is difficult to establish the origin of piracy or when men first began their
piratical activities; the evidence is lost in the depths of history. But it is
reasonable to suppose that piracy is a part of man's nature. He has always had
the urge to "grab", especially when he was still living in a
primitive state. It is also difficult, in those far-off times, to distinguish
piracy from organized sea raiding for the purpose of conquest.
From the earliest times the Aegean has known the activities and horrors of
piracy. Indeed, at various times pirates were in control of it and became
"a state within a state". Ancient Greek Mythology often mentions
pirates and their operations, showing that piracy had been a part of life for
the peoples of the Aegean ever since antiquity, and its purpose was more or
less the same as in the centuries that followed, namely pillaging and the
profits from booty and ransom. One such myth relates how Tyrrhenian pirates
once seized Dionysus, taking him for the son of a wealthy man. Then the god,
to amuse himself, changed them into dolphins, which immediately leapt into the
sea and he, seated in the middle of the ship, continued to steer it with his
divine power alone.
Ancient authors, too, make frequent reference to piracy and pirates.
Thucydides, writing about the first inhabitants of Greece, says that piracy
was the work of the Carians and Phoenicians. He also says that the pirates
were not ashamed of their work but thought that it brought them glory ουκ
έχοντος πω αίσχύνην τούτου του έργου
φέροντος δέ τι καί δόξης μάλλον, which means:
"this work having no shame at all but rather bringing glory". From
other ancient texts we also learn that in 475 BC Kimon drove the pirates out
of Skyros, which they had made a base for their operations, and cleared them
out of the Aegean.
Again in the Roman period it is recorded that Pompey dealt decisively with the
pirates by dividing the empire into a number of sections and appointing a
responsible official to each of them.
In the Byzantine period, however, and later during the Turkish domination,
piracy continued to exist and harass to a serious degree the Aegean waters.
Many of the islands became pirates' lairs. Pirate raids alternated with the
warlike incursions of the Vandals, Arabs, Venetians, Franks and Turks. The
"profession" of piracy was considered so honourable and profitable
that it was passed on from father to son by inheritance; it is said that the
word leventes (brave, handsome fellow) came from "levante", which
signified at the time a fearless pirate of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, piracy was not the "privileged profession" of the
Eastern and North African people, but also of the Westerners. The pirates of
the West, indeed, were given titles of nobility in recognition of the great
benefits their "services" brought to their monarchs.
Piracy was also directly connected with the slave trade, which greatly
flourished at that time, because the pirates made a lot of money by selling
the people they captured, or holding many of them for ransom. From the 11th to
the beginning of the l9th c. the markets of the East were full of slaves for
sale. These were the "slave bazaars" that have been described in the
blackest colours in many books of the period. The sufferings of the
inhabitants of the coastal towns and particularly of the Aegean islands at the
hands of pirates of every race and origin can hardly be described.
In 1528 Ios was devastated by 14 Moslem pirate gallipots. In 1537 the
well-known and terrible pirate, Khairedin Barbarossa, slaughtered all the men
on Aegina and took 6000 women and children into slavery. Samos remained
deserted for some hundred years because of the pirates. In 1570 the Algerian
archi-pirate Kemal Reis (who later became Kapudan Pasha under the name of
Kilitz Aslan) stripped the islands of Kythera, Skiathos and Skopelos of every
After the devastation and depopulation of these and many other islands in the
Aegean the pirates made them into pirates' haunts. In the l6th c. Salamis
became a nest of pirates and brigands. Corsairs established themselves on Ios.
On Melos and Rhodes the slave trade flourished.
In the Aegean at this period the pirates became "a state within a
state". They had their own laws, their own "ensigns", and each
one had his own territory, over which he wielded complete control, even
exercising "protective" authority in many cases.
The ordinary people had many names for pirates. They called them spantitoi,
from bantito; leventes, from Levante; ververinoi or barbaresoi, from Barbary
(which was the overall name given to the three Turkish possessions in North
Africa: Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, after the name of their chieftain, the
terrible Barbarossa, which means "Red-Beard"), and algerinoi, from
Algiers. The word "corsair" (koursaros) originally meant privateer,
but soon came to signify pirate, so that when people wanted to refer to a
legitimate privateer, they added the word publikos before koursaros.
The pirate ships (usually fast and manoeuvrable, like galleys, galleasses and
later, feluccas, foustas, alamanes, mystics, xebecs, brigantines, and brigs)
intercepted unarmed vessels and seized them, usually without striking a blow.
When, however, the ships were armed, the pirates employed some ruse to take
them by surprise and, after a fierce battle, made a risalto (they boarded the
other ship) and took it by tracollο (hand-to-hand fighting).
Apart from pirate attacks on ships there were also pirate raids on coastal
towns, which is why the Greek coasts of the Aegean are full of ruined castles
and towers built by the local rulers for their protection.
