Cilicians: Roman authorities, Cicero, and Florus on a population of “pirates” (100-67 BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Cilicians: Roman authorities, Cicero, and Florus on a population of “pirates” (100-67 BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 25, 2024,

Ancient authors: People of Rome, IKnidos 31 (100 BCE; link); Cicero, On Pompey’s Command 31-35 (link); Florus, Epitome 3.6 (link).

Comments: The characterization of entire populations as “bandits” or “pirates” (i.e. sea-bandits) was a common imperialist strategy to undermine resistance and to legitimize violent suppression or obliteration of particular populations. Earlier examples of this strategy of criminalization can be see with the Athenian and Rhodian empires (link). In the sources below, the Cilicians are the target and the Romans (under Pompey’s leadership) are the imperial power. Plutarch’s discussion of Pompey’s actions against Cilicians are in a separate post (link). Later examples of such criminalization of foreign peoples can be witnessed in inscriptions as well (link). Also see the criminalization category.

The continuing use of this type of labelling can be seen in legal sources including the Digest: “The ‘enemies’ (hostes) are those on whom the Roman people has publicly declared war (bellum), or who themselves declare war on the Roman people. Others are termed ‘bandits’ (latrunculi) or ‘brigands’ (praedones)” (Ulpian, Institutes, book 1, in Digest 49.15.24, ca. 200 CE; cf. Pomponius in Digest 50.16.118, mid-second century CE; Cicero, de Officiis 3.107).


IKnidos 31 (100 BCE)

[Roman law with respect to the provinces of Macedonia and Asia and the suppression of sea-bandits]

[Context of ostensible safety and protection provided by Rome to allies]

(Knidos copy, column 2, lines 1-11) . . . to the Roman People (dēmos) according to this statute, so that none of the peoples (ethnē) may be injured or . . . insulted (?). For whoever has received actions to take, insofar as it is possible, is to act without wrongful deceit, so that the citizens of Rome, the allies and the Latins, likewise those of the peoples who are friends of the Roman People may sail in safety and obtain their rights. . . [material dealing with imperial roles, military movements and other issues in relation to the provinces of Macedonia and Asia omitted].

[Provisions for consul to send letters to civic bodies and kings regarding no harbouring of sea-bandits]

(column 3, lines 28-41) The senior consul is to send letters to whichever Peoples (dēmoi) and civic organizations it seems appropriate to say that the Roman People will take care to ensure that the citizens of Rome, the allies, the Latins, and those of the foreign peoples who are in a relationship of friendship with the Roman People may sail in safety. On account of this matter and according to this statute they have made Cilicia a praetorian province. Likewise, the king holding sway in Kypros, the king ruling at Alexandria and in Egypt, the king ruling at Kyrene, and the kings . . . [missing text, but evidently continuing in the overlapping Delphi copy]. (Delphi copy, Block B, column 3, lines 8-14) . . . to the king ruling in the island of Kypros, to the king . . . ruling at (?) Alexandria and in Egypt, . . . to the king (?) ruling at Kyrene, and to the kings ruling in Syria . . . who have (?) . . . a relationship of friendship and alliance . . . with the Roman People, he is to send letters (?) . . . to the effect that it is right for them both [i.e. the civic bodies and the kings] to see that no pirates (peiratai) . . . use as a base of operations (?) . . . their kingdom, land, or territories; . . . . to see that no officials or garrison commanders whom (?) . . . they appoint harbour the pirates; and, to see that, insofar as . . . it is possible, (?) . . . the Roman People . . . [omitted instructions on the sending of letters for public display in the provinces, on the collection of taxes, and on other specific matters regarding Macedonia].

(Delphi copy, Block C, column 2, lines 15-24) No one is to do anything contrary to this statute knowingly with wrongful deceit, and whatever it is appropriate for anyone to do according to this statute is to be done. . . . [omitted further warnings about potential violations, including a fine of 200,000 sesterces].


