Posted by Barry Strauss on April 13, 2009

The reality of the Somali pirates hit home in much of America this past week with the kidnapping and release of an American merchant ship captain. Seizure on the high seas, Navy Seals – this was the real thing.

But it had already hit home to me last year, when Somali pirates seized the French cruise ship, Le Ponant. My wife and I had sailed on that very ship, as guest lecturers, in 2006. “Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum” now seemed all too real.

And then, there is Spartacus. In his journey up and down Italy, he learned what it meant to negotiate with pirates. At the time, pirates used a corner of Sicily as their base. Knowing their common hatred of Rome, Spartacus hoped to employ the pirates to ferry his men, or at least an advance party of them, across the Strait of Messina from Italy to Sicily. The pirates gladly agreed, took a deposit from the rebel slaves, and ran away. They left Spartacus and his men stranded in Italy. Either the pirates’ fear of Rome had trumped their hatred or the pirates were simply being piratical.

The drama hardly ended there for the Romans. It took a major military effort several years later to wipe out the pirates in their main bases in the Eastern Mediterranean, and another effort, thirty years after that, to get them out of Sicily at last.

The New York Times cites a report that in 2009 a dozen ships with 200 crew members are being held for ransom. Pirates have promised revenge on American and French ships and sailors. One thing is for sure: we will hear more of the pirates.