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Roman triumvir, general and politician

The life of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (usually anglicised to Pompey) has been overshadowed by history. In hindsight, he comes across as an almost literary antagonist for his great rival Gaius Iulius Caesar. He's the opponent to be defeated at the climax of the action, before the tragic denouement on the Senate floor, before the knives and the blood and the betrayal.

It is true that Pompey and Caesar were almost destined to become rivals. Pompey was born in 106 BC, 6 years before Caesar; as age-mates, they would compete for miltary and political offices throughout their lives. When they were young, they were on opposing sides in the great civil conflict of their parents' generation. As a nephew of Marius, Caesar barely escaped with his life from the collapse of his uncle's cause. Pompey, meanwhile, raised three legions in support of Marius' rival Sulla in 84 BC.

It was Sulla who first gave Pompey his cognomen, Magnus ("the Great"), after a series of military victories in the aftermath of the civil war. The reference to Alexander the Great was deliberate, but sardonic. In later life, he would build on his cognomen, adopting as much of the iconography of Alexander the Great as he could.

After Sulla's death in 78 BC, Pompey continued his miltary career. He helped put down a rebellion in Spain from 76 - 71 BC, then joined M. Licinius Crassus in the war against Spartacus in late 71. All this miltary activity had a politcal reward when he was elected consul in 70 BC, at the young age of 36.

By 67, Rome needed his military talents again. Piracy, always a problem in the ancient Mediterranean, had become so bad that communication was blocked between Rome and its colonies in Spain and Africa. Pompey was given supreme command against the pirates, and restored communications within forty days. By the end of three months, he had entirely eliminated the problem.

His next chance to show his military skill was in Asia Minor. One of Rome's client kings, Mithridates, was attempting to break away from Roman rule. Pompey routed Mithridates and converted much of his territory into Roman colonies. As was standard practice, he then returned to Rome, disbanded his army, and asked the Senate to ratify his actions.

The Sentate refused.

By this time, both Pompey and Caesar had been seriously opposed by the Senate. Along with Crassus, they formed an alliance designed to act as a counterweight to senatorial power: the first triumvirate. It was a private arrangement rather than an official one, cemented in part by Pompey's marriage to Caesar's daughter Julia.

Under the arrangement, Pompey was to stay in Rome while Caesar fought in Gaul. Despite his absence, Caesar continued to gain popularity in the Senate, until Pompey was no longer considered his equal. Julia died in 54 and Crassus in 53, and Pompey felt that the triumvirate had outlived its usefulness.

Knowing that, if Caesar were allowed back into Rome and given a triumph for his conquest of Gaul, then his rival would effectively control the city, Pompey agitated against him in the Senate. Caesar was commanded to disband his army and return to Rome unarmed. He refused, and crossed the Rubicon with his troops.

The inevitable conflict came. Each was struggling for the upper hand, for the favor of the Senate, for the backing of the armies. each knew that, if he lost, his life would be forfeit. It was a bitter civil war, dividing an entire generation. Initially, Pompey had the upper hand, but lost it when he left Rome to pursue Caesar. In 48 BC, at the battle of Pharsalus, he suffered a disastrous defeat.

Pompey fled to Egypt, but was murdered on landing. His head was pickled in brine and sent to Caesar. Pompey's sons attempted to contiune the war (ironically, by piracy, among other tactics), but their attempts were short-lived.


As a soldier, Pompey was at least Caesar's equal. He was more fastidious in his person, more scrupulous in his honor, and less subtle in public relations. This last point, of course, is the telling one. His attempts to portray himself as a second Alexander the Great come across as clumsy and contrived, while Caesar's description of the Gallic Wars remains one of the best examples of self publicity in history.

The rivalry between Pompey and Caesar begs the question: what would have happened had Pompey won? Would he, too, have been installed dictator for life? Would he, or some successor of his, have done what Augustus did, destroying the Republic to save Rome?

Judging by what we know, Pompey was a staunch constitutionalist. Although he joined the triumvirate, which was an extra-legal arrangement, he seems to have truly believed in the laws of the Republic. Even if he had accepted a dictatorship, it is unlikely that he would have left anyone in the position Caesar left Octavian, with the means and the will to take over Rome.

