It all began with piracy

The arrival of the Romans in northwest Europe at the beginning of the era, with the River Rhine as frontier, was the starting signal for five centuries of widespread piracy. Piracy that not only affected the coasts of Britannia and Gaul. It stirred things up even as far as the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The heartland of these pirates was the coastal area north of the River Rhine in the Netherlands up to the River Elbe in Germany, including parts of the adjacent interior. A dangerous coast that even sheltered notorious capers until the late fourteenth century. Out of this long-standing pirating tradition evolved a common culture with a common language, encompassing the southern coast of the North Sea ánd both sides of the English Channel. In fact, it is this buccaneer-culture on which western culture was partly founded, and that started to flourish over the course of the fifth century, after the collapse of the Roman Empire in the region. In this post we will try to tell this complex coastal history of the Late Antiquity. A story that is almost never being told.

And, of course, after reading this post you understand too why in the psyche of the West names of freebooters and mateys like Black Beard, Dolhain, Jack Sparrow, Jacob Benckes, Captain Hook, Mansvelt, Klaus Störtebeker, Michiel de Ruyter, der schwarze Rolf, Rock Brazilano (also Brasiliano), Francis Drake, the Flying Dutchman, Captain Kidd, Greate Pier, Godeke Michels, Black Bart, Grace O’Malley, Davy Jones, Piet Hein, Egil Skallagrimson, Long John Silver, and, of course, Gannascus have a special place.

pirate trading cards from Novel Package, Novel Candy Corp. (1950)

Before we begin; why is this story almost never being told? The explanation is trivial and quite embarrassing for the academic world: their obsession with Vikings. This disproportional emphasis on Vikings has distorted our view on Europe’s maritime history. As a particular scholar describes it: “The Vikings, in fact, were only the last episode of a long line of barbarian pirates harassing Europe” and “The Viking age marks an accentuation of something long present”. Admittedly, the Vikings did so with a big bang. To this very day almost twenty-four-seven a new, academic book or article about Vikings is being published.

Therefore, let us quickly go to where and when it all really started.

1 – Arrival of the Romans

Led by none other than Caesar himself, the Romans conquered Gaul between 58-51 BC. It was around 15 BC the Romans first set foot on the marshy soil of the biggest delta of Europe, that of the rivers Rhine, Scheldt and Meuse. The wetlands. There where the ocean meets the sand, so to speak. If the Romans had made a proper business case beforehand, they probably would have saved themselves the trouble. It was general Claudius Drusus who arrived with an army at the central river lands of the Netherlands in 12 BC. According to the historian Tacitus, the Chauci were known for piracy, but were also one the most noble Germanic tribes.

After a few decennia of cumbersome and repeatedly disastrous military expeditions north of the River Rhine, including a maritime disaster during the military expedition under command of general Germanicus Julius Caesar to submit the Chauci in AD 16, during which an impressive Roman fleet of a 1,000 small ships was wrecked by storm and tide at the Wadden Sea near the mouth of River Ems, and including a major defeat with no less than 1,300 casualties on Roman side in the Baduhenna Woods against the Frisians in AD 28, the Romans settled with the lower River Rhine as the northernmost frontier of the empire on the continent. Around AD 40, they started to erect the limes ‘border’ of Lower Germanic Limes.

Barely were the first fortifications completed, when in the year 69 a large-scale revolt started that lasted two years, orchestrated by the Batavians, under command of Gaius Julius Civilus. The Canninefates, under command of King Brinno, the Chauci and the Frisians also chipped in, and were considered the bravest forces by Civilus. The naval power of these allied forces was mainly supplied by the Canninefates and the Frisians (Haywood 1999). Their fleet laid waste to the fort of Agrippinae, current Valkenburg, where two cohorts, about a 1,000 soldiers, were deployed, and captured a staggering twenty-four Roman galleys. These attacks of the Canninefates and the Frisians were the first act of war of the revolt of 69. It totally surprised the Romans, who were anticipating an attack of the Batavians instead (Van de Bunt 2020). The strikes of the Canninefates and the Frisians must have been a serious blow to the Roman classis ‘fleet’. At the North Sea, the fleet of the insurgents confronted a Roman convoy sailing from Britain. Maybe it were reinforcements because things were not exactly moving into the right direction for the Romans at the limes. The Batavians and Chauci ruined many other forts more inland.

A cohort of Frisian and Chauci operated high up-stream the River Rhine, at the town of Tolbiacum, current Zülpich in Germany. All the way near the current city of Bonn. These Chauci and Frisian rebels were defeated by the people of Tolbiacum. This success was achieved through a list. The citizens of Tolbiacum had offered the Chauci and Frisians a banquet with a lot of wine. After the Chauci and Frisians had fallen asleep drunk, the doors were closed and the building set afire. All according to Tacitus’ Historiae.

Germanic tribes during Roman Period

Eventually, the Romans restored order in the central river area of the Netherlands. Under the rule of Emperor Hadrianus in the second century, the limes were heavily fortified.

However, at the end of the second century things turned bad again, and Germanic tribes started to revolt and invaded the Roman territory. At the same time in the second century, a massive process of re-wetting of the landscape commenced. A process known as the Great Watering. Forts literally started to sink slowly into increasingly wetter grounds. Most forts in the west were abandoned during the already vertigo years of the third century. From around the second quarter of the third century the economy shrank. Building activity south of the River Rhine tempered, lesser settlements, and gold money was horded (Buijtendorp 2021). Although the Romans restored order, for a last time, at the end of the third century, they soon after retreated south. The Roman road that connected Cologne via Maastricht and Tongeren with Bavia on towards Boulogne-sur-Mer, also called the Limes Belgicus, became the new northernmost border of the empire. A border still traceable, because it is more or less the dividing line between the French and the Dutch languages.

2 – Endemic piracy

And there where the Ocean streams, there live the Saxons, quick, hardened and skilled with weapons, and the Scridifinns [also Skridfinns meaning striding Finns, i.e. the Sámi] and the Frisians – and they are all feared as pirates.

