Piracy in Ancient Times

Piracy has existed for many centuries, ever since pirates first infested Earth’s seas and voyaged to places where treasure could be found and appropriated.

From ancient times onwards, there were ideal locations where pirates could lie low, awaiting their prey, among the scattering of islands and the long indentations made by the sea in the coastlines of the eastern Mediterranean.

Hiding-place coastlines

The coastline of Lycia, in presentday Anatolia, Turkey, was, for example, slashed with narrow inlets and amply provided with small bays in which pirates could conceal their ships with ease during the winter.

In ancient times, navigators took care to sail within sight of land and this “coast hugging” remained a feature of voyaging for almost 3,000 years. Coast-hugging was a great advantage for pirates, making it possible for them to surprise a passing vessel and swoop down seemingly out of nowhere to pillage its cargo and seize its crew.

That done, the pirates sailed back to the cover of their hiding place where they were almost impossible to detect. All the more so because a common pirate craft in ancient times was the myoparo, a light, swift vessel that was easy to maneuver in shallow coastal waters.

Concealed among the Greek islands

Ancient Greek pirates made their winter quarters in the volcanic Aeolian Islands, the modern Lipari Islands off the north coast of Sicily, which served this purpose for some 2,500 years. The Illyrian pirates sheltered in Istria, a peninsula in the Adriatic Sea on the coast of presentday Croatia.

By the time Spring arrived and with it, the new hunting season, the pirates’ ships had been careened, refitted and repaired and their crews rested. Before them lay another season of plundering, kidnapping, enslaving crews or passengers and generally terrorizing the trade routes and all who sailed them.

First recorded pirate attacks

Pirates and their depredations were a feature of the ancient world long before the advent of classical Greece and Rome. The earliest evidence dates back to 1350BC., with the record of an attack made by a pirate ship off the coast of North Africa: this account was inscribed on a clay tablet during the reign of the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten in the 14th century BC.

Some 200 years later, another record, this time very detailed and describing a much more serious assault, appeared in an inscription at Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of the Pharaoh Rameses III at Thebes in Upper Egypt.

The culprits were the mysterious Sea Peoples, a conglomerate of several nationalities, including Philistines, Greeks Sardinians, Sicilians and Lycians. Described in the record as the ‘Nine Bows’, they made their first appearance in Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh Merenptah in the 13th century BC.

The Sea Peoples in the Nile Delta

In 1208BC, they and their Libyan allies mounted a ferocious assault on the Nile Delta. So ferocious, it seems, that they left the area ‘forsaken as pasturage for cattle’ and ‘waste from the time of the ancestors.’

Merenptah, however, appears to have been equal to the challenge. An inscription at the Temple of Karnak, near Luxor, recorded the rousing speech he gave to his court after learning of the invasion.

‘I am the ruler who shepherds you… as a father, who preserves his children … Shall the land be wasted and forsaken at the invasion of every country, while the Nine Bows plunder the borders and rebels invade it every day? They spend their time going about the land, fighting, to fill their bodies daily. They come to the land of Egypt to seek the neccessities of their mouths. Their chief is like a dog, a man of boasting without courage…’

These fighting words were justified in the battle of Perire in the western Nile Delta. where Merenptah’s forces defeated the invaders. As the Karnak inscription relates:

‘When (the Egyptian) bowmen went forth, Amun was with them as a shield. After six hours, the…..Nine Bows threw down their weapons, abandoned their baggage and dependents and ran for their lives.’

The Return of the Sea Peoples

Afterwards, Merenptah claimed he had killed 6,000 soldiers and taken 9,000 prisoners. A stunning and decisive victory, or so it would seem. But just over thirty years later, in 1176BC, during the reign of the Pharaoh Rameses III, the Sea Peoples returned, this time with an even more fearsome reputation for causing chaos.

The Ancient Egyptian record presents them not only as pirates raiding in the Nile delta and along the adjacent coasts, but also as conquerors.

It seems that before their return to the Nile Delta, the Sea Peoples destroyed the Hittite empire, in eastern Anatolia and sacked several major cities, including Encomi, the capital of Cyprus. The inscription on the outer walls of Medinet Habu describes a terrifying foe who razed vast areas of land in a sustained and merciless onslaught.

“No land could stand before their arms, from Hatti, Qode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alasiya (onwards) being cut off at one time. A camp was set up in one place in Amurru. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being. They were coming toward Egypt,….. They laid…hands upon the land as far as the circuit of the Earth, their hearts confident and trusting: ‘Our plans will succeed!’

The Victory of Rameses III

Against this peril, Rameses prepared his forces in great strength. “I established a boundary in Djahi (near the River Jordan) prepared before them, the local princes, garrison commanders and Marryanu (warriors). I caused to be prepared the river mouth like a strong wall with warships, galleys and skiffs.

“They were completely equipped both fore and aft with brave fighters, carrying their weapons and infantry of all the pick of Egypt, being like roaring lions upon the mountains; chariotry with able warriors and all goodly officers whose hands were competent. Their horses quivered in all their limbs, prepared to crush the foreign countries under their hoofs.”

When the two sides met, a brutal struggle ensued. Lines of archers unleashed a continuous barrage of arrows, preventing the invaders from coming ashore. Meanwhile, grappling hooks were flung at the enemy vessels to haul in their ships. Fierce hand to hand fighting followed and the Sea Peoples were resoundingly defeated.

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