Why Were There Pirates In Ancient Rome


As far back as the Roman Empire, stories of pirates on the high seas bandits of the Mediterranean can be found. Although it is often thought of as an activity associated with the Age of Exploration, Egypt, Greece, and Rome were all familiar with piracy. Why were there pirates in Ancient Rome? This article will take a closer look at their motivations and activities, how they were viewed by Roman leaders, and their ultimate impact on the Roman Empire.

What Motivated Pirates in Ancient Rome?

The major motivation of the Roman pirates was economic: to make a quick profit off of vulnerable ships and their cargo. Rome was a major trading power and there was plenty of maritime commerce to target. In addition to cargo, pirates often targeted slaves as well as valuable items like luxurious fabrics and spices. For many pirates, plundering merchant ships was also a way to escape poverty, since they were able to sell the stolen goods for a handsome price.

How Did Roman Leaders View Pirates?

At first glance, it may seem that Roman politicians and generals were lax in dealing with pirates. However, this is not the case. In fact, the Roman Republic regularly organized naval forces to combat the threat of piracy. Roman leaders considered piracy to be a form of organized crime, and as such, took strong actions to address the issue.

How Did Pirates Operate in Ancient Rome?

Pirates operated in a variety of ways. Ships that were not protected by naval forces or large merchant fleets were the most vulnerable. Additionally, pirates often targeted goods that had recently been loaded or unloaded from vessels, thus allowing them to make a quick profit. Pirates also often employed intimidation tactics and violence in order to get what they wanted from the ships they attacked.

What Impact Did Pirates Have on the Roman Empire?

The activities of pirates had a significant impact on the Roman Empire. Piracy was a constant drain on the financial resources of the state, as the Roman navy needed to be constantly organizing forces to combat them. Additionally, piracy, while not a significant source of instability, could disrupt the shipping routes that the Roman Empire relied on for trade. As a result, Roman officials had to devote resources to protecting their ships and ensuring the security of the Mediterranean trade route.

What Happened to Ancient Roman Pirates?

Despite the efforts of the Roman navy, piracy remained a problem for the Roman Empire until its decline in the 5th century. After the fall of the empire, piracy increased dramatically, leading to the establishment of the Barbary States in the Mediterranean. These states would later prove to be a major threat to European shipping and the international community.

What Was the Law in Ancient Rome Regarding Pirates?

The Roman law was quite clear on the issue of piracy. According to Roman law, a ship captured by the pirates could be treated as a hostile force and the captain could be considered a war criminal, liable for any and all damage that the pirates caused. The punishment for piracy was severe, as any goods captured by the pirates were considered forfeited, and any pirate caught was subject to death.

How Did Ancient Rome Handle Piracy?

Throughout its existence, the Roman Empire took a variety of measures to combat the threat of piracy. In addition to enforcing the existing laws, Roman officials would organize military expeditions and naval fleets to hunt down pirates and reclaim stolen goods. Additionally, Rome offered bounties for captured pirates, which encouraged citizens to join the fight against maritime crime.

The Decline and Reemergence of Pirate Activity in Later Ages

After the fall of the Roman Empire, piracy on the Mediterranean Sea underwent a decline. However, it would later resurge in the Middle Ages and Renaissance eras, as maritime powers such as the Ottoman Empire and the Barbary States rose to prominence. Despite the efforts of European nations to combat piracy, it remained a menace to shipping in the region until the modern era.

The Role of Women in Ancient Roman Piracy

Although men dominated the corsair activity of the Mediterranean Sea, it is worth noting that there were also a few female pirates in Ancient Rome. The most famous of these was a woman named Sotira, who commanded a pirate ship in the 2nd century AD. She was able to fend off raiders from the coast of Italy and capture merchant vessels from France and Spain.

Did Pirates Influence Culture in Ancient Rome?

Pirates carved out a special place in the imaginations of Ancient Romans. They were glamorized in popular culture, with stories of their exploits circulating widely in art and literature. The famous Roman poet Virgil wrote of the exploits of a group of pirates in his epic the Aeneid, and Ovid wrote of a group of female pirates in his work the Fasti. Pirates were also an integral part of Roman theater, with stories of their adventures often featuring as the main plot of a play.


Pirates were a major problem for the Roman Empire, forcing Roman officials to devote significant resources to combating them. Although their impact on the Roman Empire was minor compared to other threats, they had an important place in Roman culture and lore. They were viewed both as an enemy of the state and a source of fascination, a testament to the complexity of the Roman experience with piracy.

Moshe Rideout is a professional writer and historian whose work focuses on the history of Ancient Rome. Moshe is passionate about understanding the complexity of the Roman Empire, from its architecture to its literature, political systems to social structures. He has a Bachelor's degree in classic studies from Rutgers University and is currently pursuing a PhD in classical archaeology at UMass Amherst. When he isn't researching or writing, he enjoys exploring ruins around Europe, drawing inspiration from his travels.

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