It’s the year 75 B.C., and the Roman Republic is struggling to keep control of the seas. In the eastern Mediterranean, pirates roam freely, trading in slaves and lording over an empire of their own. But one day, a crew of outlaws kidnaps a man who refuses to submit – and this has terrible consequences for his captors.
The man in question is a young Julius Caesar, who had recently returned to Rome after years in self-imposed exile. Then, while en route to the Greek island of Rhodes, he subsequently finds himself at the mercy of a marauding band of pirates. After Caesar finally secures his release, however, he chooses to go back to the men and unleashes a fury unlike any the marauders have seen before.
Later, Caesar would go on to become ruler of Rome, transforming the Republic and securing his place in history for many centuries to come. But in the annals of his eventful life, many often overlook his time spent in the company of a crew of Cilician pirates – a spell that his unfortunate captors would live to regret.
Born in July in 100 B.C., Gaius Julius Caesar belonged to an ancient Roman family with its roots in the region’s mythical past. Apparently, the Julii were descended from Aeneas – said to be the offspring of the goddess Venus and a legendary hero in his own right. And while the clan are thought to have originally been from the city of Alba Longa, they ultimately relocated to Rome after their hometown was eradicated.
But while Caesar’s family were not particularly prominent in Rome at first, all that changed towards the beginning of the first century B.C. At that time, the future ruler’s father took a position governing Asia – a Roman province in what is now northwest Turkey. That period also saw Caesar’s aunt Julia tie the knot with leading Roman politician Gaius Marius.
By the time that Caesar was a teenager, then, his family’s fortunes were on the rise. However, when his father died unexpectedly in 85 B.C., the then 16-year-old was forced to grow up fast. And as Caesar’s uncle embarked on a vicious civil war with political rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the young man found himself installed as High Priest of Jupiter – a position in which he was forbidden to travel for long periods or to ride a horse.
Yet despite his religious role, Caesar was married to Cornelia, who was the daughter of his uncle’s political ally. When Sulla emerged victorious, then, the young priest was not only deprived of his wealth and position, but he was also ordered to divorce his wife. And after refusing to comply, Caesar was driven into hiding – where he would remain until his mother’s family acted as intermediaries.
Eventually, Sulla was persuaded to allow Caesar to return to Roman society. That said, Caesar was fearful that his uncle’s former rival may yet go back on his offer, and so he decided to leave the city. The young man ultimately enlisted in the army, too, and this stint in service saw him travel first to Asia and then to Cilicia on the coast of Asia Minor.
And Caesar began to make a name for himself in the army – even earning a military decoration for his role in suppressing a revolt on the modern-day Greek island of Lesbos in 81 B.C. Afterwards, he ventured to the province of Bithynia in northwest Asia Minor, where he aimed to persuade King Nicomedes to pledge his fleet to the Republic’s cause.
Caesar lingered in Bithynia for so long, though, that some began to suspect he and the king were embroiled in an affair – a rumor that the future ruler passionately denied. Then, in 78 B.C., Sulla finally passed away, leaving Caesar free to return to Rome. But with his family’s wealth having been appropriated long ago, he was forced to start again with modest means.
Thus Caesar settled in Subura – at the time an area of the city known for its overcrowding and prostitution. Still, thanks to his natural talent for public speaking, it wasn’t long before the young man’s fortunes were on the up once more. Finding a calling in legal advocacy, he began a career securing justice against corrupt ex-governors of Rome.
Hoping to further his prospects, Caesar also planned a trip to the Greek island of Rhodes in 75 B.C. There, he planned to seek out Apollonius Molon, a rhetorician who specialized in persuasive public speaking. A few years earlier, the great orator had shared his secrets with Marcus Tullius Cicero, who is known today as one of ancient Rome’s greatest minds.
Through Molon, Caesar hoped to hone his oratorial skills further and so prepare himself for a glittering career. But while the future leader was sailing to Rhodes across the Aegean Sea, something unexpected happened that would delay his arrival on the island. Yes, like many others before him, he encountered peril on the high seas.
