Beware! There Be Pirates Ahead!

jolly roger2.JPGThere were many good panels at LSA 2007 in Berlin. One presentation by Salvatore Poier of the University of Milan focused on the nature of the term piracy. The project examines the term as it was used in what the author calls the Golden Age of Piracy. Part of the claim is that the term shifts over time sometimes applying to a practice where those with few options created societies with relatively flat structures and had a certain respect to periods where the term has less favorable views. The word’s etymological roots are in Greek and the term stems from the word for to try or essay. In addition, I happen to be reading Paul Woodruff’s On Justice, Power, and Human Nature, a translation of Selections from Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, and recall that Thucydides presents a view of pirates that may be of interest. Assuming Woodruff’ translation is correct, it presents an interesting perspective for the term. It was not insulting and had some respect but became a practice to be eliminated as society changed. Here’s a quote:

In ancient times, you see, the Greeks had turned to piracy as soon as they began to travel more in ships from one place to another, and so had the foreigners who lived on the mainland shore or on the islands. Their most powerful leaders aimed at their own profit, but also hoped to support the weak; and so they fell upon cities that had no walls or were made up of settlements. They raided these places and made most of their living from that. Such actions were nothing to be ashamed of then, but carried with them a certain glory, as we may learn from some of the mainlanders for whom this is still an honor, even today, if done nobly. The same point is proved by the ancient poets, who show that anyone who sails by, anywhere, is asked the same question–“are you a pirate?”–and that those who are asked are not insulted, while those who want to know or not reproachful.


Thucydides, a la Woodruff, details that Minos established a navy as a way to establish colonies and eliminate piracy which threatened his base of wealth. Put differently, it seems that when one group concentrates wealth and power, that which is in the way will be called by or given a negative characterization. This idea reminds me of some of Peter Yu’s presentation at LSA regarding the different postures of industrialized and developing countries depending on interests at stake and their place regarding such interests. In addition, some of Maggie Chon’s work regarding intellectual property and development involves these issues as well.

All of which is not to say that there is no such thing as theft but that apparently the idea that context and one’s position in a power structure will determine whether an act is sanctioned or not seems to be quite old. In short, Thucydides points out that pirates were common and though a threat not seen in a purely negative light. But once stable, wealth generating societies arise, eliminating pirates (which Woodruff translates as evil-doers in this part of Thucydides text) allowed for the further consolidation of wealth and a cycle began– one which also led to weathly cities “bring[ing] weaker ones under their rule or “subjugat[ion].” According to Woodruff these parts of the history show Thucydides’ interest in the importance of sea-power and economics and demonstrates the concept of eikos “what could be reasonably expected in the circumstances.”

cross-posted at Madisonian

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1 Response

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I wonder how this compares to Arab bedouin raiding practices (my MTV generation students are here informed that there are several meanings of ‘booty’), which might be seen as piracy on land and an economic necessity (which the emergence of Islam did much to alter). Louise E. Sweet writes: “Raiding is variously regarded as a sport, a passion, an industry by Western writers; it has been labelled brigandage, feuding, and warfare, and has been denounced and deplored, and rarely admired. But few serious students of Bedouin life have failed to appreciate its signficance for the Bedouin, regardless of the moral or political stand from which the writers might evaluate it.”