In Spartacus by Barry Strauss7 Comments

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.

Barry StraussPirates


  1. Sean S.

    Pirate stories are great! Did you and your wife sail around in the Indian Ocean on that liner?
    I think it’s amazing that despite superior naval ships from various countries across the world’s oceans pirates still roam in certain areas. The pirate tactics are still very similar if not the same from 2000 to 500 years ago. When I spoke to you in KC I said I wanted to write historical fiction. My first work likely will be from the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean, since I’ve devoted years of study to that time period so far. I loved the Spartacus pirate story, Jack Sparrow, Blackbeard, Jack Rackam, etc. would’ve done the same thing!

  2. Barry Strauss

    @Sean S.
    We sailed on the Adriatic, which is a lot safer than the Indian Ocean.
    Do any of the tactics used by today’s pirates stand out as classic pirate tactics?
    The golden age of piracy in the Caribbean is hard to resist. I looked into the buccaneers a few years ago and found the subject fascinating. I look forward to your book one of these days.

  3. Sean S.

    It seems that as a rule a pirate vessel is usually a small, low draft ship, which is extremely fast. From what I understand, the African Pirates prefer very small and very fast motor boats. The low draft making shallow water easily navigable, thereby making it easy to hide from big war ships that cannot negotiate small inlets. From the classical world, the galley type ships are perfect, even later Viking ships too. Up through the golden age when the sloop was still small enough to accommodate speed and maneuverability, as well as a few big cannons. They run their ship next to the prey and board. A common misconception is that they blow the ship up first. Not true, they keep the value of the ship and goods by not blowing it up. It’s more lucrative that way.

    Pirates as a rule: Strike fast, intimidate their victims (usually with a show of force, hoisting the Jolly Roger, cannon shots, or gun shots in this case) take all goods of value on board the ship, and ransom back the vessel, cargo, or crew. From early Mediterranean corsairs to East African pirates it seems the same thing is still happening.

  4. Barry Strauss

    @Sean S.
    Good points, Sean, about low-draft ships, the advantage of taking the enemy’s vessel intact, the impact of speed, the usefulness of intimidation, and the value of ransom. You’ve written the pirates’ manual!

  5. Bill Hyland

    In following, albeit sporadically, the cable tv coverage of this new wave of pirate interest, I have not heard anyone mention the US campaign against the north African bases of the “Barbary Pirates” in the early 19th century. That would be fascinating and relevant to know more about.

  6. Barry Strauss

    @Bill Hyland
    The US campaign against the Barbary Pirates is covered briefly in two relatively recent books: one on small wars by Max Boot and another on the history of American involvement in the Middle East by Michael Oren. I’m sure that there are other books on the subject as well.

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