Caesar and the Pirates

Thanks to The Asterix Agenda this year, I’ve done a lot of research into Roman history of the time period.

The more I read about Caesar, the more he fascinates me.  I can’t help it.  I’ve inserted bits of that history into the reviews as I’ve gone along, but some of the best stories still remain.  I’m afraid I won’t find a natural spot in the course of a book review for them.  We’re lucky in that so much was written about Caesar in and around the time period he lived.

Caesar wrote his own history of The Gallic War which, while clearly biased in some spots, still provides us with a wealth of information on wars strategies of the time.  Other historians close to his time detailed more of his life.

But my favorite story, by far, is the one in which pirates capture a young Julius Caesar in the Aegean Sea.  It comes to us from “The History of Julius Caesar” written by Jacob Abbott more than 100 years ago. (1904, to be precise).

Abbott wrote a large number of historical biographies in his day, all of which are available in the public domain via Project Gutenberg today.

This story of the pirates is three tight paragraphs of text, but I think knowing just a little of the background material will help you appreciate it more.


Caesar Flees Italy

First, you need to look back to the great civil war of Rome that happened in the earlier part of the century.  It was a brutal war, and Caesar ended up on the wrong side of it.  Tradition, given his family’s status, says that he should have chosen the side that won.  Instead, he supported the other.

He had, in fact, married the daughter of one of the leaders of the losing side. Whoops.

The winner of the war didn’t like the optics on that and ordered Caesar to repudiate his wife. (Of course you would.) Caesar, the hopeless romantic and stubborn guy that he was, refused.

He knew this meant he’d be in deep trouble, so he fled the country.  In a scene that one could easily re-imagine in comedic fashion, he departed after midnight in disguise.  What kind of disguise was it? I don’t know. I’m picturing Groucho glasses.

The life of a man on the run is not an easy one, not even in Rome.  Word travels fast.  He has to hop from place to place almost daily to keep ahead of the Roman army that’s out to get him, with a big fat reward on his head.

At one point, a Centurion of the Roman army catches him, but Caesar bribes his way to safety.  I can only imagine how many sestertii he carried in his wallet for just such an emergency.

Finally, he makes his way to the sea and, with a few followers at his side, hops on a boat to leave his native Italy with no intention of ever coming back again.


The Cilician Pirates

The pirates of "Asterix"

This bring us to a wildly successful group of pirates known as the Cilician pirates, who are not the pirates you’re used to seeing in “Asterix.”  They come from an area on the southern shore of Turkey.  That put them in a good position to launch ships to hijack other ships transporting all sorts of valuable things across the Mediterranean, from ports in Greece, Italy, and Egypt.  They took everything they could get, including food, gold, and “important” people, like high ranking politicians and military men.

The Cilician pirates were so good at their jobs that they essentially stopped the free flow of goods between Italy and Greece.

Italy launched a military campaign against them, so the pirates kidnapped the entire family of the military leader who was in charge and ransomed them.

And during this time, they captured Julius Caesar.

Caesar was sailing across the Agean Sea.  He had quite the entourage with him at the time, so the pirates knew he must be someone worth capturing.  And so they did.

It was a very bad mistake to make. You can defeat the entire Italian armada more easily than you can defeat Julius Caesar.


This Is When Caesar Goes Full Caesar on the Pirates

Caesar is clever

This excerpt comes from “The History of Julius Caesar” by Jacob Abbott. I’ll jump in here and there…

In this situation, Caesar, though entirely in the power and at the mercy of his lawless captors, assumed such an air of superiority and command in all his intercourse with them as at first awakened their astonishment, then excited their admiration, and ended in almost subjecting them to his will.

Caesar invented Reverse Stockholm Syndrome.

He asked them what they demanded for his ransom. They said twenty talents, which was quite a large amount, a talent itself being a considerable sum of money. Caesar laughed at this demand, and told them it was plain that they did not know who he was. He would give them fifty talents. He then sent away his attendants to the shore, with orders to proceed to certain cities where he was known, in order to procure the money, retaining only a physician and two servants for himself.

This makes sense. You never want to establish a low base for your stock price.  Keep that price high, especially if you (A) have a high opinion of yourself and (B) have friends who agree with you.

While his messengers were gone, he remained on board the ship of his captors, assuming in every respect the air and manner of their master. When he wished to sleep, if they made a noise which disturbed him, he sent them orders to be still. He joined them in their sports and diversions on the deck, surpassing them in their feats, and taking the direction of every thing as if he were their acknowledged leader. He wrote orations and verses which he read to them, and if his wild auditors did not appear to appreciate the literary excellence of his compositions, he told them that they were stupid fools without any taste, adding, by way of apology, that nothing better could be expected of such barbarians.

Sounds like Steve Jobs running Apple.  Or Alf playing cards with his government captors.

The pirates asked him one day what he should do to them if he should ever, at any future time, take them prisoners. Caesar said that he would crucify every one of them.

Caesar also invented Chekhov’s Gun, long before the Chinese invented gun powder.

The ransom money at length arrived. Caesar paid it to the pirates, and they, faithful to their covenant, sent him in a boat to the land. He was put ashore on the coast of Asia Minor.

And so we have our happy ending, right?  Caesar uses his network of well-heeled friends to pay his way out of a situation that would have killed a lesser man.  And he did so without groveling or losing an ounce of respect.  The pirates turned out to be true to their word, probably in the hopes of doing it again when he went back the other way across the water.  Who knows?

Caesar gives a thumbs down gesture, basically.