Versus de Asia, between 635-637

The drivers behind the large-scale piracy (the word ‘pirate’ is derived from the Greek word peiratēs, meaning something like ‘to attack’) from the region north of the River Rhine along the southern coast of the North Sea were the following.

The new wealth the Romans brought to the region, might have been a logical, first, reason. Think of all the wealth and food transported along the River Rhine and the transports between the continent and Britannia. Indeed, greed. Maybe a trigger already soon after the Romans had arrived in the wet delta.

Secondly, climate change probably was a driver too. The traditional explanation is that because of a new period of marine transgression which started in the third century, the Dunkirk II period, the sea level rose and living conditions worsened along the low-lying coast. However, the more recent insights are that a process of dune formation, sedimentation and silting-up of tidal gullies in the wider North Sea basin, led to exhaustion of sedimentation sources in the North Sea, which in turn triggered an erosion process of the southern North Sea coast. A so-called high-energetic sea trying to rebalance its sedimentation level. As a consequence, the closed dune-wall complex was breached, deep inlets were carved out into the interior, and tons of peat were carried off to sea (Tys 2002). But also, the already mentioned Great Watering: a defrosting process of the still frozen deep soil since the last Ice Age, due to the temperature rise, causing the soil to shrink. Indeed, something we learned from boring physics class is that ice has lesser volume than water.

All these environmental processes gradually made much of the coastal land unsuitable for agriculture and living. The need to find additional resources became paramount. The already existing tradition of piracy, it received a boost.

Eventually, the population of the west coast of the Netherlands and of tidal marshlands in the north of Germany and of the Netherlands decreased. Especially in the fourth century populations were small. This must have coincided with regional migration movements.

Thirdly, perhaps stimulated by the Roman presence, ship building and fighting techniques developed too. This enhanced the possibilities of piracy. Lastly, the fourth reason causing piracy to go to the next level in volume and complexity, is that these Germanic tribes of the sub-Roman world started to operate in (large) confederations. The names Franks and Saxons are, in fact, primarily names to denote a confederation of tribes. Manum latronum exitialem (mischievous band of robbers), as they were described by the fourth-century Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus. We will come back to the Frankish and Saxon confederations further down.

The result was that piracy became an important means of livelihood for many tribes of the region north of the River Rhine.

The most well-known Germanic seafaring tribes of the first two centuries of the era, are the Batavi, the Bructeri, the Canninefates, the Chauci, the Frisians and the Usipi. Except for the Batavians and the Canninefates, who lived respectively in the central river land and between the mouths of the rivers Rhine (Rhenus) and Meuse (Helinium), the other tribes lived outside (mostly north of) the limes. The tribe of the Frisiavones may be considered as the Romanized Frisians (IJssennagger 2017). Archaeological research suggests that the Frisiavones populated the area between the River Rhine and the River Meuse from mid-first century, similar to the civitas Batavii. Ceramics found of the Frisiavones is of Frisian (Frisii) tradition.

The Ampsivarii, a tribe that lived at the mouth of the River Ems, was pushed-out by the Chauci soon after the Romans had arrived in the region, and never to be heard of again. Outside Roman control, these tribes could prepare their raids deep into Roman territory south of the River Rhine, at both coasts of the English Channel, and the coast of Brittany. The coasts of their homeland were treacherous, thus offering protecting against Roman punitive expeditions. A coast that was (and is) shallow with strong tides and infested with gullies, inlets, islands, bays, sandbanks, total lack of points of reference and bad weather. Roman fleets were defeated by these (lack of) elements. Also, approaching these coast from the interior was extremely difficult, with all the peat lands, swamps, lakes and rivers bordering it.

Of the Germanic tribes, the Chauci were the most notorious. We know that the Chauci and the Frisians were not only neighboring tribes but also that they shared the same salt-marsh culture of living on raised settlement mounds (i.e. a terp or Warft) above the likely flood line. An inhospitable, unprotective coastal zone of massive marshlands, frequently flooded, stretching from current province Friesland in the Netherlands to the River Ems in Germany. The Chauci may also have settled on islands in the estuary of the River Rhine. Check out our blog post The shipwrecked people of the salt marshes to know how the Romans appreciated these tribes, and to understand fully what these terps (also wierde or Warft) were. A quite unique salt-marsh culture.

Warft or terp culture of the Chauci and Frisii tribes, Iron Age (Jouke Nijman)

Thanks to the Roman historian and politician Tacitus (ca. 56-120) we know that the Germanic tribes were skillful seafarers. It concerned notes of a naval battle near the mouth of the River Ems in 12 BC. A battle between the Romans and the Bructeri tribe. The Bructeri was a tribe living more upstream the River Ems. Another account, also of Tacitus, is about the phenomenal journey of the Usipi tribe. The Usipi lived more inland between Cologne at the River Rhine and the River Lippe. During a military campaign in Britannia in the year 82, a cohort of Ursipi mercenaries mutinied from the Imperial Army. First, they commandeered three galleys. With these ships, which were not easy things to master, they sailed north and circumnavigated Britannia. Then the Ursipi mercenaries crossed the North Sea and sailed upstream the River Rhine trying to make it home, apparently. Only on the river they had trouble navigating. Here the Frisians, who gave no quarter, either killed or enslaved the Ursipi to be sold (Abulafia 2019).

