Scholion for Sophocles’ Ajax, Line 2 (Pirate Etymology)

“In Attic usage, peira means a trick or contrivance; for this reason, criminals on the sea are called peiratai (pirates).”


πεῖρα γὰρ ᾿Αττικῶς δόλος καὶ τέχνη, ὅθεν καὶ πειραταὶ

οἱ κατὰ θάλατταν κακοῦργοι.


Note: The earlier sense of peira was closer to “an attempt” or “experiment.”

7 thoughts on “Scholion for Sophocles’ Ajax, Line 2 (Pirate Etymology)

    1. Remember though, Nihil novi sub sole! You’re just engaging in a process of apokalypsis to undo the effects of Lethe. I am fully convinced that everyone, in a past life, had full knowledge of Sophoclean scholia!

  1. And if we play with meanings, this gives even more reason to call Odysseus a pirate. He goes around testing or trying men (ἐλθὼν τῶνδ’ ἀνδρῶν πειρήσομαι, οἵ τινές εἰσιν, 9.174), he tests the swineherd when in disguise (τοῖς δ’ ᾿Οδυσεὺς μετέειπε, συβώτεω πειρητίζων, 15.304)…I could keep going, but it gets silly (and the Homeric word for pirate is different (e.g., οἷά τε ληϊστῆρες ὑπεὶρ ἅλα, τοί τ’ ἀλόωνται, 3.73). Although, Odysseus is accused of that too (οἷά τε ληϊστῆρες ὑπεὶρ ἅλα, τοί τ’ ἀλόωνται, 9.254).

  2. And Thucydides uses ληιστός for pirate. I don’t know who first started using peiratai but I think most of the Greek novels had peiratai in there somewhere.

    From Thuc. 1.5
    καὶ οἱ παλαιοὶ τῶν ποιητῶν τὰς πύστεις τῶν καταπλεόντων πανταχοῦ ὁμοίως ἐρωτῶντες εἰ λῃσταί εἰσιν, ὡς οὔτε ὧν πυνθάνονται ἀπαξιούντων τὸ ἔργον, οἷς τε ἐπιμελὲς εἴη εἰδέναι οὐκ ὀνειδιζόντων.

    And the old poets represented people always putting the question to those who sailed in whether they were pirates as if not expecting those they asked to disown the deed or those whose business it was to know to find fault with them.

    1. I think that you’re on to something! My own guess is that “peiratai” gradually replaced “leistai” sometime around the end of the Hellenistic/beginning of the Roman period of Greek literature, which would explain its occurrence in novels.

      Polybius ( uses “peiratai” in our sense of pirate:

      Καὶ κατὰ μὲν θάλατταν παραχρῆμα πειρατὰς ἐξέπεμψαν

      Plutarch also uses ‘peiratai’ instead of ‘leistai/oi’ in his Life of Pompey (29.5.4-5):

      ἀλλὰ τούς τε πειρατὰς ἐξελὼν ἐτιμωρήσατο

      Though the Scholion to Ajax was an explication of classical Attic usage of “peira” to mean something like a trick or stratagem, it seems that no Greek writer before the 2nd Century B.C. used “peiratai” at all. Indeed, after the word does begin to occur, it seems to be primarily in historical prose works. “Leistai/oi” may have, as it fell out of common use, become more of a poetic word. Indeed, Hesychius’ Lexicon defines “leistai” by reference to “peiratai”

      ληισταί• πειραταί. καὶ αἱ ἀπὸ λείας πεποιημέναι

      It seems to be a generally sound principle of useful lexicography to explain a difficult word by reference to a more common synonym (though I will readily concede that this principle cannot be universally true).

      Actually, on the topic of pirates in novels, they even receive a mention in Petronius’ Satyricon, where we hear that students’ minds are being ruined in schools by constantly hearing of piratas cum catenis in litore stantes.

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