Artifacts of Material History, History, Literature

Pirates and Patristics

Ulysses and Sirens, Roman mosaic, 3rd. c. CE, Bardo Museum, Tunisia

By Timothy J. Demy –

The legacies of the classical world and late antiquity are many. In the second century CE the early Christian philosopher from Carthage, Tertullian (ca. 160 – ca. 220), asked an oft-repeated (and misunderstood) question “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”De praescritione haereticorum 7). Two disparate cities,”one, a center of philosophy and the other, a center of religion”and both of them flourished leaving a legacy that remains to the present. The influence of each was significant and overlapping for many ancient citizens. On a different but also important trajectory from late antiquity, one might ask “What has piracy to do with patristics?” 

Lexical Legacies

For many people, the term “pirates” conjures images of 18th-century Anglo-American seafaring outlaws or the Barbary corsairs of the Mediterranean Sea who were active from the 16th-19th centuries. Such images have roots in the world of antiquity. One need only look to the writings of Homer and Thucydides (among many others) to find frequent reference to pirates. Ancient piracy expert Philip de Souza defines piracy simply as “armed robbers whose activities normally involve the use of ships.”[1] All knowledge of piracy in antiquity is textual and the lexical history of the term as well as ancient attitudes toward piracy are extensive. The two most common Greek words for “pirate” are transliterated leistes and peirates. The word katapontistes is used occasionally. In Latin, the terms are praedo, pirata, and sometimes latro. The semantic overlap and distinctions between a pirate and a bandit are also part of the lexical legacy of pirates in the ancient world; e.g. Strabo’s description of the Bosporan peoples near Colchis “They live by plundering the sea” (Geographica 11.2.12).[2]

Derived from the Greek and Latin pater (“father”), patristics is the study of early Christian writers and literature (excluding the New Testament), of the 1st  – 8th centuries CE. Like classical literature, patristic literature (Greek and Roman) is a vast corpus of material. The 19th-century collections Patrologia Graeca and Patrologia Latina compiled French priest publisher Jacques-Paul Migne (1800-1875) are 162 and 217 volumes respectively.

Piracy’s Perpetual Presence

By the end of the first century CE, piracy in the Mediterranean Sea, what Strabo (ca. 62 BCE – 24 CE) referred to as mare internum (“internal sea”) and Rome referred to as mare nostrum (“our sea”) as greatly diminished from earlier centuries.[3] This was due in part to Rome’s victory against pirates of Cilicia.

Cilicia, an area of southern Asia Minor, was a region with significant pirate activity affecting maritime trade in the eastern Mediterranean from the 2nd c. BCE until mid-1st c. BCE. Cilician pirates were a major threat to commerce and crews (the latter, often taken as slaves or ransomed) among them, future emperor Julius Caesar in 75/74 BCE). Among other things, protection of grain and grain shipments was a necessity as Rome as the Roman population and territory expanded. As a result, a concerted and successful effort was made by Rome to suppress them under Pompey in 67 – 66 BCE. 

However, piracy in the Mediterranean continued beyond the Late Roman Republic and into the centuries of the Roman Empire. Although diminished from earlier centuries, there was a resurgence of piracy in the civil wars and political instability in the aftermath of the 44 BCE assassination of Julius Caesar. During these years the label of “pirate” or “friend of pirates” then was used to delegitimize political opponents.

After the victories of Augustus over Mark Antony and Sextus Pomeius, allowing him to consolidate power, Augustus as emperor (r. 27 BCE – 14 CE) was able to bring the full force of Rome’s military strength against piracy. Augustus boldly declared mare pacavi a praedonibus, (“pacified the seas from pirates”). Such as declaration no doubt was political and military statement of accomplishment, but it was also a statement supporting his divinity.[4]

Sandro Botticceli, St. Augustine in His Library, 1480, Church of Ognissanti, Florence

St. Augustine and Piracy

By the 5th century CE piracy was still part of maritime life in the Mediterranean but there were other more pressing concerns such as ”the collapse of the Roman Empire and military defeats at the hands of the barbarians” of which piracy and maritime raiding was but one aspect. In Roman North Africa the threat was the Vandals on land and sea.[5] It was there, in the Roman colony and port city of Hippo Regius, near present-day Annaba, Algeria, that the city’s bishop, St. Augustine (354 – 430 CE) resided. The former colony of Tyre and residence of Numidian kings, Hippo Regius was near the mouth of the Ubus River and the city’s port and harbor flourished.

It was in Hippo that St. Augustine wrote De civitate Dei (The City of God) about 413 – 426 CE. A masterpiece of Western culture, theology, and political theory, and one of the most influential works of the Middle Ages, its influence remains to the present day. Within four years of its completion, St. Augustine lay dying as Hippo was under siege by the Vandals. Shortly after his death, the city fell following an 18-month siege.

