Long ago a 25-year-old Roman author, poet, priest, and aristocrat was kidnapped by pirates. Rather than plead for his release, however, he ordered them to increase his ransom, even though it could have meant being their captive for much longer. His name was Gaius Julius Caesar.
In the middle of the 1st century BC, the Roman republic began to break down. Its volunteer militia had evolved into a permanent force of battle-scarred professional veterans who became a force to reckon with, allowing Rome to further increase its territory. However, they were often more loyal to their Generals than the state – Generals such as Sulla; men who would often use the legions to further their own ambitions.
In the city itself, however, riots and violent political upheaval became the norm as rival gangs fought for dominance in the streets. Rome was plunging into a state of near anarchic chaos. Aristocrats like Caesar vied for power, often using corruption and intimidation to get what they wanted.
Caesar was born into this environment on July 13th 100 BC as a member of the Julia, an old clan of Roman aristocrats. Things changed for Caesar in 85 BC when his father died, making him the head of the family at 16. Civil war broke out between his uncle, Marius, and Lucius Cornelius Sulla (who twice held the rank of consul). More street battles and assassinations gripped the city until Marius won. Caesar was given the job of high priest of Jupiter and married off to Cornelia.
On January 13th 86 BC, however, Marius died and Sulla rose to power. The latter purged the government and city of anyone associated with Marius, so Caesar lost his job, his inheritance and wife’s dowry, and was ordered to divorce his wife. However, Caesar refused to let Cornelia go. His mother, Aurelia Cotta, used her family’s influence (some of whom supported Sulla) to save his life.
Caesar decided to play it safe by leaving Rome for Asia where he joined the army. In 81 BC, he participated in the Siege of Mytilene (now the Greek island of Lesbos), he was so effective that he received a Civic Crown – the second highest military award that a Roman could achieve.
Sulla finally died in 78 BC, making it safe for Caesar to return to Rome. Unable to reclaim his inheritance, he moved into a poor district and became a famous lawyer renowned for his successful prosecution of corrupt officials. This made him very popular among many lower-class Romans, despite his aristocratic heritage.
By 75 BC, he had moved up in the world and went off on a business trip to the island of Rhodes accompanied by several servants and friends. They never made it there. The Mediterranean Sea was full of pirates and they preyed on every ship that came their way. Pirates attached Caesar’s ship and he and his companions ended up becoming captives on an islet off Cilicia (now the southern coast of Turkey). All aboard were given two choices: pay a ransom or be sold into slavery.
Caesar chose the former, so his captors set a ransom of 20 talents of silver – about 620 kg worth, which is roughly around $600,000 dollars in today’s values. Caesar gasped in shock. Then he burst out laughing. It wasn’t because of the exorbitant price, but rather because he was offended.
The Julia family were direct descendants of Iulus, son of Aeneas, a Trojan prince. Someone with his bloodline was worth far more than the paltry sum they demanded – in his opinion. He insisted that they set his ransom at 50 talents (about 1,550 kg) of silver, instead.
Impressed, the pirates agreed and let some of his friends go to gather that amount, but Caesar wasn’t finished. He swore that as soon as he was free, he’d have them all crucified.
Given the circumstances, the pirates roared with laughter, but it wouldn’t last. Caesar refused to play the role of a cowed hostage victim. He demanded that his servants be free to continue serving him, even ordering the pirates to shut up or lower their voices whenever he slept.
He spent his days writing poetry and composing speeches, then demanded that the pirates listen carefully while he read them aloud. If they didn’t praise his work, he’d yell at them and call them illiterate savages.
His uncompromising stance and haughty demeanor worked. Instead of annoying the pirates, he ended up earning their respect. He was allowed to move about freely and sometimes joined in their games. To his captors, Caesar’s attitude was either that of a simpleton, or the result of boyish playfulness.
Given the amount involved, it took 38 days to raise the money, after which Caesar and his men were finally allowed to leave. As soon as he reached Miletus (a long-abandoned port city south of present day Söke in Turkey) he began raising an armed fleet. With it, he returned to the islet, captured most of the pirates, and took their property as his own.
He sailed off to Pergamon (outside the modern Turkish city of Bakırçay) and chucked them all into prison. Then he went to Marcus Junius, the governor of Asia, and demanded the right to mete out the pirates’ punishment. But Junius couldn’t stop ogling all that money, so he told Caesar that he’d have to look into the matter more fully.
Yet Caesar couldn’t wait, so he returned to Pergamon, took the pirates out of prison, and ordered them all to be crucified. Some begged for mercy, reminding him of the fun times they had shared together, so Caesar’s heart melted and he decided to relent.
He had their throats slit. Then he had them crucified because he prided himself on being a man of his word. With such a character, it’s hardly surprising that he would go on become Rome’s first emperor.