Prior to the second century B.C., the waters of the Mediterranean had been presided over by a number of great powers. However, after the downfall of both the Carthaginian and Seleucid Empires – as well as the decline of Ptolemaic Egypt – the Roman Republic was left as the only significant naval force in the region.
And by the second century B.C., even the Republic had greatly reduced the size of its fleet. All in all, then, while some parts of the Mediterranean closest to Rome – such as the Adriatic and Tyrrhenian Seas – still enjoyed some safeguarding, many other regions ultimately descended into lawlessness.
Under these conditions, piracy flourished. And while the Republic made some effort to dismantle bases along the Italian and Baltic coasts, the pirates in the region only grew more powerful. The more remote communities in the waters off Africa and Greece, by contrast, were left to fend for themselves.
Unable to fight off the pirates, the citizens of these far-flung outposts of the Republic forged uneasy alliances with them instead – meaning many of their areas ultimately became sanctuaries for bands of marine marauders. On the coast of Cilicia in modern-day Turkey, for example, a series of defensible natural harbors made the region an appealing choice for outlaws.
At the time, Cilicia was still under the control of the Seleucid Empire – although the pirates met with little resistance. In fact, it’s said that King Diodotus Tryphon actually lent his support to the men, believing that they contributed to his power. And with the Roman Republic unwilling to intervene, piracy in the region continued to thrive.
Eventually, the Cilician pirates grew in power and influence to become the most significant naval force in the entire eastern Mediterranean. Trading in slaves, the seafarers provided a ready supply of labor to the Roman plantations – maybe another reason why they were seemingly allowed to continue unchallenged.
And by the first century B.C., the Cilician pirates had grown even bolder – eventually attacking Italy and the port city of Rome itself. Forced into action, the Republic therefore launched a campaign against the bases of Asia Minor in 75 B.C. But although Roman officials succeeded in temporarily subduing the outlaws, the peace would not last.
That same year, Caesar embarked on his journey to Rhodes, sailing into an eastern Mediterranean still in the grip of piracy. And somewhere off the coast of the Dodecanese Islands, he encountered the marauding outlaws for himself. Still, even after the future ruler was hijacked and held to ransom, he is said to have stumped his captors with his unusual behavior.
According to legend, Caesar refused to submit to the pirates; instead, he maintained an air of superiority throughout his ordeal. And when the outlaws proposed setting his ransom at 20 ‘talents’ – a specific weight of gold – their captive laughed at them. Apparently, Caesar insisted that he was worth more than twice that sum.
In Parallel Lives, a compendium of biographies written by the Greek essayist Plutarch, a more detailed account of Caesar’s time in captivity can be found. Reportedly, after the military veteran had negotiated a higher amount for his own ransom, he then dispatched his men to acquire the funds. After that, he settled in for what now appears to be a bizarre period of captivity.
You see, Plutarch wrote that Caesar was soon lording it over the pirates, ordering them about and demanding that they respect his daily schedule. And that wasn’t all, either, as it’s also been said that the Roman utilized his time as a prisoner to improve his oratory and literary skills. Somewhat incredibly, he supposedly used his captors as an unwitting test audience.
“[Caesar] also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to [the pirates], and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians,” Plutarch wrote. According to the biographer, Caesar also insisted on joining in the pirates’ daily activities – treating his captors more like a group of bodyguards than any genuine threat.
Yet Caesar apparently didn’t take the affront on his liberty lightly. As Plutarch’s work states, for example, the future ruler frequently informed his captors that he would see them all crucified upon his release. Nonetheless, the pirates didn’t seem to interpret his words as a genuine threat. Instead, they believed that their prisoner was merely joking – and perhaps somewhat simple of mind.
Then, after more than a month of this behavior, Caesar’s ransom finally arrived. But even though the pirates duly let him go, he remained determined to wreak the revenge that he had promised. And in the Greek city of Miletus on the Anatolian coast, Caesar raised a force of men and set out in pursuit of his former captors.
