Pompey Magnus

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It is a cliché to note that history is written by the victor, but this is both figuratively and literally true of the Late Roman Republic. The writings of Julius Caesar immediately created the prism through which these years would be seen, and his heirs would eventually establish the Principate, declare him a god and forever cement his legacy. They were so successful that, two millennia after his death, he remains the most famous of the Romans. Yet this prism has given us a distorted view of the other olympian in that age of titans, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – Pompey the Great.

Pompey is often seen only as the ally-cum-rival of Caesar, who rose to prominence through cheap victories, only to crumble when finally faced with a gifted opponent. However, this assessment ignores the fact that Pompey’s achievements were little short of incredible; far from being a vulture pecking at the victories of better men, he was an extremely skilled commander – who for most of his life was regarded by contemporaries as the greatest man of the age, sitting alongside Scipio, Horatius and Romulus in Rome’s pantheon of heroes.

Pompey was the son of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, a skilled but brutal and unpopular general. Whilst he was born wealthy and well connected, Pompey was not one of the patricians, the men who could trace their lineage back to the founding of Rome and dominated the Republic. From a young age, he showed signs of greatness; when Strabo’s men attempted to mutiny and kill their despised leader, the teenaged Pompey personally foiled the assassination attempt, single-handedly charmed the legions back into obedience and saved his father’s life. Yet Strabo could not cheat death twice. Not long after the aborted insurrection, he was allegedly struck by lighting, leaving Pompey the head of his family at a time when the Roman world was collapsing in on itself. 

The defeat at Cannae, Brennus’ sack of the city and the final conquest by Odoacer were all deeply traumatic moments in the long history of Rome, yet none were quite as bruising as Sulla’s civil war. This was a paradigm shift for the Republic. A personal rivalry had led the general Marius into backing his political nemesis Sulla into a corner. Sulla had responded by breaking taboo, marching a Roman army against the city itself and butchering all of the Marians who hadn’t fled with their leader to Africa. Sulla had promptly left Rome to face off against Mithridates, a Pontic King threatening the Republic’s eastern holdings. In his absence, Marius returned to Italy and retook Rome. He brought with him a wave of destruction; Marius butchered anyone with ties to Sulla, filled the Tiber with their corpses and then himself died of old age. 

When Sulla realised what had happened, he left the war in the East, landed in Southern Italy and cut down all those who stood in his way. Once he was in Rome, he named himself Dictator and enacted a series of proscriptions to forever rid himself of all who might oppose him. The names of Sulla’s enemies were written on the walls of the Forum, and it was decreed that anyone who brought the Dictator the severed head of a condemned man would receive a portion of their wealth. Once again, the Tiber ran red with blood. 

Pompey inserted himself into these events. Using his family’s fortune, he pressed the inhabitants of Picenum (a region of Italy where Pompey held considerable estates) into service, drilled them as legions and marched to join the ascendant Sulla. Of course, this was entirely illegal; Pompey had no authority to raise an army, nor (at the age of twenty-three) was he even old enough to legally hold such authority. Yet laws fall silent in times of war. Numerous Marian armies, led by far more experienced generals, attempted to strike down the young pretender before he reached Sulla. Pompey skilfully routed one force with a show of personal courage, persuaded another army to defect and manoeuvred a third onto unfavourable terrain. With the Marians now fleeing before him, the victorious commander met up with Sulla, who greeted the youthful general warmly and bestowed a series of honours upon him.

Before long, Sulla tasked Pompey with extinguishing the last embers of Marian resistance in Sicily and Africa. He was savagely efficient; Sicily quickly capitulated, and Pompey took immense joy in parading Carbo, the Marian leader, in chains before brutally executing him. His cruelty quickly earned him his first nickname, adulescentulus carnifex – the teenage butcher. With Sicily pacified, Pompey hurried on to Africa, where he at once sought a decisive battle. The enemy commander, Domitius, drew his legions up behind a deep ditch, an extremely strong defensive position; if Pompey charged, his men would be hacked to pieces as they clambered across the wadi. Pompey was unsure how to proceed, but at that moment a torrential storm appeared. Domitius withdrew, assuming that no commander would willingly fight in such appalling conditions. Pompey seized the moment; he ordered his men to rush forwards, storm across the ditch and fall upon the retiring Marians. It was a massacre. Less than a fifth of Domitius’ army escaped, while Pompey’s own losses were negligible. Before he was recalled to Rome, the young general led his troops on a great hunting expedition, declaring that even the animals of Africa should tremble at the sight of the legionary eagles.

