Julius Caesar and the Pirates

Published September 15, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

I had planned on summarizing the set-up, but since I encountered it in Terry Jones’ Barbarians, rather than in the dry books I’ve been reading for class, I figured I should just quote the section in question, because there’s no way I can tell it anywhere near as well.  So, lengthy blockquote incoming!  (Oh, and the blockquote has another blockquote inside it, but I don’t think WordPress is set up to do that, so I’m putting the interior one in Italics.)  Just before this quote, he’s been talking about the island of Rhodes, and how the Romans ruined its economy, putting an end to the patrols the island used to send out to fight off pirates.

When the young Julius Caesar tried to go to school there in 76 BC he was actually captured by pirates.  He claims to have been rather a jolly captive, and to have got on very well with the pirates, after being insulted by their initial demand for a ransom of 20 talents.  He insisted they raise it to 50:

He made so little of them, that when he had a mind to sleep, he would send to them, and order them to make no noise.  For thirty-eight days, with all the freedom in the world, he amused himself with joining in their exercises and games, as if they had not been his keepers, but his guards.  He wrote verses and speeches, and made them his auditors, and those who did not admire them, he called to their faces illiterate and barbarous.

He said he would have them crucified, and they all laughed.

Once his ransom was paid and he was freed, he hired a fleet, set out in a hot pursuit and captured ‘most of them’.  After handing them over to the authorities, he personally arranged their crucifixion.  Caesar then went on with his planned course of study.

The quote in the middle is from Plutarch, but obviously the original source of the story was from Gaius Iulius Caesar himself.  So he personally spread this story about himself…though he probably tried to make himself sound a bit less horrible than Mr. Jones makes him sound.  (For that matter, even Plutarch’s version isn’t terribly flattering, considering the insults he hurls at the pirates who don’t like his speeches and verses…which he was writing before being trained in oratory by the teachers on Rhodes.  Not to mention that I remember hearing classmates who were translating Caesar complaining that his Latin was actually pretty bad.  (Though I don’t know what their basis of comparison was.))

What gets me about this story, of course, is that we probably have very little proof that any of it actually happened.  We know Caesar said it happened, and that people believed him, but do we have records from Rhodes about the incident?  Letters to his father asking for the ransom?  Letters from the pirates begging to be freed from their prisoner?  (Okay, yeah, that’s unlikely, I know.  Something about the story puts me in mind of a more gruesome twist on “The Ransom of Red Chief” though…)  If one had the time, and the access, it would be interesting to find out if there’s any surviving corroborating evidence, or if we only have Caesar’s (and later Plutarch’s) word for it.

Now, if Caesar himself was writing about it and saying it happened, then it probably did.  Too many people would have known it hadn’t happened; if he was lying entirely, they likely would have called him on it, seeing as he had a lot of enemies in Rome.  But there are a lot of details that did not necessarily happen the way he said they happened.

For example, Jones (and/or his co-author Alan Ereira) suggests that Caesar might have cut a deal with one of the pirates to help him capture the others, a fact that he conveniently left out of his version of the story.  I would suggest that there are also any number of other little ways he could have sidestepped around the matter to make himself sound better.  Without having read Caesar’s original version, I can’t say exactly what they were, of course.  But, for example, maybe he played much less of a role in their capture than he let on.  Or, even more likely, maybe he wasn’t such a brave and commanding captive, but acted more like a normal person would when kidnapped.  He would have been in his mid-twenties, so he was probably not acting like a frightened child (unlike his nephew/adopted son, Julius Caesar actually was a force to be reckoned with on the battlefield, so he probably had no shortage of bravery by that point in his life), but he could have been tied up and helpless the whole time for all we know.  After all, any pirates who had escaped with their lives would hardly have called him on it if he’d been lying!

But it would seem that people accepted the story as fact.  (Plutarch was not the type to recount a story he didn’t believe, especially not without labeling it as such.  That’s why his Lives are treated with respect by modern historians, despite that many of them took place a number of centuries before he was born.)  This tells us a lot about what kind of person Julius Caesar was, that they accepted without question that he could behave in such a close manner with a group of pirates, and then calmly, callously put them all to death in a horrible fashion.

And most likely his audience thought he was great and noble for having done so, which tells us a lot about what the Romans were like.

But I find myself wondering about those pirates.  Who were they?  Where did they come from?  What made them pick Caesar in particular to be their hostage?  Rhodes was the place for Roman youths to learn oratory, and they all would have been fairly wealthy if they could make that trip, so there should have been any number of potential abductees available to them.  Honestly, I half suspect that they weren’t so much the “attack on the open seas” kind of pirates, but more like the pirates in the Dionysos myth I related last week, who claimed to be giving him passage, and then held him to ransom.  Of course, without having read either Caesar’s or Plutarch’s full version of the tale, I could be totally wrong about that.  Though that, too, is one of the places Caesar might have fudged his story; if he’d accidentally bought his passage on a pirate ship, surely he wouldn’t just admit it!

Even further, I wonder about what it was like for the pirates, while they were holding him prisoner.  If we decide to suspend disbelief and accept Caesar’s/Plutarch’s word about the way he behaved, what did the pirates think of that?  If he was “joining in their exercises and games,” they might have been fooled into thinking he was becoming their friend; they might have genuinely believed he was joking when he said that he’d have them all crucified.  (Even before Stockholm’s Syndrome was given its name, it must have already existed.)  How betrayed must they have felt when they found out he was serious about putting them to death?  After all, if there’s any truth to the account, then they were the ideal abductors, doing nothing to harm or even constrain their captive.

Anyway, I’m pretty sure Plutarch’s account of Caesar’s life is on the reading list for the Roman history class I’m taking this semester, so I’ll probably return to this topic (and/or just edit this post) later in the semester, after I’ve read it.  But I think there’s the potential there to make some really interesting historical fiction.  For those with the time and skill to write it, anyway.  (Which sadly leaves me right out.)

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