With no idea of the fate that awaited them, the pirates remained camped at the same island base where they had held Caesar captive. And there, the future ruler soon caught up to them – this time with the support of an entire fleet. Before long, then, most of the outlaws had become prisoners themselves.
And after seizing the pirates’ loot as his own booty, Caesar imprisoned the marauders and appealed to the governor of Asia to discipline them accordingly. When the authorities dallied over the matter, though, the aggrieved young man decided to take things into his own hands. Unwilling to wait for justice, he released all the prisoners and saw to it personally that each one was crucified.
Yet according to some sources, Caesar did make one concession to his former captors: he called for their throats to be cut before their crucifixion. Still, the pirates’ violent deaths cemented once and for all that this ambitious Roman was not a man to be trifled with. And over the years, his power and influence continued to grow.
Shortly after Caesar’s brief period of captivity, he was called upon to help the Republic once more. And after successfully leading a group of troops against an incursion in Asia, he made his way back to Rome. There, he rose to the rank of military tribune – kickstarting a career that would see him become one of the most famous figures in Roman history.
Then, in 69 B.C., Caesar’s wife, Cornelia, passed away. Her widower had previously been elected to the position of quaestor – a type of bureaucrat – and following his bereavement he traveled to Spain in order to serve out his term. However, legend has it that Caesar stumbled across a statue of the Macedonian king Alexander the Great here, and this in turn reportedly led him to reflect on how little he had achieved in comparison to the famous conqueror.
Inspired, Caesar returned to Rome, where he remarried and was elected to the role of curule aedile, in which he arranged public festivities. And through a series of opulent spectacles, he began to win over Roman society. In fact, from that point onward, Caesar’s political career went from strength to strength.
After a series of high-profile appointments, Caesar stood for the position of consul in 59 B.C. As the highest office in the Roman Republic, the role was coveted by many, meaning Caesar ultimately found himself embroiled in a corrupt battle for power. But even though a rival engaged in bribery in order to beat him, the ambitious politician prevailed.
Then following an eventful consulship in which his policies had upset the Roman aristocracy, Caesar retreated to the provinces that he had been granted during his time in power. Here, he launched a bloody war that eventually led to the conquest of Gaul. And upon his return to Rome, he went on to also declare civil war against Pompey the Great, with Caesar eventually defeating his rival in Greece in 48 B.C.
Finally, after his successes on the battlefield, Caesar was appointed dictator of Rome. And throughout the course of his reign, he presided over a period of great social reform. As well as introducing the Julian calendar, he granted citizenship to those in the furthest reaches of the Republic. The legendary leader also gave out more land to the poor during his time in power.
Yet the Roman elite became angered by Caesar’s policies, and they began to plot his downfall. In 44 B.C. – the same year that he was declared dictator for life – the ruler was therefore ambushed and stabbed by a gang of rival politicians. And after Caesar’s death, civil war broke out across the Republic, with this conflict ultimately paving the way for the era of the Roman Empire to emerge.
But although Caesar enjoyed a powerful and influential reign, he did not gain the satisfaction of defeating the Cilician pirates once and for all. Instead, that honor went to his predecessor Pompey, who had launched a campaign against the outlaws in 66 B.C. – back when the future dictator was merely an up-and-coming politician.
Over the course of 89 days, Pompey urged the Cilician pirates out of hiding, captured their bases across the Mediterranean and systematically annihilated them. Unusually, however, it’s said that the ruler spared many of the marauders, recognizing that their choices had often been borne out of a struggle to survive.
According to legend, Pompey granted many of the captured pirates land in the sparsely populated communities of Asia Minor, where they were able to start new lives. And had they been lucky enough to encounter a less vindictive captive, the outlaws who unknowingly kidnapped Caesar may have shared this merciful fate. Instead, they ended up among the countless victims of one man’s bloody ambition – a mere blip on a rise to power that no one seemed able to prevent.