Pirates of the Mediterranean

🕔 12 mins (total)
Pirate ship on the open Mediterranean Sea at sunset.
Pirate ship on the open Mediterranean Sea at sunset.

No doubt you’ve probably seen, or at least heard of, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies from Disney (all 5 of them, with a 6th on the way), or if not those, then surely one or more of the literally dozens of other pirate movies that have graced our screens ever since movies were first made.

The stereotypical movie pirate is a swashbuckling buccaneer with a wooden leg or a hook for a hand and maybe a patch over one eye or a parrot sitting on his shoulder, or maybe all of the above! This fantastical, romanticized image of a typical pirate of yesteryear is just that – fantasy. But although most of the stories in pirate movies and literature are purely fictional, what is definitely true is that pirates have been around as long as seafaring itself, and here in the Mediterranean every bit as much as in the Caribbean or anywhere else.

The Ancient Med

Unsurprisingly, the earliest accounts of piracy come from ancient Egypt and, later, from ancient Greece. The word “piracy” itself originates from the ancient Greek word peiráomai, which meant “to rob or steal” which gave rise to the word peiratēs, meaning “brigand”. In Latin this became pirata, and so on. Back in those times, people living on most parts of the Mediterranean coastline looked to the sea for their livelihoods and survival rather than the land, much of which did not lend itself to agriculture as it was back then. This meant that they had the seafaring abilities and local knowledge of their coastline that they could apply to piracy when times got hard, and many succumbed to the temptation.

Roman mosaic of North African pirates
Roman mosaic of North African pirates

Back then navigation was still quite primitive and trading ships tended, for the most part, to hug the coast rather than venture out into open seas, and so the “highways” of the sea became well-defined and pirates became the highwaymen of the Mediterranean. They were aided by the rugged coast of the Med which was ideal for the smaller pirate craft that could outmanoeuvre the larger merchant vessels that were their prey, and then easily disappear amongst the many hidden coves.

If the truth be told though, trade between the ancient peoples of the Mediterranean was a fairly basic affair where “stranger” meant “enemy” and attacks were typical and constant. Indeed, many of the traders were borderline pirates themselves, and their raison d’être was to destroy the competition on the seas.

Pirate, privateer, buccaneer or corsair?

In case you were wondering, there are subtle differences between the types of pirates that roamed the seas once upon a time. The word “pirate” is an umbrella term we tend to use when talking about any of the “highwaymen of the sea”. More specifically though, pirates were outlaws with no allegiance to any nation or power and would attack and plunder any ship or port they could.

A privateer was effectively a pirate but in the service of a particular nation that was at war and, sanctioned by that nation, they would attack ships and ports belonging to any enemy nations – in return for a share of the plunder, naturally.

The word “corsair” came into English from the French “corsaire” and referred specifically to French privateers who raided on behalf of the French crown, carrying a “lettre de course” or, in other words, a letter of permission to raid or attack France’s enemies. If they were captured they would demand to be treated as prisoners of war – although not always successfully. In time, corsaire also came to be used to refer to Barbary pirates (more about those guys a little later!) as well as other “pirates for hire”.

Buccaneers were pirates, mostly based on the island of Hispaniola, that were hired specifically by French, Dutch and English privateer ships in the late 1600s to attack the Spanish in the Caribbean, usually raiding ports, attacking from the sea, rather than engaging in battles out on open water. They were really only around for a few decades but the term “buccaneer” lingered on.

The word itself has its origins in the Caribbean Taino word, buccan, which was a type of wooden rack that the native Tainos and Caribs used for smoking or roasting manatee meat on. French hunters adopted this same method for cooking wild pigs – descended from escaped domestic pigs that Spanish settlers had introduced to Cuba and Hispaniola – and became known in their own language as boucaniers. They used to sell their smoked meat to pirates, who then became known by the anglicized name “bucaneers”.

