This is a chapter of Julius Caesar’s Adventure with the Pirates Who Kidnapped Him, by Henry Gilbert.
At this time, the power of the pirates of the Mediterranean was at its height. No country upon the shores of that sea was safe from their depredations for many miles inland. Ever since history began, pirates had ranged the Middle Sea, but for some forty years special circumstances had afforded them the means of increasing their influence. The conquest of Greece by the Romans had thrown thousands of dispossessed and discontented Greeks into the ranks of the sea robbers; then had come the civil wars in Rome, which had caused the Romans to overlook events passing on the sea; and, finally, the aid given by the pirates to Mithridates, king of Pontus, in his long war with the Roman State had increased their confidence and daring.
Every island in the Aegean was a nest of pirates, and their ships lurked behind numerous wooded headlands and up many a shady creek along the coasts of the mainland, from the Pillars of Hercules to the shores of Syria. Perhaps Cilicia, in Asia Minor, was the birthplace of piracy. Here was a mountainous land, shaggy with almost impenetrable forests, its coast lined with river mouths and creeks. The latter offered numerous points of refuge for the long black galleys, and the hidden fastnesses of the hills gave secure retreats where, when Roman admirals pursued them too closely, the sea rovers could lie concealed, and where, when their power increased, they hid their captives and their plunder. Crete and Cyprus were also favorite resorts of the corsairs; but as their arrogance increased, they came out boldly from their hiding places and attempted greater things.
They still, indeed, darted forth like spiders from their holes when the watchers warned them of the approaching merchant galley; but they also formed confederacies among themselves and, joining their forces, they attacked rich towns on the sea coast and possessed themselves of guarded places. The towns had to be ransomed by the merchants who lived in them, who henceforth had to pay tribute or blackmail to the pirates, in consideration of their galleys being allowed to go freely about the sea.
Then, also, prominent citizens or other rich men would join them, either for the adventurous life or for the wealth to be gained from booty. As a result, the daring of the pirates grew more and more. The number of their galleys increased, and the richness of their gear was a thing of wonder. Their great sails would be made of red or purple cloth, the beaks and sterns of their galleys would flash back the sunlight from bright bronze, canopies of silk would be stretched along the poops, and the hafts of the great oars would be plated with silver. Thus, instead of creeping out of their hiding places secretively to do their evil deeds, they now boldly drew attention to themselves and flaunted their ill-gotten adornments in the broad light of day.
In certain towns they held high revel and kept up a perpetual feast, getting themselves musicians and dancing girls, and corrupting the honest people by lavishing upon them their easy gains and inviting all and sundry to their drunken revels and rich banquets.
Soon it was said that they held sway over four hundred cities about the Middle Sea, that the number of their galleys was more than a thousand, and that their ships were so swift and strong and the crews who manned them were so apt in maritime skill and knowledge of the sea and so keen in fighting that not even Rome, who boasted herself mistress of the world, could now hope to scatter and destroy them.
Far and wide the marks of their evil deeds were spread. On any morning, when the first rays of the sun shone into the lofty atrium of some lovely villa perched amid the green woods overlooking the blue of the Mediterranean, and the family of the rich Roman or Greek was just stirring, there would come a cry of terror, crisping the nerves, chilling the heart and filling the eyes of gentle women and children with the gleams of horror: “The pirates! The pirates!”
Up from the shore they would swarm from the ships which had crept up in the half-light of the dawn, and, quickly, with hoarse cries, they would rush through the splendid rooms, staining the white marble of the floors with the blood of loyal servants, or of husband, brother, son, or father, and, rushing into the women’s apartments, they would seize the ladies and carry them fainting or struggling down to their galleys, to be carried to Delos to the slave market there to be sold, or to be kept as wives in their hiding places, or, if they were women of patrician family, to be held until their relations ransomed them.
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They extended their depredations far inland and became great highway thieves, infesting the roads about large cities and taking toll of merchants and travelers who passed that way. So daring at times were they that they even penetrated into the cities themselves, and so great was the terror which their name and cruel deeds inspired, and so weak and stupid were the men in authority, that no one dared lift a hand to punish their insolence.
Thus a band of them entered one day the busy streets of Pherae, and, going up to the forum, where Sextilius, the praetor of the province, sat in his purple robes upon the curule chair awarding justice, they took him thence, with his lictors and servants, and kept him in a galley until his friends ransomed him. Bellinus, praetor of Africa, they also seized, as he rode along the sea road leading from Calama to Mina, and with his guards held him captive on Mount Aspera, in Taurus, until he was ransomed.
Nothing was sacred to them, and they knew not mercy. Of children they sold thousands into slavery, for pretty boys and girls were much valued as cupbearers and servants in those harsh days. Nor was there any reverence in the minds of the corsairs. Temples which had stood lovely in the rosy light of morning and evening for a hundred years, built by devoted hands and revered by generations of pious men and women, were destroyed ruthlessly, their treasures wrenched away, their priests and priestesses slain or sold.
Especially contemptuous were they of Roman officials whom they captured. Once they overhauled a merchant ship in which was traveling a senator named Claudius. When the pirates, having swarmed aboard, were tumbling the passengers and crew into the boats to send them ashore, the senator, angry at being treated as if he were but one of a crowd, called out: “I am Claudius Clarus, Roman senator!”
The pirate leader, who stood by, a long, lean rascal with a sneering face, turned at the sound and began to tremble, and looked appealingly at the senator. The other pirates took their cue from this wretch, whose tricks had often amused them, and they began to slap their thighs as if with consternation. Some fell on their knees, apparently struck with terror at the disrespect they had shown him.
“Pardon us! Forgive us!” they cried. “We knew not who you were, noble lord!”
Some brought his cloak and humbly presented it to him, others fetched his walking shoes and offered to put them on. He, deceived by their manner and being a good-natured man, cried that he forgave them. But they would not desist from their officiousness, and the cruel game continued for some time.
At length the leader, bowing humbly, said: “Do not remember this against us, noble sir. We meant one of your rank and consequence no harm. Now go you in peace!”
He gestured to where one of the men stood smirking at the head of a ladder which he had put over the side of the ship. The senator, thinking that they really meant him to go by that way to a boat waiting to take him to the land, went toward the side of the vessel, but, seeing that the ladder hung over the empty waves, he recoiled.
“Have no fear, noble sir!” mocked the pirate. “That is the way to freedom.”
They began to push him toward the side of the ship, and he struggled, crying that they wished to murder him. At a furious exclamation of impatience from the chief, his men seized the wretched senator and thrust him over the side. He fell into the sea, sank, then rose, and breathlessly cried to them to save him, promising them any reward they cared to ask. But none took notice of him; not a cruel face looked over at him, and, after clawing at the side of the ship for a little while, crying out all the while, his strength gave way and he sank.