 It is in The City of God (IV.4) that Augustine provides an anecdote that he attributes to Alexander the Great (356 – 323 BCE) and a pirate. Widely quoted with respect to contemporary piracy, terrorism, perceptions of imperialism, across the ideological and political spectrum, St. Augustine argues that kingdoms without justice are mere robberies and large kingdoms are little more than piracy. St. Augustine writes:

“And so if justice is left out, what are kingdoms except great robber bands? For what are robber bands except little kingdoms? The band also is a group of men governed by the orders of a leader, bound by a social compact, and its booty is divided according to a law agreed upon. If by repeatedly adding desperate men this plague grows to the point where it holds territory and establishes a fixed seat, seizes cities and subdues peoples, then it more conspicuously assumes the name of kingdom, and this name is now openly granted to it, not for subtraction of cupidity, but by addition of impunity. For it was an elegant and true reply that was made to Alexander the Great by a certain pirate whom he had captured. When the king asked him what he was thinking of, that he should molest the sea, he said with defiant independence: ‘The same as you when you molest the world! Since I do this with a little ship I am called a pirate [latro]. You do it with a great fleet and are called an emperor.” [6]

The source and veracity of the story is unknown, but it is possibly from Cicero’s De re publica (On the Republic) 3.14 [24] written in 54-51 BCE. Only a fragment of this portion of Cicero’s work exists but it appears to tell of a similar incident. Either way, it is known that piracy was a concern of Alexander the Great. What was important for St. Augustine’s readers was their knowledge and understanding of piracy and how the illustration enhanced his argument regarding justice. 

            St. Augustine’s pirate illustration was often repeated during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, in part because of the importance of the City of God  for the era, as well as the high esteem in which Alexander the Great was held. Alexander was one of the most popular figures of antiquity and his reputation remained high throughout the Middle Ages. For example, in 1371 the French King Charles V asked for a translation and elucidation of the City of God. He did this in part because it was reported to have been a major reading text of Charlemagne and also because it was believed to be a handbook on Roman culture.[7]

Gower Fol. 065r, Confessio Amantis: Scene, Alexander the Great with Pirate, Perhaps London ca. 1470 , J. Pierpont Morgan Library. MS M.126, fol. 65r.

Although the pirate illustration was one of many illustrations used by St. Augustine, it had a unique resonance with medieval readers and audiences such that it was repeated by several other writers, among them John of Salisbury (1115/20 – 1180) in his early political theory work Policraticus (III.14). He cited episodes of Alexander’s life throughout his text to point out the ruler’s ideal moral character; St. Augustine’s pirate episode with Alexander was only one of several references to Alexander. The story also is found in John Gower’s (c. 1330-1408) Confessio Amantis (III.2363-2438). in a poem  “The Testament, XVIII” a French poet of the Late Middle Ages Francois Villon (ca. 1431-c. 1463), and in writings by the Franciscan Vital du Four (d. 1327), Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvals (d. 1264), and English Dominican Robert Holcot (d. 1349).[8] In some medieval and Renaissance images of the pirate story, the pirate is named Dyonides.

What is interesting from a literary perspective is that St. Augustine was not alone in using piracy in his writings. One finds references to pirates in religious and non-religious writings of the age. Numerous references can be found in works of fiction such as Seneca the Elder’s Controversiae. Pretonius Arbite’s Satyricon, Xenophon of Ephesus’ Ephesian Tale, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, Chariton’s Chaireas and Kallirhoe, Achillies Tatius’ Kliptophon and Leukippe, and Heliodoros’ Ethiopian Tale.[9]

Closer to the works and worldview of St. Augustine, one finds pirates and piracy in other patristic writers such as St. Cyprian of Carthage’s Epistle I to Donatus (6), and St. Theophilus of Antioch’s Apologia to Autolycus 14 St. Cyprian (d. 258 CE) states in his writing:

Consider the roads blocked up by robbers, the seas beset with pirates, wars scattered all over the earth with the bloody horror of camps. The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which in the case of an individual is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale. “(I.6)

St. Theophilus of Antioch (d. 180 CE) compares heresy to piracy in that there is an intentional departure from that which is considered legitimate:

And as, again, there are other islands, rocky and without water, and barren, and infested by wild beasts, and uninhabitable, and serving only to injure navigators and the storm-tossed, on which ships are wrecked, and those driven among them perish, so there are doctrines of error, I mean heresies which destroy those who approach them. For they are not guided by the word of truth; but as pirates, when they have filled their vessels, drive them on the fore-mentioned places, that they may spoil them: so also it happens in the case of those who err from the truth, that they are all totally ruined by their error.” (14)

In the same way that rocks, shoals, and pirates devastated mariners, so too, according to St. Theophilus, did heresy devastate Christianity.

