The Apocalyptic Pirates of the Ancient World
The Sea Peoples could have been the deadliest pirates ever
Every age has its pirates. Most of the time—such as the modern piracy off the coasts of Africa—high-seas freebooting is a nuisance and a law and order problem. For the pirates, it’s an opportunity to get rich quick.
But there was once a time when piracy was an existential threat to entire civilizations.
The Sea Peoples, who existed for a brief period during the 12th and 13th centuries BCE (Before the Common Era), wouldn’t just sack your ports, they’d march to your capital city and burn it to the ground. Then they’d scour the land until it was uninhabitable.
Obscure, mysterious and absolutely devastating to people, cities and whole kingdoms, the ancient Sea Peoples are probably the nastiest pirates to ever set sail.
These pirates were also fleeing something even more devastating than themselves. Wherever they came from, their lands had been totally ruined by a catastrophic event—or series of catastrophes—that set the ancient world back centuries.
They left no written records, but we have a rough idea of their conquests from the ancient Egyptians, who left extensive records of the terrible invasions.
Sometime during the Egyptian 19th dynasty—which lasted from 1292 to 1187 BCE—the Sea Peoples arrived on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean and began laying waste to everything in their path.
No settlement along the eastern Mediterranean was safe. No, really. The Sea Peoples destroyed pretty much everything.
“All at once the lands were removed and scattered in the fray,” states an inscription discovered in Pharaoh Ramesses III’s mortuary temple. “No land could stand before their arms, from Khatte, Quode, Carchemish, Arzawa and Alashiya on, being cut off at [one time]. A camp was set up in one place in Amor. They desolated its people, and its land was like that which has never come into being.”
In 1180 BCE, the Sea Peoples marched on Hattusa, the capital of the Hittite Kingdom—the chief rival to the Egyptian pharaohs—and annihilated it. The Hittites, who once fought evenly against thousands of Egyptian chariots at the Battle of Kadesh, ceased to exist.
King Ammurapi of Ugarit—a kingdom which existed in what is now Syria—wrote “my cities were burned, and [the Sea Peoples] did evil things in my country.”
The Sea Peoples also looked terrifying. They wore horned helmets, carried round shields and distinct, diamond-shaped swords. They decorated the bows and sterns of their ships with giant birds’ heads.
It’s difficult to ascertain why the Sea Peoples were so effective at warfare. Soldiers of the region’s great kingdoms fought with heavy, horse-drawn chariots. The marauders were, at best, light infantry armed with iron and copper weapons.
But iron was new, and heavier and sharper than copper. It’s possible the Sea Peoples were able to swarm the chariots and smash them to bits with their heavy, iron weapons.
Inscriptions on an Egyptian slab referenced the Sea Peoples wearing a “mountain of copper.” After the Sea Peoples invaded the Levant, they likely seized the region’s lucrative copper mines, which allowed them to continue their conquests against the established kingdoms.
The Sea Peoples’ homeland is generally believed to have been Greece, Anatolia, or somewhere deeper into continental Europe. Because they left behind pottery, shipwrecks and ruins, which archaeologists have used to trace their voyages, the Sea Peoples likely left their homeland in large numbers before their voyage to Egypt and the Levant.
They were not simply pirates, either. They brought their families and children with them. Their sailing vessels transported carts and livestock. This was an entire population gone nomadic. They were also likely comprised of a loose confederation of different uprooted tribes.
At the same time, the Sea Peoples were impoverished, dehydrated and starving. They fought among each other and worked as mercenaries. “The face of his brothers was hostile to slay him, one fought another among his leaders,” the Egyptians inscribed.
There are several theories for what caused a coalition of desperate people to flee to the sea—and turn to war. The emergence of the Sea Peoples coincided with a catastrophic event known as the Bronze Age Collapse.
It was one of the most destructive upheavals in human history. Between 1206 and 1150 BCE, nearly every city from Greece to northern Egypt was destroyed. Technological progress ground to a halt for centuries. The scale of destruction wouldn’t be seen again until the collapse of the Roman Empire.
The Sea Peoples just made it worse. It’s possible their original cities were destroyed by a series of earthquakes—of which there is some evidence—or stricken by drought and climate change. Or there could have been a combination of disasters.
The introduction of iron weapons and new tactics, like swarming, could have disrupted ancient societies, similar to how firearms revolutionized the ability of a peasant army to kill armored—and privileged—knights. Famine, disasters and new technology combined to throw the Aegean social order into chaos.
However, the Sea Peoples ran into an obstacle. The ancient Egyptians were the only kingdom known to be ravaged by the pirates and survive. In 1179 BCE, during the reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramesses III, the Sea Peoples mounted a land and seaborne invasion of the Nile Delta.
The Egyptians, however, blocked the invading boats with river ships adapted for combat and pelted the Sea Peoples with archers set along the river’s banks. (The Sea Peoples made for good infantry, but poor archers.) The surviving pirates were captured and assimilated into Egyptian society—and the males castrated.
“They were dragged in, enclosed, and prostrated on the beach, killed and made into heaps from tail to head,” an inscription in Ramesses III’s mortuary temple stated. “Those who entered the river-mouth were like birds ensnared in the net,” the text added.
But even still, the battle was at best a Pyrrhic victory for the Egyptians. The kingdom was exhausted by war and enter a period of steady decline. The rule of the pharaohs became increasingly fragmented, with regions within the kingdom taking on more autonomy.
What happened next to the Sea Peoples? It’s a mystery. After the battle, they vanished as quickly as they arrived.