On his return to Italy, Pompey was hailed by Sulla as Magnus – the Great. The Dictator had heard rumours that Pompey’s men were urging him to take arms against him, but that Pompey had threatened that he would sooner kill himself than wage war against his mentor. Sulla also granted Pompey the right to celebrate a triumph (a victory procession through the streets of Rome), albeit reluctantly, for tradition dictated that the young general was ineligible to receive the highest honour in the Republic. Yet Pompey cared little for tradition, and he paraded through the streets of Rome on a chariot pulled by elephants. This theatrical display backfired, however, when Pompey was faced with a gate too small for the pachyderms to fit through; to much embarrassment, the general had to switch to horses in the middle of his triumph. 

When Sulla eventually stepped down as Dictator, retired from politics and died, Pompey spent a few years in Rome, but he quickly grew restless; for all his successes, he was deeply insecure and craved the glory of ever greater victories. He secured for himself the task of defeating the last of the Marians, Quintus Sertorius. A brilliant commander, a pioneer of guerilla warfare and an intractable opponent of the Sullan regime, Sertorius had established himself as the de facto ruler of the Iberian Peninsula. He had been pinned down by Sulla’s lieutenant Metellus, but the campaign had slowed to a sluggish pace. Pompey’s arrival re-energised the army and, though the campaign saw numerous reversals (and several near disasters), Sertorius was ground down into a stalemate. After years of bloody fighting, the last of the Marians was eventually assassinated by his own right hand man, Perpenna, who was promptly lured into an ambush, captured and executed by Pompey. 

As Pompey returned to Italy, he found himself facing a fleeing force. The slave army of Spartacus had just been smashed by Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome’s wealthiest creditor, greatest landlord and leading firefighter, and its scattered remnants were attempting to make a break for Gaul. Pompey immediately rounded up the routing men and, in an act of supreme pettiness, returned to Rome declaring that the capture of these slaves showed that it was he, Pompey, who had ended the threat posed by Spartacus. Crassus was predictably (and justifiably) furious, but he was a pragmatic man; he swallowed his pride and asked Pompey to run on a joint ticket with him for the up-coming consular elections.

Rome’s two consuls served for a single year as the joint heads of states – the thought of one man holding power without a colleague was anathema to all good Republicans. Pompey and Crassus were the two most powerful men in Rome since Sulla’s passing, and they were duly elected, despite the fact Pompey had never held any prior political office. Thus it was that when Pompey rode into Rome at the start of 70 B.C., he joined the Senate, became consul and celebrated a second triumph (for his victories in Spain) on the same day. As soon as the two men took office, however, the cracks began to show; Pompey and Crassus immediately began bickering over everything, and Pompey’s political inexperience was such that he was forced to ask a friend to write him a manual on Senatorial procedure, which he duly was forced to refer to in the middle of meetings. Once his year as consul was over, Pompey spent a few years as a private citizen, unsure what to do next. 

Then, in 66 B.C., a new foe caught his eye. Piracy had long plagued the Mediterranean, but recent years had seen the coastal raiders steadily grow in confidence; they had developed a taste for kidnapping Roman citizens, symbolically humiliating them and then hurling them into the seas. Outrage in Rome was mounting, and the ambitious tribune Aulus Gabinius proposed that Pompey be granted vast powers to end the menace. Opposition was immense, but Pompey was so popular that when one Senator tried to speak against the measure, the assembled crowd roared so loudly in disapproval that a raven flying overhead was stunned by the noice and fell to the ground. The law was promptly passed.

