I have recently waded into the murky waters of the history of piracy in the Greco-Roman world. As a participant in a graduate seminar here at Berkeley on ancient Greek economic history, I prepared a presentation on a dossier of Greek inscriptions to do with attacks by sea and on the seas, and to do with local efforts to recoup losses, secure captives, and honor the benefactors who bailed the victims out in their time of need. All this amidst the first direct confrontation between the US military and Somali pirates, and more prolific bloggers weighing in on possible connections between the ancient Mediterranean and the contemporary Gulf of Aden.
It is often said that one man's pirate is another man's...well, you get the idea. There is quite a debate in ancient history about whether piracy should be understood as just another form of economic activity. The Greeks of "Homeric Society," at least were somewhat ambivalent; as Nestor asks Telemachus in the third book of the Odyssey, "Are you a pirate (leistês) or a trader?" And, as Thucydides later noticed, Nestor was basically fine with the visitor being either. The term peiratês, when it appears in the Hellenistic period, is certainly one of abuse. No one self-identifies in our sources as one. Some then would argue that what distinguishes "piracy," which fed into markets for slaves and produced new ones for "protection," from any other normal, albeit violent, economic activity, was merely its lack of a state-issued grant of legitimacy, unlike Sir Walter Raleigh with his "letters of marque," or national armies when they engage in plunder under the cover of their uniforms.
That isn't my position, but it got me thinking: what if the pirate draws his legitimacy -- and more than enough, at that -- from his immediate societal context? That the reaction of the Somali pirates to the ultimately lethal Navy Seal operation was to retaliate against non-US vessels, one Lebanese, I believe, was another hint that these people are playing by different rules. In other words, they have their own sources of legitimacy.
This is certainly one of the lessons to draw from this BBC interview with an active pirate, twenty-five years old and living in "the notorious den of Harardhere in central Somalia." Somehow, I don't think this is an unedited transcript.
"So it is no surprise to see us in the same water [as migrants], pirating in search of money - there is no difference. We have local support; most of the people here depend on pirates directly or indirectly. Because if there is a lot of money in the town they can get some through friendship, relatives or business. Also our work is seen by many in the coastal villages as legal and we are viewed as heroes."Speaking of the economics of piracy, how about the significant Israeli presence in the security industry for both cruise and commercial ships in the region? Yet another high-value, specialized security export. On Saturday, a private Israeli security detail beat back pirates from a large German-Italian cruise ship. As it turns out, the Defense Ministry doesn't keep any statistics on the numbers of ex-IDF, many of them with specialized nautical training, working in that sector, though they do for arms dealing. It seems kind of unwise to me. Could we see a situation in the near future where an Israeli national gets more involved out there than the government would prefer?