The Lycian Coast and the Scourge of Piracy

Pirates were the scourge of the ancient Mediterranean and the Lycian coast justly gained the reputation as the "Pirate Coast".  This coast is dotted with many strategically placed coves and islands where the sea-raiders would hide themselves and pounce upon the many heavily-laden merchant ships sailing by.  Numerous efforts were continually necessary to clean up the coast from as early as 1194 BC until it was cleared in the 19th century. 

Lycian coast, Kabak
Lycian coast, Kabak

The early Lycians may have been involved in piracy themselves. About 1200 BC the name Sea Peoples began to appear in ancient records, a sudden emergence of a group of barbarian tribes who raided and critically damaged the ancient civilizations of Greece, Anatolia and Syria, and seriously threatened the southern Levant and Egypt.  The Lukki or Lukka are mentioned among the peoples of this group and are thought perhaps to be the name of the early Lycians.  Ramses III of Egypt put together a great fleet to take on the Lukki. He was successful and the coast was free of pirates for a while.  The king of Alasiya (part of Cyprus) also had problems with the Lukki, he complained that "men of Lukki, year by year, seize villages in my own country."

Lycian coast - Kalkan

Lycian coastline, Kalkan

There were always pirates in the ancient world, but by the late second and early first centuries BC (following the fall of the Seleucid dynasty), the infamous Cicilian pirates had become a destabilizing force in the eastern Mediterranean world, commanding huge fleets and immense amounts of wealth. By this time, Rome had replaced many of the regional powers who had previously suppressed piracy, but had not taken over their responsibilities in curbing piracy.  Thus it grew from a nuisance to a regional threat.

The Ciclilian pirates were all over the Mediterranean (including coastal Lycia which had plently of islands and small coves to hide amongst), and they concentrated their attacks on major shipping lanes where goods were transported between the far western provinces of Spain and Africa, Italy, and the eastern provinces out to Egypt.  They were based in Cilicia Tracheia ("Rugged or Rough Cilicia") in eastern coastal Turkey, north of Cyprus, and desperados from many countries flocked there to start new lives as pirates.  This area was great for its protection - the land was indeed "rugged" - its coastline is full of rocky headlands with small hidden sheltered harbours which made the coast a string of havens for pirates.  The land is locked off from the rest of Anatolia by the steep Taurus Mountains, which also had huge forests of oak and pine available for ship construction. 

Rough Cilicia's coastline

Cilicia Tracheia's rugged coastline

By 102 BC, Rome's allies were begging it to stop the pirates.  Although Rome made limited ineffectual strikes against pirate bases on land (as early as 104 BC) it refused to take any real measures.  It needed the pirates, for they supplied the Roman elite with slaves to work their large plantations.  Captives, usually crew taken from captured ships, were usually taken to the island of Delos in the Aegean Sea, the centre of international slave trade and from there were transported on.  Rich captives were not sold, but kept as hostages to be sold for ransom.  Julius Ceasar was twice captured by pirates for this reason.

Mountains over Rough Cilicia's coastline

Mountains over Cilicia Tracheia's coastline

Later, the wars between the Romans and Mithridates VI of Pontus in the 80's BC destabilized Anatolia, gave the Cilician pirates extra power (they enjoyed the sponsorship of the king of Pontus), and sent fugitives flocking to join the pirates. 

In the 70's the Roman general Servilius Vatia was sent against the pirates by Rome.  He had some successes: he defeated the pirates at sea and cleared the pirates out of Lycia and Pamphylia in 77 BC.  In 76 BC he invaded Cilicia itself and had forces ready to strike against the pirate's base in modern Alanya when the Third Mithridatic War broke out and ruined all the gains he had made.

The Lycian city of Phaselis especially suffered from the Cilician pirates.  During its brief independence from Lycia (c. 100 BC) it was overrun (along with neighbouring Olympos and some cities in Pamphylia) by pirates led by the leader Zeniketes.  Phaselis then became their base until they were driven out by Servilius Vatia in 77 BC.  The city had quickly became smaller with a diminished population.  According to Cicero, because Phaselis, Olympos and Attalaia (Antalya) were found to have been in collusion with the pirates, they were made into "public land" meaning their private property was confiscated.

The pirates had a brief respite during Rome's third war with Mithridates, becoming so powerful and bold that they even went so far as to attack the coast of Italy, demonstrating their contempt for the Romans.

By 69 BC piracy had brought commerce over the whole of the Mediterranean to a virtual stand-still and controlled an estimated 400 coastal towns and cities.  Wheat from Egypt was the principal item being traded by sea (in large, easily-attacked ships) and Egypt was the "bread basket" of the Roman Empire.  Without this wheat, Rome could not feed her herself or her subject populations. 

Cnaeus PompeyFinally, facing near famine conditions and provoked by the capture of two Roman praetors, the Senate commissioned Roman general Cnaeus Pompey to wipe out the pirates.  He was given extraordinary powers to fight against the pirates as well as 120,000 troops, 4,000 cavalry, 6000 talents of money and 270 ships to do so.  The immediate effect was the return of the price in wheat in Rome to normal levels for Pompey was expected to finish the pirates' activities.  He did.  Pompey's campaign was a huge success and he later claimed that he had liberated the western Mediterranean in only forty days (this is probably true as most of the pirates had returned to the east).  Under Pompey's command, Metellus Nepos cleared the pirates out of Lycia, Pamphylia, Cyprus, and Phoenicia.