The Chauci entered history with raids against the province Gallia Belgica in the first half the first century. The first record of a raid of the Chauci is in AD 41. Six years later, again the Chauci appear in the annals. This time we even have the name of their commander: Gannascus. Gannascus, who himself was a member of the Canninefates tribe, was captured by the Romans in the year 47. The years 47 and 48 was a period that the Chauci and the Frisians systematically raided the supply routes of the Romans and started after the death of Sanquinius Maximus, governor of Germania Inferior (Van de Bunt 2020). The whole revolt was not taken lightly by the Romans, because Emperor Claudius ‘sent in the cavalry’, so to speak. A military force led by non other than the successful general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo. We can assume Gannascus was sent by Corbulo to Davy Jones’ Locker. The last time we hear of the Chauci is during the period 170-175, when raids were at its height. The Chauci were even carrying out operations in the Bay of Biscay. Simply because the Chauci were not mentioned anymore, does not mean they had given up raiding, and had become good and friendly people. The Romans merely had given a new name to the sea gypsies, namely Saxons and Franks, of which the Chauci, like other northern seafaring tribes, surely were part of too.

The last quarter of the second century a pandemic hit Europe. Although still unclear what disease it was, estimations are that between fifteen to twenty-five percent died of it. The Roman army was hit notably hard because not only its soldiers died, it was also more difficult to replace them. This made the limes more vulnerable for attacks by the Chauki. The pandemic might also be an explanation why relatively many hoards have been found, since its owner just had died. (Buijtendorp 2021). Of course, the disease will have effected the numbers of Chauki warriors like that of the Romans.

3 – Litus Saxonicum

By around 200, the intensity of piracy was so widespread that the shores of northern Gaul from Brittany to Flanders, and of southern and eastern Britannia, were not safe to live anymore. The forebear of the adventus Saxonum ‘the coming of the Saxons’, i.e. the migration of the Anglo-Saxons to come within a few centuries. At the end of the first century the Romans started to build fortifications at river mouths. These were the precursor of the Litus Saxonicum ‘Saxon Shore frontier’. Probably also fortifications existed at the mouths of the River Scheldt and the River Rhine in the Netherlands. Due to marine erosion these have been destroyed.

Late-Antiquity Man-O-War, replica Nydam Oak ship

From around mid-third century, pirate activity increased yet again. The Frankish confederation started to roam the sea shores for booty around 230. This big confederation consisted of the Ampsivarii, Bructeri, Chamavi, Chattuarii (i.e. the Hetware, known from the epic poem Beowulf), Bructeri, Ampsivarii, and Salians (Claes & Nieveler 2017). Possibly also the Canninefates, Chauci, Frisians and the Herules. Franks was the name they gave themselves, meaning possibly something like ‘fierce’ or ‘bold’ or maybe ‘free’. The name Saxons or Saxones appeared for the first time in contemporary sources in the year 356 (Dhaeze 2019). Mistakenly the year 150 is often regarded as the first mention of the Saxons, i.e. the source of Ptolemy’s Geographica. However, the Geographica mentiones the Abionec people which Tacitus recorded as the Aviones. This was subsequently copied into Greek as AΞONEC, translated as Axones and later ‘improved’ to Saxones, because that name was well known by then (Lanting & Van der Plicht 2020). Indeed, a whisper game, not played by children but by historians. Probably Saxon is the name of a confederation of the Reudingi and, thus, the Aviones tribes north of the River Elbe, Germany. However, where to pinpoint the Reudingi and the Aviones exactly is not very clear. The Saxons started to raid a bit later than the Franks, around 280. More theories exist about the term saxon. If interested in these check our post Have a Frisians cocktail, and discover as an aside the modern Frisians are, in fact, Saxons.

In the period 253-276, the Franks even looted in the heart of the antique world. In the year 260, Frankish corsairs sacked the cities of Tarragona and Tours, and the coast of North Africa. In 278 they suffered a defeat in the Mediterranean, and were captured. For some reason, the Romans resettled them in Pontus at the Black Sea. A year later, the cunning pirates commandeered a fleet of the Romans, and sailed from the Black Sea via the Bosporus into the Aegean Sea. They pillaged the coasts of Asia Minor, the Levant, and of Greece. From Greece, they steered the fleet to the island Sicily and sacked the city of Syracuse. From there they even tried to raid the great city of Carthage in current Tunisia. Perhaps, these pirates were inspired by the words of late senator Cato: “Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam” (‘Furthermore, I consider that Carthage must be destroyed’). Here, for the first time, they suffered a defeat. Nevertheless, they were able to continue their sea journey via the Strait of Gibraltar back to the River Rhine. The whole endeavor was described by the historian Zosimus in his Historia Nova written at the start of the sixth century. We estimate such a boat trip must have taken about half a year, at least.

The Romans responded to the increasing pirate activity to further secure the coasts with fortifications and with more naval power. This is the legendary Litus Saxonicum ‘Saxon Shore frontier’ as described in the Notitia Dignitatum ‘List of Offices’ dated at the beginning of the fifth century. It is a series of forts and military fleets deployed along the southern and eastern shores of Britannia, and along the northern coast of Gaul. The Litus was built between 240 and 280. Check this map we made of coastal defenses to have an overview of these fortifications.

There is some dispute among historians how to precisely appreciate the Litus Saxonicum. Was it really an integrated defense wall, or more a series of separated structures? More probably it was the latter. Primarily to protect strategic points located along the coasts, mostly regional trading hubs often at river mouths. With a local military, stone structure, commodities could be protected, and the transport of troops and goods over sea be secured. In other words, bridgeheads for safe landings of ships. Think of the shipment of ore, grains, coal, livestock and military supply. At the same time, these forts also facilitated the clearance and taxation of goods by the Roman authorities, since these were regional commercial hubs too.

Be all that as it may, the period the Litus Saxonicum was built, coincides when piracy was a scourge in the area. Villas burned down all the way in Brittany, forts destroyed in Britannia, the reduction in the number of vici ‘trading settlements’ and the hoards found along the coasts of Brittany and Britannia that might indicate insecure times too (Abulafia 2019). So, no mistake as to why the Romans went through all the trouble and expenses. In 285, Roman commander Carausius was tasked to end the intense Frankish and Saxon piracy for once and for all, and to keep the seaways clear. He was successful, but immediately accused by Rome of being in league with the pirates, and kept some of the prizes of the pirates to himself. Also, punitive expeditions of the Roman Army into the River Rhine area were part of the strategy to suppress piracy (Pearson 2005).

