Nevertheless the power of the Romans in the Mediterranean was never lower, that of the corsairs never higher, than in those years. Well might the Cilicians and Cretans of the seas, who are said to have numbered at this time 1000 ships, mock the Isauricus and the Creticus, and their empty victories. With what effect the pirates interfered in the Mithradatic war, and how the obstinate resistance of the Pontic maritime towns derived its best resources from the corsair-state, has been already related. But that state transacted business on a hardly less grand scale on its own behoof. Almost under the eyes of the fleet of Lucullus, the pirate Athenodorus surprised in 685 the island of Delos, destroyed its far-famed shrines and temples, and carried off the whole population into slavery. The island Lipara near Sicily paid to the pirates a fixed tribute annually, to remain exempt from like attacks. Another pirate chief Heracleon destroyed in 682 the squadron equipped in Sicily against him, and ventured with no more than four open boats to sail into the harbour of Syracuse. Two years later his colleague Pyrganion even landed at the same port, established himself there and sent forth flying parties into the island, till the Roman governor at last compelled him to re-embark. People grew at length quite accustomed to the fact that all the provinces equipped squadrons and raised coastguards, or were at any rate taxed for both; and yet the pirates appeared to plunder the provinces with as much regularity as the Roman governors. But even the sacred soil of Italy was now no longer respected by the shameless transgressors: from Croton they carried off with them the temple-treasures of the Lacinian Hera; they landed in Brundisium, Misenum, Caieta, in the Etruscan ports, even in Ostia itself; they seized the most eminent Roman officers as captives, among others the admiral of the Cilician army and two praetors with their whole retinue, with the dreaded -fasces- themselves and all the insignia of their dignity; they carried away from a villa at Misenum the very sister of the Roman admiral-in-chief Antonius, who was sent forth to annihilate the pirates; they destroyed in the port of Ostia the Roman war fleet equipped against them and commanded by a consul. The Latin husbandman, the traveller on the Appian highway, the genteel bathing visitor at the terrestrial paradise of Baiae were no longer secure of their property or their life for a single moment; all traffic and all intercourse were suspended; the most dreadful scarcity prevailed in Italy, and especially in the capital, which subsisted on transmarine corn. The contemporary world and history indulge freely in complaints of insupportable distress; in this case the epithet may have been appropriate.
We have already described how the senate restored by Sulla carried out its guardianship of the frontier in Macedonia, its discipline over the client kings of Asia Minor, and lastly its marine police; the results were nowhere satisfactory. Nor did better success attend the government in another and perhaps even more urgent matter, the supervision of the provincial, and above all of the Italian, proletariate. The gangrene of a slave-proletariate Gnawed at the vitals of all the states of antiquity, and the more so, the more vigorously they had risen and prospered; for the power and riches of the state regularly led, under the existing circumstances, to a disproportionate increase of the body of slaves. Rome naturally suffered more severely from this cause than any other state of antiquity. Even the government of the sixth century had been under the necessity of sending troops against the gangs of runaway herdsmen and rural slaves. The plantation-system, spreading more and more among the Italian speculators had infinitely increased the dangerous evil: in the time of the Gracchan and Marian crises and in close connection with them servile revolts had taken place at numerous points of the Roman empire, and in Sicily had even grown into two bloody wars (619-622 and 652-654;(24)). But the ten years of the rule of the restoration after Sulla's death formed the golden age both for the buccaneers at sea and for bands of a similar character on land, above all in the Italian peninsula, which had hitherto been comparatively well regulated. The land could hardly be said any longer to enjoy peace. In the capital and the less populous districts of Italy robberies were of everyday occurrence, murders were frequent. A special decree of the people was issued--perhaps at this epoch-- against kidnapping of foreign slaves and of free men; a special summary action was about this time introduced against violent deprivation of landed property. These crimes could not but appear specially dangerous, because, while they were usually perpetrated by the proletariate, the upper class were to a great extent also concerned in them as moral originators and partakers in the gain. The abduction of men and of estates was very frequently suggested by the overseers of the large estates and carried out by the gangs of slaves, frequently armed, that were collected there: and many a man even of high respectability did not disdain what one of his officious slave-overseers thus acquired for him as Mephistopheles acquired for Faust the lime trees of Philemon. The state of things is shown by the aggravated punishment for outrages on property committed by armed bands, which was introduced by one of the better Optimates, Marcus Lucullus, as presiding over the administration of justice in the capital about the year 676,(25) with the express object of inducing the proprietors of large bands of slaves to exercise a more strict superintendence over them and thereby avoid the penalty of seeing them judicially condemned. Where pillage and murder were thus carried on by order of the world of quality, it was natural for these masses of slaves and proletarians to prosecute the same business on their own account; a spark was sufficient to set fire to so inflammable materials, and to convert the proletariate into an insurrectionary army. An occasion was soon found.