Next, Pompey followed the pirates east to Cilicia proper.  He defeated the pirates near their capital Coracesium and after three months was in total control.  The pirates' captives were returned to their homes and the pirate leaders executed. Pompey reorganized the surviving pirates into productive Roman subjects. He established inland towns in the areas of Malla, Adana, Epiphaneia, and Dyme, with fertile land for farming and the former pirates soon abandoned their old ways. This merciful act made Pompey the patron of a large area of Asia Minor.  He returned to Rome a hero but met an unfortunate end when, at war with Julius Caesar, he fled to Egypt in 48 BC and was murdered.

Plutarch, the Roman historian, tells us in The Life of Pompey that the Romans became aquainted with Mithraism from the Cilician pirates along the southwest coast of Anatolia.  In this passage he speaks of their activities at the pirate-overrun city of Olympos:  'They themselves offered strange sacrifices upon Mount Olympus, and performed certain secret rites or religious mysteries, among which those of Mithras have been preserved to our own time having received their previous institution from them.'  The pirates conducted communal worship of Mithras, whose cult was an exclusive one.  It is possible that the pirates introduced the Mithraic mysteries into Italy after their defeat and the subsequent transportation of some of them there.  In the middle of the second century AD the historian Appian adds that the pirates came to know of the mysteries from the troops who were left behind by the defeated army of Mithridates Eupator. It is well established that all kinds of Eastern races were represented in that army (Mithraism origniated in Persia).

Aside from Phaselis and Olympos, the Lycians seem to have refrained from participating in piracy during the time of the Cilician pirate attacks.  According to Strabo they "conducted themselves in a civilized and decent manner even as the Pamphylians seized control of the seas as far as Italy."  He adds that they were “unmoved by the opportunities for disreputable profits, the Lycians remained within the ancestral boundaries of their league." 

But were Lycians always so law-abiding? It seems perhaps not. Earlier in history, following the Syrian War in 190 BC, victorious Rome generously granted the request of their Rhodian allies for control of the nearby regions of Lycia and Caria.  It has been suggested by the historian Rob S. Rice that this request was not made with a desire for revenue but rather to control the piracy originating from these regions that Rhodes had been fighting against for centuries.  With Seleucid control gone from Lycia and Caria, areas already notoriously rife with piracy, the Rhodians anticipated a greater increase in lawlessness and sought to contain the pirates to their lands.  This resulted in a time of great unhappiness for the Lycians, for Rhodes treated Lycia very harshly and made great tax demands upon it in order to set up outposts in Lycia and Caria manned by mercenaries against pirates.  This was exacerbated by a large misunderstanding in which the Lycians first believed that they were to be allies with Rhodes, friends rather than subjects.  The harsh reaction of Rhodes caused the Lycians to revolt and to plead with Rome for help, complaining of Rhodian cruelty.  Both sides sent embassy after embassy to Rome and Lycia spent the next two decades fiercely fighting the Rhodesians and petitioning the Roman Senate.  Finally, Rome, wearied of the trouble and baffled that Rhodes was not able to control Lycia through such means as Rome's own "friends and allies" system (something impossible for the small island republic), eventually soured towards Rhodes and granted semi-self rule to Lycia in 167 BC.

After the clean-up of the Cilician pirates, piracy was again relegated to a nuisance, although it continued to exist at a low level for the rest of Roman history.  After the decline of Rome, the Bzyantine Empire remained a force of maritime law until its capitol, Constantinople, was sacked by Christian crusaders in 1204 AD.  The Eastern Orthodox Byzantines were eventually able to take back control of their land, but never the sea.  From this point on, pirates were once again able to prey upon trade routes in the Mediterranean and out of need, many former Byzantine naval sailors became pirates themselves. 

Knights of Rhodes fortress overlooking FethiyeSoon a new problem was to enter the waters around Lycia.  When the Crusades ended, the Order of the Hospitallers remained in the east and dreamed of launching new Crusades from their newly aquired headquarters on the island of Rhodes.  These Knights of Rhodes built a powerful fleet and entered a continual economic war with the Turks but often degenerated to piracy. Their military operations expanded fast and they set up many outposts along the Aegean and Mediterranean coast.  Some of these outposts are in Lycian region.  They took the nearby island of Castellorizo (Meis) opposite today's Kaş and built a great castle upon it and a fortress was built on Sovalye "Knight's Island" in the bay of Termessos (now Fethiye, where another of what is believed to be one of their fortresses sits perched above the town overlooking the bay - see photo at right) from where it controlled the town.  The island of Kaleköy at Kekova-Simena is also topped by a castle of the Knights of Rhodes.  Though their motives may have been chivalrous, the Knight's activities were seen by unfortunate Turks and Anatolian Greeks as no better than piracy.  Many locals along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts followed suit and Castle of the Knights of Rhodes, Kaleköybegan attacking Christian ships for honor, religion and profits.  Soon these new pirates had created a force equal in strength to that of the Knights and were called upon by Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent to expel the Knights first from Bodrum and then from all of their Aegean possessions in the 1520's. In 1522 the Knights were ousted from Rhodes by the Turks; they then moved on to Malta which they turned into a slave trade center that lasted well into the 18th century.

By about the end of the 8th century AD, former cities of Lycia had been pretty much finished off by natural disasters and Arab raids.  Most coastal towns had been very much reduced in size as people fled from the threat of piracy.  Some towns still hung on, such as Patara, though it was a mere village next to the harbor by that time and protected by high walls. The area of former Lycia lay almost uninhabited for hundreds of years until it was settled by a small number of Turks in the 13th century.  However, they too kept away from the coast and settled in the high plateaus, leaving the coast to pirates where they had semi-permanent settlements.  In fact, it was not until the presence of the British Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries that the Lycian coast was finally cleared of piracy for good.