Historical Tales: 11—Roman - Charles Morris

Caesar and the Pirates

We have spoken of the pirates who agreed to convey the forces of Spartacus from Italy to Sicily, but faithlessly sailed away with his money and without his men. From times immemorial the Mediterranean had been ravaged by pirate fleets, which made the inlets of Asia Minor and the isles of the Archipelago their places of shelter, whence they dashed out on rapid raids, and within which they vanished when attacked.

This piracy reached its highest power during and after the Social and Civil Wars of Rome, the outlaws taking prompt advantage of the distractions of the times, and gaining a strength and audacity unknown before. Their chief places of refuge were in the coast districts of Cilicia and Pisidia, in Asia Minor, while in the mountain valleys which led down from Taurus to that coast they had strongholds difficult of access, and enabling them to defy attack by land.

They were now aided by Mithridates, who supplied them with money and encouraged their raids. So great became their audacity that they carried off important personages from the coast of Italy, among them two prætors, whom they held to ransom. They ravaged all unguarded shores, and are said to have captured in all four hundred important towns. The riches gained in these raids were displayed with the ostentation of conquerors. The sails of their ships were dyed with that costly Tyrian purple which at a later date was reserved for the robes of emperors; their oars were inlaid with silver, and their pennants glittered with gold. As for the merchant fleets of Rome, they made their journeys under constant risk, and there was danger, if the pirates were not suppressed, that they would cut off the entire grain-supply from Africa and Sicily.

The most interesting story told in connection with these marauders is connected with the youthful days of Julius Cæsar, afterwards so great a man in Rome.

In the year 76 B.C. Cæsar, then a young man of twenty-four, and seemingly given over to mere enjoyment of life, with no indications of political aspiration, was on his way to the island of Rhodes, where he wished to perfect himself in oratory in the famous school of Apollonius Molo, in which Cicero, a few years before, had gained instruction in the art. Cicero had taught Rome the full power of oratory, and Cæsar, who was no mean orator by nature, and recognized the usefulness of the art, naturally sought instruction from Cicero's teacher.

He was travelling as a gentleman of rank, but on his way was taken prisoner by pirates, who, deeming him a person of great distinction, held him at a high ransom. For six weeks Cæsar remained in their hands, waiting until his ransom should be paid. He was in no respect downcast by his misfortune, but took part freely in the games and pastimes of the pirates, and, according to Plutarch, treated them with such disdain that whenever their noise disturbed his sleep he sent orders to them to keep silence. In his familiar conversations with the chiefs he plainly told them that he would one day crucify them all. Doubtless they laughed heartily at this pleasantry, as they deemed it, but they were to find it a grim sort of jest.

Cæsar was released at last, the ransom paid amounting to about fifty thousand dollars. He lost not a moment in carrying out his threat. Obtaining a fleet of Milesian vessels, he sailed immediately to the island in which he had been held captive, and descended upon the pirates so suddenly that he took them prisoners while they were engaged in dividing their plunder. Carrying them to Pergamus, he handed them over to the civil authorities, by whom his promise of crucifying them all was duly carried out. Then he went to Rhodes, and spent two years in the study of elocution. He had proved himself an awkward kind of prey for pirates.

These worthies continued their depredations, and became at length so annoying that extraordinary measures were taken for their suppression. Pompey, then the most powerful man in Rome, was given absolute control over the Mediterranean. This was not done without opposition, for it was feared that he aspired to kingly rule. "You aspire to be Romulus; beware of the fate of Romulus," said some of the opposing senators.

Despite opposition the power was given him, and he used it with remarkable results. A large fleet was at once got ready and put to sea, confining its operations at first to the west of the Mediterranean, and driving the piratical fleets towards their lurking-places in the east. Land troops meanwhile guarded the coasts. In the brief space of forty days he reported to the senate that the whole sea west of Greece was cleared of pirates.

Then he sailed for the Archipelago, swept its inlets, spread his ships everywhere, and drove the foe towards Cilicia. Here they gathered their fleet and gave him battle, but suffered a total defeat. A surrender followed, to which he won them over by lenient terms. In three months from the day he began his work the war was ended, and the pirates who had so long troubled the republic of Rome had retired from business.