The Sea Raiders — Part 1

James Thomas
Mar 20, 2013 · 18 min read




The following text is from Part I — Chapter IV of A.R. Burn’s Minoans, Philistines and Greeks, 1400–900 B.C., 1930, and is reproduced here in its entirety for the benefit of the reader.

One of the most intriguing and misunderstood of all the ancient peoples that populated the Aegean World before during and after the Bronze Age are the mysterious and most alluring of all the Aegean tribes — The Pelasgians and their highly misunderstood and misinterpreted eventual “exit” from the Pages of history and eventual consignment to the realm of Myth and Legend.

I hope here, and in the material to follow in further related entries, as A.R. Burn is so clearly about to show here, to shed even more light as to the origins of the Peoples of the Sea and further expand the regions of the Aegean and surrounding lands to encompass what scholars such as Hall and Burn had been saying all along about the Peoples of the Sea and of their real origins and ancestral homelands.

The main enemy we face when it comes to identifying the origins of the Peoples of the Sea, or as I would like to point out the so called omission or ‘innocent’ misinterpretation of the origins and presence of an entire people’s existence and identity, is that of a reluctance to accept the words and authenticity of ancient authorities when it comes to such matters.

It appears that the origins of the Sea Peoples or at least a major facet of it comes from understanding the identity of the people whom comprised what I would surmise as the Pelasgian-Minoan-Philistine Tribes, those enigmatic people whom have always been present in the Aegean World, though at times during their Bronze Age to Early Iron Age existence, have gone by several ‘titles” attributed or assigned to them by various tribes akin or foreign to them.

I feel that academic circles are reluctant, and in some cases rightly so, to accept, without first rigorously testing the validity of such ancient authors, the accuracy of the ancient authorities words on the subject, but this I suspect is a fatal error because waiting for the definitive piece of proof of the Pelasgians identity and origins to turn up with a piece of archaeology with some written evidence across it saying ‘The Pelasgians were here’ will most probably never come to pass.

The records left to us by the ancient authors on this subject are our guiding light and whether they have inadvertently done a cut-and-paste on certain documents to dovetail their accounts into some credible work, should not really matter, as this, as you will read here in the following text, is easy enough to separate out, for those whom have the eyes to see it.

The Greek sources dealing with the People of the Sea are clear and well documented as with the Egyptian, Israelite and Levantine sources, but the problem we face I likened much to the proverbial Academic and Archaeological ‘Elephant in the room’, what I would call the ‘overwhelming-obvious’, something so blatant and in-your-face that it staggers the focused mined into stunned silence.

Why academic and archaeological circles of the period and even to this day still will not accept it, I can only surmise.

One very revealing and overwhelming piece of evidence that has come to light is the recent mapping of genetic similarities of peoples throughout the Mediterranean world.

This overwhelming evidence that I speak of comes in the form of DNA studies that shows that there are genetic links with the Peoples we associate with living in Modern-Day Tuscany, the ancient land of the Etruscans in Italy and those remnant populations of indigenous peoples now living under another name on the Aegean and southern coasts of Asia Minor.

The people we so commonly refer to as Pelasgoi and/or Tyrrhenoi in this text, for want of a better Label, whom I can only surmise as having always been in Asia Minor, have never really left these lands in their entirety, nor did these people, ever really disappear into the mists of Myth and Legend. Their descendants continue to this day to flourish, albeit a faded shadow of their once proud and glorious ancestors’ past, and scattered in small communities within the region of the Aegean and southern coasts of Asia Minor, because, as you will find throughout the history of indigenous peoples of the world that no matter whether you live under your own Pelasgian-Minoan-Mycenaean cultural sphere or are labelled as subjects to Persian, Roman, Byzantine or Ottoman Rule and are thus ’Labelled-citizens’ of their rule, one is what one is, you are whom you are, and none less so than the descendants of these Pre-Historic Aboriginal People whom populated the Aegean region for Millennia and whose descendants remarkably still survive to this day as scattered remnant populations in the Aegean region.

A very interesting and noteworthy statement comes to mind and is worth remembering from now on when dealing with the ‘Pre-Historic Proto-Hellenistic-Italian’ cultures on this subject and their perception of what they term as ‘Kith and Kin’, and that is the following fitting description, as the saying goes in Italy and Greece alike, — Una Fatsa Una Ratsa — ‘One Face One Race’, and just how appropriate and profound this statement is when considering the wealth of historical documentation on the origins of these peoples in our study of their Pre-Historic aboriginal past.