The ‘success’ of the Litus Saxonicum and the actions of Carausius were not long-lasting. In 280 the Frankish and Saxon confederations even started to combine their forces. The pirates were also simply called Germanic tribes by the Romans. Together the confederations plundered the coasts of Belgica and Amorica, i.e. the coasts of Brittany and Normandy. Another raid is documented seven years later, namely that of the Herul tribe from Scandinavia, who plundered the River Rhine area. The origins of the Herul are a bit hazy, but possibly somewhere in Denmark or southern Sweden.

In this period, Frisians were also active as pirates and in combat operations, even as far as in Belgica Secunda, modern East Flanders. This is supported by typical Frisian hand made ware vessels discovered in modern Zele-Kamershoek, Belgium, dating around the year 300. Furthermore, from the Panegyrici Latini, i.e. the collection of twelve public speeches in praise of Roman emperors, we known that Emperor Constantius I resettled or deported Frisian and Chamavi raiders into the interior of Gaule. These Chamavi and Frisians had populated the central river area of what is now the Netherland around the year 260, after the Batavi tribe had lost its special status in the year 212. However, the Frisians and Chamavi who had settled in the river area clashed with Emperor Constantius I in the River Scheldt region in the year 293. Although the Roman records talk about Franci, they were, in fact, Frisians and other northern Germanic tribes. The Frisians lost, were made slave, and got deported to Belgium and northern France (Lanting & Van der Plicht 2010, Dhaeze 2019). Also, the Panegyrici Latini describe the Frisians as praedatores ‘looters’ (Haywood 1999, Dhaeze 2019).

Roman Emperor Constantius I (ca. 250-306)

The first decennia of the fourth century the Frankish pirates started raiding the coast of Spain, and as far north as the Orkney Islands. Halfway the fourth century, Frankish incursions into the Roman territory at River Rhine area took place. A Roman fleet of six-hundred ships had to restore Roman hegemony, albeit briefly, in the River Rhine area again. Not long after, however, things went totally wrong for the Romans. The Germanic en Celtic tribes teamed up.

4 – Barbarica conspiratio and the pull-out of the Romans

As described, the Romans had retreated from their limes along the lower River Rhine over the course of the third century, although they still tried to maintain their influence over the lucrative central river-area. This influence was achieved also with money, with buying alliances. The gold hoard of Lienden, dated around 465, and found in the central river-land in the Netherlands, just east of Wijk bij Duurstede, might be an example these politics. Similar deals probably were made with tribes north of Hadrian’s Wall in Britannia, but also with the Frisians of which the hoard found in Winsum is an example (Dhaeze 2019). A strategy identical with how CIA agents went with suitcases filled with money into the mountains of Afghanistan to buy alliances of local warlords and their tribes, during the ’80s of the last century. Who knows, they still do. Around the year 320, Emperor Constantine made a treaty with the Franks to help defend the limes at the Rhine area. In the years between 396 and 402, commander Stilicho inspected the limes and again treaties were made with the Franks (Dhaeze 2019). Of course, all this came with a heavy price for the Romans to be paid to the Franks.

Halfway the fourth century, the situation in Britannia started to be untenable, despite the Litus Saxonicum. In 367 not only raids of Frankish and Saxon pirates were launched onto the shores of Britannia, but also from the north the Celtic tribes the Attacotti, Picts and the Scots revolted, and broke through the borders. It is the year the Romans called the barbarica conspiratio ‘barbarian conspiracy’. Perhaps they were right, and the pressure on Roman forces was coordinated among the barbarians of both sides of the North Sea indeed.

barbarica conspiratio, AD 367

“Enough is enough,” the Romans must have thought, and in the year 410 Rome pulled out of Britannia as well. Leaving the defenses to the Romano-Briton civitates ‘citizens’ themselves. Following the barbarica conspiratio, piracy remained endemic, roughly until early-sixth century. There was one twist in the story, however.

After the collapse of Roman power in Britain, Germanic tribes started to settle. Indeed, the adventus Saxonum ‘the coming of the Saxons’ had started, as described in Gildas’ De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ‘On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain’ written around 540. The first evidence we have that Germanic tribes settled in Britannia, is in the year 429. The Chronica Gallica ‘Gallic Chronicle’ of 542, testifies of Saxons getting a foot in the door at the Isles and gained control over a significant part of England. Germanic tribes making their way into Britain. Most of them were from northern Germany, Frisia and southern Scandinavia (Fleming 2010). Settlers in search of land. Maybe in small boats too. With wife, children and some livestock. But also, foreign tribes with the purpose of political conquest and about to make live of the native walhaz difficult. The Anglo-Saxon history had commenced.

WealhazThe West Germanic term walhaz means ‘foreigner’, or more specifically ‘a person of Celtic or Romance speech’. In other words, walhaz is the perspective of a Germanic-speaking neighbor of the Roman Empire, living in what is now Flanders, Germany and the Netherlands (Schrijver 2014). On the continent, the term walhaz survived as ‘wahl’ in German (e.g. Walchensee) and ‘waal’ in Dutch (e.g. Waalwijk and Walonia), to denote people who spoke Romance. A walnut is therefore: a nut from France, where the people speak Romance. In Old English walhaz developed into ‘wealh’ or ‘wealhas’ and retained the inherited meaning of ‘foreigner’ to indicate the indigenous people of Britain, being of lower status. In the West Saxon dialect of Old English ‘wealh’ was even a synonym of slave.

The raid around 525 of Danu rex Chlochilaichus, probably Hygelac of the epic poem Beowulf, into Frisia at the River Rhine, was the last pirate activity recorded in written sources. Read also our blog post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay about this disastrous expedition. This expedition is the end of centuries of the so-called Saxon migration and piracy, where, in fact, Saxons included Jutes, Angles, Frisians and even Franks (Lebecq 2005).