Pompey was granted a force of five hundred ships and received total command of the Mediterranean and all the land in the Roman world which lay within fifty miles of the sea. The Republic finally had a hammer with which to crack its piratical nut. Pompey split the Mediterranean into thirteen zones, each guarded by its own fleet, and took command of a mobile fleet himself. From there, Pompey systematically swept the pirates ever eastwards, while the other thirteen fleets afforded the buccaneers no chance to regroup. Within three months, the entire Mediterranean – from Gibraltar to the Levant – was freed from the menace of the marauders. Piracy has often been seen as the ancient equivalent of terrorism, and it took Pompey a quarter of a year to annihilate it. 

Pompey the Great had effectively become Rome’s solution to any problem that could not immediately be resolved. The greatest of these remaining problems was Mithridates, the Pontic warlord of Anatolia. Posturing as the restorer of Hellenic freedom, he had masterminded the simultaneous murder of as many as 80,000 Romans across the Aegean world. Despite having been pummelled by Sulla, Mithridates had recovered while Rome ripped itself apart in a string of civil wars. Posing as the new Alexander, he donned the great conqueror’s cloak and promised to rebuild his divided empire. The current Roman commander in the region, Lucullus, was a skilled general, but he lacked the ability to inspire love from his legionaries. His men lost faith, mutinied and forced Lucullus to pull out of Pontus in ignominy. 

Pompey’s agents in Rome pounced, and Lucullus was quickly replaced. It is all the more damning that, in an age when commanders could persuade their men to march on Rome, Lucullus’ troops rejoiced when they heard of his dismissal. Once he arrived in the region, Pompey began a renewed offensive against Pontus. Mithridates wished to wage a war of attrition, and tried to cut Pompey’s supply lines with his prized Pontic cavalry. Anticipating such a move, Pompey ambushed the horsemen in a forest and cut them down. Mithridates fell back, hoping to evade the Romans. But Pompey led his troops on a forced march along a shorter route, and then lay in wait. As the Pontic troops marched through a ravine, the Romans appeared suddenly from the heights and massacred 10,000 men in the moonlight. The campaign took less than a year.

Mithridates fled to Crimea, but Pompey remained active in the Middle East, determined to establish Roman supremacy in the region. Tigranes of Armenia, an old ally of Mithridates, was forced to throw his diadem at Pompey’s feet and beg to become a Roman vassal. The Seleucid Empire was destroyed, Syria was annexed and Jerusalem was stormed, with Pompey entering the Holy of Holies before installing a Roman puppet king. Petra was on the eve of falling when Pompey received news of Mithridates’s suicide, at which point he turned his army around and began consolidating his conquests.

Before Pompey had been sent to the East, Roman influence ended on the western coast of Turkey. Three years later, Rome was the master of the Caucuses in the north, ruled lands as far as the Euphrates in the east and had a vice-like grip on Egypt in the south. 12,000,000 new subjects answered to the Senate, and Rome collected 70% more revenue in tribute from its empire. New client kings were installed, borders were redrawn and key lands were annexed as part of Pompey’s great settlement of the East, and it is a testament to his organisational genius that the system he established remained largely unaltered for the next century.

When he returned to Rome, Pompey celebrated his third triumph over a third continent (for he had conquered in Africa, Europe and Asia) and his forty-fifth birthday on the same day. The Republic had never seen a more lavish victory parade; an Armenian Prince, a Pontic Queen and a Jewish King were hauled before cheering crowds, alongside a golden statue of Mithridates, a bust of Pompey made entirely of pearls and more than a million pounds of silver. Pompey himself wore the cloak of Alexander, and could justifiably claim he was to Rome what the Macedonian had been to Greece – a world conqueror. 

Pompey had won stunning victories but, like Scipio Africanus, he struggled to translate these into political influence. As soon as he returned to Italy, a clique of ultra-conservative senators, known as the boni, determined that it was their mission in life to cut Pompey down to size; they loathed him as an upstart, feared his power and were convinced he longed to crown himself King of Rome. They were joined in their efforts by Marcus Crassus, for the bitterness of the Spartacus fiasco had since festered into a pathological personal loathing for Pompey. With a vast fortune at his disposal, Crassus had hundreds of Senators on his pay roll and was recognised by all as the Republic’s second most powerful citizen. 

