Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey or Pompey the Great, was a military leader and politician during the fall of the Roman Republic. He was born in 106 BCE and died on 28th September 48 BCE. His father was Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo.
Pompey’s life can be easily split into four phases: his early career (106- 71 BCE), his consulship until the triumvirate (70- 60 BCE), his later career in Rome (59- 50 BCE) and the Civil War (49-48 BCE).
Pompey’s military career started in the Social Wars (91- 89 BCE) when he served under his father’s army at Asculum (89 BCE). In 83 BCE Pompey procured a private army of three legions, taken from his father’s veterans and clients, in order to fight for Sulla. After this Pompey was sent as pro praetor (a magistrate sent in place of a praetor) to Sicily and then Africa to put down dissidents. It was in 81 BCE that Sulla gave Pompey a triumph, on the 12th March, despite the fact that Pompey was still only an equites, and as such, not officially eligible for a triumph, it was also around this time that Pompey took the name Magnus, Great, which clearly echoed the great Macedonian general, Alexander the Great. After the death of his first wife Aemilia, Pompey married Sulla’s step daughter Mucia Tertia, which like most marriages of the time, was probably a political move. Despite this fact, Sulla still felt it necessary to remove Pompey from his will when in 78 BCE and he supported Lepidus for the consulship; it seems that by the next year Pompey had learnt his lesson, and instead supported Quintus Lutatius Catulus, this was also because Lepidus now spoke of revoking the Sullan laws. In 77 BCE Pompey was sent pro consule in order to assist in the struggle against Sertorius in Spain. Sertorius was an opponent of Sulla who had been active in that area since c. 83 BCE. Pompey returned from there in 71 BCE, wiping out the scattered bands of slaves who had fought under the now defeated Spartacus. In doing so, Pompey tried to take credit for ending the Slave War, when in fact it was Crassus who had been the main Roman protagonist in the war. As a result of Pompey’s victories he was granted his second triumph on the 29th December 71 BCE.
From Consul to the Triumvirate
Pompey, an experienced man by 70 BCE, was, however, illegible for the consulship since he was too young and had not held the positions of quaestor or praetor inline with the cursus honorum. Despite this, the rules were waived, and Pompey took the consulship for that year with Crassus. After his consulship Pompey did not take a province under his control, as was standard. Instead, the Gabinian Law of 67 BCE gave Pompey the power and authority to oppose and dispose of the increasing problem of piracy in the Mediterranean, which posed a threat to Rome’s corn supply.
[Q. Lutatius Catulus] speaking against the [Gabinian] law said in an informal harangue that Pompey was certainly an outstanding man, but that he was too eminent for comfort in a free res publica and that all power should not be placed in the hands of one man.
(Velleius II, 32, I)
Pompey successfully dealt with the pirates within his first three months of control, despite the fact that the Gabinian Law granted him command for three years, and in 66 BCE a further law was passed which gave him the command of the Roman army against Mithradates VI of Pontus. This law forms Cicero’s Pro lege Manilia, his first purely political speech which speaks in favour of the law, despite there being strong opposition towards the law from the optimate factions of Rome at the time. After defeating Mithradtes VI, Pompey turned Bithynia, Pontus, and Syria into Roman provinces, paving the way for Rome’s later advances into the East. It was in 62 BCE that Pompey returned to Italy, and disbanded his army, finally entering Rome on his birthday, 30th September 61 BCE. Upon returning, Pompey celebrated a triumph the likes of which Rome had never seen before, one that lasted a whole two days!