5 – Ships and modus operandi

One of the most important things you need as pirate is a sword and a ship. We put the sword, cutlass, seax and other weaponry stuff aside and shall focus on ships.

Millingen-aan-de-Rijn Roman sword, ca. AD 25
Ships

In the words of Tacitus, the pirates used a ‘medley of ships’, some propelled with oars, some with colorful cloaks used as sails. According to Plinius’ Naturalis Historia, their boats were hollowed-out trees that could carry up to thirty warriors. Pliunius’ description might suggest the fleet was inferior, but it was not. Actually, the fleet was quite professional (Pearson 2005). It is a misconception that the Germanic tribes did not use sail. The quote of Tacitus, in fact, makes already clear they did. Furthermore, from the neighboring Celts we know they used sails for sure, and of course there were contacts between the Celtic and Germanic tribes. The thing was, however, that the Germanic tribes made less use of sail at first. The explanation for this was, there simply was not much need for it. Warships were traditionally propelled by peddles and later by oars. Above, a warship had to be maneuverable and not depended on a favorable wind to attack or to pull out. And, since the crew of a warship had to be as big as possible anyway, a sail was not needed. For commercial transport, however, the opposite argument was the case. A small crew is more economical and thus the use of sails is reason. However, when piracy over longer distances became an increasing practice, the combination of ships propelled by oars ánd by wind came more in use.

In the centuries before the era until the first century, boats of the so-called Hjortspring-type were wide-spread in southern Scandinavia. These were boats of about seventeen meters long and had space for about twenty men peddling. These boats were built in the Nordic clinker-built tradition, thus where the edges of the hull planks overlap each other. By the end of the first century, the Hjortspring-type had been replaced by more sophisticated, also clinker-built, ships with oars. Much like the ships found in Halsnøy, Norway and in Björke, Sweden.

In the River Rhine area, around the beginning of the era, flat-bottomed ships and barges were built with sails. Several barges have been found at Zwammerdam, the Netherlands. These were used for commercial transport. The construction technique was flush or carvel-built. With this technique the edges of the hull planks are placed close together.

impression of second-century cargo ship ‘Blackfriairs I’, excavations Blackfriairs-London

In Bruges, Belgium a cargo ship was found, dated around 200. It was flat-bottomed, about fourteen meters long and carried sail. Like the Rhine barges mentioned above, it was carvel-built too. Similar to the Bruges boat, is the ship excavated at Blackfriairs (London), UK. The so-called Blackfriairs I shipwreck is dated second century and carried a sail. Both the Bruges and Blackfriairs I boats are seen as the ancestral to the cog ship, also kugg or kogg(e). The cog ship, with its big carrying capacity, became the dominant ship type of the Early Middle Ages, and thought to be the typical vessel of the Frisian merchants. Probably even developed by the Frisians (Westerdahl 1992).

In Nydam Moss in Denmark, three ships were found. The best conserved is the Nydam Oak ship. The findings illustrate that by 300 the Germanic tribes already possessed quite seaworthy boats and warships. The Nydam Oak ship is a twenty-one meters long Man-O-War, and had space for thirty rowers annex warriors. Maybe it could carry a crew of in total of forty (probably) men. The ship was built in the Nordic tradition, namely clinker-built. The number of warriors nicely fits the description of Plinius, see above.

Nydam Oak ship, ca. AD 300
Modus Operandi

Besides ships, we have seen from where the pirates operated, the current Wadden Sea coast of Germany and of the Netherlands, what are now the regions Friesland, Groningen, Ostfriesland, Butjadingen, Land Wursten and Dithmarschen. An area that was outside the sphere of influence of Rome, and its waters were, as described earlier, treacherous and hard to navigate. The only chance to have success with a military operation in this ever-changing tidal landscape, was to engage locals in the army. Otherwise you were doomed to get stuck in the mud or get stranded on a tidal plate or sandbank. It was an impenetrable waterland. After the Roman Empire retreated south and abandoned the limes at the lower River Rhine, Germanic tribes made use of this and the central river area, including the mouth of the rivers Rhine, Meuse and Scheldt became excellent safe havens as well for pirate operations. These are the current regions Flanders, Zeeland and Holland.

In their wetlands, pirate operations were planned, prepared and carried out by the freebooters (a word, by the way, originating from the Dutch word vrijbuiter ‘free booty-er’). Possibly going out to sea for plundering during the sailing season from spring to autumn. The borders of the Roman Empire in the region were difficult to protect too, because of the English Channel separating Gaul from Britannia. An excellent gateway cutting straight into Roman territory. With a Roman supply chain via sea between the island and the continent, being vulnerable and hard to protect. At first the distances the pirates covered, were fairly limited and did not extend beyond the eastern and southern coast of Britannia and the northern coast of Gaul. From the Wadden Sea to Gaul it took the raiders eight to nine days rowing. To reach Kent it took them about ten days (Dhaeze 2019). But over the course of the third century, pirates operated in the Bay of Biscay and in the Mediterranean. It was impossible to carry out operation without having rests. So, probably during their nautical operations on the coast of Britain, the pirates rested in coves and inlets before attacking (Pearson 2005).

A question, however, not much debated when talking about these early pirates is so obvious that it is overlooked, namely: what was their booty? We easily assume it is gold, silver, armor, fancy bronze statues stuff etc. Important for prestige in a client system. But was this available in large quantities making a raid economical? How much gold and silver was there to rob along the coastal settlements anyway? There was a limited money economy. Or was all about obtaining women and slaves? And, whatever it was, randomly rowing into the Strait of Dover, steer your ships ashore at the sight of the first smoking fireplace of a village, is unthinkable. What were they after and how did they know where to find it? And how was it possible to surprise settlements along the coast?

