for long periods of time. Without their labor, their families had to go into debt in order to keep the farms operating, and if they fell too far behind, they lost their land.

During the conquest of Italy and the Mediterranean, the Republic proved incapable of governing a growing empire. The Republic started out by balancing the power of wealthy (male) landowners in the Senate with that of ordinary (male) Romans represented by the Assembly. The departure of ordinary Romans on long military campaigns left the Assembly unable to challenge the Senate, while the constant fear of invasion and revolt strengthened Rome's military leaders with respect to its civilian leaders. Over time the government became dominated by the Senate, which was in turn limited by the need to keep the army strong and the generals happy. As a result, the government became unable to prevent conflict over the ownership of newly-conquered land, compensation for obligatory military service, or even to agree on who should have the power to make political decisions. The Republic also had difficulty incorporating conquered peoples into Roman society. As a result, almost as soon as the conquest of the Mediterranean ended, Romans began a sequence of civil wars and revolts in 133 BCE that led to the fall of the Republic. In 31 BCE, the Republic was replaced by a new form of government, a military dictatorship called the Roman Empire.

As Plutarch explains, one form of resistance to the Roman government took the form of piracy. At first, individual pirates operated from Mediterranean islands and nearby coasts, taking advantage of the Roman wars with the Mithridaeans to expand their activities. Eventually, they became strong enough to conquer Roman coastal towns, kidnap officials, and obtain fast ships and recruits from the best parts of Roman society. The pirates also made fun of Roman citizens, defaced shrines and temples, and showed their lack of respect for the Romans in every way possible.

The Romans finally brought piracy under control with a major military effort led by Pompey. According to William L. Langer's 1948 An Encyclopedia of World History, in response to the Third Mithridatic War (74-64 BCE), the Roman Senate appointed Pompey the commander of Roman Asia (i.e. the eastern end of the Mediterranean) in 66 BCE. Pompey's fleet quickly drove Mithridates' forces to the eastern end of the Black Sea and conquered all of his territory except Armenia. He fined Mithridates subjects 6,000 talents, and continued to chase him as far as Crimea (northern Black Sea region) until Mithridates committed suicide in 65 BCE. For this and other successes, the Senate selected Pompey to serve as a counterweight to Julius Caesar in the First Triumvirate in 58 BCE.


  1. What is a pirate? What is the relationship between a pirate and government?
  2. Why reason(s) did the Roman government have for opposing the pirates?
  3. Why reason(s) did the pirates have for opposing the Roman government?
  4. What did Plutarch find most offensive about the behavior of the pirates? Why do you think he felt this way?
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