Jewish Pirates

Jewish pirates: known group of buccaneers, active in the early first century BCE.

A Jewish pirate: graffito from the tomb of Jason (Jerusalem)
A Jewish pirate: graffito from the tomb of Jason (Jerusalem)

The ancient Jews were not known for their qualities as sailors. This is not surprising, because Jerusalem is at some distance from the sea, and the Jews were never really interested in the coast of Judaea. It was only after the Hasmonaean high priest Simon (142-134) had added Jaffa to his dominions that the Jews possessed a port of their own. Simon's son and successor John Hyrcanus (134-104) took Ashdod, and king Alexander Jannaeus added Gaza and Strato's Tower (later called Caesaraea). The hellenized population of these towns was usually loyal to the Hasmonaean state, and not a few of them accepted Judaism. In this way, a small group of Jewish sailors came into being.

At this time, the eastern Mediterranean sea was infested with pirates from Crete and Cilicia. The powerful Seleucid empire had by now disintegrated and no longer controlled the seas. Moreover, the Roman elite needed slaves to work on the large plantations (latifundia) in Italy. Pirates could always sell their captives to the Romans. This situation continued until 67/66, when the Roman general Pompey the Great pacified Cilicia and reorganized the eastern part of the Roman world.

There are only two ancient texts that mention the activities of Jewish pirates - and one of them is of a rather doubtful value. This is a remark by Pompeius Trogus, whose History was excerpted by one Justin. He tells us that Pompey decided to add the last remains of the Seleucid empire to the Roman empire because the last king had been unable "to prevent the raids of the Jews and Arabs".note Although these words prove that the Jews were considered to be robbers, there is no proof that Pompey was thinking of piracy.

The second text is stronger evidence. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus writes in his Jewish Antiquities that in 63 BCE, two Jewish leaders, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, arrived at Damascus, where each of them explained to Pompey why he, and not the other one, should be made king of the Jews. During this debate, Hyrcanus accused Aristobulus of organizing "piracy at sea".note Josephus' source is Nicolaus of Damascus, the secretary of king Herod the Great and a reliable source.

All in all, we must admit that the evidence for the existence and activities of Jewish pirates is frustratingly meager, but on the other hand, we have enough evidence to be certain that these unusual Jews once existed.

This page was created in 2002; last modified on 21 April 2019.