The chronologist Eusebios quotes from Diodoros of Sicily a list of “those who ruled the sea, from the fall of Troy to Xerxes’ crossing into Europe”. Diodoros must have given the list somewhere in the lost “second Volume” (books VI TO X) of his forty book history of the world; these books covered precisely the epoch to which the list refers. He presumably got his information from the History of Sea-Power of his contemporary, Kastor of Rhodes, the only Greek study of the subject of which we know. The probability is strengthened by the fact that our list concerns itself with Levantine waters only, ignoring the west and such sea powers as Corinth, Korkyra (Corfu), Carthage; for Kastor was an orientalist who also (as Suidas tells us) wrote the history of Babylon.

What kastor’s sources may have been we can, naturally only guess; but some of the entries in the list are so surprising as to make it clear that it is not merely an ordinary Hellenistic repetition of earlier Greek traditions, with embroidery, and with the gaps filled in a priori.

W. Aly has indeed argued that this is just what it is-an artificial construction based on Herodotos, and especially on his catalogues of Greek and Barbarian fleets during the Persian Wars.

But it is difficult to collect from the father of History any justification for the list’s statements that Phrygians, Lydians and Thracians has ruled the sea in earlier times; while on the contrary a list based entirely on Herodotos, would surely mention the three western naval powers named above, and also Chios, which, in addition to a great overseas trade, possessed at one time the most war-navy in Ionia, as Herodotos, expressly tells us.

This omission alone would make Aly’s theory unlikely. Detailed study of that part of the list which deals with historic times (the eighth to fifth century) further brings to light the fact that the best parallels to the information given by our document are frequently to be found in writers other than Herodotos. In short, Aly’s theory that the list is worth nothing, through very cleverly worked out in detail, seems to be both gratuitous and improbable.

Of the quality of Kastor’s work we can of course form no conception; but the singularly inept character of our document, in which one power is always first and “the rest nowhere”, and the replacement of one power by another never a gradual process but always a single event, is to be laid to the charge of Diodoros or Eusebios-whichever of them it was who tore from its context this mere date-chart, and gave it to the world entirely without commentary.

We are here concerned only with the six powers alleged in the early part of the list to have ruled the sea before the Phoenicians.

The ten entries, nearly all Hellenic, which carry on the tale down to Xerxes’ invasion of Greece, fall outside our period and, with a single emendation at a point where the list is known to be mutilated, can be accepted without difficulty.

Above this point the information given by the list is as follows:

From the fall of Troy (1172 B.C., according to Eusebios):

  1. The Lydians or Maionians ruled the sea for 92 years (1172–1080.)
  2. The Pelasgians ruled the sea for 85 years (1080–995).
  3. The Thracians ruled the sea for 79 years (995–916).
  4. The Phrygians ruled the sea for 25 years (916–891).
  5. The Rhodians ruled the sea for 23 years (891–868).
  6. The Cyprians ruled the sea for 33 years (868–835).
  7. The Phoenicians ruled the sea for 45 years (835–790).

Working backwards from the last entry, we naturally find no difficulty in accepting the tradition of a Phoenician sea-power at the end of the Ninth century. Indeed, the only surprise is that this “thalassocracy” lasts no longer than it does. From the way which Greek writers from Homer onwards represent Phoenicians as almost monopolizing Aegean trade before the rise of Miletos, one might expect their command of the sea to cover the whole of the Dark Age from the tenth century to the eighth.

Of the Next power named- that of Cyprus-we know nothing relevant. Of the next, the Rhodians, one is not surprised to hear nautical prowess predicted at any time.

Strabo gives some details, probably from Kastor’s account, of just such a “thalassocracy”, when Rhodian mariners sailed far afield “many years before the foundation of the Olympic Games”. But the idea of a Phrygian sea-power is astonishing, and Greek literature contains no other allusion to any such thing.

The three earliest entries, partly perhaps because we have a few other allusions to them, are still more puzzling.

One does not instinctively think of the Thracians as a nautical people, but there are various tales of their raiding by sea in early times, such as the story of Eumolpos, who invaded Attica from the sea side and helped the men of Eleusis against Erechtheus, king of Athens; or of Butes, son of the North Wind, whose piratical squadron raided Euboia and the coat of Thessaly, and whose descendants occupied Naxos for two hundred years “before the Karians held it”. And Samothrace is already “the Thracian Samos” in the Iliad.

But a difficulty arises; all these raids are explicitly dated before the Trojan War; for the Karian occupation of the Cyclades comes traditionally very soon after the war, and the Thracians had then already abandoned Naxos, owing to drought. And so it is with the next century.

About the Pelasgoi the air was already so thick with theories in ancient times that it is very difficult to make any statement about them that is not open to question.

