This is a chapter of Julius Caesar’s Adventure with the Pirates Who Kidnapped Him, by Henry Gilbert.
It was a brilliant day in summer, and the blue of the Mediterranean was answered by the fleckless blue of the sky, out of which the sun shone with all the fierceness of noon. In a rocky creek of the island of Pharmacusa, which lay a few miles off the coast of Caria, in Asia Minor, lay a long black galley, its nose of burnished copper just showing outside the entrance of the creek. With its benches of rowers who sat quietly chatting, their black oars not placed inboard, but ready to their hands, the raking mast and the huge half-furled sail, the galley had all the appearance of a vicious scorpion waiting in a cleft of the rocks for some unwary prey. Every man had a keen knife at his girdle, and in the box under his seat were stores of javelins, bows and arrows, slings and stones. These rowers were not slaves; each took part and lot in the enterprise on which they were engaged; each was a seaman and a fighter, as apt at the oar or the sail as at the set-to with knife or short throwing spear. Indeed, this was the galley Milvus, “The Kite,” one of the scouting vessels of the pirate chief Spartakos, leader of a band of sea rovers whose name was a name of terror up and down the coasts of Asia Minor, from the Hellespont to Tyre, in Syria.
Three men sat in the little cabin on the high-curving poop, from which they had a wide view over the deck of the vessel and away to where the shores of Caria shimmered in the heat haze. They were waiting for any merchant vessels beating up in the south-west wind from Greece or Italy, and making for Miletus or Ephesus. To pass the time away they were throwing dice, but the day was hot, and the game dragged.
“Zeus!” said one, named Mikios, yawning. “As well be lizards baking on a stone as wait here for ships that never come! The sea is as empty as the treasury at Samos!”
This referred to one of the most daring recent exploits of Spartakos, in violating a temple to Venus in the island of Samos, which lay some thirty miles to the north of where they were seated. The beautiful building had been ruined by fire, after the pirates had put the priests and priestesses to the sword and had rifled the treasury and temple of all the wealth given to it by generations of devout worshippers. The speaker had suggested this exploit to his chief, who sat beside him, and he rather prided himself upon his initiative.
“Me Hercule!” sneered the third man, a truculent, black-browed rascal named Syrus. “You talk as if you had scaled the walls of Olympus and robbed Jove of his thunderbolts! There is a greater prize than any you would have the courage for, if Spartakos here will let us do it.”
“And what is that?” asked Spartakos, a little fierce-faced man with gold rings in his ears, gold chains round his neck, and flashing jewels on his dirty fingers.
“The temple of Diana at Ephesus!” replied Syrus.
“There is booty enough there, ’tis true,” said Spartakos; “but the town is a strong one, and Archelaus, the governor there, is a hard man, who would not be bought over to our side except for a very large sum. And even if he agreed to take his soldiers away while we plundered, the Ephesians would fight like wild cats for their Diana.”
“I like it not,” said Mikios. “The goddess has been good to me. I sacrificed to her when I sacked Agrigentum, and she saved me from death and capture that day, for the Sicilians fought too well.”
“Pshaw!” returned Spartakos. “These gods and goddesses cannot help themselves. Until my old chief Storax of Cyprus took it into his head to sack Apollo’s temple at Claros, because the god refused him the ship of the rich merchant Crassus at Chios, no captain of the sea had dared to think of trying the strength of a god. Did any ill befall Storax by reason of that? Did he not afterward sack the temple of Ceres at Hermione, and that of the healing god, Aesculapius, at Epidaurus? What he could do, others have done. Sannio the Negro took much treasure from the temple of Neptune in the Isthmus, and because the god sank two of his best galleys at Taenarus he sacked his temple there too, and at Calauria.”
“But, mark you, captain,” said Mikios, “I think these things pass not without note, though the old gods be fallen now on careless days since the bull god Mithras is so widely worshipped. What happened to Storax?, you ask. Was he not slain by an unseen hand as he feasted in his mountain hold at Aspera, in the midst of his faithful men? It was an arrow of the god that slew him, of a surety, for all such deaths are from the hand of Apollo. And Sannio — what befell him at Messina? As he rode in the midst of his galleys in a calm sea, waiting for his men to bring off the senators Sextus and Glabrio, to hold for ransom, a great wave rolled in from the Narrow Strait and swamped and drowned five galleys and some four hundred men — Sannio among them.”
Classicsness 🎙️ the podcast about Classics
Subscribe gratis on your favorite platform and get the new episodes pushed right to your device as soon as they’re published!
Right now, we’re telling myths for all audiences!
“Old women’s tales, all such!” returned Spartakos; but his words did not ring with sincerity. As a matter of fact, superstition moved him as much as it moved the wisest and basest of men in those times, when the old gods were dying and new and untried gods were taking their places. Men’s minds were still affected more strongly by the old beliefs than by the new, and Spartakos could not keep down the feeling that there might be some truth in the words of his lieutenant Mikios.
Syrus was quick to see the doubt in the mind of his captain and therefore laughed.
“We must look, then, for some act of vengeance upon us from the dainty hand of the goddess Venus!” he said. “Doubtless the next serving maid from whom we would snatch a kiss will thump us heartily!”
Spartakos laughed harshly, but Mikios looked gloomy. He had himself suggested the sacking of the temple of Venus at Samos, but it had been to make favor for himself with Spartakos, and he had no thought then of the possible wrath and vengeance of the goddess. Syrus sneered at him.
“Croaker!” he said. “I believe you’ve frightened yourself now. As for me, I fear none of the old gods while the young Mithras protects me.”
He made the sign of the swastika in the air, invoking the protection of Mithras.
At that moment there came a faint, broken halloo from the lookout on the topmost rock on the shore. A quick movement ran through the men on the benches of the galley; they clutched at the handles of their long oars and looked up at their leaders for orders. Spartakos and his lieutenants gazed shoreward and saw a man gesticulating toward the sea to the north, as if pointing to an advancing vessel.
“Jump ashore, Mikios,” said the captain of the galley, “and run to the northern point and see what you make of the stranger.”
Mikios did as he was ordered, and in the course of a few minutes returned to say that there were two merchant galleys whose course showed that they were making for Miletus. They were heavily laden and were therefore a likely prize.
“Give the call for the other galleys!” said Spartakos, and soon a trumpet call, clear and high, rang out along the rocks and creeks of the island.
A few orders, and the Milvus had been pushed out of the creek, and, followed by two other galleys which had been hiding in neighboring inlets, was on her way toward the merchant ships. With their long oars rising and falling in regular beats, the pirate galleys looked like great sinister sea monsters skimming over the bright blue waves. The oars as they struck the waters churned them into foam; the sun shone brightly and turned the tossing water into jewels which flashed as they fell; the wind sang, carrying on it the salt smell of the sea. The pirates, however, saw little of the beauty of sea and sky, sun and wind; like birds of prey, they had eyes only for their victims, and, urged by the sinewy arms of the rascals on the oar banks, the three galleys quickly approached the merchantmen.
At the first sight of the black craft racing toward them, the traders had increased their speed, had stretched another sail, and incited their rowers to greater efforts. But the vessels were too heavily laden, and the chief merchant, a fat, pursy man, wrung his hands as he saw how swiftly the pirates were lessening the interval between the boats.