Piracy in Ancient Times?

I was thinking of piracy as a possible mid-level campaign activity, and I realized everything I “know” about piracy begins with the Age of Piracy and Hollywood’s depiction of it.

A quick search of Wikipedia confirms the existence of ancient piracy:


One quote of significance to ACKS:

Plutarch (46–120 AD) writes that piracy had become not just an occupation of poor desperate men, forced into it by necessity, but rather a glorious expedition taken on by those already of high status, seeking further advancement:

And presently men whose wealth gave them power, and whose lineage was illustrious, and those who laid claim to superior intelligence, began to embark on piratical craft and share their enterprises, feeling that the occupation brought them a certain reputation and distinction.

However, there’s little about the actual methods of piracy. Rocky shores, presumably enabling the hiding of a ship, are mentioned as terrain favorable to piracy.

How does piracy work without cannon to shoot across the bow, or destroy sails? How do merchants defend themselves, if at all? How do authorities hunt pirates, if at all?

I am most interested in information or sources on piracy in ancient times.

Of course, if we consider mages to be like cannon, then presumably greedy or pliable mages are in extremely high demand by pirate captains and crews.

I preface this by saying that I have absolutely no source of historical or reliable knowledge on this subject.

However, I can make some guesses about things that might have worked.

Basically, for piracy, your goal is to board the enemy ship without destroying it, so you have the option to steal the ship as well as all of their stuff.

If your ship is faster than theirs, you can simply pull up aside it and use grappling hooks to attach the two; it’d be basically a siege on the water.

If not, you can use fire arrows to try to burn their sails.

You could also equip your ship with a ram and ram them.

Greek fire projectors supposedly had a range sufficient to work on other ships (I don’t remember the details, but I remember this was a thing in AD&D 2E). Catapults could fire Greek fire grenades as well.

Catapults and ballista, of course, can fire weaponry at a long effective range and can disable ships.

So overall, my conclusion is that it works basically exactly like the Age of Piracy, except with different weaponry instead of cannons; possibly less effective weapons, but the ships are probably less sturdy too, so it kind of balances out.

My understanding was that most ancient naval combat was undertaken via ramming, grappling, and boarding, with deck-mounted siege weapons being fairly unusual. I would therefore expect most of the game to be in the chase; attack from upwind, have more rowers, and so forth, then platoon-scale combat as usual once you’ve caught them.

“When I had set sail from there, the wind took me first to Ismaros, which is the city of the Kikones. There I sacked the town and put the people to the sword. We took their wives and also much booty, which we divided equitably amongst us, so that none might have reason to complain.” - The Odyssey, Book 9.

“For in early times the Hellenes and the barbarians of the coast and islands, as communication by sea became more common, were tempted to turn pirates, under the conduct of their most powerful men…And even at the present day many parts of Hellas still follow the old fashion, the Ozolian Locrians for instance, the Aetolians, the Acarnanians, and that region of the continent; and the custom of carrying arms is still kept up among these continentals, from the old piratical habits.” - Thucydides I.5

Artillery was incredibly rare aboard ship for much of the ancient period. The first use was in 398 BCE, by the Syracusans (fighting against Carthage). Stone-throwing artillery is attested to in precisely two battles - Cyprian Salamis in 306 BCE and Actium in 31 BCE. Bolt-throwers were more commonly referred to, likely because they were much lighter. A 3-span oxybeles (a machine firing a 27" bolt) weighed around 110 pounds, while a 5-mina stone-thrower (slightly less than 5 pounds - about 4 pounds, 13 ounces) weighed around 2 tons. Marsden estimated that the maximum a quinquereme (a “five”) could carry would be ten 3-span oxybeles, two 5-mina stone-throwers, and forty soldiers. Small merchants wouldn’t carry artillery at all (the giant Roman grain ships, like Isis, did carry artillery). Pirates would focus on boarding, since artillery was expensive, and either ramming or shooting would run the risk of sinking the prize. The preferred ships were called hemiolias, which only had a second rower in the middle of the ship, so the bow and stern could be narrower and lighter, making the ship faster.

To echo The Dark, as long as men have been able to gather together and set to sea, there’s been piracy in the Mediterranean.

