The recent discovery of the remains of two Roman merchant ships in deep water off the western coast of Greece calls into question the traditional view of classical piracy. Scholars have long believed that Greek and Roman pirates had rich pickings because the ships they preyed on sailed coastwise – that’s to say, they prefered to stay within sight of land, rather than crossing wide stretches of open sea.
In his book Piracy in the Ancient World, HA Ormerod summarises this belief:
In the early days of navigation, the shipper is forced to hug the shores, creeping round the coast… if he endeavours to cross the sea, he is forced to follow fixed routes, by which alone he can keep in sight of land, threading his way between islands, and following well-known channels. There can be little concealment of his movements.
Ormerod supports his statement with a quotation from Strabo, but since I can’t read classical Greek, and you probably can’t either, I won’t quote it here.
The wrecks were discovered nearly a mile underwater, and far offshore between Corfu and Italy, during exploration work for a new gas pipeline. With one exception, they are the deepest wrecks so far discovered in the Mediterranean.
Angeliki Simossi, head of underwater antiquities for Greece, said that the discovery upset the conventional theory that … “these … small vessels up to 25 meters (80 feet) long … did not have the capacity to navigate far from the coast, so that if there was a wreck they would be close enough to the coast to save the crew.”
So if they couldn’t skulk in a bay waiting for their next prize to sail by, how did classical pirates locate richly-laden merchant vessels?