Odysseus Doesn’t Want to Be Mistaken for A Pirate

In the Odyssey, new arrivals are frequently asked whether or not they are pirates.

Od. 9.252-255

“Strangers, who are you? From where do you sail the watery paths?
Do you have some purpose, or do you wander pointlessly,
The way that pirates do over the sea, the men who wander
Putting their lives at risk and bringing evil to foreign peoples.”

‘ὦ ξεῖνοι, τίνες ἐστέ; πόθεν πλεῖθ’ ὑγρὰ κέλευθα;
ἤ τι κατὰ πρῆξιν ἦ μαψιδίως ἀλάλησθε
οἷά τε ληϊστῆρες ὑπεὶρ ἅλα, τοί τ’ ἀλόωνται
ψυχὰς παρθέμενοι, κακὸν ἀλλοδαποῖσι φέροντες;’

According to a scholion to the Odyssey, Odysseus attempts to avoid this suspicion when he selects his men to go see Polyphemos.

Schol ad Od. 9.195 

“But I chose some of my companions: [Odysseus] separated and selected the best men. Why [did he select] twelve? This is because they are few enough that they won’t seem like they are coming to act as pirates. On the other hand, he could not take fewer or else he would not to have thought the whole thing through. But they do not carry their weapons so that they might not appear to be hostile. In addition, he is there himself and does not send scouts ahead so that he won’t seem like to be a coward to the Phaeacians. Biut he does take the useful skein of wine as a safeguard against rural and savage men. Why then does the poet portray Odysseus as not obeying his companions’ council to flee? This is because he came in the cave and had now suspicion of a beastly life.”

αὐτὰρ ἐγὼ κρίνας ἑτάρων] χωρίσας καὶ ἐπιλεξάμενος τοὺς ἀρίστους. διὰ τί δώδεκα; καὶ γὰρ ὀλίγοι, ἵνα μὴ δοκῇ ὡς ἐπὶ λῃστείαν ἥκειν· ἐλάττους δὲ πάλιν οὐκ ἦγεν, ἵνα μὴ εὐκαταφρόνητος εἶναι δόξῃ· ἀλλ’ οὐδὲ ὅπλα ἐπιφέρεται, ἵνα μὴ ὡς πολέμιος εἶναι δοκῇ. αὐτὸς δὲ παρέστη καὶ οὐ προπέμπει, ἵνα μὴ φαίνηται δειλὸς τοῖς Φαίαξι. τὸν δὲ ἀσκὸν οἰκεῖον ἐφόδιον λαμβάνει, τὸν οἶνον, πρὸς ποιμενικοὺς καὶ ἀγρίους ἄνδρας. διὰ τί οὖν κινεῖ τὸν ᾿Οδυσσέα πρὸς τὸ μὴ πεισθῆναι τοῖς ἑταίροις συμβουλεύουσι φυγεῖν; ὅτι γενόμενος ἐν τῷ σπηλαίῳ οὐδεμίαν βίου θηριώδους ὑπόνοιαν ἔλαβε. T.

Image result for odysseus and cyclops

Aristotle on Pirates: Two Different Perspectives

Our good friend and erstwhile classical historian asked me about Aristotle and pirates this morning:


I couldn’t answer. So now I try.

Nicomachean Ethics, 1122a

“Shameful profiteering is common in [most occupations]. For everyone [in the baser pursuits] endures reproach for the sake of gain, no matter how small. Those men who make great profits by illegitimate means—for example, tyrants who defraud cities and despoil temples—we don’t call them mean or stingy [aneleutheuros, lit. “unfree”], but instead we consider them wretched, sacrilegious, and unjust. The gambler, the petty-thief, and the pirate are only ‘mean’ [the lesser evil] because they gain profit in a shameful manner insofar as they do whatever they can for profit; they endure reproaches, as some endure the greatest dangers for the sake of gain and others profit from their friends, the very people they should be giving to. Both categories are shameful because they wish to profit from the wrong places.”

κοινὸν δ’ ἐπ’ αὐτοῖς ἡ αἰσχροκέρδεια φαίνεται• πάντες γὰρ ἕνεκα κέρδους, καὶ τούτου μικροῦ, ὀνείδη ὑπομένουσιν. τοὺς γὰρ τὰ μεγάλα μὴ ὅθεν δὲ δεῖ λαμβάνοντας, μηδὲ ἃ δεῖ, οὐ λέγομεν ἀνελευθέρους, οἷον τοὺς τυράννους πόλεις πορθοῦντας καὶ ἱερὰ συλῶντας, ἀλλὰ πονηροὺς μᾶλλον καὶ ἀσεβεῖς καὶ ἀδίκους. ὁ μέντοι κυβευτὴς καὶ ὁ λωποδύτης καὶ ὁ λῃστὴς ὁ μέντοι κυβευτὴς καὶ ὁ λωποδύτης καὶ ὁ λῃστὴς τῶν ἀνελευθέρων εἰσίν• αἰσχροκερδεῖς γάρ. κέρδους γὰρ ἕνε-κα ἀμφότεροι πραγματεύονται καὶ ὀνείδη ὑπομένουσιν, καὶ οἳ μὲν κινδύνους τοὺς μεγίστους ἕνεκα τοῦ λήμματος, οἳ δ’ ἀπὸ τῶν φίλων κερδαίνουσιν, οἷς δεῖ διδόναι. ἀμφότεροι δὴ ὅθεν οὐ δεῖ κερδαίνειν βουλόμενοι αἰσχροκερδεῖς•

Politics, 1245a

“Some men survive by hunting; and different people hunt different things. For example, some men survive by piracy, others from fishing—and these are both men who live along the banks and shores of rivers or some kind of sea—and others hunt birds or wild animals. But the greatest portion of men live off the land and cultivated crops.”

γεωργοῦντες)• οἱ δ’ ἀπὸ θήρας ζῶσι, καὶ θήρας ἕτεροι ἑτέρας, οἷον οἱ μὲν ἀπὸ λῃστείας, οἱ δ’ ἀφ’ ἁλιείας, ὅσοι λίμνας καὶ ἕλη καὶ ποταμοὺς ἢ θάλατταν τοιαύτην προσοικοῦσιν, οἱ δ’ ἀπ’ ὀρνίθων ἢ θηρίων ἀγρίων• τὸ δὲ πλεῖστον γένος τῶν ἀνθρώπων ἀπὸ τῆς γῆς ζῇ καὶ τῶν ἡμέρων καρπῶν.

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.”