Pirates vs Julius Caesar

Anyway, back to the ancient Med… Some of the Greek island- and city-states (especially Rhodes for example) who depended almost completely on the sea, managed to some degree to control the threat of piracy. They achieved this partly by using pirates themselves, either to menace their rivals or else by incorporating them into their own navies, thereby making them some of the first-ever privateers.

Later, with the decline of the Greek states and the shift of power westward to the rising force of Rome, pirates returned to their old ways attacking anyone they could. Pirates from Cilicia (the southern coast of modern-day Turkey) started attacking ships and enslaving their crews and kidnapping any wealthy merchants they could and holding them for ransom.

Upon his release from captivity, Julius Caesar pursued and defeated his pirate captors and had them crucified.
Upon his release, Julius Caesar pursued and defeated his pirate captors and had them crucified.

The Romans tolerated this behaviour for a while as it provided them with the slaves they required for the plantations of the elite in their growing empire, but then a certain Julius Caesar was captured and ransomed – at least once, but twice within the space of four years according to one (unlikely) account! This turned out to be a very bad move on the part of the pirates.

Although J.C. supposedly bonded and became “mates” with his captors, and even insisted that they demand 50 talents as a ransom price for his freedom rather than the mere 20 they had intended, he did tell them that he would return and have them all executed. Once liberated, he was true to his word as he pursued and captured them, and then had them all crucified – although, because they were such good mates, he is said to have had their throats cut first in a show of mercy. As the saying goes, “With friends like that, who needs enemies!”.

Within about ten years Pompey had finished the job and rid the Mediterranean of Cilician pirates for good. The following 200 years were a period of relative peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire known as the Pax Romana, traditionally dated as beginning from the time of Caesar Augustus in 27BCE and ending in 180AD with the death of Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “Five Good Emperors”. (Yep, that’s the same Marcus Aurelius as portrayed by Richard Harris in the 2000 Oscar-winning movie “Gladiator“!)

During this peak of Roman power, piracy was all but eradicated. After all, most pirates turned to piracy in the first place out of necessity, and there were far easier ways to make a living during the Pax Romana.

But they never disappeared completely!

Balearic Piracy and Catalunya

As the Roman Empire began its decline, and then eventually split into two, with power shifting to the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium as it came to be called, and its capital, Constantinople, piracy once again became a menace throughout the Mediterranean.

In the western Med, the Balearic Islands had long been a favourite lurking place for pirates from way back as far as Phoenician and Carthaginian times, and lying as they did at a strategic point between rival religions and kingdoms, they were occupied or attacked over the centuries by Romans, Vandals, Saracens, and even Vikings.

In 1009 the islands even became a virtual pirate kingdom for a while and they continually preyed on the growing trade of Catalunya at the time, especially anything passing along the well-used marine highway, known then as the Iberian Sea, that ran from the Strait of Gibraltar (centuries before Gibraltar came under British rule) along the Spanish coast passing Barcelona and onward to the ancient port of Marseille.

Torre del Verger, guard tower located at Banyalbufar, Mallorca, Spain.
Torre del Verger, guard tower located at Banyalbufar, Mallorca, Spain.

They eventually became such a bane on the seas that in 1113 a crusade was launched against them that included forces from 6 Italian city-states, two Catalan armies and another from Castilla, three armies from Occitan in France, more forces from Corsica and Sardinia, and even an army and special envoy from the Pope in Rome. They certainly seemed to have been getting on everybody’s nerves! Palma de Mallorca was sacked in 1115 but the armies withdrew again and it wasn’t until Jaume I, who was at once the King of Aragon, Count of Barcelona and Lord of Montpellier, conquered and annexed the islands in the 1230s that Catalan trade was really safe again.

Barbary Pirates

Over the centuries the Catalan coast had been repeatedly visited by pirates, but never more so than during the time of the Barbary pirates. The old Byzantine Empire had by now long since fallen to the Ottoman Turks whose range in the 16th century extended along almost all of the North African Mediterranean coast, known to Europeans as the Barbary Coast.

