How Pompey the Great eradicated piracy from the Mediterranean

Indeed, since ancient times, when the sea trade became more lively, both the Greeks and the barbarians on the coast and on the islands turned to sea robbery. Such enterprises were headed by people who were not deprived of funds, who were looking for both their own benefits and food for the poor. They attacked the villages unprotected by the walls and plundered them, thus obtaining most of the means of living, and such an occupation was not at all considered shameful, but on the contrary, even a glorious deed.
Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War. V century BC.

Piracy in ancient seas has existed since ancient times. The inhabitants of the coastal regions of Asia Minor, especially Cilicia, have traded in this craft from time immemorial. The Romans who called Middle-earth “mare nostrum” (translated from Latin “our sea”) could not accept this. In 102 BC. Roman consul Mark Antony the Orator struck from the sea on Cilicia, and 30 years later another consul, Publius Servilius Vatius, landed in these parts with five legions. Those pirates who refused to surrender were not spared by the Romans. This, as they would say now, counter-terrorist operation, did not help for long.

After the death of the dictator Sulla, civil strife flared up in Rome again. And soon a war began with Mithridates VI, king of Pontus. He made a treaty with the pirates and they began to devastate the coastal cities, as well as the Roman colonies. The pirate fleet reached a thousand ships, they plundered more than four hundred cities and villages. But worst of all was another thing – it became dangerous to deliver grain to Rome even from Sicily, not to mention Egypt, because the enemy was everywhere. The ancient historian Appian wrote: “Mithridates filled the entire sea from Cilicia to the Pillars of Hercules with sea robbers, who made all the routes between the cities inaccessible for communication and impassable and caused severe hunger everywhere.”

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In 67 BC. the tribune Aulus Gabinius proposed to the Roman Senate a bill giving the commander Gnaeus Pompey extraordinary powers to combat the pirate threat. The law was passed and approved by the National Assembly, after which Pompey received the right to recruit an army of 120 thousand infantry and 4 thousand cavalry, and he was also allocated funds for the construction of a fleet of 500 ships. 24 senators were seconded to help Pompey, who became quaestors in his army. The thrifty Pompey recruited a much smaller army and built only 270 large ships. In his opinion, this was quite enough.

The pirates outnumbered the Roman forces by far, but were divided and fought every man for himself. During the past Roman attacks on pirates, they usually left the areas under attack, scattering for secret hideouts in other countries. Therefore, Pompey considered it important to close all possible bases of the pirates. But how can this be done if there were several times less Roman ships than pirate ships? Pompey came up with a plan according to which the Mediterranean and the Black Sea were divided into 13 zones, in each of which a separate Roman detachment operated.

Pompey himself accompanied ships with grain on their way to Rome. His first priority was to fight the famine that threatened the Romans due to the actions of the pirates. Soon, grain prices in the capital went down. After that, Pompey with the main forces began to consistently strike at the pirates blocked at their bases. As he planned, the pirate forces were divided into parts and the pirate leaders could not come to the aid of their comrades or escape when their turn came to them. In six weeks, the Romans completely destroyed the pirates in the western Mediterranean.

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After that, a decisive battle took place near the island of Korakesia (now it is called Alanya and belongs to the province of Antalya in Turkey), in which the Cilician pirates were defeated. Pompey not only captured a rich booty, but also captured a huge number of pirates. They were settled far from the sea so that they could not take up the old again. To prevent sea robbery, the Romans created a naval base in Rhodes, relying on which they controlled the sea routes in the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea. Sea trade in this region has become much safer.

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