"... Gnaeus Pompeius is in the unique position of not only exceeding all his contemporaries in merit but even eclipsing every figure recorded from the past..." 1

As stated by Pompey's close friend and political comrade, for the most part, Cicero 2; as to whether or not this is a biased account is open to argument, however it does accurately gauge the effect of Pompey's influential reign in Rome. Gnaeus Pompeius was born in 106 B.C. into an equestrian family, the middle-upper class of Rome. His father was Pompeiius Strabo, a general under Sulla. When the Marian-Sulla civil war erupted, Pompey, who was also loyal to Sulla, organised three private legions. This was a magnificant feat, as Pompey was simply a private citizen - and an equestrian at that - with no dignitas (status) or auctoritas (authority).

When Sulla returned to Rome, who had been in the East combatting Mithridates 3 he was so impressed by the initiative of the young Pompey that he decreed propraetorian imperium 4, which was unconstitutional as Pompey held neither the required level of office nor the required age. Regardless, Pompey used his forces to great effect in the war against the Marians, winning many decisive battles in Sicily and Africa, and even managing to kill Cinna 5 in 83 B.C. It must be noted here that while Caesar sided with the Marians, Pompey either paid no attention to him or, most likely, did not know of his existence at all yet. Upon his return Rome Sulla entitled him Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus 6, but Pompey was not content there, he now demanded a Triumph 7 from Sulla. This was, again, unconstitutional, and Sulla refused. Yet Pompey persisted, as is documented by Plutarch.

"...Pompey, however, was not in the least frightened. He asked Sulla to bear in mind the fact that more people worshipped the rising sun than the setting sun, implying that while his own power was on the increase that of Sulla was growing less and less... (Sulla was) astounded at Pompey's audacity and cried out twice in succession: 'Let him have his triumph!'" 8

Thus, Pompey began his political career with a Triumph he was ultimately ineligible for. This reflects the proceedings through most of his career. Pompey began working his way into the cursus honorum (political ladder), and began supporting Lepidus, despite Sulla's warnings. Ironically, Pompey was given charge with defeating Lepidus' revolt in Gaul in 78 B.C. Pompey was once again unconstitutionally appointed with propraetorian imperium, and he defeated Lepidus in only one year. That year, 77 B.C., he was appointed with proconsular imperium 9, which he was even less eligble for. He was charged with defeating Sertorius in Spain, who was causing problems for Rome.

While Sertorius was not openly rebelling against Rome, he was making unacceptable political demands for the return of exiled popularis 10 and Marians. Q. Metellus 11 had already been in Spain for many years, and had made little progress. Pompey managed to achieve precious little more, and were it not for Sertorius' murder in 73 B.C., it is doubtful as to whether or not he would have suceeded in 72 B.C. or not.

From here, Pompey was called to Greece to put down Spartacus 12, which was done in 71 B.C. This was largely due to the works of Crassus, who had been fighting Spartacus since 73 B.C., and had managed to crucify approxiametely 6000 slaves, whereas Pompey only prevented approxiametely 3000 from escaping in the last year. Regardless, Pompey received a second Triumph, which he was still ineligible for, and Crassus only received an Ovation 13. Crassus turned out to be a convenience for Pompey, however, as he was terribly rich. He used Crassus' wealth and his own popularity to secure the consulship of 70 B.C. for him and Crassus. It is speculated, however, that Pompey's army, which sat outside the city during the election, played a major role. Once again, this was unconstitutional as Pompey was still not of age, and had not held the required office of Praetor.

During his consulship Pompey managed to restore power to the Tribunes 14, but otherwise had an unremarkable reign. This was a completely selfish act however, as he now had Gabinius and Manilius 15 in his pocket. Over the next three years Mediterranean pirates began causing troubles for Rome, and once again Pompey was chosen to defeat them, and given proconsular imperium, which he was finally eligible for. Before leaving, however, Pompey manipulated Gabinius into passing the Lex Gabinia, which gave him an extended five year Imperium, free use of the treasury and a large fleet to combat the pirates. The measure was passed as the Senate was expecting a long war - they were wrong.

Servilius Vata 16 and Q. Metellus had managed to destroy much of the pirate fleet and deal extensive damage to them, thus Pompey was easily able to defeat the pirates. He did so in a year, but had obtained five year imperium. Pompey now took advantage of the situation in the East 17 and ensured he was given the job of defeating Mithridates. Once again, he manipulated another Tribune, Manilius this time, to pass the Lex Manilia. This gave Pompey further imperium and the governance of several eastern provincials.