Originally they seem to have been a pre-Hellenistic tribe (if Herodotos is right in his account of their language as spoken in his day) whose home was in the Northern regions of Greece. Here was the only “Pelasgian Land”, Pelasgiotis, known to history; here was the Pelasgian Argos; and not so very far away was the sacred place of the “Pelasgian Zeus” of Dodona to whom Achilles prayed.

In these regions they must have been neighbours of the first Achaians, who, by the time when the Catalogue of Ships in Iliad II was drawn up, appear to have taken complete possession both of lands, town, and shrine.

Nothing of the Pelasgoi remains in Homer’s Greece except their name, so far as our information goes ; the Pelasgoi themselves seem to have been pushed by gradual encroachments into the sea.

But they were not extinct; they had taken to the sea under pressure of necessity, as any vigorous and virile race will, and Homer speaks of colonies of them in Crete and (apparently) in the Troad, in the latter of which regions they take their opportunity of striking a blow for King Priam against their old enemies the Achaioi.

Fifth century historians knew of them also near Kyzikos, in Lemnos, Imbros, and Samothace, in the peninsula of Chalkidike, and between the Strymon and the Axios rivers. Such a distribution of the scattered fragments of their nation is in itself sufficient testimony to their activity by sea.

There are also stories of Pelasgoi in Attica and in Boiotia, the former of which is told with much circumstance by Herodotos and was believed by Thucydides; but it contains some suspicious features and may be myth. It should be remembered that both these writers are deeply influenced by the “Pelasgian Theory” which can be traced back as far as the Hesiodic poets, and which equated Pelasgio with “pre-hellenistic people” in general.

Accordingly Hesiod or a poet of his school makes their eponym Pelasgos a hero of the aboriginal people of primitive Arkadia. It was a very natural theory to adopt with reference to a people who had anticipated the Greeks in so many regions; but it was a most fruitful source of misconceptions.

A Pelasgian “thalassocracy” in the Dark Age after the Trojan War is not impossible; but it would fall more naturally at an earlier date after they had taken to the sea and set out to conquer new homes, but before their nation was broken into fragments.So we come to the “Lydian or Maionian” entry at the beginning of the list.

If this is indeed to be placed immediately after the Trojan War, it must be clearly identified with that development of sea-power on the Asian Coast which other Greek historians preferred to call Karian.

This thalassocracy must in any case have been short-lived, since it was brought to an end by the great outpouring of people from Greece which founded Aiolis and Ionia. But if we are not to suppose that the Karian and Maionian sea-powers are alternative versions of the same thing, then the only Greek tradition of “Lydian” sea-power with which we are left are those concerning the migration of the Etruscans.

The Tyrrhenoi are mentioned within the Aegean in historic times in the same two districts as the Pelasgoi, on the coast of Western Thrace.

Herodotos, speaks of “the Tyrrhenes who dwell above Kreston beyond the Pelasgians”, and Thucydides goes so far as to identify the Tyrrhenoi of Chalkidike with “those Pelasgians who at one period held Lemnos and Athens”.

Either these fragments of the two nations were in a fair way to become fused, or the name Pelasgoi was being loosely applied by the Greeks, in accordance with their “Pelasgian theory”, to tribes who would have called themselves Tyrrhenes. (One may compare the use of the term “Indians” in America.) Hellanikos and Sophokles go so far as to identify these two peoples.

The first appearance of the Tyrrhenian name in Greek literature is in the post-Homeric epic poets, who know them as pirates in the Aegean and, vaguely, as an important people among the “isles of the West”.

Their origin, according to Herodotos, was Asiatic; the eponyms Lydos and Tyrsenos were said to be brothers, sons of Atys, the Anatolian god.

Hellanikos however, having identified the Etruscans of his own day with the descendants of the ancient Pelasgoi, appears to have derived them, probably on a priori grounds, from Thessaly; and Xanthos, the fifth century native Lydian historian, never mentioned Tyrrhenians or their emigration to Italy at all. Herodotos’ “Tyrsenos son of Atys” is, according to Xanthos, a corruption of the quite different name Torrhebos.

Archaeology, however, appears to give some support to Herodotos’ account of the matter. Numerous resemblances have been traced between Asian art and the earliest Etruscan, even in such important matters as dress, weapons and armour. A type of heavy-armed pike-man, with horse-hair-crested helmet and round shield, who could pass either as an Etruscan warrior or an early Greek hoplite, makes his first appearance in Hittite sculptures of the Dark Age, from North Syria.


Hittite “Hoplite” Warrior from Sinjerli, Northern Syria, circa 1000 B.C. (from Minoans Philistines and Greeks B.C. 1400–900, Plate II, by A.R. BURN, 1930). Originally from Weber’s Die Kunst der Heithiter. (Wasmuth).