Cicero, On Pompey’s Command / Pro lege Manilia (ca. 66 BCE)

[Pompey’s protection against pirates]

(31) Witnesses [to Pompey’s excellence], as it is, are now indeed all coasts and all foreign descent groups (gentes) and peoples (nationes), finally all seas, both in their totality and, on every single coastline, all bays and ports. Which place on the whole sea either maintained a garrison throughout these years secure enough to keep it safe, or was so secluded that it escaped notice? Did anyone set to sea without exposing himself to the danger of either death or enslavement, seeing that he sailed either in winter or else on a sea teeming with plunderers (praedones) [i.e. pirates]? Who would ever have supposed that so great a war – so shameful, so ancient, so widely spread and fragmented – could be brought to an end either by all generals
in a single year or by a single general across an eternity?

(32) Which province did you keep free from plunderers throughout these particular years? Which of your revenues was safe? Which ally did you protect? For whom were you a safeguard with your fleet? How many islands, do you think, have been deserted, how many cities of your allies have either been abandoned because of fear or been captured by plunderers? But why do I recall matters far away? Once this was the case, it was characteristic of the Roman people, namely to wage war far away from home and to defend, with the bulwarks of empire, the possessions of the allies rather than their own homes. Am I to say that for our allies the sea was off-limits throughout these years, when your own armies never crossed from Brundisium except in the middle of winter? Am I to lament that those were captured who came to you from foreign peoples (nationes), when legates of the Roman people were ransomed? Am I to say that the sea was unsafe for merchants, when twelve axes fell into the power of the plunderers?

(33) Am I to mention that Knidos or Kolophon or Samos, cities of greatest renown, and countless others, were captured, given that you know that your harbours and those harbours, from which you take your life and breath, were under the control of the plunderers? Do you really not know that the harbour of Caieta, crowded and crammed full of ships, was plundered by plunderers even though a praetor was watching? That the children of that very praetor, who had previously waged war against the plunderers, were snatched by the plunderers from Misenum? Why am I to lament the set-back in Ostia and that blot and disgrace of the republic when, almost with you witnessing it, that fleet of which a consul of the Roman people was in charge, was captured and crushed by the plunderers? Oh immortal gods! Was the remarkable and divine excellence of one man able to bring so much light to the republic in such a short time, that you, who were recently watching the fleet of the enemy at the mouth of the Tiber, now hear that no ship of the plunderers is within the Mediterranean sea?

(34) And even though you see for yourselves with what speed these things were accomplished, it still should not to be passed over by me in my speech. For who, in their zeal for attending to business or making profit, was ever able to visit so many places, to complete such long journeys in as little time as it took for the force of such a massive military operation to sweep speedily across the sea under the leadership of Gnaeus Pompeius? He landed in Sicily on a sea not yet seasonable for sailing, spied out Africa, came to Sardinia with his fleet, and safeguarded those three suppliers of the commonwealth’s corn with the toughest garrisons and fleets.

[Cilicians specifically]

(35) After he had returned from there to Italy – the two Spains and Cisalpine Gaul having been fortified with strongholds and ships, ships having likewise been sent to the coast of the Illyrian sea, to Achaia, and all of Greece – he furnished both seas bordering on Italy with very large fleets and the toughest strongholds. He himself then added, on the forty-ninth day after he had departed from Brundisium, all of Cilicia to the empire of the Roman people. All plunderers wherever they were, were either captured and killed or handed themselves over to the military command and magisterial power of this one man. The same man did not take away the hope of good terms of surrender from the Cretans, when they sent ambassadors and pleaders after him all the way to Pamphylia, but rather demanded hostages. Thus such a great war, so long drawn-out, so far-flung and widely scattered, a war by which all descent groups and peoples were oppressed, Pompey prepared for at the end of winter, took on at the beginning of spring, and brought to completion in the middle of summer. (36) This, then, is his god-like and unbelievable excellence as general. . . [omitted remainder of speech in favour of Pompey’s leadership].


Florus, Epitome

[Cilicians as bandits by land and sea]

(3.6) In the meantime, while the Roman people were preoccupied in various parts of the world, the Cilicians had invaded the seas. Making communication impossible and interrupting the peace of the world, the Cilicians had caused the same result as a storm in closing the seas to traffic by means of their warlike operations. The disturbed condition brought about in Asia by the Mithridatic wars [ca. 88-63 BCE] engendered a spirit of daring in these abandoned and desperate bandits (latrones). Under the cover of the confusion caused by a war in which they took no part and the hatred for a foreign prince, they ranged over the seas with impunity.

