The southeastern coast of Asia Minor bordered to the north by the Taurus Mountains was known in antiquity as Cilicia. While the entire region was subjected in turn to tribute to the Persian Empire and to the successors of Alexander, the western part of the region was mountainous and largely inaccessible by land. This region became notorious for pirates operating with the connivance of the local governors from the rocky inlets of the province. Beginning around 140 B.C., these pirates became of concern to the Roman Republic, which attempted to ally with the powers of the eastern Mediterranean against them. Rome found, however, that the eastern kingdoms were either too weak to equip the navies required to confront the pirates, or were actively engaged in commerce with them, since the pirates were a major source of slaves feeding the eastern slave markets.
Rome nonetheless dispatched a force in 103 B.C. to cow the pirates, and established a province in eastern Cilicia, the more level and fertile area of the region, but was unable to permanently destroy the pirate bases in the west. The pirates expanded their operations throughout the first decades of the first century B.C., becoming one of the major naval powers of the Mediterranean. This power made them potential allies for many enemies of Rome, and both Mithridates and the rebel Roman general Sertorius, in Hispania, made overtures to and cooperated with the Cilician pirates.
During the Third Servile War, Spartacus would negotiate with the Cilician pirates as potential allies in his struggle against the Roman Republic, but the importance of slaving to the Cilician pirates made any alliance between the pirates and a slave rebellion one fraught with tension and potential for betrayal.
The Cilicians of the First Century BCE were a multi-ethnic nation, composed of Greek, Syrian and Isaurian descent, though the country was Hellenized culturally since the time of Alexander the Great.