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Depiction of Piracy in Literature

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In modern times the word pirate has a glorified image due to Disney and a negative connotation but piracy has not always been looked down upon. Piracy is defined as “attacking ships at sea without legal permission to do so”(Lecture 8/21). Piracy has affected nearly every ocean-exploring nation in the world for thousands of years. Throughout the ancient and medieval times ‘piracy’ has had different definitions for every civilization that has dealt with the concept; the Greek and Roman Empires did not initially see piracy as a bad thing until it hurt their financial interests and lead to the end of the Roman Empire and Viking takeover. Piracy was a common practice in Greece. Amongst the Dark Ages the term piracy was not yet defined but there were “pirate-like activities occurring such as coastal raiding” (Lecture 9/6). The first major Greek pirates were the Dorian Pirates. The Dorians were the first organized acts of Piracy. The Dorians would capture children and women to sell in markets. In Greece, piracy was also found in Homer’s poems.

In Homer’s writing it was often hard to distinguish between warfare and Pirates. The definition of piracy was a gray area and hard to define. Piracy was not looked down upon and was viewed in much the same light as a robbery in Greek culture. Piracy contributed a lot to independent wealth in Greece instead of money in the government. Piracy was convenient and “the common unofficial form of welfare” (Lecture 9/18). The Mediterranean Sea was known for piracy. It was not until around the 4th Century that piracy began to oppose piracy. Piracy began to lead to naval war and eventually both Peloponnesian wars. There was a huge gray area between war and piracy towards the end of the Classical area in Greece and it was very hard to distinguish between the two. Piracy did stick around in Greece, however, it was a confusing cloud between warfare and piracy. The Romans used piracy as an excuse to expand their empire and take other civilizations over. They looked down upon piracy, however they used pirate-like tactics for their own gain. When the Roman perspective of piracy is contrasted with the Greek view, there are clear distinctions. For the Greeks, maritime piracy was predominantly another form of work that was not substantially different from any other form of robbery or trading. In Rome piracy came to be viewed as clearly distinct from banditry on land.

As maritime pirates became the only remaining threat to Rome’s trade, pirates were classified as and treated as enemies. Pirates, specifically the Cicilian pirates were a clear threat to the interests of Rome’s expansion. Rome raided and took over civilizations in order to expand their empire. Many Romans campaigned against some “enemies were presented as the suppression of piracy because that suited contemporary political needs” at the time (de Souza 2). Romans attacked pirates in hopes of dominating the sea. Piracy was a way for the Roman government to justify their tactics. De Souza writes that the “key point is to look beyond the familiar images conjured up by the terms ‘pirate’ and ‘piracy’ to see the pejorative labels applied by politicians and historical writers to delegitimize opponents of Roman imperialism” (De Souza). Piracy became a word to label criminals, but the tactics were used for years in the Roman Empire to expand and take over. However, as time went on piracy was the reason the Roman Empire fell. The barbarians took control with their own pirate tactics turned out to be the main cause of the fall. Pirates contributed to the downfall because the “Romans were embroiled in civil wars at the gates of Rome, the sea was left unguarded, and gradually drew and enticed them on until they no longer attacked navigators” (Plutarch). Throughout the Roman Empire the term piracy is used as an excuse to expand and is used differently than in Greece. The Viking takeover blurred the lines between piracy and vikings. Viking is a verb that means raiding.

In the beginning of viking times a viking was a pirate but just from Scandinavian culture. While money and goods were the main reason people choose to become vikings, “social class differences dictated reasons as to why scandinavians became vikings” (Lecture 9/27). There were three major phases of Viking raids. Phase one was pirate like raids. In phase two Vikings moved on and bigger fleets emerged due to civil wars in Frankish Kingdoms (Lecture 9/27). Viking raids and wars are intense and often times it is hard to know “whether death or glory will come first” (Svein). Phase three blurred the line between piracy or vikings and colonization, due to many vikings settling down and raiding an area for long periods of time. The Vikings invaded England and this not only “blurred the lines of piracy, but also had major political ramifications” (Lecture 10/2). Vikings early goal was piracy not colonization. Slowly Vikings started settling down and they had many territorial goals. King Alfred of Wessex battled with Vikings in hopes of defeating them. He uses “fortified villages called buhrs to defend vikings” (Lecture 10/2). He was not able to totally wipe out Vikings but he proved vikings were vulnerable and able to be defeated.

The word ‘piracy’ turned into the term viking during this era and blurred the definition even more due to the vikings colonization. The term piracy has always had the same definition but is used differently throughout different empires. Roman and Greek people relied heavily on piracy in order to survive and piracy was not looked down upon until the Romans and Greeks stopped receiving personal gains. In ancient times piracy has a huge gray area surrounding it. Sometimes they were seen as bandits unless the bounty helped their cause or the pirates helped the peron in power. Other times, pirates were seen as enemies of the state as their methods were hurting trade within and out of a particular empire. Piracy has been difficult for history to pin down as a term partly do to the fact that how people or governments or empires felt about pirates depended on the side the pirates were on at that time. If you were receiving the benefits of the pirates tactics through wealth or power your view might be positive. On the other hand, if your ships and goods were being raided and plundered or ransomed your view on piracy would be less than favorable.

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Depiction Of Piracy In Literature. (2020, July 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from
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