The earliest pirates in human history were born in the Mediterranean during the classical age. In a very long time, the earliest pirates known to the people were those brave warriors in ancient Greece as well as those in the Homeric Epics. But following a series of archaeological discoveries in Egyptian city Tanis during the 1930s and 1940s, the history of piracy was greatly extended into the past. The merit stele of Ramesses II (the third pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt) discovered in there recorded an attack on ancient Egypt by some sea power.
The way these bandits attacked was hardly different from that of pirates in later ages. With their warships, they entered the Nile Delta area from the estuary and rampaged on the river. But this attack eventually ended up with the success of Egyptians. Given the combat power of captured attackers, they were later recruited and deployed by Ramesses II to the border between Egypt and the Hittite Empire, and even took part in the famous battle of Kadesh.
The foreign troops in the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt
After the first engagement between Egyptians and pirates, many maritime invaders joined the Egyptian troop, thus forming a short-term cooperative relationship similar to that between the Byzantine Empire and the Rus.
As there were no precise records about these attackers, the archaeologists at that time referred to them as “the sea peoples” (or the “peoples of the sea”). The discovery of “sea peoples” extends the history of piracy to the 14th century BC. Judging from the archaeological research on ancient Egypt, this engagement between Egypt and the sea peoples was just the beginning of wars between them. The record of sea peoples also appears on the merit stele of Merneptah, the fourth pharaoh of the Nineteenth Dynasty of Egypt. This time, ancient Egyptian created a specific term to address them, “the nine bows”. It doesn’t mean the organization of sea peoples was called “the nine bows”. It is actually a term used in ancient Egypt to represent the enemies of Egypt. In other words, at that time the sea peoples were no longer strangers to Egyptians, instead, they were labeled as the enemy of Egypt.
Compare with the invasion in Ramesses II reign, the sea peoples brought great destruction to Egypt in Merneptah reign. In the Western Nile Delta under invasion, a large number of Egyptians were forced to give up their land and fled. On the merit stele of Merneptah, there is also a description of the ethnic composition of sea peoples. According to the description left by ancient Egyptians, the sea peoples had a very complex composition, including northern Mediterranean ethnic groups such as Sardinians, Achaeans from Greece and the Lukka from southwestern Asia Minor.
However, similar to Ramesses II, Merneptah also fought back against the sea peoples and achieved great successes. During the Twentieth Dynasty around the 12th century BC, the largest war broke out between Pharaoh Ramesses III and the sea peoples. According to the records in the Ramesses III reign, the sea peoples became more and more active in this period. Apart from the estuary of Nile, the whole Eastern Mediterranean region including Levant, Hittite Empire and Mitanni Empire were also invaded by the sea peoples.
In order to contend with ancient Egypt, the declining Hittite Empire even aligned with the sea peoples. According to the records in this period, similar to the Gauls who fought the Romans in later time, the sea peoples often brought their families with them, like a family migration. This made their troops even more spectacular.
Two wars between the two sides broke out in the fifth and eighth year of Ramesses III reign. In the fifth year, the sea peoples landed at the Nile Delta, then split into two troops and moved into the heart of the country. Making use of their splitting, Ramesses III ordered his fleet to block the fleet of sea peoples outside the estuary of Nile; he himself led his troop to surround and annihilate the army of sea peoples which were invading alone and without reinforcement. The sea peoples did not learn from their previous failure when they invaded again in the eighth year of Ramesses III reign. Once again they used the same tactic, splitting their huge troops into two parts and invaded from both sea and land.
As the invasion this time was on a larger scale, Ramesses III did not send his fleet to intercept the enemy fleet. The Egyptians knew the hydrological condition of the Nile better, so their fleet lurked at the estuary of Nile, ambushed the enemy fleet when they were going into the Nile. Following the river currents, the Egyptian fleet charged at enemy fleet. According to ancient Egyptian records, the ships of sea peoples were more difficult to operate, and their sailors did not clearly know their roles.
In addition, the hydrological condition of the estuary of Nile was very complex, therefore the fleet of sea peoples had little defense against the ambush of Egyptians. The Egyptians destroyed a large number of enemy ships, captured a lot of enemy soldiers and even their leader. Without the fleet, the army of the sea peoples on the land was in a dilemma again as three years ago, and was finally surrounded and annihilated.
After Ramesses III, there were little more records about the sea peoples. The biggest controversy about the sea peoples is, where exactly were they from? After all, simply judging from ancient Egyptian records, the composition of the sea peoples was very complex, and the description of their image was closer to that of Sardinian and Mycenaean. Therefore, the sea peoples were likely composed of people from the above two ethnic groups. Other ethnic groups such as the Hittites, might also joined as allies or vassals. Besides, when sea peoples rampaged in Mediterranean region, there were also large-scale ethnic migrations in Asia Minor Peninsula as well as the Balkan. Therefore, the reason why the sea peoples went to combat with ox carts and families (as was described in the records during the Ramesses III period) is probably that they had the intention of migration.