During Ancient times, the Mediterranean basin was crawling with pirates — seafaring thieves who captured travellers and sold them at slave markets… But when the latter laid hands on Julius Caesar, soon-to-become dictator of Rome, they thought it would make them rich. They thought wrong.
The year 75 B.C. is not synonymous with Caius Julius Caesar’s highest deeds. Born into a rich, aristocratic family in Rome, he was at the time still a young man learning the ropes of governmental duties, spending most of his available time studying and practicing sport. A skillful, gifted orator, he also made his voice heard across the Forum. But Roman politics are a long way to the top. As the ruling dictator (Lucius Sulla) got bogged down into civil strife, Caesar assumed it was better to go abroad until local affairs soothed.
Thus Caesar embarked upon a trip through the Aegean Sea, wishing to complete his education with a professor leaving on the Greek island of Rhodes, in the Dodecanese islands. Only accompanied by a dozen slaves and servants, the fiery aristocrat ignored that the journey was frayed with perils… He never reached his destination. At the time, the Mediterranean basin was teeming with pirates who claimed the lion’s share of the slave markets’ booming profits. Off the Turkish coastline, near the island of Pharmacusa, Cicilian bandits snatched Caesar and his crew. They would soon regret it.
Caesar is not impressed
The clothing and manners of the Roman orator did not go unnoticed. One experienced look was enough to consider the captive’s value: for the release of a rich Roman aristocrat, pirates demanded a 20 silver talents ransom (about $900,000 in today’s value). Quite unexpectedly, Caesar laughed in the bandits’ faces upon hearing this; he valued himself quite higher. As Plutarch wrote, “he laughed at them for not knowing who their captive was, and of his own accord agreed to give them fifty” (Life of Caesar, 2, 1). That didn’t stop there — negociating the ransom with his kidnappers was the first stage of a surrealistic detention:
“For eight and thirty days, as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal body-guard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to hang them all. The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth.”
Veni, vidi, vengeance
Following thirty-eight days of captivity, the ransom eventually arrived from the neighboring Greek provinces: Caesar had insisted that his men gather the money from local governors, as the latter had failed to protect travellers at sea. Despite having grown very fond of him, the pirates freed the young man at the harbor of Miletus (now Turkey) and left without further ado squandering the fortune they had just received. Poor choice: Caesar immediately sent his troops in search for them, and the kidnappers were found “still lying at anchor off the island” a couple days later.
Revenge is sweet: Caesar threw most of his former kidnappers into a cell at Perganum, and asked the local governor, Junius, to handle the further matters. But the latter would not make a move, repeating that “he would consider the case of the captives at his leisure”. So the young, ebullient Roman stepped in, “took the robbers out of prison, and crucified them all, just as he had often warned them on the island that he would do, when they thought he was joking”. He apparently had his soldiers slit their throats beforehand — that, at least, spared the pirates the horrible agony of the cross.
During his encounter with the pirates, Caesar proved a cold-blooded, calculating character — a personality that would earn him the position of dictator years later. Hence the historians’ suspicion: did the episode really unfold that way? Most Greek authors of the time tell the same story, but as Caesar was the main witness of the events, he could easily have exaggerated his heroism and courage (as he would later in The Conquest of Gaul). Soon enough, however, more exploits boosted his credit as political and military leader. In 60 BC, he eventually sat on the throne of Rome with Pompey and Crassus, forming the First Triumvirate.
Pirates had estimated him to be worth 20 silver talents: two decades later, as their bones still laid on the windy shores of Anatolia, the Forum of Rome was teeming with merchants handling denarii (Roman silver coins) representing Caesar’s face.
- Allen M. Ward, “Caesar and the Pirates”, Classical Philology, vol. 70, no. 4, 1975, pp. 267–268, JSTOR.
- Philip De Souza, “Rome’s Contribution to the Development of Piracy”, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes, vol. 6, 2008, pp. 71–96, JSTOR.
- John Gunther, Julius Caesar (1959), Random House, New York.
- Plutarch, The Parallel Lives: Life of Julius Caesar, Vol. VII of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1919.
- Luciano Canfora, César : Le Dictateur Démocrate (2009), traduit de l’italien par Corinne Paul-Maier, Flammarion.
- Christian Meier, César (1989), traduit de l’allemand par Joseph Feisthauer, Seuil.
- Claude Sintes, Les pirates contre Rome (2016), Les Belles Lettres / Réalia.
- Léon Herrmann, “Deux épisodes de la vie de César”, Revue belge de philologie et d’histoire, tome 16, fasc. 3-4, 1937, pp. 577-589.