Or were they indeed scanning the coasts just as long until they found a weak area. In 455-457, the Herules tried their luck in Galicia, but were not succesful. After that they moved east, and raided Basque Country and Cascony. After this, in 458-462, they returned to Galicia but went on to Andalusia. This way they got familiar with these areas (Dhaeze 2019). To us, this feels too much as a serendipity approach still.

Another aspect is, that the theories suggest piracy increased due to climate change, causing much arable land along the low-lying coasts to be lost. In other words, raiding as a means of compensation. Consequently, this must mean that with the looted treasure, food and goods were purchased somewhere else in the region. But where and how? Where were still surpluses of food available and where were those markets? Or, were, for example, livestock and grain part of the booty too. If the answer is yes, what were the implications for (the size of) their fleet, type of ships and their operations in general, to transport this type of booty? Read also our remarks on this aspect concerning the yearly raids of the Vikings on Dorestat in the ninth century, in our blog post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe. We welcome any suggestions on this matter of the booty.

Related to the former question is, how these pirates chose their targets? We may assume the potential loot was protected by the Romans and Britons. We also know these pirates were capable of attacking and laying waste to fortresses and villages. If we take the Nydam Oak ship as reference, you had about forty warriors per ship. That barely seems enough to challenge a fortified village with military present. The ninth-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle often speaks of parties of three ships forming a raiding party, or making a landing. That would be hundred and twenty warriors tops. We would be interested in studies that have estimated the size of a village along the south or eastern coast of England, the number of legionaries deployed at the fortress and consequently how many pirates it would take to launch a successful attack.

Anyhow, a fleet of ships, ship building, careful targeting, up-to-date knowledge of the seaways and the ‘Saxon Shore’ itself, and thorough planning, were all absolute preconditions. Combining this with the fact that the homelands of these pirates consisted of only quite small settlements, these operations must have covered an extensive area. Making the operations of the warrior bands probably polyethnic, necessarily beyond primary tribal entities (Dhaeze 2019). Explaining also the formation of confederacies. Many settlements must have been involved already for a single raiding operation. And probably different raids took place each season simultaneously, otherwise these would not have been a real threat and headache for the Romans, as we have seen earlier in this post. It also must have taken months of careful preparations, possibly during wintertime.

6 – The new, buccaneer culture

The reader might compare all the different episodes and raids mentioned above to a pinball machine that releases ten balls at the same time. The beginning of the common era was a dynamic period. The summery, however, is that it was a time of the “growing importance of power configurations with the emergence of politicized ethnic and sub-ethnic communities” (Fernández-Götz & Roymans 2015). Simultaniously, the Germanic tribes living along the southern coast of the North Sea engaged step by step in full-fledged piracy. The Chauci, Frisians, Herules and Chaibones are the sea raiders of the first hour, of which the Chauci stood out (Dhaeze 2019). Covering ever greater distances and forming growing coalitions or confederations. First these confederations were mainly known as Chauci, then as Franks (of which the Frisians were probably part too), and shortly after also as Saxons. Or, just as ‘Germanic pirates’. Piracy had become an essential part of the survival strategy of these sea-tribe societies.

It is also that during this period the cult of the god Wodan developed. His cult developed relatively late, about the beginning of the era. Therefore, coinciding with increased raiding activity. Wodan is the god of warriors and his cult might reflect the changes in society, from mainly agricultural towards (also) a warrior culture.

The confederation of the Franks needs an additional commentary. Generally, we tend to think of them as a landlocked tribe, but their origin was, in fact, a marine one. The Romans considered them as a sea people, as well. The cradle of the Franks is at southern coast of the North Sea too. In early sources, the Franks are called Hugas. The northern region in the Netherlands bordering the Wadden Sea in current region Humsterland in Groningen, was called Hugumarchi ‘land/mark of the Hugas’ in the Early Middle Ages. Other name variations were Humarcha, Hugmerchi and Hugmerki. Although the Hugas tribe left this region toward more inland and were replaced by the Frisians or Chauci, the name Humsterland has survived (Van der Tuuk 2016). Around the beginning of the era, the Salians, or Salian Franks, part of the Frankish confederation, started to move further south during the second half of the third century. Assisted by a crumbling Roman power, the long-haired Salians settled at the mouths of the rivers Rhine and Scheldt. From there they engaged in piracy at the closing of the third century. Subsequently, the Salian Franks occupied Toxandria, more or less the current Brabant regions in Belgium and the Netherlands. Later, the power and jurisdiction of the Franks expanded further. The capture of the town of Cambrai, also known as Kamerijk, in northern France by their leader Chlodio in the year 430, marks the beginning of Frankish rule. And of Francia. We know, all this information is devastating for any Francophile.

The result of all these movements, changing alliances and joint enterprises during a period of around five centuries, was a relatively cultural and linguistic homogeneity, also called Nordseegermanisch ‘North Sea-German’ (Lebecq 2005). A big melting pot. Communities that were very connected via waterways and seafaring skills. That was quite a different situation before it all started. That time, the Germanic tribes of the sub-Roman world were not entities held together by (again a long German term) a Zusammengehörigkeitgefühl ‘belonging-togetherness’, but were tribal diverse in origin. What brought them together, step by step, was probably the search for loot (John 1996).

The common language they developed during the Late Antiquity and Early Middle Ages is described as a ‘Saxon’ pirate-settlers language and called Coastal Dutch in linguistic research. It is an early form of Frisian. It was spoken from the coast of Flanders to the northwest of Germany. It is generally agreed that the similarities between Coastal Dutch and English date from this period (Schrijver 2014). When piracy at the British Isles gradually was replaced by settlement in the fifth century, this common language (and culture) was exported to England, explaining the similarities between English and Frisian till this day. The offspring of this language on the continent only survives in province Friesland in the Netherlands, and in enclaves further east in northwest Germany, i.e. Saterfriesisch and Nordfriesisch. Today, around 350,000 people speak it as mother tongue, and these numbers are steadily declining.

