It is difficult to establish the origin of piracy or when men first began their piratical activities; the evidence is lost in the depths of history. But it is reasonable to suppose that piracy is a part of man's nature. He has always had the urge to "grab", especially when he was still living in a primitive state. It is also difficult, in those far-off times, to distinguish piracy from organized sea raiding for the purpose of conquest.
From the earliest times the Aegean has known the activities and horrors of piracy. Indeed, at various times pirates were in control of it and became "a state within a state". Ancient Greek Mythology often mentions pirates and their operations, showing that piracy had been a part of life for the peoples of the Aegean ever since antiquity, and its purpose was more or less the same as in the centuries that followed, namely pillaging and the profits from booty and ransom. One such myth relates how Tyrrhenian pirates once seized Dionysus, taking him for the son of a wealthy man. Then the god, to amuse himself, changed them into dolphins, which immediately leapt into the sea and he, seated in the middle of the ship, continued to steer it with his divine power alone.
Ancient authors, too, make frequent reference to piracy and pirates. Thucydides, writing about the first inhabitants of Greece, says that piracy was the work of the Carians and Phoenicians. He also says that the pirates were not ashamed of their work but thought that it brought them glory ουκ έχοντος πω αίσχύνην τούτου του έργου φέροντος δέ τι καί δόξης μάλλον, which means: "this work having no shame at all but rather bringing glory". From other ancient texts we also learn that in 475 BC Kimon drove the pirates out of Skyros, which they had made a base for their operations, and cleared them out of the Aegean.
Again in the Roman period it is recorded that Pompey dealt decisively with the pirates by dividing the empire into a number of sections and appointing a responsible official to each of them.
In the Byzantine period, however, and later during the Turkish domination, piracy continued to exist and harass to a serious degree the Aegean waters. Many of the islands became pirates' lairs. Pirate raids alternated with the warlike incursions of the Vandals, Arabs, Venetians, Franks and Turks. The "profession" of piracy was considered so honourable and profitable that it was passed on from father to son by inheritance; it is said that the word leventes (brave, handsome fellow) came from "levante", which signified at the time a fearless pirate of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Nevertheless, piracy was not the "privileged profession" of the Eastern and North African people, but also of the Westerners. The pirates of the West, indeed, were given titles of nobility in recognition of the great benefits their "services" brought to their monarchs.
Piracy was also directly connected with the slave trade, which greatly flourished at that time, because the pirates made a lot of money by selling the people they captured, or holding many of them for ransom. From the 11th to the beginning of the l9th c. the markets of the East were full of slaves for sale. These were the "slave bazaars" that have been described in the blackest colours in many books of the period. The sufferings of the inhabitants of the coastal towns and particularly of the Aegean islands at the hands of pirates of every race and origin can hardly be described.
In 1528 Ios was devastated by 14 Moslem pirate gallipots. In 1537 the well-known and terrible pirate, Khairedin Barbarossa, slaughtered all the men on Aegina and took 6000 women and children into slavery. Samos remained deserted for some hundred years because of the pirates. In 1570 the Algerian archi-pirate Kemal Reis (who later became Kapudan Pasha under the name of Kilitz Aslan) stripped the islands of Kythera, Skiathos and Skopelos of every inhabitant.
After the devastation and depopulation of these and many other islands in the Aegean the pirates made them into pirates' haunts. In the l6th c. Salamis became a nest of pirates and brigands. Corsairs established themselves on Ios. On Melos and Rhodes the slave trade flourished.
In the Aegean at this period the pirates became "a state within a state". They had their own laws, their own "ensigns", and each one had his own territory, over which he wielded complete control, even exercising "protective" authority in many cases.
The ordinary people had many names for pirates. They called them spantitoi, from bantito; leventes, from Levante; ververinoi or barbaresoi, from Barbary (which was the overall name given to the three Turkish possessions in North Africa: Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers, after the name of their chieftain, the terrible Barbarossa, which means "Red-Beard"), and algerinoi, from Algiers. The word "corsair" (koursaros) originally meant privateer, but soon came to signify pirate, so that when people wanted to refer to a legitimate privateer, they added the word publikos before koursaros.
The pirate ships (usually fast and manoeuvrable, like galleys, galleasses and later, feluccas, foustas, alamanes, mystics, xebecs, brigantines, and brigs) intercepted unarmed vessels and seized them, usually without striking a blow. When, however, the ships were armed, the pirates employed some ruse to take them by surprise and, after a fierce battle, made a risalto (they boarded the other ship) and took it by tracollο (hand-to-hand fighting).
Apart from pirate attacks on ships there were also pirate raids on coastal towns, which is why the Greek coasts of the Aegean are full of ruined castles and towers built by the local rulers for their protection.