At first, under their leader Isodoros, they confined their operations to the neighbouring sea and committed their banditry between Crete, Cyrene, Achaia and the sea off Cape Malea, which, from the richness of the plunder which it yielded, they themselves named the “Golden Sea.” Publius Servilius was sent against them. Although with his heavy and well-equipped ships of war he did defeat their light and elusive boats, this was certainly not a bloodless victory. (5) Not content, however, with having driven them off the seas, he overthrew their strongest cities, full of plunder collected over a long period, including Phaselis, Olympos, and the city of the Isaurians, the very stronghold of Cilicia, from which, conscious of the greatness of his achievement, he assumed the title of “Isauricus.”

But the Cilicians, though overcome by so many disasters, would not on that account confine themselves to the land. Rather, like certain animals whose nature fits them equally well for living in the sea and on the earth, as soon as an enemy had gone away, impatient of remaining ashore they launched out again upon their natural element, the sea. Extending their operations over a far wider area than before, they were eager to create a panic on the coasts of Sicily and our own Campania by a sudden attack.

[Pompey organizes war on pirates, ca. 67 BCE]

Cilicia was, therefore, deemed worthy of being conquered by Pompey and was added to his sphere of operations against Mithridates. Pompey, determining to make an end once and for all of the pest which had spread over the whole sea, approached his task with almost superhuman measures. Having at his disposal an ample force both of his own ships and of those of our allies the Rhodians, he extended his operations from the mouth of the Black Sea to that of the Ocean with the aid of numerous commanders and captains. Gellius was placed in charge of the Tuscan sea, Plotius over the Sicilian sea; Atilius occupied the Ligurian gulf, Pomponius the Gallic gulf; Torquatus commanded in the Balearic waters, Tiberius Nero in the straits of Gades, where the threshold of our sea opens; Lentulus Marcellinus watched over the Libyan and Egyptian seas, the young sons of Pompey over the Adriatic, (10) Terentius Varro over the Aegean and Ionian Seas, Metellus over the Pamphylian, and Caepio over the Asiatic Sea, while Porcius Cato sealed the very mouth of the Propontis with ships stationed so close to one another as to form, as it were, a gate.​ Thus, in every harbour, bay, shelter, creek, promontory, strait and peninsula in the sea, every single pirate (pirata) was enclosed as it were in a net.

Pompey himself proceeded against Cilicia, the origin and source of the war. Nor did the enemy refuse an engagement, even though their boldness seemed to be inspired not so much by confidence as by the knowledge that they were hard pressed. However, they did no more than meet the first onslaught, because as soon as they saw the beaks of our ships all around them, they immediately threw down their weapons and oars, and with a general clapping of hands, which was their sign of entreaty, begged for their lives. We never gained so bloodless a victory, and no descent group (gens) was afterwards found more loyal to us. This was secured by the remarkable wisdom of our commander, who removed this maritime people (genus) far from the sight of the sea and bound it down to the cultivation of the inland districts. Simultaneously, this recovered the use of the sea for shipping and restored to the land its proper cultivators. (15) In this victory what is most worthy of admiration? Its speedy accomplishment – for it was gained in forty days – or the good fortune which attended it – for not a single ship was lost – or its lasting effect – for there were never again any pirates?


Source of translations: IKnidos 31 adapted from M.H. Crawford, J.M. Reynolds, J.-L. Ferarry, and P. Moreau in Michael H. Crawford, ed., Roman Statutes, 2 volumes (London: Institute of Classical Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London, 1996), 231-270, no. 12; I. Gildenhard and L. Hodgson, Cicero, On Pompey’s Command (de Imperio), 27-49 (Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2014), creative commons license; E.S. Forster, Lucius Annaeus Florus, Epitome of Roman History. Cornelius Nepos LCL (Cambridge, MA: CUP, 1929), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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