The Roman General who got kidnapped and later hunted down and executed his kidnappers

Just as the modern world grapples with the menace of pirates so did the ancient world struggle with the problem. Navies of powerful ancient kingdoms had a difficult time making sure those pirates did not disrupt vital shipping lanes in the Mediterranean. One such high-profile incident involving pirates in the Mediterranean Sea came when Roman general and later dictator Julius Caesar was taken hostage by an armed group of Cilician pirates. The Cilician pirates were said to have a free reign in the Mediterranean, especially in the western part.

Julius Caesar’s kidnapping

The Cilician pirates and ransoming of hostages

Piracy was a real threat to ancient empires and nations along the Mediterranean. In ancient Rome, the menace reached troubling proportions by the late 2nd century BC. With no powerful and abled navy in the region, the pirates had a field day on the open sea. The Carthage Empire had been severely weakened by Rome in the mid-third century BC. Furthermore, kingdoms in the eastern part of the Mediterranean – like the Seleucid Empire and Ptolemaic Egypt – could not marshal any fierce resistance as their nations were waning. With that kind of power vacuum, pirates found themselves immediately drawn to the east, where they established a hub on Crete. There was significant presence of pirates in the western Mediterranean, for example the Balearic Islands and western Cilicia were swamped with vicious seafaring bandits.

Cilician pirates were infamous for taking hostage the crew of the ships that they seized. They would then demand for huge sums of gold to paid as ransoms from the families of those crew. The pirates were most pleased when the crew members came from wealthy families. Other than that they would simply sell the crew of the ship as slaves.

How Julius Caesar got kidnapped

When Cilician pirates seized a Roman ship in the Aegean Sea in 75 BC, little did they know that on board that ship was a Roman nobleman and rising military general by the name of Julius Caesar. The 25-year-old Julius Caesar was traveling to Rhodes (in modern-day southeastern Greece) on some kind of educational trip.

During their deliberations, it was agreed among the Cilician pirates that the ransom for Julius Caesar be placed at 20 talents. Upon hearing how low an amount the pirates were demanding, Julius Caesar is said to have burst into an uncontrollable laughter. “A meager 20 talents of silver? Do you have any idea who I am?”, he asked. The pirates were left speechless when they heard their hostage brush off 20 talents as if it was pocket change. By the way, 20 talents of silver hovers around half a million USD in today’s equivalent.

In a very authoritative voice, Caesar told the pirates that a man of his status should have at least 50 talents of silver placed as his ransom.

While the pirates waited to receive the ransom money, Caesar developed a close bond with his kidnappers. Not so much like a Stockholm Syndrome, but it was Caesar’s way of getting to know his enemies better. He ate with them; shared stories with them; and even joined them in playing games. He chose not to act like a hostage, perhaps in order to better understand them.

Greek author and biographer Plutarch wrote in his work, Parallel Lives, that Julius Caesar was calm and composed when the Cilician pirates commandeered his ship. The future dictator of Rome most likely saw the entire event as a temporary inconvenience.

However, beneath all the smiles and warm gestures towards his captives, Caesar harbored plans to hunt down and kill every one of those pirates once he was set free. Interestingly, he even revealed his plans to the pirates, who immediately laughed at the ridiculousness of his plans. They must have taken Caesar’s statements as one of his jokes; after all Caesar did have a bit of sense of humor. Unbeknownst to the pirates, the Julius Caesar was not joking at all. This general did not become dictator of Rome by being the kind of man people trifled with.

A man of his word

Ultimately, the ransom that the Cilician pirates demanded got paid, and Julius Caesar was given his freedom. Before departing, Caesar again warned the pirates to vacate the place lest they faced dying at the hand of his sword when he comes back. The young general returned to Rome and immediately started making preparations to go after the pirates who captured him. He was bent on keeping his promise to the pirates. Lo and behold Caesar arrived with his naval forces to see the very pirates that captured him at the same spot. A furious Caesar quickly rounded them up and took back the 50 talents that had been paid to them as ransom.

Julius Caesar crucifies his kidnappers

Caesar placed the pirates in the custody of the pro-consul of Asia. He was expecting the pirates to be tried and punished for their crimes. With the consul in Pergamon delaying the passage of any verdict on the accused pirates, Caesar stormed the consul and took the pirates back. And as he had promised every one of those pirates, he executed them.

Why Rome struggled to deal with the pirates

Regarding Rome, the Republic at the time, i.e. the 2nd century BC, was still picking up steam; the Republic did not have a navy powerful enough to completely handle those pestering pirates.

Moreover, the constant warfare and pillaging in the region in a way forced many abled-body men to abandon their destroyed farms and villages and eke out a living as pirates.

The Romans themselves had contributed indirectly to the worsening of the piracy situation in the Mediterranean. It’s been said that Romans procured majority their slave workers from those very pirates.

As a result, Roman ships, especially commercial/trading ships like the ones that transported grains, were constantly attacked and their valuable cargo seized. This phenomenon would continue unabated until Roman general Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) nipped the issue in the bud in the 1st century BC. Pompey resettled many of the Cilician pirates in territories across the empire, where they could engage in farming activities and contribute productively to the development of Rome. He had come to the understanding that the pirates were engaged in their criminal work because of the high level of poverty in their respective countries, which in turn was caused by the years of civil wars and strife of the era.

Pompey, who was initially an ally of Caesar, would later go on to lock horns with Caesar in a civil war that saw Pompey defeated and later murdered while seeking refuge in Ptolemy Egypt.

Did you know?

  • Much of what we know about the kidnapping of Julius Caesar by Cilician pirates is found in Parallel Lives, a book written by Plutarch, a 1st century AD Greek author and biographer.
  • While held captive by the Cilician pirates, Julius Caesar made himself at home and befriended the pirates. In all sense and purpose, he was not their prisoner. He even once ordered them to stop making noise so that he could sleep. Whenever he spoke to them, it was as if he was their commander and they were his foot soldiers.
  • It’s said that from the time that he was released by the pirates to the time that he rounded them up lasted less than six weeks.

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