The intensification of piracy in the Aegean forced the Greek island shipmasters and sailors to gradually begin (particularly during the Russo-Turkish wars, 1770- 1807) arming their ships with cannon, and to learn to repel pirate attacks. Many of them turned pirates themselves. Maritime trade in the Aegean was paralysed by piracy, although the pirates themselves kept it going in their own fashion and, naturally, for their own profit. This, in addition to a mounting general fury over the dreadful sufferings inflicted by the pirates on the inhabitants of the Aegean, resulted in a more serious and organized approach to the problem. As a consequence in 1803 the Hydriots made available permanent armed anti-pirate galleots and tratas, the cost of whose maintenance was shared with the other mercantile islands of the Aegean on a proportional basis. Many notorious pirates and pirate collaborators were captured at this time and harshly punished to set an example. But the Aegean pirates did not readily give up their "profession" and "posts", and so the pursuit of the pirates and the slaughters and reprisals (vendettas) continued.
In the following years piratical activity in the Aegean underwent various fluctuations. There was a fresh upsurge after the new Russo-Turkish war (1806) and the Treaty of Tilsit (1807), because many of the Greeks who had aided the Russian admiral Seniavin in the war, afterwards turned into pirates in order to escape the brutal Turkish reprisals. They became, in other words, kinds of "resistance fighters" on the sea.
Nevertheless, in spite of the lack of order, the situation had one positive consequence: the Greeks gradually became experts at repelling pirate attacks, as well as famed privateers and specialists in blockade-running, to such a degree, indeed, that foreign powers employed them as mercenaries in their wars. Thus the outbreak of the War of Independence found the Greeks of the Aegean prepared for battle and strong, ready to give their all for the success of the revolution against the Turkish yoke. With all the experience they had acquired from living for years under the incessant threat of piratical attacks, the Greek islanders and sailors succeeded in making real history by their brilliant achievements in the Aegean throughout the War of Independence.
Some pirates continued their activities even after the Revolution of 1821. In his "Historical Memoirs of the Greek Revolution" (pub.1878) the then Minister of Justice and later Eparch of the Cyclades, Constantine Metaxas, in his chapter "Pursuit of Piracy 1826", recounts the following:
"Ι began cruising around the islands of the Aegean Sea on a naval schooner (..) Many pirates gathered on the deserted island of Yioura and held a council, as a result of which they addressed a letter to me in which they asked why Ι was pursuing them, when they, by their piracy, would be able to force the European nations to recognise our independence and bring the war to an end; they, although they were doing this good for the country, found their own expenses and those of many others; consequently, instead of pursuing them Ι should come to an agreement with them, and they were ready to show clear proof of their obligation to me by promising me a rich recompense. This letter bore many signatures, amongst them (..) that of the Mykonian Mermelechas (..) After this, learning that the terrible Mermelechas was at Amorgos with two pirate ships and 35 pirates, Ι sailed by night to that island (..) and took prisoner sixteen pirates (..) and another eight pirates with this Mermelechas a captive (..) Thus in the space of two months the leaders of the pirates were arrested and most of their followers, and their pirate ships were destroyed by fire opposite the town of Syros".
The terrible pirate Mermelechas died in 1854 and his gravestone can still be seen on Mykonos at the church of "Agia Sotira tou Kastrou". Mermelechas had nonetheless succeeded in establishing reputation with the populace as the protector of the weak, as is apparent from the jingle that circulated in the Aegean from mouth to mouth at the time:
"Have a care for me, have a care for me, Mermelechas with the beard"
The general conclusion from the above, is that from earliest times piracy has played an important role in the development of the merchant marine in the Aegean. We might indeed say that it created the preconditions and stimuli for Aegean seafarers to acquire added experience and knowledge, which they employed in both war and peace (sea-trade, fishing, sea communications):
They learned to build and handle with great skill fast, manoeuvrable ships (effect on shipbuilding).
They learned to effectively combat pirate attacks and every other kind of hostile assault, as well as to make successful attacks them selves, showing exceptional agility and skill (a kind of battle training for the Aegean seamen).
They learned to take advantage of the fickle Aegean weather and generally they increased their nautical capabilities and knowledge. This is why they early on became unbeatable at manoeuvring on the sea.
At the same time their own character was being forged, a character compounded of obstinacy, patience, great endurance, accurate judgement of circumstances and courage. They were thus able to confront coolly and effectively every sort of danger, whether from foe or foul weather, in times of peace or in times of war.
The experience and knowledge gained by the Aegean inhabitants in the long fight against piracy was always employed with great success. In the course of centuries there was gradually created what might be called "nautical genius", (naftiko demonio) which, together with an inherent "sailorliness" and an almost instinctive bond with the liquid element that surrounds him, are the chief characteristics of the Aegean dweller.