Caesar and the pirates – lessons for Somalia today

Thought Leader (South Africa)

Combating Somali piracy … Roman style

In the year 75BC, Gaius Julius Caesar, citizen of the great Roman Empire was sailing on a Roman battle trireme in the Mediterranean when pirates attacked the ship. Caesar was captured and ransomed, as was the practice back then. Legend has it that the great man was not impressed when the pirates decided to bill his family in Rome only 20 gold talents, a massive fortune at that time. He felt his worth was at least double that and demanded that they increase the ransom. The pirates, being men of commerce, obliged and were duly paid 50 talents of gold for their skulduggery.

Upon being released after spending 40 days in the dark, damp underbelly of the pirates’ ship, Caesar warned the pirates that he would return, hunt them down and kill them all. One can presume that the pirates all broke out into merry, drunken laughter and probably dumped him rather unceremoniously on the deserted shoreline, leaving him with a fairly long distance to walk to the nearest town and an even longer voyage back to Rome and his home estate outside the city. To be fair, they probably had no idea who they were dealing with.

Unfortunately for these particular pirates, Caesar, being Caesar, raised a fleet, hunted down the men that took him captive and exacted his revenge in true Roman fashion; he boarded their vessel with his legionaries, cut down anyone who resisted and crucified anyone who was left. It was the beginning of a rout that Caesar’s great rival Pompey finished emphatically by crushing pirates across the Mediterranean and clearing the routes of trade for the Empire.

It is perhaps interesting to note how the Romans achieved this, particularly since the world is once again facing the vexing problems that Caesar, Pompey, Cicero and their piers faced over two millennia ago.

Firstly, they assembled a great fleet and sent them out with orders to engage and destroy pirates wherever they found them.

Secondly, and more importantly, the Romans knew that to remove the threat posed by pirates at sea, you have to cut them off from their home base on the land. With this principle in mind, Rome invaded Illiria in 68BC, home base of the most prolific and successful piracy in the Adriatic, and effectively stamped the problem out.

Two thousand years have passed and once again the ocean trade routes of the great empires of the world are increasingly threatened by piracy. The epicentre of the current plundering is Somalia where pirates all but control the Gulf of Aden. At least 12 ships are currently under the control of pirates. This year alone has seen 67 attacks with 26 successful hijackings so far in this area alone. In short, it is reaching epidemic proportions and shows no sign of letting up.

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