Some of the earliest examples of galleys (not long after the ancient Egyptians) were designed for a group of oarsman-marines to be able to get to another ship fast, empty the benches, picking up weapons and shields as they went, then board. The dreaded Sea People who are written about in the time of the so-called Bronze Age collapse were often drawn travelling in pentekonter-style galleys, one bank of 25 oars on each side, totalling 50-odd men who would both row and fight.

It was only with the later, bigger galleys that there tended to be a specialisation of labour with lots of oarsmen and only a handful of marines. What this did was make ships much faster and more enduring under oars. Contrary to Hollywood myth, most oarsmen were not slaves (where do you keep them at night?), but professionals or mercenaries. In the sole case of Athens, they were citizens performing military service to their city.

Worth noting that generally an oared ship, particularly over a sprinting distance, is faster and more maneuverable than a sailing ship. Especially before the invention of the lateen sail.

The aforementioned Aetolians and Arcanarnians were notorious pirates, but any vessel in the water might turn it’s hand to a little opportunistic piracy if presented with the chance. The Phoenicians, acknowledged as master sailors, weren’t averse to doing so either.

It’s worth remembering that captives taken during pirate raids was one of the major sources of slaves for the slave markets in antiquity. Moreso than defeated warriors taken in warfare or cities having all their inhabitants sold to pay debts, until the late Hellenistic/early Roman era.

In a fight, the mast and sail would be taken down, to avoid it being damaged, and reduce the risk of fire. Firepots being one of the weapons that might be deployed in a ship fight.

As has been said, until late into the Hellenistic era, and even then, artillery wasn’t an important fighting tactic. Ramming and boarding, with the added tactic (mastered by the Rhodians) of shearing. Shearing is where instead of aiming your ram at the enemy ship, you aim at his oars. If he doesn’t get them in fast enough (which is a standard procedure when an enemy closes), he risks having oarsmen killed and maimed by broken oars lashing about inside the rowing deck(s).

Something else that isn’t shared by the Age of Sail: Mediterranean galleys were not totally waterproof, and took on water to become watertight. However, the longer they were in the water, the more waterlogged their boards got, making them heavier, thus slower and less maneuverable. To counter this, at night they were pulled up out of the water to dry out if possible. They weren’t left moored in the water at docks. Because of their shallow draft and light construction, any beach would generally do. Rocky shores would actually be of no use whatsoever, since they’d inhibit your ability to get the ship out of the water.

Ships didn’t stay at sea for days on end, or usually cross the open sea either. Most coasted, staying not far from land. Not just because many cultures didn’t have the navigation skills to chart a course by the stars (though the Phoenicians did), but also because you couldn’t carry enough water and food for several hundred oarsmen for more than a day or two.

Thank you all for your informative responses! Lots of great information.

“Ships didn’t…usually cross the open sea either.”

There’s some discussion about this now, after the discovery of Tanit and Elissa in 1999. They were a pair of 8th century BCE Phoenician merchant ships, discovered in 400 meters of water. They were 33 nautical miles off-shore (38 miles or 61 kilometers), and were likely sailing from Ashkelon, either to Egypt or Carthage. Since there have been so few blue-water searches for vessels, it’s not clear whether Tanit and Elissa were blown far out to sea during the storm and are oddballs, or if we’ve simply found more ships near the coasts because we’ve searched more there.

If there was anyone who would be an exception to the usual assumption that ships avoided blue-water sailing, it would be the Phoenicians.

One more thing, which could seem trivial, but will sort out those who know what they’re talking about from those who don’t. Oared galleys never had more than three banks of oars. Meaning if you look at one side of the ship, and count the oar-ports vertically, there are never more than three of them.

The polyreme naming convention (trireme, quadrireme, quinquireme, etc) does not refer to the number of oars in a file, but the number of oarsmen. You add power and endurance (and reduce the number of skilled oarsmen required) by adding more men per oar. Thus a five isn’t five banks of one oar each, but three banks with the top two comprising two oarsmen each, and one on the bottom bank.

This is how silly-seeming numbers like deceres (“tens”) are possible, lots of men per oar. Only the man on the end actually needs to know what he’s doing and be able to keep to the oarmaster’s time. Talking of whom, the oarmaster kept time with a drum or a stick they’d hit the deck with.

