Pirates once swashbuckled across the ancient Mediterranean

Thousands of years before Blackbeard, these buccaneers raided ships, stole booty—and even kidnapped a young Julius Caesar.

Merchant ships, such as that on the left of this sixth-century B.C. Greek bowl, were targets of pirates in antiquity. Naval warships, such as the one on the right, were periodically deployed to quash piracy. British Museum, London
BRITISH MUSEUM/RMN-GRAND PALAIS

Every child knows what a pirate looks like: a swashbuckler with an eye patch and a parrot perching on his sholder. This perception of pirates and piracy, which still deeply influences modern culture, was shaped by authors writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

These highly fanciful notions were inspired by the privateers and buccaneers of the “golden age” of piracy, which lasted roughly between 1650 and 1730. But pirates and piracy are much older than this era, and maritime banditry has been around for nearly as long as seafaring itself.

The origins of the modern term “piracy” can be traced back to the ancient Greek word peiráomai, meaning attempt (i.e., “attempt to steal”). Gradually this term morphed into a similar sounding term in Greek meaning “brigand,” and from that to the Latin term pirata.

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