7 – Rebirth of trade

The pull out of the Romans, the common North Sea culture that had developed during the Late Antiquity, but also the improving climate conditions, were the foundations of the rebirth of commercial activities. In fact, the existence of such widespread linguistic communities facilitated contacts between the different shores of northwestern Europe. Toward 600, the Frisians and the Anglo-Saxon emerge as the chief instigators of this commercial rebirth. Also, read our blog post Porcupines bore U.S. bucks to learn more about the extensive volume of the early-medieval Frisians free trade. At the turn of sixth and seventh centuries, the whole wider North Sea region seems to have been affected by this revival of commercial activity. The chief ports of the commercial web were: Quentovic, Walcheren, Dorestat, Lundenwich, Ipswich, Fordwich, Sandwich, Eoforwich, Hamwih, Ribe and Sliaswich. A gazetteer of emporia (Lebecq 2005). If you want to know more about famous emporium Dorestat, current Wijk bij Duurstede in the Netherlands, check out our post The Batwing Doors of Northwest Europe.

8 – Land of the Free

The role of the Frisians in this piece of history is not a very prominent one, as you might have read already. They were one of those Germanic seafaring tribes bordering the Roman Empire, and undoubtedly participated within the many coalitions of pirate bands. During the period ca. 325-425, almost all of them had abandoned their lands when living conditions climate-wise deteriorated. It is very conceivable the original Frisians had blended into the big confederations of especially those of the Franks and the Saxons.

Historians have wondered, and still do, how it is possible that despite the nearly total depopulation of the Frisian territory, the name Frisia survived, and even was adopted by the new settlers from more to the east and from southern Scandinavia. It was from the Roman period it became silent in the sources about the name Frisian, only to resurface in the seventh century in written sources. Some say, the new settlers conformed to the old name the Frankish elite gave to them, namely Frisians. With this blog we made also our point this was not the reason.

The real reason is: because of what the name meant. It was a badge of honor. The word ‘frisia’ might have derived from the Old-Germanic word frīsijōz and frijaz. This meant something like ‘the free’ or ‘the unbound’ and ‘the brotherly’ (Van Renswoude 2012). No name could be more fitting for the new colonists repopulating the tidal marshlands again in the second quarter of the fifth century: the land of the free. It was after all still in a time when pirating was still a vivid part of the region. It was a name that may have been remembered within the entire North Sea socio-economic network, and the new Frisians naturally called themselves Frisians (Nieuwhof 2021).

Avast! Frisia, the free land of freebooters, where the ocean meets the sand.

We can live together

Where the ocean meets the sand

Won’t you take me to the

To the Gypsy Caravan

wolfmother

Epilogue

Despite the fact the heydays of piracy at the southern coast of the North Seas were over at the start of the sixth century, it remained a weak spot for the region. From Adam of Bremen’s Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum ‘Deeds of bishops of Hamburg church’ we known Frisian capers operated from the mouth of the River Weser. The territory of the Chauci pirates in Roman times. Want to know more of these lying pirates? check out our blog post Sailors ecaped from Cyclops. By the way, the word ‘caper’ is maybe derived from the Old Frisian word kopia which means ‘to buy’. That is also a way of putting it! And, it did not stop after the Middle Ages. Piracy alias privateering, became an essential part of the rebellion and of warfare of the Dutch Republic during the sixteenth, seventeenth and eigtheenth centuries. It was piracy in the Wadden Sea archipelago that fullfilled a prominent role in all this. Read our post Yet another wayward archipelago te learn more.

Klaus Störtebeker – After the Privateers’ War between the House of Mecklenburg and Denmark had ended at the closing of the fourteenth century, the pirates under the name Victualienbrüder ‘Victual Brothers’ who had fought alongside the House of Mecklenburg were kindly thanked for their efforts. Everybody knows, one of the most difficult things there is in life, is telling a group of pitiless pirates to quit what they are doing. It took an army of battle-hardened Teutonic Knights to kick the Victualienbrüder out of the Baltic Sea. One of the most famous captains was Klaus Störtebeker, probably originating from the town of Wiesmar, although legends differ. After the disaster against the superior Teutonic Knights, Klaus Störtebeker fled with a fleet to the coast of Frisia, current region Ostfriesland, in Roman times the territory of the Chauci. Here he was granted safe haven by the locale warlords. However, the Hanseatic League, led by the city of seven towers Lübeck, captured Störtebeker together with eighty-tree of his men in the year 1400. In Hamburg he was beheaded together with most of the men.

Störtebeker un Güdje Micheel, de beiden roovden like Deel to Water un nich to Lanne.

Bet dat et Gott in Himmel verdroot, do wurden se beid toschanne.

old hymn from Ostfriesland

A year later they captured another pirate captain, Güdje Micheel also Godeke Michels, when he was with his fleet in -again- Frisian waters, near the mouth of the River Weser (Meier 2004). Both Klaus and Godeke had to walk the plank. In the harbor of Hamburg you can find a statue of Klaus Störtebeker.

Pier Gerlofs Donia – A final pirate who must be mentioned, is Greate Pier. His actual name was Pier Gerlofs Donia and his nickname Kruis der Hollanders ‘Cross of the Dutchmen’. He originated from the village of Kimswerd, province Friesland. Legend has it he was really tall and big. His alleged sword of more than two meters is kept in the Fries Museum. He received his nickname for terrorizing the Zuyderzee or Southern Sea in the period 1515-1520. Greate Pier, also Grutte Pier, is known too from his Biblical-inspired acid test to identify possible spies of his nemesis the Count of Holland, namely the so-called shibboleth “bûter brea en griene tsiis, wa’t dat net size kin, is gjin oprjochte Fries” (butter, bread and green cheese, who cannot say that, is not an upright Frisian). Today, the Frisians mostly call him, euphemistically, a freedom fighter. It is this year (2020) he died five centuries ago and being commemorated with a movie as a hero. Nevertheless, Grute Pier has recently been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Frisia (ICTF). Find here the press release concering his indictment and the ICTF. 