He celebrated the triumph in honour of all his wars at once, including in it many trophies beautifully decked out to represent each of his achievements, even the smallest; and after them all came one huge one, decked out in costly fashion and bearing an inscription stating that it was a trophy of the inhabited world. (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 37.21.2)
He was awarded a triumph exceeding in brilliance any that had gone before… it occupied two successive days, and many nations were represented in the procession from Pontus, Armenia, Cappadocia, Cilicia and all Syria, besides Albanians, Heniochi, Achaeans of Scythia, and Eastern Iberians. (Appian, Mithridatic Wars, 116)
Among these peoples no less than 1,000 strongholds had been captured, according to the inscriptions, and cities not much under 900 in number, besides 800 piratical ships, while 39 cities had been founded… but that which most enhanced his glory and had never been the lot of any roman before, was that he celebrated third triumph over the third continent. For others before had celebrated three triumphs; but he celebrated his first over Libya, his second over Europe, and this his last over Asia, so that he seemed in a way to have included the whole world in his three triumphs. (Plutarch, Life of Pompey the Great, 45.1-5)
However, not all was as Pompey had hoped for, the senate denied his proposals for land-grants for his disbanded army and they denied ratification of Pompey’s eastern settlements too; this decision was headed by Cato the Younger (the great grandson of Cato the Elder). Then, with Caesar’s return from Spain in 60 BCE, Pompey formed the first triumvirate (which in itself is a modern, rather than ancient term) with Caesar and Crassus, arguably the three most politically influential and powerful men in Rome (especially when their efforts were combined).
In 59 BCE Caesar was appointed consul, with the support of Crassus and Pompey, which enabled Pompey to fulfil the land-grants to his veteran soldiers and to also have his settlement in the east ratified. One of the most obviously political motivated events of Pompey’s life was the divorce of his wife Marcia in order to marry Caesar’s daughter, Julia. However, despite the political motivation of this marriage, Pompey did come to love Julia, and this is mentioned by contemporaries. Despite Caesar putting in place what Pompey had wanted, and the political marriage, Pompey's success was beginning to decline and in 58/7 BCE he was attacked by Publius Clodius Pulcher. In 57 BCE Pompey both managed to secure Cicero’s return from exile and secured the control of Rome’s corn supply (a very important role, that lasted for five-years and granted him proconsular imperium and fifteen legates, but no army was provided). It is interesting to note Pompey’s sudden shift to matters public and civilian, considering that he was primarily a military man; however, what this might suggest is his logistical skills as a general had been transferred to the organisation of corn supplies. However, also in this year, Pompey failed to restore the father of Cleopatra VII, Ptolemy XII Auletes, to power in Egypt. Nevertheless, the triumvirate seemed to work both ways for Pompey, and in 55 BCE, after the three men’s agreement had been reaffirmed at Luca, both Pompey and Crassus were appointed consuls again. It is interesting to note, that despite being given the two Spanish provinces to govern over, Pompey chose to have them governed by legates, so that he could stay at Rome. What becomes apparent is the sheer wealth that Pompey’s campaigns had brought to him and Rome, and this is embodied with the creation of the Theatre of Pompey just outside Rome, at the Campus Martius, which was opened with extravagant games. The theatre itself also consisted of a Temple to Venus Victrix, and a statue of Pompey himself.
