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Julius Caesar and the Cilician Pirates

The emblem of the Roman Republic.

The emblem of the Roman Republic.

Gaius Julius Caesar of the Roman Republic

When Julius Caesar is mentioned, thoughts of "Beware the ides of March," "Et tu, Brutus" and his liaison with Cleopatra might spring to mind. However, there was an odd event when he was in his twenties that he probably hoped would be conveniently forgotten, and yet it's too tempting not to record it for new eyes to read.

Gaius Julius Caesar of the Julia gens or dynasty was born on the 12th July 100 B.C. in Rome to his father of the same name and mother Aurelia. He could trace his lineage back to the goddess Venus and was an Alban.

Albans were a community that had settled in the ancient Alba Longa, a Latin city to the southeast of Rome before their arrival in Rome itself. The Julia gens held patrician status and were deemed important enough to the Roman Republic that they enjoyed privileges and powers over the rest of the population. Aged 16, Julius Caesar became the head of the family when his father died.

The Roman Republic in 44B.C. the year of Julius Caesar's assassination.

The Roman Republic in 44B.C. the year of Julius Caesar's assassination.

Caesar Kidnapped by Cilician Pirates

When a 25-year-old Julius Caesar, a few friends and servants set sail to the island of Rhodes so that he could study, little did any of the party realise that Caesar would be kidnapped. Although they would have known about the bloodthirsty Cilician pirates who patrolled the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, no one was sufficiently deterred from making the journey.

The Cilician pirates decided to ransom him for 20 talents. A talent was the heaviest ancient unit of weight and in Rome—it was 32.3kg and in Attica (Greece) one talent of silver had a weight of 26kg. By either measurement, mighty Caesar was not impressed. He told them that they obviously didn't know how great the man they'd kidnapped was and he instructed his captors to demand 50 talents.

The biographer Plutarch (120-46 BC) wrote of the incident and recorded that Caesar even offered to pay the 50 talents himself. Gaius Julius Caesar claimed to be worth far more than 20 talents and the pirates were happy to believe him.

Julius Caesar's Bust at the British Museum, London.

Julius Caesar's Bust at the British Museum, London.

Caesar Was an Annoying Hostage

Any hopes that Julius Caesar would be compliant were dashed as the hostage took control of the situation. According to him, he was the superior man, and he refused to be commanded. He issued orders to the pirates including that they must be silent when he wished to sleep and he joined in the games they played although uninvited.

To the pirates' consternation, they were given readings of the speeches and poems that he worked on in captivity. When they offered their less than favourable opinions of Julius Caesar's musings he denounced them as too ill-bred and savage to understand. He lamented that they were incapable of appreciating his work. Of course, it couldn't possibly have been that he was boring or annoying them to distraction!

A Roman Republic coin depicting Julius Caesar on the front and his ancestor the goddess Venus on the reverse.

A Roman Republic coin depicting Julius Caesar on the front and his ancestor the goddess Venus on the reverse.

Mighty Caesar's Revenge

Julius Caesar apparently joked with his captors that when he was finally released he would gather a fleet of ships, find the guilty and have them killed for kidnapping him. Plutarch claimed that everyone found his joke funny because at this time the Roman Republic did not halt or punish the Cilician pirates' activities because they operated the slave trade which provided the Roman powers with useful servants.

After thirty-eight days spent not enjoying the hospitality of the pirates any more than they did his company, the ransom of 50 talents arrived from Miletus. The transaction complete, Julius Caesar was free to continue with his study plans.

He decided that a far more satisfactory course of action was to make his joke of execution a reality in a rare punishment for pirates. He drew together sailors and troops for a naval attack on Rhodes to remind his captors that he was the powerful Julius Caesar and they were mere ruffians.

The pirates were still on Rhodes when Caesar returned. He seized their money and treasures and they were arrested and imprisoned in Pergamon (modern-day Bergama, Turkey) but the governor was reluctant to carry out the executions. Caesar took the matter into his own hands and had each one crucified alive after their throats were slit.

Bust of the biographer Plutarch in Chaeronea.

Bust of the biographer Plutarch in Chaeronea.

Et Tu, Brutus?

His rise to power followed countless military victories and his adventure with the pirates was probably tactfully forgotten. However, the historians and writers of the day could not fully surrender their memory of the 75 BC kidnapping which is why we know about it today.

Julius Caesar married three times, had two legitimate children and probably another three by his mistresses, the most famous being Cleopatra.

in 49 BC he defeated his rival and former ally in the political body the First Triumvirate, Pompey the Great. This same year he crossed the Rubicon river, hence the saying, to invade Rome against his senate's guidance.

His senators did not appreciate his defiance and a four-year-long civil war ensued. During his years as ruler, the Julian Calendar was created and his social and land ownership reforms were received positively by the public but they angered the important families and senators of the empire. Although the war ended in 45B.C. with a victory for Caesar his euphoria was short-lived. He was assassinated on the 15th March (the Ides of March) 44B.C. by disaffected senators.

He was better able to combat bloodthirsty pirates than his own senators.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Joanne Hayle