Thursday, February 26, 2009

Ancient Piracy explored in new exhibit "Knights of the Black Flag"


Having just finished reading Paul Waters' outstanding first novel "Of Heroes and Merchants" in which ancient pirates under the command of the real historical figure Dicaearchus (Dicearchus, or DiceƤrch - d.196 BC), an Aetolain rogue employed by Philip V of Macedon to raid the Cyclades and Rhodian ships after the second Punic War, this announcement of a major exhibit in North Carolina about piracy, including ancient piracy, caught my eye.

Marauders. Plunderers. Bloodthirsty sea-thieves. Whatever their name, pirates have wreaked havoc on the high seas since waterway travel began. These seafaring scoundrels command attention in a major exhibit opening Friday, March 6, at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh. Knights of the Black Flag will explore the legacy of pirates, from ancient times to the present, through intriguing artifacts, legends and history that bring their ruthless adventures to life. The interactive exhibit will be an exciting experience for all ages.

Showcasing many objects related to pirates, Knights of the Black Flag includes the largest collection of artifacts ever exhibited from the shipwreck believed to be Blackbeard's flagship, Queen Anne's Revenge. Legends surround another compelling artifact on loan from the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.: the alleged skull of Blackbeard. The exhibit will be on view through July 6, 2009.

Knights of the Black Flag traces the history of piracy from ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome through today's pirates in Somalia. Artifacts, some dating to the early centuries A.D., represent tangible links to a violent past. For example, a Roman amphora (storage jar) from southern Jordan may have been seized by ancient pirates on a ship in the Red Sea. Other artifacts speak to the Golden Age of Piracy, from 1689 to the 1720s. These include Queen Anne-style pistols and items discovered in the ruins of Blackbeard's purported house in Bath. Objects related to modern-day piracy in Somalia include an AK-47, gas masks and knapsacks.

This excellent web page explained the oldest documents (inscription on a clay tablet) describing pirates dates back to Pharo Echnaton (1350 BC). It goes on to say that Roman conquest and the resultant weakening of other governments in the Mediterranean accelerated the predation of pirates in Mare Nostrum:

"As a result of the weakening of Rhodes, piracy became rampant in the eastern Mediterranean . During the next century Roman senators did not find the political will to suppress the piracy, perhaps in part because it served their interests; pirates supplied tens of thousands of slaves for their Italian estates and disrupted the grain trade, thus raising prices for their produce in Rome.

Although the pirates ranged over much of the navigable Mediterranean, they concentrated their raids on major shipping lanes. Upon these lanes goods were transported between the far western provinces of Spain and Africa, Rome and the rest of Italy, and the eastern provinces including Macedonia, Greece, Syria and Egypt. Preferred area to set base or home port, was on the coast of present day Turkey, in an area known as Cicilia Tracheia. This area afforded great protection for the pirates. The coastline was complicated and full of twists and turns and hidden ports. As Roman influence rose the influence of the native powers, such as Seleucid Syria and Rhodes, declined. Some historians argue that because Romans destroyed Mediterranean kingdoms there was nobody to keep law and order on the seas. Especially after Romans destroyed the powerful fleet of Carthage which kept in check piracy on the shores of North Africa pirates flourished and practically dominated big parts of Mediterranean. With Rome reluctant to crack down on the pirates Mediterranean cities began to form alliances with the pirates to avoid being plundered and terrorized since they received little protection from Rome. Many port cities provided their services and facilities to the pirates, while others paid tribute as if they were conquered. In effect, these cities became centers of piracy.

Interestingly there was a Piracy Law during Roman Times. An inscription found at Delphi is a 100BC document that set the rules for dealing with pirates. The law stated that Roman citizens should be able to "conduct, without peril, whatever business they desire," presumably wherever they desire. A copy of the law was to be sent by messengers of Rhodes to the kings of Cyprus, Alexandria, Egypt, Cyrene, and Syria informing them that no pirate is to "use the kingdom, land, or territory of any Roman ally as a base of operation. No official or garrison will harbor pirates and should be considered zealous collaborators for the safety of all ".

Another inscription found at Cnidos seems to be either an extension or a lost portion of the Delphi text. The Cnidos text is quite broken in the beginning, but does exhibit certain similarities. This text states that the kings of Syria, Alexandria, Egypt, Cyrene and Cyprus were to prevent the harboring of pirates. There was even a fine of 200,000 sestertii for non compliance with the law. This law gave Rome the basis for prosecution of pirates.

According to Roman writer Plutarch in 102BC, Marcus Antonius was given a command to reduce the pirates. It seemed to be more an effort to reduce capture of Romans and provincials by pirates primarily by making a deal with a certain pirate known as Nicomedes . Between the years of 77BC and 75BC, Servilius Roman commander was sent to assist the allies of Roman province Lycia in another attempt by Rome to curtail piratical escapades. However he did not do much to damage the hard core pirates in the area of Cilicia Tracheia because little evidence has been found to support him even entering the waters off that coast (Roman writer Ormerod). In 74BC preparations were made for an all-out assault on the Cilician coast under the command of Marc Antonius. These were abandoned with the coming of the third Mithradatic War ( according to Plutarch).

The number of pirates grew substantially during the wars created by Mithradates. While Mithradates was fighting on land, his navy and the pirates under his influence roamed the sea, plundering and pillaging. They even began to intercept the Roman shipments especially grain from Africa and in one instance destroyed Roman fleet in Ostia. During his first war against Rome, Mithradates assisted the pirates by providing materials and expertise to begin coastal raiding . After the conclusion of the conflict, Mithradates' influence with the pirates declined, but the pirate menace continued. However, Mithradates surfaced twice more, and each time was closely allied with pirate forces. By the third war, the pirates were organized more like regular fleets, and less like bands of robbers. During that time, the pirates captured Iassus, Samos, Clazomenae, and Samothrace. They even plundered the temple at Samothrace and received the equivalent of 1000 talents.

Roman historian Appian suggests that the oppressive conditions set up by Rome's constant warfare prompted many to renounce their hopeless lives and join the pirate forces . Thus pirates gained detailed knowledge of many ports and coastlines, providing a wider range of profitable raids. The pirates had become quite brash by this point, owning garrisons and supply depots manned by "fine crews and expert pilots" (Plutarch)."

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