I imagine they did not have the funds to buy or build heavy military ships, so I wonder what did they use.

Did they re-purpose civilian ships?

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    – AllInOne
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 11:18
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    Don't pirates generally steal ships? It gives them an extra attack vector by appearing to be legit! I mean, if I were a pirate, that's what I would do.
    – corsiKa
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 16:12
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    Considering that one common way for pirates to get started is for the crew of a military ship to mutiny against their officers, "heavy military ships" are certainly an option for pirates.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 0:53
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    @Mark ... or even follow their officers into a new and lucrative career! Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 2:09
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    Military ships being heavy was a consequence of artillery. Ancient Greek warships were very fast, very maneuverable, rowed vessels, which meant light weight. See Olympias for the statistics on a modern reproduction. Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 14:54

3 Answers 3


I don't think that it is possible to generalise.

I don't doubt that ancient pirates did re-purpose civilian ships in most cases. Indeed, it is said that even sailors on merchant ships which had been attacked by pirates would turn to piracy themselves when they were otherwise out of work. In fact, the number of vessels reportedly used for piracy by the Cilician pirates virtually guarantees that most were re-purposed civilian craft (Strabo writes that Pompey destroyed 1300 pirate vessels of all sizes).

However, ancient writers also say explicitly that pirates possessed and used galleys. Cicero, for example makes several references to the pirates' use of galleys in his fifth book against Verres.

Although not cheap, Philip de Souza's book Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World is well worth reading if you can get hold of a copy. Alternatively, his 1992 PhD thesis on Piracy in the Ancient World is available free online.


Keep in mind that "heavy military ships" were rare -- most galleys were triremes or smaller designs -- biremes, penteconters, liburna. Their construction was well within the capabilities of small ports, and manning them took 50 or so crew -- also within the capabilities of small ports and pirate bands. They only had to be faster than merchant ships, and just about any lightly-loaded galley with a fresh crew could manage that.

And the differences between civilian and military ships were narrow, at times. The Greek penteconter was BOTH.


The pirates used the "same" ships as everyone else. Or at least similar types such as galleys.

In those times, there was (practically) no such thing as "heavy" or dedicated military ships. (OK, a few large ships carried extra (wooden) "armor" or "rams.")

This was before the existence of cannon, or other "missile" weapons for warships that set them apart from other ships. So what distinguished one navy from another was not the quality of ships but the quality of the "sailors," or "marines." (The Roman use of the corvus to pit its superior "marines" against the superior Carthaginian "sailors" demonstrates this principle.)

Pirates, by definition, were better marines and sailors, (except against the professional navy), and that's what accounted for their success. Their ships could sail faster than merchant vessels unless they were also loaded with treasure, and because "incentivized" pirate crewmen rowed faster than crews composed partly of slaves.

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    First sentence. And there's a very good reason for this: because they literally used "everyone else"'s actual ships. Typical pirate MO after taking a ship has always been to keep both ships, if possible. So they'd naturally end up with a hodge-podge of all the different kinds of ships that were actually in use at the time.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 1, 2017 at 19:18
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    Tom Au - it was very rare for ancient navies to use galley slaves instead of free men as rowers. Ancient sailing merchant ships didn't have any rowers. Ancient merchant ships with oars probably used the sailors who operated the sails as rowers when rowing, perhaps in addition to dedicated rowers. I imagine that both slaves and free men were sailors on ancient merchant ships. Do you have any sources that mention galley slaves on ancient merchant vessels?
    – MAGolding
    Commented Jun 2, 2017 at 20:51
  • @MAGolding: Took out the reference to "galley" slaves.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Jun 3, 2017 at 2:11

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