But, wait, here’s the kicker. Caesar had a plan:

He [Caesar] proceeded immediately to Miletus, the nearest port, equipped a small fleet there, and put to sea. He sailed at once to the roadstead where the pirates had been lying, and found them still at anchor there, in perfect security.  He attacked them, seized their ships, recovered his ransom money, and took the men all prisoners. He conveyed his captives to the land, and there fulfilled his threat that he would crucify them by cutting their throats and nailing their dead bodies to crosses which his men erected for the purpose along the shore.

How did they not see that coming?

If only this story had reached the Gauls before Caesar started war with them.  They learned this kind of lesson the hard way more than once.  At one battle, Caesar won so quickly that the backups en route to fight against Caesar turned around and went back home before they even made it to the field of battle.  Caesar chased them down and killed them all.



Caesar later returns to Italy, conquers all of Gaul (minus, perhaps, one little village in the northwest corner), returns to Rome (again) to fight a civil war he starts, ascends to all-powerful leadership, and is killed for being too powerful. Oh, and he throws some amazing parties and spend lots of money to get things done.


Can’t Make This Stuff Up

These are the stories of history that are so good, nobody would believe them as an hour-long drama today.  So much of Caesar’s life and history is filled with moments like this — unbelievable little stories on mind-boggling levels.

As far as we can tell, these are all things that actually happened with Caesar.  Some of it, for sure, is just the way the world has changed in 2000 years.  We don’t feed slaves to lions for public show, anymore.  We don’t build moats and walls overnight to conquer a neighboring city-state on a hill, nor do we parade elephants through town to celebrate our successes. (Heck, we’ve shut down the circus for using elephants….)

This might just be the best Caesar story I’ve read.  They could make an entire Asterix spinoff book — or a short story — just expanding on this as a premise.

There’s another story about a bridge he built and burned that I’ll have to get into someday…  (Those Germans were tough, and needed to be taught a lesson, what can I say?)

If you want to hear a great summation of the Gallic Wars, I can’t recommend Dan Carlins’ Hardcore History enough. It runs about six hours for Caesar, but it’s amazing.  I’ve listened to it twice already.  Plus, the web page linked above will give you a list of 30 books on the topic you can read. It tempts me, but I still have another 18 “Asterix” books to read this year….


What do YOU think? (First time commenters' posts may be held for moderation.)


    1. Thanks for the link, Alastair. That looks like an interesting book, too. I need more context for Julius, so seeing more of the history on either side would be good. The Hardcore History podcast about the Gallic Wars is called “The Celtic Holocaust.” He made no bones about the hundreds of thousands of people Caesar had killed in this campaigns through Europe. It’s frightening stuff. When the Romans came through, it was brutal. —except for those times Julius Caesar would almost randomly show mercy and let people go. It was few and far between, but he did occasionally do it, and I think Goscinny shows that side of him more often in Asterix. Early on, in their direct dealings, there’s a certain level of respect between the two, though later Caesar seems less amused by Asterix. (In the movie version of “Mansions of the Gods,” Asterix dresses down Caesar for his plot to force the village out through real estate. Asterix told him it wasn’t respectful and it wasn’t like Caesar. Caesar waves him off and goes home.)

    2. And, secondly, curse you for that link on that page to the History of Rome podcast. I now have 170+ episodes of a podcast I can’t wait to listen to! (I may not listen too far past Julius, but we’ll see… I’d hate to quit the story before the Germans invade. 😉

        1. Just to note it for the historical record: I made it through the first 77 episodes of that podcast. I needed to take a break after binging on that many and never made it back. I do want to go back, though it all seems anti-climactic after my man, Julius. And Augustus, of course. Nero is funny, too.

          In the course of Roman history, that brought me just shy of getting to Hadrian’s Walls, which I want to learn about.

          So I hope to get back to it one of these days….

  1. And I’ve listened to the first three episodes already this morning. =)

    Be careful with that “alea jacta est” stuff. I have a post about that phrase I need to finish up and post here someday, too. 😉

  2. As I was reading your piece for the second time, in the back of my mind I was going “Now, that story of Caesar and the Pirates, where have I SEEN that before?” For some reason, images kept popping up in my head and it finally hit me. Interestingly (or maybe not) The Caesar earlier life story was a major story arc on one of the latest seasons of Xena the Warrior Princess. The show was originally a spin-off of Hercules, thus based on Greek mythology, but at some point they must have been running out of ideas so there was a time jump to the Roman era and Caesar became a recurring protagonist-turned-foe/antihero that Xena kept bumping into as she was looking for Gabrielle’s demon-spawn daughter (don’t ask). So there is definitely one episode at least that I remember where they meet on the pirate ship and I remember the bargaining story taking place. How’s that for culture, eh?

  3. I’ve read a bit around Roman history, particularly the early Emperors (Caesar of course was never actually an Emperor and avoided term very deliberately). There’s a great book by Tom Holland – Rubicon that details the politics behind the end of the Republic and the start of the Empire and it covers a lot of good stuff. Including (I assume this book is how I know this) the story you tell above, my favourite about Caesar of him using his kidnapping by pirates to elevate his importance by demanding they ask for me for his ransom. Now that’s quite someone who does that!

    A book I’ve not read BUT always mean to get round to is ‘Caesar’s Legion’ by Stephen Dando-Collins which covers his leadership of the 10th Legion as I love its sister book ‘Nero’s Killing Machine’ a history of the 14th legion. There’s so much rich history between Caesar time and the year of the 4 Empires into Vespasian I’ve never got around to reading all the books I’ve meant to!

    Too many damned comics to read to get through the prose books as well!