The Etruscan tracing of descent through the mother, one may here note, is most easily paralleled from Lykia, and their method of taking omens from entrails of sacrificed beasts was learnt from Babylonia by the Hittites. Even the Etruscan physical type and many of their names are redolent of Asia Minor.


Hittite Warrior with leaf-shaped sword, from Sinjerli, Northern Syria, circa 1000 B.C. (from Minoans Philistines and Greeks B.C. 1400–900, plate II, by A.R. BURN, 1930). From the Berlin Museum, Vorderasiatische Abtheilung.

The presence of Etruscans on Lemnos at some very early period is now attested by archaeological evidence that is practically conclusive; not only by the sculptured tombstone, long well-known, the epitaph on which is in a language “at least closely akin” to Etruscan, but also by the weapons and pottery from an extensive cemetery excavated by Della Seta on the Island, and datable, by the character of the jewellery found, to the Geometric period.


Etruscan Warrior from the Stele of Autiles Feluskes ; from Vetulonia circa 650 B.C.( from Minoans Philistines and Greeks B.C. 1400–900, plate II, by A.R. BURN, 1930). Originally from Montelius, La civilization primitive en Italie, II, Pl. 189, 11.

The date of the migration to Italy is given by Herodotos as before 1220 B.C. His chronology is worth little or nothing, but it is at least clear that he conceives the movement as taking place before the Trojan War, as Hellanikos certainly did. But the archaeological evidence seems to indicate (according to Dr. Randall MacIver’s great work, “Villanovans and Early Etruscans”) that the characteristic Etruscan Civilization of Italy did not appear before the second half of the ninth century.

There is also the serious difficulty of the silence of Xanthos’ Lydian History as to this migration, which must be met. All the claims of this collection of evidence seem to be satisfied by the following theory.

The Tyrsenoi or Etrusci, the Turski of some Italian dialects, (the latter part of both names being merely ethnic termination) were a tribe of Asia Minor probably inhabiting the district known to the Old Testament as Tiras and to the Hittites as Taruisa.

They took to the sea probably, as Herodotos says, under pressure of famine- the famine in Asia Minor which Pharaoh Merneptah helped to relieve-and are mentioned by that Pharaoh, under the form T’r’sh’, among the predatory sea-farers, “fighting to fill their bellies daily”, whose attack on Egypt he so bloodily repulsed.

Thereafter they remained in an unsettled condition for some centuries, more and more of them gradually leaving the Asian coast, (Coast of Asia Minor), to occupy-after the time of the Iliad, which does not name them-Lemnos and other Aegean islands, where they either fused with Pelasgoi or were confused with them by the Greeks. It is highly probable that some of the “Karians” whose graves Thucydides saw opened in the Cyclades and identified by the Asiatic style of their weapons and armour, were really Tyrrhenes.

Finally they migrated in a body to Italy, finding their quarters in the Aegean strained by the advance of the Greeks. Xanthos does not mention their final movement to the west, because the tribe that migrated had passed out of Lydian history centuries earlier.

It is worth noting that he does mention a Lydian expedition that captured Ashkelon-a clear reference to that migration of peoples from Asia Minor to the borders of Egypt which brought the Philistines into the land of Canaan.

To return to the Thalassocracy list; it seems most likely, on the whole, that it is to some tradition of the beginning of this movement overseas from Lydia that Kastor, or his authority, refers when he speaks of Maionian sea-power; but if so, then, once again, the movement ought to be placed before, not after, the Fall of Troy. It is true that after the Trojan War there were still Tyrrhenians in the Aegean, as their introduction into the Hymn to Dionysos shows; but they had long ceased to be in any sense “Lydians and Maionians.”

Thracian, Phrygians and Lydians ruling the sea; Phoenicians not powerful until the ninth century; Pelasgoi still so flourishing after the Trojan War; what, one wonders, can Kastor’s authorities have been, that they give us a picture of early post-Minoan sea-power so unlike that suggested by other Greek Historians? Can he perhaps have been using a document that was not Greek at all?

It is by no means unlikely. Kastor was an Orientalist; and each entry in the list falls naturally into line with our other evidence, Greek and Oriental, if we suppose that he found his Phoenician and earlier entries among the Chronicles of the Kings of Tyre and Sidon-which an Oriental scholar of the Hellenistic Age, writing on the history of sea-power, could hardly fail to consult.

That these Chronicles were still extant in Roman times, we know; as also that they were looked after by keepers of the Archives appointed by the Tyrian municipality, that they were available for inspection by research students, and were praised by Josephus for their “exactness”, a quality that one might expect from a Phoenician writer.

