Piracy and reprisal in Byzantine waters: resolving a maritime conflict between Byzantines and Genoese at the end of the twelfth century

Piracy and reprisal in Byzantine waters: resolving a maritime conflict between Byzantines and Genoese at the end of the twelfth century

By Daphne Penna

Comparative Legal History, Vol. 5:1 (2017)

Abstract: In 1192, Genoese and Pisan pirates under the command of a Genoese corsair pillaged Venetian ships carrying merchandise and valuable gifts for the Byzantine emperor from the Sultan of Egypt. This paper examines the escalation and resolution of this maritime conflict between the Byzantines and the Genoese.


Following Genoa’s failure to resolve the incident as requested, the emperor implemented measures against the Genoese residents of Constantinople. The solution chosen by the Byzantine emperor bears striking resemblance to the practice of ius represaliarum, a practice familiar in Western Europe that would later evolve and influence international law in medieval and early modern Europe. The case in focus demonstrates how a merchants’ custom linked to Western Europe was first ‘introduced’ into Byzantine practice.

Introduction: In November 1192, the Byzantine emperor Isaac II Angelos sent a furious letter to the consuls, senators and citizens of Genoa complaining about an act of piracy that had occurred within the Byzantine Empire. The attack involved both Genoese and Pisan pirates. Sailing alongside a Pisan vessel, a Genoese ship commanded by Gulielmo Grassos attacked and stole the property of Byzantine subjects at the harbour of Rhodes. The pirates then pillaged Venetian ships that were returning from Palestine and Egypt carrying Byzantine and foreign envoys and merchants.


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Top Image: Galley bearing the body of Saint John Chrysostomos to Constantinople. Detail of an icon from Kimolos, probably from the 14th century.