By Jeff Provine
When Sulla died in 78 bc, Julius Caesar returned to Rome as a lawyer, prosecuted Sulla's supporters, and headed to the Greek city of Rhodes to study oratory. Pirates seized his vessel in 75 bc, kidnapped Caesar, and held him for ransom. According to the most well known accounts of this, Caesar felt insulted at the twenty talents (480,000 sesterces) ransom and insisted that the pirates raised the demand to fifty talents (1,200,000 sesterces) more suitable for his status; his retinue quickly raised the money in the local cities, before returning to the pirate stronghold.
Caesar had decided that he would crucify the pirates after he was free. After the money was paid and he was released he assembled a small army and a fleet, after which he captured the pirates and crucified them as he had promised while in captivity – a promise that the pirates had taken as a joke. The Cilician pirates would later be supressed by Caesar's ally and enemy, Pompey in a 66 bc campaign. Caesar rose to power with the conquest of Gaul, forming a triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus, and would become somewhat notable. What however if the Pirates had just killed him when he threatened to crucify them? Below is one take on that scenario.
Chaos in Rome during Sulla’s attempts to become dictator-for-life spread chaos throughout the Mediterranean world. Many Romans were driven abroad to wait out the power struggle while armies of defeated veterans sought mercenary work in a depressed economy. The lack of central authority in the wide sea caused pirates to prey on the sea lanes in hopes of seizing valuable cargo to resell or even a Roman citizen for ransom.
Such was the case of young Gaius Julius Caesar. Following his father’s death in 85 BC, sixteen-year-old Julius became the head of the family. Caesar soon gained a lofty position as the high priest of Jupiter under the administration of Marius, but when Sulla gained power, he fled Rome to join the army fighting rebel nations to the east. Upon Sulla’s death, Caesar returned to Rome and worked to restore his family’s fortunes through law. He was headed toward Rhodes to study oratory when Cilician pirates captured his ship.
Caesar proved to be a snobby prisoner. When they suggested they could get 20 talents (roughly $1 million in 2019) for the head of such an old family, Caesar laughed at them and demanded they ask for 50 talents. He virtually took command of the bandits, giving suggestions on how to conduct themselves and reassigning rations with better food. Finally he began telling the pirates that, as soon as they let him go, he would return with an army to kill them and take back the gold. One pirate had grown weary of the young Roman’s boasts and, in a misguided spurt of anger that cost the crew piles of gold, hit him across the skull with a wooden baton. Caesar died during the resulting seizure.
Rome was horrified when they heard the news. The Caesars fell on especially hard times and would never gain much prominence in the republic, though their friends kept the family afloat. The murdered ambitious young heir became a common trope in Roman satyr plays and Mediterranean literature in the centuries to come. At the time, the death of Caesar caused public outcry for safety at sea. Following his triumphant return to Rome from the Mithridatic wars, Pompey the Great launched a campaign that destroyed over 800 ships and eliminated pirate strongholds along the Asian coast.
With the sea safe again, the Roman economy surged. Pompey served as an effective leader after the troubled times, working to moderate political enemies and reform government corruption. He dealt effectively with rivals, such as Marcus Licinius Crassus, the famous richest man in all of Rome. Crassus, too, had an impressive list of successes with victories in the Servile Wars against Spartacus, although it was nothing compared to Pompey’s. He had spent most of his lifetime accumulating wealth with shrewd schemes such as buying up buildings ruined by fire, repairing them with his army of slaves, and reselling them at tremendous profit. He even sped up the rate of success by founding his own fire brigade and running with them to buildings on fire; there, he would offer to buy the building while still on fire and then send his men to put it out before any more damage was done. If owners did not sell, Crassus and his firemen would watch cheering as the building burnt to the ground.
Not wanting to deal with Crassus’s scheming in Rome, Pompey orchestrated him being dispatched as governor of Syria. Crassus used Roman military might in new money-making schemes, such as looting the Hebrew Temple in Jerusalem. The seemingly boundless wealth of the Parthians lay to the east, but Crassus doubted that he had the forces to take such an empire since it had taken three wars to settle Mithridates in Asia Minor. Instead, he focused on trade. During his interviews with merchants and ambassadors, he learned that much of Parthia’s wealth was actually derived as middle-men in the trade with India and, even farther east, China with its mysterious shining fabric silk.
Working with Roman-ally king Artavazdes II of Armenia, Crassus became determined to cut the Parthians out of their trade on the “Silk Road.” Starting from Damascus, Crassus built a literal road through Armenia with ports on the Caspian Sea to lead to a new route north of the Parthian border. Crassus invested much of his own fortune in the quasi-military action, which was easily recouped once merchants eagerly began taking his route, cheaper despite the tolls and much faster thanks to Roman engineering. In Bactria, Crassus’s agents met with agents of the court of the Han, who were already working to establish trade relations westward after the efforts of Emperor Wu decades before. The Chinese were eager to trade for horses of the stronger western stock, and Crassus was happy to supply them for a profit.
Crassus became incalculably wealthy and in fact never returned to Rome, living as a virtual god in the east. Silk poured into Roman culture along with other Chinese items like noodles, which proved to store better than bread for traveling legions. Romans exported valuable metals and bondservants, bolstering the Chinese noble class. Crassus left behind a tradition of Roman expansion by trade, such as the trade fleet that journeyed south around Parthia by sea following the conquest of Egypt by Mark Antony and the clearing of silt from the Ptolemaic canals.
Along with the economic trade came the exchange of ideas. Chinese gods joined the Roman pantheon while arches and aqueducts fashioned with concrete were built across China. Confucianism became very popular among Roman intellectuals, who found its practice matched Stoic ideals well. Many Daoists adopted a form of the Socratic method, furthering their experiments in alchemy and medicine. Perhaps the most widely known adaptation is the magnetic compass, a Chinese divining mechanism that sailors in the cloudy north found to be a useful tool for navigation.