Today the ancient Greeks are mainly remembered as a highly sophisticated people who lived in prosperous city states inhabited by great philosophers, scientists and artists. This golden age, however, forms only a small part of Greek history and culture. To their contemporaries the Greek were mainly known as fearsome warriors, cunning traders and even pirates. These military and commercial endeavors did eventually pave the way for the blossoming of classical Greek culture. In this post I will highlight the role that archaic Greek pirates, traders and mercenaries played in the ancient world. Credit goes to Nino Luraghi, on whose article Traders, Pirates, Warriors I base much of my information.
The Dark Age (1200-800 BC)
Around 1200 BC the great kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age came tumbling down. The Hittite Empire collapsed, the Mycenaean palaces were destroyed and Egypt barely managed to survive. The trade networks that had existed between these kingdoms fell apart, but other trade networks would soon take their place. The Phoenicians, who had previously been subject to the Egyptians and the Hittites, sailed as far as the Iberian peninsula and the Maghreb and thus gave trade across the Mediterranean a new impulse. Phoenician trade also reinvigorated trade in the Aegean, where previously insignificant regions like Euboea became more prominent. Over the course of centuries long distance trade slowly returned to pre-1200 BC levels and as a result several new world powers arose. Around 800 BC the Phoenicians dominated the Mediterranean trade, the Assyrians had started conquering the Syrian city states and the Greeks were expanding as well, looking for new opportunities and founding new colonies.
Merchants and pirates
The Greek city states were at that time located at the edge of the civilized world. All great kingdoms were located in the Near East, so the Greeks naturally looked eastward for trading opportunities. The first Greeks who actively colonized coasts beyond the Aegean were the Euboeans. They founded colonies in southern Italy and probably also in the Levant. One site in northern Syria, known by the modern name of Al Mina, is characterized by huge quantities of Euboean pottery and other artifacts from the Aegean. Al Mina was a minor settlement that likely served as a trading posts for Greek merchants. In the wake of increased commercial activity followed piracy. Assyrian letters and inscriptions from the 730s and the 710s BC mention frequent raids of the ‘Yauna’, or Ionians, who ‘live in the midst of the sea’, along the Phoenician and Cilician coasts. It is important to note that piracy was not seen as a shameful activity among the archaic Greeks. Carrying out surprise attacks on enemy settlements and carrying off the booty was the most common form of warfare among them. Traveling overseas to raid distant cities was seen as an act of Homeric heroism, whereas traders were viewed as dishonest hagglers who weren’t brave enough to fight for their wealth.
The Ionian pirates soon drew the attention of the Assyrians, who were at that time trying to consolidate their grip on the Mediterranean coast. Sargon II (r. 722-705 BC) is known to have hunted down these pirates ‘like fish’ and his son Sennacherib (r.705-681 BC) probably destroyed more than a few Greek pirate nests on his campaign to Cilicia (696 BC). Some of the pirates that were captured on these campaigns were likely employed as auxiliary troops in the Assyrian army. The battle-hardened Greek soldiers, with their iron armor and hoplite tactics, soon became famous throughout the Near East. In 640 BC Psammetichus employed Ionian and Carian pirates in his struggle to become pharaoh of Egypt. As a reward he allowed these mercenaries and their descendants to found a trade post in the Nile Delta, known as Naucratis. Naucratis was a true enclave of Greek civilization in a sea of Egyptian culture. Around 600 BC Greek mercenaries fought on both sides of the war between Babylonia and Egypt and some of them may even have served in the armies of the kingdom of Judah. Throughout the Levant sites with high quantities of Greek pottery and weaponry have been found dating to this period. These Greek mercenaries were a common sight in the Near East long before Xenophon and his men served in the Persian army.
The Orientalizing Period
Through trade and piracy, but mostly because of their mercenary service, the ancient Greeks were incorporated into the ‘world system’ that was centered on the Near East. The Greeks in Naucratis and Al Mina interacted with Egyptians and Syrians on a daily basis and the mercenaries even experienced life in the Near Eastern kingdoms from the inside. Obviously these Greeks were influenced by the art styles, literature and cultural practices of these people, as has been demonstrated by scholars like Martin West and Walter Burkert. Between 750 and 600 BC oriental influences can clearly be discerned in Greek pottery and poetry dating this period, including the great Homeric epic, reflect Mesopotamian literary classics. Mythological worldviews and proto-scientific insights from Egypt and Mesopotamia also reached the Aegean. The presence of so many conflicting ideas and world views in Greece may well have inspired the development of philosophy and the natural sciences.
A nation of warriors
The Greeks remained a nation of warriors up until the Roman period. Throughout the archaic and classical periods Greek city states fought each other on a regular basis and Greek mercenaries served abroad. Endeavors like philosophy, science and the arts were generally restricted to the upper class and flourished mostly in classical Athens, a city state that flourished for a short time between the end of the Persian Wars (480 BC) and the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC). Their skills on the battlefield also led the Greeks to success under Alexander the Great. It was only after the Greek city states had been incorporated into the Roman Empire that the Greeks became known as the peaceful, cultured and sophisticated people that we know them as today.
Luraghi’s article ‘Traders, pirates, warriors’ can be found in volume 60.1 of Phoenix (2006). For more information on early Greek settlement in the Near East I would recommend John Boardman’s The Greeks in Asia (2015) and for an introduction of the orientalizing period you can read Martin West’s The East Face of Helicon (1997) and Walter Burkert’s The Orientalizing Revolution (1995).