From pirates to ransomware: the secret economics of extortion

Tom Standage in More Intelligent Life:

In 74bc a band of pirates made a terrible mistake when they captured a ship off the coast of Asia Minor, now Turkey. They kidnapped one of the passengers, a young Roman citizen named Julius Caesar, along with his entourage, and demanded a ransom of 20 talents (about 650kg in silver) for his release. Caesar, in his mid-20s and on his way to study rhetoric in Rhodes, burst out laughing. Didn’t they know who he was? He was worth 50 talents, not a mere 20! Unsurprisingly the pirates agreed to this higher ransom, and released some of Caesar’s associates to raise the money.

Pirates were the scourge of the Mediterranean, bribing their way around efforts to suppress them. But despite their fearsome reputation, Caesar refused to be intimidated. He told them to be quiet when he wanted to sleep, “as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal bodyguard”, writes Plutarch. He joined in their games and regaled them with speeches and poetry, mocking them as illiterate barbarians. Once he was free, he said, he would execute the lot of them. According to Plutarch, “the pirates were delighted at this, and attributed his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth.”

When Caesar’s friends arrived with the ransom the pirates released him. He went straight to Miletus, a city on the coast of Asia Minor, raised a fleet and returned to the pirates’ camp. After helping himself to their treasure, he captured most of the pirates, took them to the city of Pergamon and asked the local governor to execute them. When the governor wavered, Caesar had the pirates crucified, even though he lacked permission to do so.

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