The Pirate Adventure Of Roman Envoys Heading To Delphi

When the Roman Republic conquered its major Tiber River rival, Veii, around the year 396 BCE, they were said to have created a magnificent golden bowl from a portion of the loot to serve as an offering for the Oracle at Delphi. Rome’s ongoing wars at the time delayed the mission of carrying the bowl to Greece by a period of a few years, but after the Romans forced Falerii to become a tributary in 394 BCE, Rome was freed up enough to finally organize their expedition to Delphi. As the story goes, the Romans chose three men to lead the delegation. Their names were Lucius Valerius, Lucius Sergius and Aulus Manlius. With the golden bowl in hand, this trio boarded a single warship, manned by a crew of an undisclosed size, and set sail along the coastline of Italy. They were presumably charting their course toward the Strait of Messina between Sicily and the Italian mainland, but this route quickly brought the poorly-protected envoys into danger.

As the single Roman warship pulled in toward the strait, they sailed too close to the Aeolian Islands, which lay just off the northeastern tip of Sicily. In those days, the Aeolian Islands were a haven for pirates, and, naturally, once the Roman ship was spotted, the pirates began chasing after it. Rome’s sailors could not out-sail the pirates in this instance, and the delegation’s ship was overtaken and captured. With the hunt now over, the victorious pirates hauled the Roman ship, crew, and offerings back to their headquarters in the Aeolian Islands.  Their destination was Lipari, the largest of the islands in the group.

Once the pirates had anchored in a friendly harbor, they began sifting through the plunder and questioning the captives. The answers that they received from the Roman envoys, however, reportedly troubled the pirates. Lipari, as it happened, was a Greek colony, and the pirates there began to wonder if the loot from the delegation ship was worth angering the god, Apollo, and the religious hub of Delphi. As the story goes, the local leader of the community at that time—a certain Timasitheus—decided that he would much rather help the Roman envoys instead of continuing to hinder them, which could risk drawing the ire of the gods.

In a dramatic about-face, Timasitheus, was said to have freed the Roman prisoners, instructed the people of Lipari to treat them with honor, and offered to turn his pirate fleet into an armed escort to guard the Romans during their journey to and from Delphi. As told by the Roman historian Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE), Timasitheus “was able to entertain the three envoys as guests of the State, convoy them to Delphi, and ensure their safe return to Rome” (The History of Rome, 5.28). Timasitheus’ helpful change of heart was reportedly greatly rewarded when the envoys reentered Rome and told the city of their adventure. Livy continued the story, claiming, “In recognition of this act he was made, by decree of the Senate, an Honorary Guest of the Roman People—not to mention other and more tangible rewards” (History of Rome, 5.28). According to another ancient source, Diodorus Siculus (c. 1st century BCE), the story of Timasitheus was very much still alive in the minds of Romans during the era of the Punic Wars, for special treatment was allegedly given to descendants of Timasitheus when the Romans eventually conquered Lipari.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Ship on a stamp from the Republic of San Marino, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).



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