Inscriptions show that whereas in the past the proceeds to that state treasury from taxation were some 50,000,000 drachmae, Pompey’s additions to the empire were now bringing in 85,000,000; and that he was adding to the state treasury in coined money and gold and silver plate 20,000 talents, and this apart from the money he had given to his soldiers, each of whom had received at least 15,000 drachmae. (Plutarch, Life of Pompey the Great, 45.3-4)
However, the next two years saw tensions build within the triumvirate, firstly Pompey dropped out from any sort of further political marriage links with Julius Caesar after Julia died in childbirth in 54 BCE, and in 53 BCE Crassus was killed in Parthia, both of these events served to increase the tension between Caesar and Pompey that would eventually spark into Civil War. When Clodius was murdered in 62 BCE, Pompey was elected sole consul for the year, and was even backed by Cato. Pompey then went on to put Titus Annius Milo on trial and created new legislation with regards to violence, bribery, and the nature of magistracies. Whilst these actions would not have perhaps been seen favourably by Caesar; that is not to say that they were not directly enacted so as to do so. However, when Pompey increased his own imperium for another five years, he seismically affected the status quo. It was also around this time that Pompey married Cornelia, his political ally Quintus Caecilius Mettelus Piso Scipio’s daughter; again, as with Julia before her, whilst being a political marriage, it was by no means a loveless marriage. There were calls for Pompey to recall Caesar, and this led to Gaius Scribonius Curio in 50 BCE calling for either both of the men, or neither of them, to put aside their command. Cicero sums up the situation succinctly:
It is a struggle between two kings, in which defeat has overtaken the more moderate king [Pompey], the one who is more upright and honest, the one whose failure means that the very name of the Roman people must be wiped out, though if he wins the victory, he will use it after the manner and example of Sulla. (Cicero, Letters to Atticus, 10.7.1)
Pompey was unable to come to terms with this situation and took over the command of the Republic’s armies in Italy in 49 BCE, the year that Caesar crossed the Rubicon and uttered the famous words, alea iacta est (the dice are thrown). He then moved the army from Brundisium to Macedonia, where he mobilised his forces. In 48 BCE Caesar arrived, and, knowing that Caesar’s force was greater than his, Pompey retreated when Caesar tried to blockade him in Dryrrachium. The passage below from Plutarch helps to make sense of this, whilst Caesar already had an experienced, battle-hardened army, Pompey had to mobilise one from scratch, one that would be less experienced than Caesar’s:
When some said that if Caesar should march upon Rome, they did not see any forces with which to defend it from him, with a smiling face and calm manner Pompey told them not to fear: “For,” he said, “in whatever part of Italy I stamp upon the ground, there will spring up armies of infantry and cavalry.” (Plutarch, Life of Pompey the Great, 57.5)
On the 9th August (the reason why he was persuaded to do so is unclear) Pompey met Caesar in pitched battle at Pharsalus in Thessaly and suffered terrible losses and a cruel defeat. Caesar had become a formidable general, having gained much valuable experience from his campaigns in Gaul. Pompey then fled to Egypt, but was stabbed to death as he disembarked at Alexandria on the 28th September 48 BCE. With the defeat of Pompey and the victory of Julius Caesar, the foundations of Imperial Rome were dug and any sentiment of a ‘democratic’ Rome was buried with it.
Sincere belief in Rome’s freedom died long ago, when Marius and Sulla were admitted within the walls; but now, when Pompey has been removed from the world, even the sham belief is dead.
(M. Annaeus Lucanus, On the Civil War, 9.204-6)
Pompey’s career was to some extent typical of a new type of Roman statesman that came to the fore in the late Republic, that of the ‘military dynast’, which could be seen to have had its origins in the careers of Marius and Sulla. However, in the end, Pompey tends to be seen by history as one of the great losers, which tends not to give true credit to his earlier career and what he achieved during it.
About the Author
- Howatson, M.C. (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature (Oxford, OUP, 1991).
- Champion, C.B, Roman Imperialism, readings and sources (Blackwell Publishers, 2003), 138-9, 294-5..
- Crawford, M, The Roman Republic (Harvard University Press, 1993), 154- 186..
- Pollard, N. & Berry, J, The Complete Roman Legions (Thames & Hudson, 2012), 26- 27..
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81 BCESulla is persuaded to give Pompey his first triumph.
77 BCEPompey is sent to Spain to deal with unrest caused by Sertorius.
71 BCEPompey is granted his second triumph.
67 BCEThe Gabinian Law is passed, giving Pompey great power to deal with pirates.
66 BCEThe Manilian Law is passed, giving Pompey great power to deal with Mithridates VI of Pontus.
60 BCE - 53 BCEFirst Triumvirate' between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus.
49 BCE - 48 BCEBurebistas sends Acornion of Dionysopolis as ambassador to negotiate an alliance with Pompey.