Pirates. Why do we love them so? What makes them so dashing, so romantic, so worthy of admiration? Because historically, our predecessors didn’t see any of the above characteristics in the rogues. They were terrorists, thieves, murderers…criminals to be feared and avoided at all costs. We can blame Johnny Depp, or Disney. I think it’s something more, something engrained in our souls that makes us love them.
One of my favorite pirate story dates to 75 B.C.E. and involves a man who would one day change the face of the Roman Republic. When Julius Caesar was a young man, still in his early twenties, the pirates of Cilicia captured him and held him for ransom. The Cilician pirates achieved infamy during their heyday, causing trouble for Rome and all of her commercial partners around the Mediterranean. The Romans used the same pirates as mercenaries during maritime warfare, a tradition that did not end with them. The pirates ransomed young Caesar for twenty talents, a paltry amount that made him laugh when he found out. See, Julius informed the pirates they had netted a prize and he believed himself worth much more. As a result, they asked for fifty talents in exchange for the aristocrat’s release. While in their custody, for a length of a month or so, Julius Caesar acted more as their leader as opposed to a captive. He often practiced fighting with them, learned their weaponry and tactics, and sent messengers to ask them to keep their voices down when he wanted to sleep. He talked every day of how they had better not let him go, because if they did he would come back with an army and kill every last one of them. The pirates, believing it to be a friendly joke, laughed along. When they released him, Julius went to the nearest town, raised his army, and returned to slaughter the band of pirates who’d held him. He granted the ones he liked a death by beheading as opposed to crucifixion, Caesar’s brand of mercy. The moral of this particular story is two-fold, in my opinion. First, it provides an intimate picture of piracy; the camaraderie, society, and inner workings of their groupings. Second, it reiterates what history teaches us about the Romans – don’t mess with them. They were like, the Texas of their day.
As long as people have shipped goods across the seas, men have made their living stealing from them. All the powerful, successful countries (including America) have used the pirates when it’s convenient and punished them harshly when they lose their usefulness. The life of a pirate was hard, the men who chose it rarely living past their twenties. They signed on knowing their time on this earth would be short, so they lived it to the fullest extent. Kind of like college, only at the end you die. Their indulgences contributed to their early demise just as often as the sword, cannon, or rope. The weeks at sea without proper nutrition caused health issues such as scurvy and other vitamin deficiencies. The time spent at port, drinking and whoring, led to every sort of venereal disease, driving many a pirate to an early grave. Without the inclination or opportunity to bathe regularly, scabies and other skin disease took their toll.
I just made it sound awfully glamorous, didn’t I? Still want to be a pirate? For some reason, I sort of do. And you know what I think it is? The freedom. The chance to travel the world, to give the finger to society and its rules, to live or die on your own terms. The killing people would be hard for me, I’m not very confrontational by nature, but if I looked down the barrel of a naval officer, I might be able to summon some fight. Two of my novels feature pirates and their histories as integral characters, and I plan on sharing their stories in the days to come. If the lives of these scalawags, thieves, and entrepreneurs fascinate you as they do me, drop back by. I promise to keep it interesting.