Interestingly, in the area of the village of Tannenhause, just north of the town Aurich in Ostfriesland, the saga ‘Butter, Brot und Käse‘ (butter, bread and cheese) exits. It is the saga about a giant who was buried there, together with a lump of butter, a bread and a piece of cheese for his journey to world of spirits. Over time, the three gifts turned into stone. These can still be seen today.

Radio Veronica – Before we round up, another kind of piracy happened in the same waters. In 1959, the German lightship Borkum Riff III was sold to the Dutch pioneer Radio Veronica, to be converted into an offshore radio station at the docks of the harbor of Bremen. As the name makes clear, this lightship used to mark the reef near the Wadden Sea island Borkum, region Ostfriesland. Pirate station Veronica broadcast from the North Sea from 1960 till 1974. Soon after Veronica began broadcasting, other radio-pirate ships started broadcasting too from the North Sea. This competition even led to a bomb attack of the Veronica crew at another pirate ship in 1971. We are not joking: DJ’s at war. Three years later, the Dutch government introduced an anti-piracy law to end all this anarchy and violence at sea for once and for all. Why had not the Romans thought about legislation too?


Accompanying music

Further reading

  • Abulafia, D., An ancient history of piracy. How advances in sea power and changes in climate led to widespread piracy at the edge of the Roman Empire (2019)
  • Abulafia, D., The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans (2019)
  • Buijtendorp, T., De gouden eeuw van de Romeinen in de Lage Landen (2021)
  • Bunt, van de A., Wee de overwonnenen. Germanen, Kelten en Romeinen in de Lage Landen (2020)
  • Claes, B. & Nieveler, E., The Frankish Kingdom. Hub of Western Europe (2017)
  • Coleman, C.K. (blog), British Sea-Power in the Age of Arthur (2017)
  • Coll, S., Ghost Wars. The secret history of the CIA, Afghanistan and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (2004)
  • Dhaeze, W., The Roman North Sea and Channel Coastal Defence. Germanic Seaborne Raids and the Roman Repsonse (2019).
  • Doedens, A. & Houter, J., De Watergeuzen. Een vergeten geschiedenis, 1568-1575 (2018)
  • Ellmers, D., Frisian and Hanseatic merchants sailed the cog (1985)
  • Engelkes, G.G., Der schwarze Rolf (1936)
  • Fernández-Götz, M. & Roymans, N., The Politics of Identity: Late Iron Age Sanctuaries in the Rhineland (2015)
  • Fleming, R., Britain after Rome. The Fall and Rise 400 to 1070 (2010)
  • Fouracre, P (ed)., The New Cambridge Medieval History. Volume I c.500-c.700; Hamerow, H., The earliest Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; Lebecq, S., The northern Seas (fifth to eighth centuries) (2005)
  • Gelder, van J., Nieuwenhuis, M. & Peters, T. (transl.), Plinius. De Wereld. Naturalis historia (2018)
  • Harrington, S. & Welch, M., The Early Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Southern Britain, AD 450-650. Beneath the Tribal Hidage (2014)
  • Haywood, J., Dark Age Naval Power. A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo-Saxon Seafaring Activity (1999)
  • Heeringen, van R.M. & Velde, van der H.M. (eds), Struinen door de duinen. Synthetiserend onderzoek naar de bewoningsgeschiedenis van het Hollands duingebied op basis van gegevens verzameld in het Malta-tijdperk (2017)
  • Heijden, van der P., Romeinen langs de Rijn en Noordzee. De limes in Nederland (2020)
  • Jacobs, T.J.M., Friese vorsten (2020)
  • John, E., Reassessing Anglo-Saxon England (1996)
  • Lanting, J.N. & Plicht, van der J., De 14C-chronologie van de Nederlandse pre- en protohistorie VI: Romeinse tijd en Merovingische periode, deel A: historische bronnen en chronologische thema’s (2010)
  • Lanting, J.N. & Plicht, van der J., De 14C-chronologie van de Nederlandse pre- en protohistorie VI: Romeinse tijd en Merovingische periode, deel B: aanvullingen, toelichtingen en C-dateringen (2012)
  • Lehr, P., Pirates. A new history, from Vikings to Somali raiders (2019)
  • Looijenga, A., Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)
  • Loveluck, C. & Tys, D., Coastal societies, exchange and identity along the Channel and southern North Sea shores of Europe, AD 600–1000 (2006)
  • Lunsford, V.W., Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands (2005)
  • Meier, D., Seefahrer, Händler und Piraten im Mittelalter (2004)
  • Nieuwhof, A., The Frisians and their Pottery: Social Relations Before and After the Fourth Century AD (2021)
  • Paine, L., The Sea and Civilization. A Maritime History of the World (2014)
  • Pearson, A.F., Barbarian Piracy and the Saxon Shore; A reappraisal (2005)
  • Renswoude, O. (blog), Namen van Nederlandse stammen: Frisii (2012)
  • Rowley, S.M., The Old English version of Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (2011)
  • Schokkenbroek, J. & Brugge, ter J. (ed), Kapers & Piraten. Schurken of helden? (2010)
  • Schrijver, P., Language Contact and the Origins of the Germanic Languages (2014)
  • Siefkes, W., Ostfriesische Sagen und sagenhafte Geschichten (1963)
  • Sijs, van der N. (blog), Geleend en uitgeleend: Nederlandse woorden in andere talen en andersom (1998)
  • Simpson-Housley, P., The Arctic: Enigmas and Myths (1996)
  • Tschan, F.J., Adam of Bremen. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (2002)
  • Tuuk, De Franken in België en Nederland. Heersers in de vroege middeleeuwen (2016)
  • Violatti, C. (blog), The Saxons. Definition (2014)
  • Vries, de J., Wat hebben Jacob Benckes en Robinson Crusoe gemeen? (2020)
  • Westerdahl, C., The maritime cultural landscape (1992)

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