The Battle of Preveza (1538) in which Barbarossa took part, as painted in 1866 by Ohannes Umed Behzad.
Battle of Preveza (1538) in which Barbarossa took part, as painted in 1866 by Ohannes Umed Behzad.
On the left, a French Ship and Barbary Pirates by Aert Anthonisz, c. 1615. On the right, a Barbary pirate.
On the left, a French Ship and Barbary Pirates by Aert Anthonisz, c. 1615. On the right, a Barbary pirate.

The name is derived from the ethnic Berbers who inhabited the region. Although they travelled much farther, the Barbary pirates mainly operated in the western Med. They were also known as Barbary corsairs because of a Franco-Ottoman alliance against the Habsburgs, meaning that French and Ottoman corsairs wouldn’t attack each other’s ships or ports.

The Barbary pirates were mostly after slaves that they would then sell on in the Ottoman and Arab slave markets, and are even known to have raided as far away as Ireland, where (in 1631) they sacked the village of Baltimore and enslaved almost its entire population. Incidentally, the captain of that Barbary ship was actually a Dutchman by the name of Jan Janszoon, also known as Murad Reis the Younger.

The Barbary slavers were so successful that, until the 19th century, towns and villages along the coasts of Spain and Italy were mostly built at a safe distance away from the sea. Evidence of this can still be seen today here on the Costa Brava. The town of Palafrugell, for example, is about 4km from the sea and its tourist villages of today, Tamariu, Llafranc and Calella de Palafrugell, were nothing more than a collection of fishing huts during the time of the corsairs.

A couple of other local examples include Calonge and Sant Antoni de Calonge, or Torroella de Montgrí and L’Estartit. For the same reason, just about all traditional masias (those beautiful centuries-old Catalan farmhouses) were built inland, and those that were closer to the coast had inbuilt lookout towers to keep an eye out for trouble coming across the waves.

And come it did!


The most famous pirate of the Mediterranean was undoubtedly “Redbeard”, born as Hızır Hayreddin on the Greek island of Lesbos. He began his life of piracy with his elder brother, Oruç, by entering into the service of the Ottoman Empire as a corsair. Oruç was the one with the red beard and Heyreddin used ochre to dye his red like his brother’s, and so they became known as the “Barbarossas” (Italian for “Redbeards”).

They initially made their base in the pirate den that was the island of Djerba, off the coast of Tunisia, and attacked mostly Spanish ships and settlements on the North African coast. Later, in 1516, they captured Algiers and Oruç briefly became self-declared Sultan. He was just beginning to build a kingdom when he was captured and killed two years later by the Spanish forces of Carlos V.

The younger Barbarossa assumed power and appealed for support to the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman the Magnificent, and received 2,000 elite janissary warriors. He continued to conquer territories from the Spanish and was eventually rewarded by being named Admiral of the entire Ottoman fleet. With his new and now much larger fleet, he campaigned all over the Mediterranean for the next three decades with Carlos V of Spain remaining his constant enemy.

François I of France & Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent, who formed the Franco-Ottoman alliance
François I of France & Ottoman Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent – the Franco-Ottoman alliance

In 1535 his ships sailed unchallenged into Menorca under flags they had previously captured from Spanish ships, and when the population surrendered he sold hundreds of them into slavery, despite having promised them they’d be spared. The Franco-Ottoman alliance was still in place as both powers now had Carlos V of Spain (a Habsburg) as their common enemy, and Barbarossa, often using French ports as a launching base, continually attacked the Spanish Mediterranean coast, probably helped in no small measure that the Spanish were pretty preoccupied with their new colonies in the Americas to give the matter their whole and undivided attention.

Raid on Palamós

Although most towns were built at a safe distance from the sea, coastal nations need their ports too. One such port town was Palamós which had been in existence since 1277 when it was built to replace an older port further north on the River Ter that had silted up.

