There 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.