Following on to this, the maximum practical number of men per oar is 8 (more than that is just too hard to coordinate), so the practical limit is 24 rowers per bank of oar, although it was almost always much lower. For piracy, you’re going to see either biremes (“twos”) or hemiolias (“one-and-a-halfs”) in a late Classical period, with pentekonters or triakonters (single-level galleys with 50 or 30 oars) in the early period. The largest naval ship was the tesserakonteres (“forty”). But wait, didn’t I just say 24 was the practical limit? Yep, sure did. But Ptolemy cheated - he built a catamaran that was a pair of twenties with a deck that went across both hulls. This had been done before (Lysimachos’ Leontophoros was probably a catamaran made with a pair of eights), and it confused the early writers - Leontophoros gets called both an eight and a sixteen in different references, because one counted the files of each hull separately and the other counted them together.

Indeed (I kind of wish there was a “Like” or “I approve of this post” option).

The Dark said: “For piracy, you’re going to see either biremes (“twos”) or hemiolias (“one-and-a-halfs”) in a late Classical period, with pentekonters or triakonters (single-level galleys with 50 or 30 oars) in the early period.”

Thank you for answering the question I was going to ask next!

When I Google for images of hemiolias, pentekonters and triakonters, I get images of very similar ships. I suspected Google might be “helping” me by showing images of biremes no matter what ancient design I look for, but I also found the following from a preview of Osprey’s Warships of the Ancient World 3000-500 BC: “Illustrations depict [triakonters] with the same lines and configuration as other Greek ships, and bearing a similar ram, but with only 15 oars per side.”

So, these ships all look the same, with changes only in dimensions and oar layout?

The triakonter seems to be a perfect size for both piracy and general adventuring. Do you know of any available floorplans for a triakonter, pentekonter or hemiolias?

The pentakonter and triakonter are single-level ships, with 50 oars (25 per side) and 30 oars (15 per side) respectively. A triakonter would have been about 55-60 feet long and 7-8 feet wide, while the pentekonter was closer to 110-125 feet long and only about 10-12 feet wide. These were rather fragile for a sea-going ship, and the early biremes were often triakonters with a second level added, because the pentakonter was really a bit too long.

I’ve seen three different theories for hemiolias. The first is that they were a bireme with a fighting platform in the middle, so that the ends had two levels of rowers, but the middle only had one. The second is that they were a monoreme, but had a second rower on the oars in the middle of the ship, so that it had 5 rows of 1 per oar, 5 rows of 2 per oar, and finally 5 rows of 1 per oar. The third is that it was a monoreme with 3 rowers per 2 oars, alternating (so it may have started with 1 left and 2 right, then 2 left and 1 right, etc). The first is unlikely, since Arrian classed the hemiolia as a triakonter, not a bireme. I lean towards the third theory, since it makes the trihemiolia make more sense.

Likewise, there seem to be three prevailing theories for the trihemiolia. First is that it was a trireme with some rowers removed at the top level. Second is that it had the alternating pattern (1, 2, 1, 2) on two levels, so that it was a bireme with 3 rowers in each vertical level (so it would, for example have 1 rower on the left bottom and 2 on the left top, then alternate). The third is that it used the alternating pattern, but on three levels, so that it was a trireme in the hemiolia style. The second theory seems to be the most popular currently.

I don’t know of any good floorplans, unfortunately. Even within RPGs, the only galley deck plans I remember seeing recently are from Mongoose’s Seas of Blood, and they tend to be rather beamy.

I would just add that while, yes, Mediterranean war galleys were not as seaworthy as high-sided sailing ships, they were fast and maneuverable. And perfect for piracy.

Besides which, outside of the winter, the Mediterranean was much calmer than the Atlantic or other deep oceans.

“Besides which, outside of the winter, the Mediterranean was much calmer than the Atlantic or other deep oceans.”

[shameless plug] I’m working on rules for that! [/shameless plug]

Look to the vikings for examples. They were more focused on using their boats to raid communities that were on the coast and lacking a naval power of their own. You see a similar trend of piracy in 14th century East Asia where pirates were more focused on raiding coastal villages than engaging in naval battles or boarding actions.

Or indeed the Bronze Age Mediterranean galleys which tended to have 30-50 oarsman-marines who raided coastal settlements.

That was the configuration of the “Sea Peoples” reported around the time of the so-called Bronze Age Collapse. There’s artwork of them fighting the Ancient Egyptians, for example.