On 5 October 1543, Barbarossa, having already attacked the towns of Nice, Cadaqués and Roses, arrived at Palamós with over 20 ships. Most of the townspeople managed to escape but all of the men who remained to try and defend the town against the pirates, along with some reinforcements from Palafrugell, were killed and many of their bodies mutilated and impaled. Three churches and most of the houses were also destroyed. Barbarossa and his men hung around for two days before continuing south on their rampage.

A fuller account of the raid, along with illustrations, was designed and produced by the Fishing Museum of Palamós in 2018 to mark the 475th anniversary of the Redbeard attack. If you’d like to read it (it’s not long), we’ve translated it from Catalan into English and you can read it here.

Incidentally, if you’re wondering why Barbarossa attacked Nice if the Ottomans were supposed to be allied to the French, that’s because Nice was at that time under the control of Charles III, Duke of Savoy, an ally of Charles V of Spain. After changing hands a number of times, Nice didn’t definitively become part of France until 1860

A 16th-century engraving showing the Barbarossa Ottoman fleet attacking a Mediterranean port.
A 16th-century engraving showing the Barbarossa Ottoman fleet attacking a Mediterranean port.

Tossa de Mar

It might have come a little late for the inhabitants of Cadaqués, Roses and Palamós, but when King Felipe II came to the throne of Spain in 1556 he set about building defensive watchtowers within sight of each other along the Spanish coast to try and thwart Barbary pirate attacks. If raiders were spotted a fire would be lit to raise the alarm and the fires would relay the message from tower to tower – just like in the “Lighting of the Beacons” scene in Lord of the Rings: Return of the King!

View of the medieval cliff fort in the Catalan town of Tossa de Mar on the Costa Brava

A fine example of one of these towers can still be seen today right beside the Vila Vella, the fortified old town of Tossa de Mar, and although its name is Torre de Can Magí it is also known as the Torre des Moros or the “Tower of the Moors”. King Felipe II wasn’t known as Felipe el Prudente (Phillip the Prudent) for nothing!

Incidentally, the Philippines were named after this same King Phillip and he was also King of Portugal, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia and (briefly) England. His four-year stint as King of England must’ve ended badly though as he later sent the famous Spanish Armada to attack his former realm – and that didn’t end well either! He also held numerous other titles – but that’s another story for another day!

Catalan Corsairs

Raids by Barbary pirates continued until the 19th century but from the mid-the 18th century on there were plenty of Catalan corsairs operating too, particularly out of the ports of Cadaqués, Palamós, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Mataró, Barcelona and Mallorca. The Palamós corsairs were particularly prolific, successfully attacking and defeating numerous North African, English and Maltese ships.

View of the Medes islands from L’Estartit, Costa Brava
View of the Medes islands from L’Estartit, Costa Brava

Medes Islands

Another base frequently used by Mediterranean pirates was the Medes Islands, just off the coast of L’Estartit. Today the islands are part of the Montgrí Natural Park but, in their day, their strategic location near the coast facilitated rapid attacks followed by safe retreats by pirates and corsairs who constantly endangered the tranquillity of any villages or farmhouses too near the coast, and threatened maritime trade, particularly from Barcelona. Nowadays, the town of L’Estartit holds an annual fair to “commemorate” the era and the somewhat glamorized pirates. The Fira de Pirates i Corsaris de les Illes Medes takes place every September and you can keep an eye on event updates on the website.

There are also full- and half-day trips by boat to visit the islands available from a number of towns on the Baix Empordà coast. A quick Google search will reveal which ones are closest to you.

L’Estartit also hosts a Beatles Festival every June by the way. What’s that got to do with pirates, you may ask.. Well, did you know that Paul McCartney made a cameo appearance in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales? Wrong sea, maybe, but pirates all the same!

Have fun in L’Estartit, but keep an eye out for those Highwaymen of the Sea!


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