Pompey defeated Mithridates and Tigranes 18, but this was, again, largely due to the work of another. This time it was L. Lucullus 19 who had done the work, and allowed Pompey to make the final victory. After this Pompey returned to Italy to disband his army in 62 B.C. His intent now was to ratify his new eastern settlement 20, gain land for his veteran's 21 and focus on his political career. The former two motives directly linked to the latter. Both of these requests were refused by the Senate however.

Thus, Pompey was driven to find alternative means of acquiring this. The answer was Crassus and Caesar, whom he formed a political amiciate (alliance) with. This became known as the Triumvirate, and was incredibly unconstitutional. The three used each other to their own political ends, and there was no sense of unity, hence it is hardly a surprise that it collapsed in its latter years 22. While the Triumvirate was a significant period, it is not the focus of this essay, thus I shall not include it.

What must now be analysed is the early career of Pompey I have just detailed. Through Pompey's political dealings, which were unconsititutional at almost every turn, he paved the way for similiar ambitious youths, and thus, he indirectly lead to the end of the Republic. As Cicero noted, he was incredibly influential. While Cicero was referring to his military ability, this is really not the case. Pompey tended to be in the right place at the right time more than a brilliant tactician; it is undeniable, however, that Pompey was an important figure in the fall of the Roman Republic.


1 A speech by Cicero in 66 B.C. on Pompey

2 An influential prosecutor and politician. Was a close friend of Pompey's, and helped Pompey numerous times until he was exiled in 58 B.C., which Pompey did nothing to prevent, when he became a threat to the Triumvirate.

3 There are a great deal of Mithridates, and most sources do not stipulate which it is. Thus, when referring to a Mithridates one must examine the period referred to. Thus, the Mithridates Sulla waged war against is the father of the Mithridates Pompey later waged war against.

4 Authority given to someone who has held office at least at the stage of praetor (a political position high up on the ladder). This also gave the person protection by lictors (bodyguards of Rome that carry sticks, known as fagotti). This was usually only given in times of emergency in order to allow the given person to command legions and wage war.

5 Cinna was a Marian loyalist and General.

6 Title meaning Great

7 A reward given to those who have held office of at least Praetor in recognition of an immense achievment. The ceremony is lavish, with a proceeding marching through the triumphal archs of Rome and the person being laden with the award arriving on a chariot drawn by four horses. Pompey had wanted to have four elephants he captured from Africa, but they would not fit through the triumphal arch.

8 From Plutarch's 'Fall of the Roman Republic'

9 As propraetorian imperium, however must have at least held office at the stage of consul. Also, more authority is gained, and more lictors are assigned.

10 Revolutionaries, left wing politicians

11 Roman general and politician; later one of Pompey's primary rivals in the Senate.

12 A Greek gladiator who roused a massive army of slaves and gladiators and began rebelling against Rome. While the purpose was not to gain land, simply freedom, it was treated as harshly as any other rebellion.

13 Similar to a Triumph, but a much lesser reward without restriction to stage of office held. The ceremony is also much smaller, the award simply laden on the person upon a podium without any entrance or proceeding.

14 Tribunes were a stage of office held by plebians (lower class Romans) that put forth bills to the Senate and voted on bills before the consuls passed or vetoed them. Many dictators, such as Sulla, suspended their powers in order to achieve autocracy.

15 Two Tribunes who passed to Lex Gabinia and Lex Manilia respectively.

16 A naval general who dislodged the pirates from their island fortress of Cilicia. The pirates relocated to Cyprus, but were dislodged from there by Q. Metellus.

17 Mithridates seized the Roman province of Asia Minor

18 King of Armenia, ally and cousin of Mithridates.

19 A Roman general who had been appointed to defeat Mithridates. He managed to destroy the majority of Mithridates armies, and was poised to make the final strike into Armenia, where Mithridates had fled, when his army mutinied. Later, after Pompey's poor treatment of him, he became another of Pompey's primary rivals in the Senate.

20 The Lex Manilia gave Pompey governance over Asia, Bithynia-Pontus, Cilicia and Syria. Pompey also managed to extablish client states in Galatia, Cappadocia, Armenia Minor, Armenia, Commagene, Coele-Syria and Palestine.

21 Roman soldiers were peasant conscripts, and after so many years at war they often returned to Rome with their land taken by others. Pompey sought to turn the urban militia into a semi-professional soldier by securing rewards for army veterans.

22 In 53 B.C. the Triumvirate collapsed with Crassus' death

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