There was also a Greek summary of them by a certain Menandros of Ephesos, who in his histories of barbarian monarchies made a point of using the “original sources”.

In this case it inevitably follows that the list will start not after the fall of Troy, an event which is not likely to have bulked large in Canaanite eyes, but after the fall of Knossos-a really epoch-making event, since it involved the collapse of the Minoan thalassocracy, and an event whose results are at once seen in the development of raids by piratical Lykians on the coast towns of the Levant.

Previously, Minoan sea-power seems to have kept them under control. The Age of the Sea-Raids, which follows, was of profound importance in Phoenician history, since it ultimately (as we shall see) brought a vigorous sea-faring population to the Syrian coast, from whom the Canaanites of the coast towns -“Chna” as the Phoenicians called themselves-of old a mercantile but not, it seems, a sea-going stock, presently learned to sail a-trafficking on their own account.

In the early part of the Thalassocracy List I would therefore propose to see a list of sea-powers compiled by a Phoenician chronicler, after the manner of the lists of Gentile nations, Dukes of Edom, and the like, familiar to us from the chronicles of the Phoenicians’ Israelite neighbours and cousins.

It covers the whole age of the sea-raids, in which the Phoenicia of historic times took shape, and ends with the great age of over-seas activity of the Canaanites themselves. Kastor took up the document and carried it on, in his history of Sea-Power, throughout Hellenic times, down, probably, to his own age, which was also that of Pompey the Great and his suppression of piracy. That our extract ends in 480 B.C. is, of course, due to Eusebios’ immediate authority being the lost “Volume II” of Diodoros.

In editing the early part of the list, however, Kastor got into difficulties in the attempt to square the Greek Legends with his Oriental knowledge. Especially, since, according to Greek tradition, Minos lived about the year 1250 B.C., and the sea was clearly commanded in the generations immediately following his death by Homer’s Achaioi, he was unable to start the list until the year 1184 B.C. on Eratosthenes’ scheme.

This involved such difficulties as the dating of the Pelasgian and Thracian power after the Trojan War instead of before it, and also gave the Phoenicians a bare half-century, only, of sea-power, before their decline began in the eighth century. With regard to a sea-power on the Lydian coast, the evidence about Karians and Tyrrheninans was copious and vague enough to make his task easier.

Now if we hypothetically start the list in 1400 B.C., we get the following results:


“Rulers” of the Sea:Relevant events known from other sources:

1400–1308 B.C. Maionians (i.e., some power based on the Coast of Asia Minor).

Appearance in the Levant of Lykian pirates and “Shardana” mercenary soldiers (Tel-el-Amarna Tablets). Extension of Hittite suzerainty to the Aegean

1308–1223 B.C. Pelasgians (i.e., some tribe from the European side of the Aegean).

Appearance of Achaians (if Dr. Forrer’s identifications are right) on the coasts of the Hittite Empire.

1223–1144 B.C. Thracians (i.e., northern races now taking to the sea in large numbers).

Sea-raiders support Libyan attack on Egypt about 1221 B.C. Northern hordes destroy Hittite Empire about 1200 B.C. Great attack on Egypt by Philistines and other fugitive Aegean and Asiatic tribes about 1194 B.C. “Sub-Mycenaean” pottery in Philistia.

1144–1119 B.C. Phrygians (same people as above, but now settled mainly in Asia Minor).

Establishment of the Thraco-Asiatic alliance that appears from Homer’s Catalogue of the Trojan Allies.

1119–1096 B.C. Rhodians (i.e., Achaians: Rhodes, from a Phoenician point of view, their best known stronghold).

Achaians break up the Trojan alliance by capture of Ilios, about 1120 B.C. “Achaian period” in archaeology; fibulae, occasional Cremation, leaf-shaped swords: decay of “Mycenaean” style in vase painting.

1096–1065 B.C. Cyprians (same people, now pushing their Out-posts further east). 1065 B.C. and throughout the next three centuries: Phoenicians.

About 1050 B.C. Fall of Achaian power. Cessation of trade and of communications in Greece, shown by the neral breakdown numerous local styles of Geometric vase- Painting. Foundation of Gades and Utica by Phoenicians, eleventh century; Carthage, about 800 B.C.

In short, the list agrees astonishingly well with the rest of the evidence.

This whole scheme is obviously far too hypothetical to be used as evidence in support of any part of our narrative. It will be, however, permissible to refer to it from time to time, but rather by way of adducing the other evidence in support of the theory.

A study of the Bronze Age by James Thomas

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