Linguistically and realistically, pirates and piracy were well-known in the world of antiquity.[10] Whether in the marketplace or the house of worship, the words, conversations, and teaching referencing pirates and piracy were words not to be ignored. In pre-Christian Greek and Roman mythology, the story of pirates who tried to kidnap Dionysos/Bacchus and being punished by him by their being turned into dolphins was a popular artistic them. Texts such as the Homeric Hymn to Dionysus, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses (III.7), and Nonnus’ Dionysiaca (31.86-91, 44.231-252, 45.105-168) provided rich material for artists.[11]

The Pirate Pope

            What of pirates and later Christianity? The study of religion and the sea is an interesting multidisciplinary endeavor in which one finds surprises. For example, during the Renaissance and Western Schism of the Catholicism, Baldassarre Cossa (c. 1370 – 1419), known as Pisan antipope John XXIII (r. 1410 – 1415, had a history as a pirate in his younger days. Two brothers of the “Pirate Pope” were sentenced to death for piracy by Ladislaus the Magnanimous, king of Naples from 1386-1414.

Portrait of Hugo Grotius, 1631 by Michiel Janzsoon van Miereveldt, public domain

Portrait of Hugo Grotius, ca. 163(image public domain)Hugo Grotius and Piracy

Hugo Grotius and Piracy

More than a thousand years after Augustine’s pirate anecdote, Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), the Dutch jurist, diplomat, theologian, and person credited as being the founder of contemporary international relations used patristic references to pirates and piracy among his many sources as he wrote the first treatises on international law, maritime law, and the law of armed conflict.[12] His writings are foundational to 21st-century understanding of law of the sea, piracy, and the law of armed conflict. Grotius lived and wrote in an age of Dutch maritime expansion and trade in which piracy and privateers were an ever-present reality especially against the backdrop of the Eighty Years War (1568 – 1648).[13]With respect to war, the distinction between lawful and unlawful combatants dates to the classical world and ancient Near East. That contemporary legal scholars and others look to Grotius as foundational in present-day international maritime law and the law of armed conflict is evidence of a long tradition of which he is relatively-recent proponent.

Past and Present

As is known and experienced in the 21st century, piracy has never been eradicated completely. In the late-20thcentury, it was philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky (b. 1928), who popularized St. Augustine’s pirate quote, bringing it to the attention of readers whose interests were focused more on international terrorism and contemporary events than ancient text. He cited St. Augustine’s words on the opening page of Pirates and Emperors, Old and New: International Terrorism in the Real World (1986).

Beyond an anecdote that makes a reader smile or gives pause, St. Augustine’s statement is important in that it shows a continuity of thought and idea across the pre-Christian and Christian worlds. It reminds readers that some events, ideas, practices, and principles in life and history transcend created and imagined boundaries. As such, the voices of the past speak continue to the present for those who are listening. 

Timothy J. Demy is a professor at the U.S. Naval War College (Newport, RI) and retired Navy chaplain. He is a graduate of the University of Cambridge with a MSt in international relations. Elsewhere, he earned a doctorate in historical theology and also in technology and the humanities. The author and editor of numerous books and articles, he is an avid bibliophile, classical music lover, and student of piano.


[1] Philip de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 1.See also, his article “Rome’s Contribution to the Development of Piracy.” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome. Supplementary Volumes 6 (2008): 71. De Souza’s writings are standard references for contemporary studies on ancient piracy. Earlier, see Henry A. Ormerod’s 1924 Piracy in the Ancient World reprinted by Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

[2] Ibid., 2-3; 12-13.

[3] Strabo Geographica 2.5.18. See also, Paul Claval and Colette Jourdain-Annequin, “For whom the Mediterranean Sea is ‘Our Sea’ “, Athens Journal of Mediterranean Studies 3:2 (April 2017): 99-120.

[4] Res gestae divi Augustis 25. Cf. Katheryn Whitcomb, “Mare pacavi a praedonibus: Divus Augustus and the Pacification of the Seas,” Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting, 2018.

[5] Philip de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 231-38.

[6] Augustine De civitate Dei IV.4. (Loeb edition)

[7] Sharon Dunlap Smith, “New Themes for the City of God around 1400: The Illustrations of Raoul de Presles’ Translation Scriptorium 36:1 (1982): 68

[8] Ibid., 71-73.

[9] Philip de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 214-18.

[10] Regarding the lexical distinctions and usage  of terms for pirates and piracy in Greek and Latin, see Philip de Souza, Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, 2-13.

[11] Dimitris Paleothodoros “Dionysus and the Tyrrhenian Pirates”, Le Origini Degli Etruschi Storia Archeologia Antropologia, Vincenzo Bellelli, ed. (Rome: L’Erma di Dretschneider, 2012): 455-85.

[12] Cf. Silke-Petra Begian, “The Patristic Context in Early Grotius”, in Hans W. Blom, ed. Property, Piracy, and Punishment: Hugo Grotius on War and Booty in De jure praedae. (Leiden: Brill, 2009): 127-46. 

[13] Cf. Virginia West Lunsford,  “Piracy, The Dutch, and the Seventeenth-Century Seas,” Chapter 4, pp. 101-37, in Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands. Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2005.