A “Simple Boy” That Wasn’t Naive: Julius Caesar’s Adventure with Pirates

Julius Caesar taken prisoner by Cilician pirates by Henri de Montaut, 1865

From the second century BC to Pompey’s campaign in 67-66 BC, the Mediterranean Sea was a place of power games between diverse pirate communities. Entering into conflict with Roman authorities wasn’t rare.

Although Rome protected the Tyrrhenian and Adriatic seas, it was a mainland power and it was a challenge to go against the rising power of pirates, even for powerful Roman leaders just like Julius Caesar.

Romans vs. Cilicians

Romans on the sea weren’t as powerful as on the mainland. Their navy, after the destruction of the Carthage was reduced, so they weren’t able to face this threat adequately. Communities on the Greek and African shores were too small to be able to respond to pirate’s actions.

“The power of the pirates had its seat in Cilicia at first, and at the outset it was venturesome and elusive; but it took on confidence and boldness during the Mithridatic war, because it lent itself to the king’s service. Then, while the Romans were embroiled in civil wars at the gates of Rome, the sea was left unguarded, and gradually drew and enticed them on until they no longer attacked navigators only, but also laid waste islands and maritime cities. And presently men whose wealth gave them power, and those whose lineage was illustrious, and those who laid claim to superior intelligence, began to embark on piratical craft and share their enterprises, feeling that the occupation brought them a certain reputation and distinction.”

Therefore, these places became safe havens for them and opened the opportunity to gain   stronger power. Cilician pirates were the most powerful in the Mediterranean. During three centuries, they became so strong that they developed their own culture. Most about their culture we find in Plutarch’s work where he, in a detailed manner, describes their customs. One of them regards their conduct toward Roman prisoners.

If their prisoner claimed he’s a Roman, they would pretend to be scared and fall down on their knees begging him for mercy. The prisoner, of course, would naively take their mockery seriously, letting the pirates dress him in a toga and Roman boots. Very soon the prisoner would realize everything, but then it would be too late:

“Whenever a captive cried out that he was a Roman and gave his name, they would pretend to be frightened out of their senses, and would smite their thighs, and fall down before him entreating him to pardon them; and he would be convinced of their sincerity, seeing them so humbly suppliant. Then some would put Roman boots on his feet, and others would throw a toga round him, in order, forsooth, that there might be no mistake about him again. And after thus mocking the man for a long time and getting their fill of amusement from him, at last they would let down a ladder in mid ocean and bid him disembark and go on his way rejoicing; and if he did not wish to go, they would push him overboard themselves and drown him.”

‘Just a Mere Boy’: Julius Caesar

But there was a man who wasn’t so easy to double cross. His name was Julius Caesar. During the years when Sulla was in power, Caesar entered in conflict with him. Sulla didn’t like him because of Caesar’s fondness for Sulla’s rival Marius. As time went by, Sulla saw a threat in Caesar and decided to get rid of him, but many said Caesar was just a mere boy:

“Now, the reason for Caesar’s hatred of Sulla was Caesar’s relation­ship to Marius. For Julia, a sister of Caesar’s father, was the wife of Marius the Elder, and the mother of Marius the Younger, who was therefore Caesar’s cousin. Moreover, Caesar was not satisfied to be overlooked at first by Sulla, who was busy with a multitude of proscriptions, but he came before the people as candidate for the priesthood, although he was not yet much more than a stripling. To this candidacy Sulla secretly opposed himself, and took measures to make Caesar fail in it, and when he was deliberating about putting him to death and some said there was no reason for killing a mere boy like him, he declared that they had no sense if they did not see in this boy many Mariuses.​”

When Caesar learned about his potential fate, he hid himself and after being arrested and released, managed to sail to King Nicomedes in Bithynia.​ But, on his voyage back,​ “he was captured, near the island Pharmacusa, by pirates, who already at that time controlled the sea with large armaments and countless small vessels.”

The interesting thing is, according to Plutarch, during the time of captivity, pirates didn’t take Caesar seriously. They thought he was just an arrogant boy.

Caesar, captured by pirates, turns around and gives them imperious commands, an illustration from 1820

But, Caesar was deeply offended when the pirates asked only 20 talents for his ransom. Caesar laughed at them and asked them to raise the ransom to 50 talents because of his social status. Later, when Cilicians went to obtain the money, he was left with three pirates. From the Plutarch description, it seems Caesar, although a prisoner, had a great influence on them:

“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.”

At some moment, Caesar threatened he will crucify them all after he was released, but of course, pirates thought “the boy” was just joking. But after the ransom was paid and Caesar was set free, he immediately started to keep his threat:

“But after his ransom had come from Miletus and he had paid it and was set free, he immediately manned vessels and put to sea from the harbour of Miletus against the robbers. He caught them, too, still lying at anchor off the island, and got most of them into his power. Their money he made his booty, but the men themselves he lodged in the prison at Pergamum, and then went in person to Junius, the governor of Asia, on the ground that it belonged to him, as praetor of the province, to punish the captives. But since the praetor cast longing eyes on their money, which was no small sum, and kept saying that he would consider the case of the captives at his leisure, Caesar left him to his own devices, went to Pergamum, 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.”

Caesar driving chariot by Ettore Forti, late 19th century

They thought it was just a mere boy in front of them, but history showed mere boys, usually mentally very strong, sometimes rise fully to the top.

The Life of Julius Caesar. Plutarch, The Parallel Lives. https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Caesar*.html
Plutarch, Pompey. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:abo:tlg,0007,045:24

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