Fantastic History #67: Pirates of the Mediterranean by Dawn Vogel

When many people think of pirates, they think of the Caribbean. But the roots of piracy go back into antiquity, and there were pirates in the Mediterranean many centuries before they pillaged the Caribbean.

As early as the sixth to fifth century B.C., the island of Cythera (alternately spelled Kythira, Kythera, and Kithira) was a favored location for piracy. Chilon of Sparta, a sixth-century B.C. philosopher, was said to have claimed “it would be better for Sparta that Cythera should be sunk in the sea.” During the Peloponnesian War, in the fifth century B.C., Sparta established a garrison at Cythera “to prevent its occupation by pirates, and to give security to merchantmen coming from Libya and Egypt.” In the centuries that followed, Crete and Cilicia became havens for pirates. With Crete only about 40 miles to the southeast of Cythera, the small island remained at risk for piracy

The rise of Maltese pirates was a later development, and came as a response to the Barbary corsairs. The term “Barbary” was generally applied to those from North Africa; the word “barbarian” is related. These pirates were of the Muslim faith, and their goal was typically the taking of Christians for enslavement. For centuries, they were the primary force in the Mediterranean, a fact that changed only with the Crusades, aimed at regaining what the Christians considered their Holy Lands from the Muslims.

After the Crusades, Christians maintained strongholds in a variety of locations, in an effort to maintain their control. In 1530, “[t]he crusading Knights of St John Hospitaller were granted Malta as the new home of the Order.” But in 1551, Turkish forces attacked Malta, leaving the Knights to realize the need for fortifications and militarization of their stronghold. While Turkish attacks continued on a regular basis, it was not until 1565 that the Knights reached a point in their defenses that the Turkish attack turned into a war of attrition rather than an easy raid.

However, the Knights were not only interested in fortifying the island they now called home. “In addition to building up a powerful naval presence on Malta, the Knights also encouraged and systematically organised of [sic] the island’s corsairs. A small corsair fleet predated the Knights arrival; indeed, Malta’s excellent harbour had often acted as a magnet for privateers and near-pirates, just as it had for legitimate shipping.” The Maltese had different classifications within their language for the types of piracy they practiced: “Being a pirate implied a certain lawlessness; sailors who took what they wanted from whomever they encountered on the seas. Being a furban or a kursar on the other hand made you part of a very well-regulated system. The closest translation in English would be corsair.”

Ultimately, what the Knights of St. John Hospitaller accomplished by encouraging the Maltese toward a life of piracy was a counterbalance to the Barbary pirates: “The Knights became God’s pirates, and their slave galleys swept across the seas to do battle with the ‘Infidel’ Barbary corsairs.” But the Maltese pirates did not only attack those of the Muslim faith—Christians and Greeks (who were not considered “proper” Christians) also found themselves victims of these Catholic-funded pirates.

Those who were taken by the Maltese corsairs could anticipate that they would be returned to their families, for a price. Ransom was a frequently used tactic for pirates of any faith. But it did limit the victims who could be released. “The relatives … could pay ransom, if they were rich enough. The poor ones were condemned to slavery.” Some prisoners of the Maltese corsairs were released from their servitude only by their deaths.

The Maltese corsairs maintained their dominance for a few centuries. “In the seventeenth century, the Turkish authorities did not allow Christians to come up the gulf of Corinth, through fear that the corsairs of Malta would get in under the guise of merchant-ships loading currants at Corinth,…” Ultimately, however, the Catholic Church turned to diplomacy rather than piracy to achieve its aims, “and by 1740 the corso was effectively extinct.” Nonetheless, even as late as 1814, when Napoleon was exiled to Elba, he still feared the possibility of being captured by Maltese pirates.


Dawn Vogel’s academic background is in history, so it’s not surprising that much of her fiction is set in earlier times. By day, she edits reports for historians and archaeologists. In her alleged spare time, she runs a craft business, co-edits Mad Scientist Journal, and tries to find time for writing. Her steampunk series, Brass and Glass, is published by DefCon One Publishing. She is a member of Broad Universe, Codex Writers, and SFWA. She lives in Seattle with her awesome husband (and fellow author), Jeremy Zimmerman, and their herd of cats.

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.