The Time Julius Caesar Was Captured by Pirates

In the 1st century BCE the Mediterranean Sea had a crime problem. Specifically, it had a pirate problem. The rugged region of southern Anatolia known as Cilicia Trachea (Rough Cilicia) was notoriously infested with seagoing bandits whose depredations terrified Romans.

In 75 BCE a band of Cilician pirates in the Aegean Sea captured a 25-year-old Roman nobleman named Julius Caesar, who had been on his way to study oratory in Rhodes. As the story is related in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, the capture was a minor inconvenience for Caesar but very bad luck for the pirates.

From the start, Caesar simply refused to behave like a captive. When the pirates told him that they had set his ransom at the sum of 20 talents, he laughed at them for not knowing who it was they had captured and suggested that 50 talents would be a more appropriate amount. He then sent his entourage out to gather the money and settled in for a period of captivity. The pirates must have been dumbfounded. It’s not every day that a hostage negotiates his ransom up.

Caesar made himself at home among the pirates, bossing them around and shushing them when he wanted to sleep. He made them listen to the speeches and poems that he was composing in his unanticipated downtime and berated them as illiterates if they weren’t sufficiently impressed. He would participate in the pirates’ games and exercises, but he always addressed them as if he were the commander and they were his subordinates. From time to time he would threaten to have them all crucified. They took it as a joke from their overconfident, slightly nutty captive.

It wasn’t a joke. After 38 days, the ransom was delivered and Caesar went free. Astonishingly, Caesar managed to raise a naval force in Miletus—despite holding no public or military office—and he set out in pursuit of the pirates. He found them still camped at the island where he had been held, and he brought them back as his captives. When the governor of Asia seemed to vacillate about punishing them, Caesar went to the prison where they were being held and had them all crucified.

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