Cilicians: Plutarch on the foreign “pirates” threatening Roman ways (early-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Justin Nadeau, 'Cilicians: Plutarch on the foreign “pirates” threatening Roman ways (early-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified June 29, 2023,

Ancient author: Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Life of Pompey, parts of 24-26, 28 (link).

Comments (by Justin Nadeau): Plutarch (ca. 45-120 CE) was a Middle Platonist philosopher from Chaironeia in Boiotia, Greece. We have already witnessed Plutarch’s ethnographic interests in numerous writings, including his biographical writing (link to other Plutarch posts). Plutarch’s biographies usually measure two famous historical figures in parallel allowing comparisons between their lives and achievements. One of these pairs is the Spartan king Agesilaos II of the fifth century BCE and the Roman leader Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – “Pompey” – of the first century BCE. In the passages of the Life of Pompey excerpted below, Plutarch is concerned with characterizing Cilicians from south-central Asia Minor (now Turkey) within the context of Roman suppression of populations in the area.

Plutarch’s sketch of Pompey’s life has Pompey engaging in military campaigns in various regions including Gaul (8.4), Sicily (10.1-7), North Africa (11.1-12.5), and Spain (18.1-19.4). While non-Greek peoples are mentioned in passing and during descriptions of various battles, the Cilician “pirates” are given considerable attention in regard to their supposed detrimental effects on Roman ways.

Plutarch and other sources clarify that Pompey was charged with leading a military campaign against Mithridates VI (reigned ca. 120-63 BCE) of the kingdom of Pontos (in northeastern Turkey). In connection with these eastern expeditions, Pompey was to clear the Mediterranean of groups or entire populations considered “pirates” by the Roman senate. Plutarch’s treatment of Cilicians illustrates a common approach to peoples not easily subdued or fully incorporated under an expanding Roman regime. Greek and Roman authorities and literary elites, like Plutarch, often categorize any resistance to such expansionism as “banditry” or “piracy” in order to distance such activity from what Romans’ defined as legitimate “war,” thereby justifying subjugation or elimination of particular groups (as also discussed at this link in connection with inscriptional evidence for Cretans and Cilicians). The equation of “uncivilized” or “barbarian” peoples with “bandits” (as a form of criminalization) is also clear on epitaphs and in other inscriptions (link). Roman military intervention can then be characterized by Plutarch as a civilizing enterprize, with a finale in which some Cilicians successfully switch to a less savage life of farming.

At various points in Plutarch’s discussion, he emphasizes how the Cilicians’ uncivilized way of life was a threat to Roman security and customs; at the same time, Plutarch repeatedly asserts the superiority of Roman ways. Beyond the label “pirates,” another way in which Cilicians are negatively characterized pertains to their supposed impiety. This is captured in their violation of long-standing Greek sanctuaries, but also in their participation within ritual practices involving a foreign (non-Greek and non-Roman) deity. Most conspicuous here is the brief but quite significant mention of the Cilicians’ participation in rites for a Persian or, more broadly, Indo-Iranian deity, Mithra or Mithras. Plutarch refers to foreign sacrifices and secretive rites performed for Mithras at Olympos in Lycia, where there has in fact been material evidence of Mithras worship uncovered (see Gordon 2015). However, Plutarch’s apparent suggestion that this Cilician adoption of the Persian deity was the origin for the mysteries of Mithras as practiced in Roman contexts (particularly the military ones) in Plutarch’s own time is likely misguided. The rites described by Plutarch more likely pertain to the Iranian worship of Mithra, not the Roman mysteries for Mithras (see Beck, 1998; Gordon, 2015). It is important to remember that Persian control of Asia Minor (Turkey) for more than two hundred years (beginning in the mid-sixth century) impacted local cultural practices in various places, including Olympos.

Works consulted: R. Beck, “The Mysteries of Mithras: A New Account of Their Genesis,” Journal of Roman Studies 88 (1998): 115-128 (link); R. Gordon, “From Miθra to Roman Mithras”. Wiley Blackwell Companion to Zoroastrianism, eds. Stausberg et al. (451-455). 2015.

Source of the translation: B. Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives, 11 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-1926), public domain, adapted by Nadeau and Harland.


[Justification for the suppression of Cilician “pirates” ]

(24) The power of the pirates (peiratai) was anchored in Cilicia at first. At the outset, this power was venturesome and elusive, but it took on resolve and recklessness during the Mithridatic war,​ because the power of the pirates contributed to the king’s naval crews. (2) 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 until they no longer attacked navigators only, but also devastated islands and coastal cities. At this point, those men whose wealth gave them power, those whose lineage was illustrious, and those who claimed superior intelligence, began to embark on bandit-like activity and to share in their enterprises. They felt that the occupation brought them a certain reputation and honour. There were also fortified harbours and light-houses for piratical activity in many places, and fleets put in here which were not merely furnished for their peculiar work with sturdy crews, skillful pilots, and light and speedy ships.

Even more annoying than the fear which they inspired was the odious extravagance of their equipment, with their golden sails, purple awnings, and silvered oars, as if they revelled in doing evil and were proud about it. (4) Their flutes, stringed instruments and drinking bouts along every coast; their seizures of persons in high command; and, their ransoming of captured cities were a disgrace to Roman supremacy (hēgemonia). For, you see, the ships of the pirates numbered more than a thousand, and there were four hundred cities captured by them.

