Pacifying the Pond, or: Pompey and the pirates

With his last ‘geographical witness’, which is the entire Mediterranean coastline and every city located on it, Cicero has reached a new topic on which he will dwell for several paragraphs (§§ 31-35): Pompey’s war against the pirates in the previous year (67 BC). Pirates had bugged Rome for decades and were an endemic danger to seafaring in the Mediterranean. Plutarch has the following graphic account of their doings (Life of Pompey 24.1-6):

The power of the pirates had its seat in Cilicia at first, and at the outset it was venturesome and elusive; but it took on confidence and boldness during the Mithridatic war, because it lent itself to the king’s service. Then, while the Romans were embroiled in civil wars at the gates of Rome, the sea was left unguarded, and gradually drew and enticed them on until they no longer attacked navigators only, but also laid waste islands and maritime cities. And presently men whose wealth gave them power, and those whose lineage was illustrious, and those who laid claim to superior intelligence, began to embark on piratical craft and share their enterprises, feeling that the occupation brought them a certain reputation and distinction. There were also fortified roadsteads and signal-stations for piratical craft in many places, and fleets put in here which were not merely furnished for their peculiar work with sturdy crews, skilful pilots, and light and speedy ships; nay, more annoying than the fear which they inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their gilded sails, and purple awnings, and silvered oars, as if they rioted in their iniquity and plumed themselves upon it. Their flutes and stringed instruments and drinking bouts along every coast, their seizures of persons in high command, and their ransomings of captured cities, were a disgrace to the Roman supremacy. For, you see, the ships of the pirates numbered more than a thousand, and the cities captured by them four hundred. Besides, they attacked and plundered places of refuge and sanctuaries hitherto inviolate, such as those of Claros, Didyma, and Samothrace; the temple of Chthonian Earth at Hermione; that of Asclepius in Epidaurus; those of Poseidon at the Isthmus, at Taenarum, and at Calauria; those of Apollo at Actium and Leucas; and those of Hera at Samos, at Argos, and at Lacinium. They also offered strange sacrifices of their own at Olympus, and celebrated there certain secret rites, among which those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them. But they heaped most insults upon the Romans, even going up from the sea along their roads and plundering there, and sacking the neighbouring villas. Once, too, they seized two praetors, Sextilius and Bellinus, in their purple-edged robes, and carried them away, together with their attendants and lictors. They also captured a daughter of Antonius, a man who had celebrated a triumph, as she was going into the country, and exacted a large ransom for her.

And so does Cassius Dio, as part of his account of Pompey’s career (36.20-21):

Pirates always used to harass those who sailed the sea, even as brigands did those who dwelt on land. There was never a time when these practices were unknown, nor will they ever cease probably so long as human nature remains the same. But formerly freebooting was limited to certain localities and small bands operating only during the summer on sea and on land; whereas at this time, ever since war had been carried on continuously in many different places at once, and many cities had been overthrown, while sentences hung over the heads of all the fugitives, and there was no freedom from fear for anyone anywhere, large numbers had turned to plundering. Now the operations of the bandits on land, being in better view of the towns, which could thus perceive the injury close at hand and capture the perpetrators with no great difficulty, would be broken up with a fair degree of ease; but those on the sea had grown to the greatest proportions. For while the Romans were busy with their antagonists, the pirates had gained great headway, sailing about to many quarters, and adding to their band all of like condition, to such an extent that some of them, after the manner of allies, assisted many others. Indeed, I have already related how much they accomplished in connection with others. When those wars had been ended, the pirates, instead of desisting, did much serious injury alone by themselves both to the Romans and to their allies. They no longer sailed in small force, but in great fleets; and they had generals, so that they had acquired a great reputation. First and foremost they robbed and pillaged those sailing the sea, no longer permitting them any safety even during the winter season, since as the result of their daring, practice, and success they made voyages in security even then; and next they despoiled even those in the harbours. For if any one ventured to put out against them, he would usually be defeated and perish; but even if he conquered, he would be unable to capture any of the enemy by reason of the speed of their ships. Accordingly, they would return after a little, as if victors, and would ravage and set in flames not only farms and fields, but also whole cities; some places, however, they conciliated, so as to gain naval stations and winter quarters in a friendly land as it were.

Cicero’s audience, the Roman people, had much at stake in the attempt to bring the problem under control. Already at this time, the city of Rome relied to a significant degree on imported corn to feed its growing population, and the pirates posed a serious threat to the supply lines from Sicily and elsewhere. The pirates had their basis in the Eastern Mediterranean and subduing them was thus tied up with the other main military challenges in the region, i.e. the drawn-out war against Mithridates (the topic of the lex Manilia and Cicero’s speech). One of Cicero’s key talking points is the speed with which Pompey managed to dispatch the pirates. He hints at it in the last sentence of this paragraph and returns to it in detail in § 35.