The intensification of piracy in the Aegean forced the Greek island
shipmasters and sailors to gradually begin (particularly during the
Russo-Turkish wars, 1770- 1807) arming their ships with cannon, and to learn
to repel pirate attacks. Many of them turned pirates themselves. Maritime
trade in the Aegean was paralysed by piracy, although the pirates themselves
kept it going in their own fashion and, naturally, for their own profit. This,
in addition to a mounting general fury over the dreadful sufferings inflicted
by the pirates on the inhabitants of the Aegean, resulted in a more serious
and organized approach to the problem. As a consequence in 1803 the Hydriots
made available permanent armed anti-pirate galleots and tratas, the cost of
whose maintenance was shared with the other mercantile islands of the Aegean
on a proportional basis. Many notorious pirates and pirate collaborators were
captured at this time and harshly punished to set an example. But the Aegean
pirates did not readily give up their "profession" and
"posts", and so the pursuit of the pirates and the slaughters and
reprisals (vendettas) continued.
In the following years piratical activity in the Aegean underwent various
fluctuations. There was a fresh upsurge after the new Russo-Turkish war (1806)
and the Treaty of Tilsit (1807), because many of the Greeks who had aided the
Russian admiral Seniavin in the war, afterwards turned into pirates in order
to escape the brutal Turkish reprisals. They became, in other words, kinds of
"resistance fighters" on the sea.
Nevertheless, in spite of the lack of order, the situation had one positive
consequence: the Greeks gradually became experts at repelling pirate attacks,
as well as famed privateers and specialists in blockade-running, to such a
degree, indeed, that foreign powers employed them as mercenaries in their
wars. Thus the outbreak of the War of Independence found the Greeks of the
Aegean prepared for battle and strong, ready to give their all for the success
of the revolution against the Turkish yoke. With all the experience they had
acquired from living for years under the incessant threat of piratical
attacks, the Greek islanders and sailors succeeded in making real history by
their brilliant achievements in the Aegean throughout the War of Independence.
Some pirates continued their activities even after the Revolution of 1821. In
his "Historical Memoirs of the Greek Revolution" (pub.1878) the then
Minister of Justice and later Eparch of the Cyclades, Constantine Metaxas, in
his chapter "Pursuit of Piracy 1826", recounts the following:
"Ι began cruising around the islands of the Aegean Sea on a naval
schooner ( ... ) Many pirates gathered on the deserted island of Yioura and
held a council, as a result of which they addressed a letter to me in which
they asked why Ι was pursuing them, when they, by their piracy, would be able
to force the European nations to recognise our independence and bring the war
to an end; they, although they were doing this good for the country, found
their own expenses and those of many others; consequently, instead of pursuing
them Ι should come to an agreement with them, and they were ready to show
clear proof of their obligation to me by promising me a rich recompense. This
letter bore many signatures, amongst them (...) that of the Mykonian
Mermelechas (...) After this, learning that the terrible Mermelechas was at
Amorgos with two pirate ships and 35 pirates, Ι sailed by night to that
island ( ... ) and took prisoner sixteen pirates (...) and another eight
pirates with this Mermelechas a captive (...) Thus in the space of two months
the leaders of the pirates were arrested and most of their followers, and
their pirate ships were destroyed by fire opposite the town of Syros".
The terrible pirate Mermelechas died in 1854 and his gravestone can still be
seen on Mykonos at the church of "Agia Sotira tou Kastrou".
Mermelechas had nonetheless succeeded in establishing reputation with the
populace as the protector of the weak, as is apparent from the jingle that
circulated in the Aegean from mouth to mouth at the time:
"Have a care for me, have a care for me, Mermelechas with the beard"
The general conclusion from the above, is that from earliest times piracy has
played an important role in the development of the merchant marine in the
Aegean. We might indeed say that it created the preconditions and stimuli for
Aegean seafarers to acquire added experience and knowledge, which they
employed in both war and peace (sea-trade, fishing, sea communications):
They learned to build and handle with great skill fast, manoeuvrable ships
(effect on shipbuilding).
They learned to effectively combat pirate attacks and every other kind of
hostile assault, as well as to make successful attacks them selves, showing
exceptional agility and skill (a kind of battle training for the Aegean
They learned to take advantage of the fickle Aegean weather and generally they
increased their nautical capabilities and knowledge. This is why they early on
became unbeatable at manoeuvring on the sea.
At the same time their own character was being forged, a character compounded
of obstinacy, patience, great endurance, accurate judgement of circumstances
and courage. They were thus able to confront coolly and effectively every sort
of danger, whether from foe or foul weather, in times of peace or in times of
The experience and knowledge gained by the Aegean inhabitants in the long
fight against piracy was always employed with great success. In the course of
centuries there was gradually created what might be called "nautical
genius", (naftiko demonio) which, together with an inherent
"sailorliness" and an almost instinctive bond with the liquid
element that surrounds him, are the chief characteristics of the Aegean