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Pirates on the Pot: The Black Figure Kylix


A black-figured kylix depicting a pirate ship chasing a merchant-vessel (holkas) on display at The British Museum
 

This beautiful ancient ceramic vessel made from baked clay is called a kylix. In ancient times, kylixes were used to drink wine.


The black-figure painting on the outside of this particular kylix shows a scene of a pirate ship chasing a larger merchant vessel, called a holkas. The holkas might have been carrying a cargo of grain, wine, olive oil or even exotic Egyptian perfumes and jewels.


Greed and Speed

On the right, you can see that the greedy pirates are racing through the water with their sails full of wind. They would also be using their oars to get the most speed. Meanwhile, the large and slow merchant ship has not hoisted its sails, nor is it using oars. The merchant ship looks like an easy target, doesn't it?


The Ram

The pirate ship features a prominent ram – which is a term for the pointy bit at the front of the ship. The ram is shaped like a vicious boar (wild pig) head. The rams of ancient ships were made of wood and sheathed with bronze – a deadly weapon for ramming into an enemy ship, making a hole and sinking it. Hence its name!


Do you think the pirates on the pot captured the merchant ship?

What treasures do you think they uncovered inside?


I'm a Pirate!

Piracy across the ancient Mediterranean sea was very common. Because there were set trade routes and seasons, the pirates knew exactly where and when to look for their next victims.

In addition, much of the land in Greece is rocky, making it difficult to grow crops. For this reason, ancient people had to resort to piracy to get extra resources for themselves and their families. Being a pirate was not uncommon at all, and could even be seen as heroic or glorious.


Can you think of any people in Greek history or myth who could be considered pirates?

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