[Violation of Greek holy places and practice of foreign Mithraic rites]

Furthermore, the pirates attacked and plundered places of refuge and sanctuaries previously protected against violation, such as the sanctuaries at Klaros, at Didyma, and on Samothrace island; the temple of Chthonian Earth at Hermione; the temple of Asklepios in Epidauros; those of Poseidon at the Isthmus, at Tainaron, and at Kalauria; those of Apollo at Actium and Leukas; and, those of Hera at Samos, at Argos, and at Lakineion. At Olympos [city in Lycia; modern Çıralı, Turkey], they also offered foreign sacrifices of their own and celebrated certain secret rites. Among these rites, those of Mithras continue to the present time, having been first instituted by them.

[Cilicians’ mistreatment of Romans]

But they heaped most insults upon the Romans, even going up from the sea along their roads and plundering there, and sacking the neighbouring villas. One time they also seized two praetors, Sextilius and Bellinus, in their purple-edged robes, and carried them away, together with their attendants and lictors. They also captured a daughter of Antonius, a man who had celebrated a triumph, as she was going into the country, and exacted a large ransom for her.

However, their crowning violation was this: Whenever a captive cried out that he was a Roman and gave his name, they would pretend to be frightened out of their senses. They would hit their thighs and fall down before him, begging the Roman to pardon them [the Cilicians]. The Roman would be convinced of their sincerity, seeing them so humbly suppliant. Then some of them would put Roman boots on his feet, and others would throw a toga around him, in order that there might be no mistake about who he was again. After mocking the man in this way for a long time and getting their fill of amusement from him, finally they would let down a ladder in mid-ocean and command him disembark and go on his way rejoicing. If he did not wish to go, they would push him overboard themselves and drown him.

[Exceptional powers given to Pompey]

(25) This power extended its operations over the whole of our sea [i.e. the Mediterranean], making it unnavigable and closed to all commerce. This was what most of all inclined the Romans, who were distressed to get provisions and expected a great scarcity, to send out Pompey with a commission to take the sea away from the pirates. Gabinius, one of Pompey’s intimates, drew up a law which gave him, not an admiralty, but an outright monarchy and irresponsible power over all men. For the law gave him dominion over the sea this side of the pillars of Herakles, over all the mainland to the distance of four hundred stadium-lengths from the sea. These limits included almost all places in the Roman world, and the greatest peoples (ethnē) and most power­ful kings were comprised within them. Besides this, he was empowered to choose fifteen legates from the senate for the several principalities, and to take from the public treasuries and the tax collectors as much money as he wished, and to have two hundred ships, with full power over the number and levying of soldiers and oarsmen.

When these provisions of the law were read in the assembly,​ the people received them with excessive pleasure, but the chief and most influential men of the senate thought that such unlimited and absolute power, while it was beyond the reach of envy, was yet a thing to be feared. So they all opposed the law, with the exception of Caesar. Caesar advocated the law, not because he cared in the least for Pompey, but because from the outset he sought to ingratiate himself with the people and win their support. . . [omitted material].

(26) . . . For five hundred ships were manned for him, and a hundred and twenty thousand men-at‑arms and five thousand horsemen were raised. Twenty-four men who had held command or served as praetors were chosen from the senate by him, and he had two quaestors. And since the prices of provisions immediately fell, the people were moved to say in their joy that the very name of Pompey had put an end to the war.

[Pompey’s defeat of and/or civilizing influence on “pirates”]

(26) . . . However, he divided the waters and the adjacent coasts​ of the inner [Mediterranean] sea into thirteen districts, and assigned to each a certain number of ships with a commander, and with his forces thus scattered in all quarters he encompassed whole fleets of piratical ships that fell in his way. Immediately he hunted them down and brought them into port. Others succeeded in dispersing and escaping, and sought their hive, as it were, hurrying from all parts into Cilicia. Against these Pompey intended to proceed in person with his sixty best ships. However, he did not sail against them until he had entirely cleared out pirates from the Tyrrhenian sea, the Libyan sea, and the sea around Sardinia, Corsica, and Sicily, taking forty days total. This was owing to his own tireless energy and the enthusiams of his lieutenants. . . [omitted material].

(28) . . . The war was therefore brought to an end and all banditry (lēstēria) was driven from the sea in less than three months. Besides many other ships, Pompey received in surrender ninety which had bronze beaks. He did not once think of putting to death the men themselves, who were more than twenty thousand in number. Yet, to let them go and allow them to disperse or band together again – poor, war-like, and numerous as they were – he thought was not a good idea.

Pompey reflected on the fact that, by nature, man neither is nor becomes a wild (zōos) or an unsocial (amiktos) creature, but is instead transformed by the unnatural practice of evil (kakia). Whereas a man may be softened by new customs and a change of place and life. Even wild beasts put off their fierce (agrios) and cruel (chalepos) ways when they partake of a gentler mode of life. So Pompey determined to transfer the men from the sea to the land, and let them experience gentle life by being accustomed to live in cities and to till the ground. Some of them, therefore, were received and incorporated into the small and half-deserted cities of Cilicia, which acquired additional territory. After restoring the city of Soloi, which had lately been devastated by Tigranes, the king of Armenia, Pompey settled many there. To most of them, however, he gave as residence Dyme in Achaia, which was then bereft of men and had much good land.

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