Crassus despised the boni as they did him, but they were briefly bound together by their shared hatred of Pompey. When Pompey tried to have his veterans granted land and attempted to have his Eastern Settlement ratified, he came face first against a wall of Senatorial obstructionism. Pompey responded by blocking all the measures Crassus wanted to see passed, an effort in which he received the aid of the boni, who generally wished to oppose any and all new legislation. A bizarre Mexican stand-off ensured, where Pompey stopped Crassus from acting, Crassus stopped Pompey from acting and the boni stopped anyone from acting at all. The Republic was paralysed. 

Enter Gaius Julius Caesar, a young, controversial and populist politician. Caesar’s genius was that he avoided becoming a partisan of either Pompey or Crassus, and instead walked a tightrope between the two great man. Eventually, he managed to persuade them that their true enemies were the boni, not one another, and that the only way they could break the gridlock was by collaborating with one another. Once they were swayed, the First Triumvirate was born. With the combined gravitational weight of the two greatest men in Rome behind him, Caesar used his political cunning first to secure the consulship and then to steamroller boni opposition into submission. Pompey and Crassus rammed their legislative agendas down the throat of an exceedingly unhappy Senate, and Caesar was granted a command in Gaul, which he would use as a launchpad for his Gallic Wars. Around this time, Pompey was wed to Caesar’s daughter, Julia; though the marriage was political, the sources note that the two feel deeply love with one another, despite him being older than her father. 

The Triumvirs dominated Roman politics, with Cicero noting that he once saw in Pompey’s notebook a complete list of consuls: past, present and future. Three years later the trio gathered at Luca and cemented their power; Caesar’s Gallic command was extended for five years, Crassus was granted control of Syria while Pompey remained in Rome, though he was also made governor of Spain. Consumed by his envy of Pompey, Crassus rode east to conquer the Parthians, subdue all west of India and establish himself as a great conqueror. He never made it past Mesopotamia, and was cut down in battle. At the same time, political tensions in Rome only rose as the boni did battle with radical reformers on the streets. As Rome was held hostage to rival street gangs, the Republic descended into violence and the Senate House went up in flames, Pompey was called on to restore order. He declared martial law, flooded Rome with his men and forcibly dragged the state out of anarchy.

In the meantime, Caesar won the Gallic Wars; now he was Rome’s second most powerful, second most wealthy and second most successful general. It was around this time that Julia, the link between Caesar and Pompey, died in childbirth. The boni, still smarting over Caesar’s year as consul, attempted to summon him back to Rome, where they would bring charges against him, drag him through a kangaroo court and force him into exile. Caesar refused. Declaring the Republic was dead and that only he could save it, Caesar led the Thirteenth Legion across the Rubicon, declaring civil war. Now Pompey, the man the boni had always assumed wanted a tyranny, seemed to be the only man in the world who could stop Caesar from naming himself tyrant. Most, such as Cicero, were hardly enthusiastic about the Pompeian regime they feared would emerge once Caesar was crushed, but they saw it as the lesser of two evils.

Pompey and Caesar were both immensely gifted generals, but in very different ways. Caesar was at his best in that middle ground between tactics and strategy, which Napoleon would later perfect. He exploited terrain, changing it with massive construction projects when needed. He played with his enemy’s mind, forcing a battle when at his strongest. He seized opportunities when they appeared and pursued them with an incredible speed when successful. Pompey, however, excelled as a logistician, a strategist and an organiser; he specialised in patiently assembling an overwhelming force and then methodically obliterating his enemy. 

When Caesar began his advance on Rome, Pompey was caught off balance. His veteran legions were in Spain, his power base was in the East and Italy was all but undefended. Most of the Senate urged Pompey to rush north to face Caesar with whatever forces he could muster, but attacking the conqueror of Gaul and his veteran army with the greenest of troops was a far from appealing prospect. And so, as commander of the forces of the People and Senate, Pompey abandoned Rome, leaving it to Caesar, and retreated to Greece. His calculations were strategically correct; in the last civil war, generals had frequently abandoned Rome whenever the situation had been unfavourable and gathered strength in the provinces. As Pompey himself noted “Sulla did it, why can’t I?” Caesar just had the Gallic legions and he enjoyed local superiority only in Italy, where Pompey had no reliable legions. In leaving Italy, Pompey denied Caesar his best hope for victory – storming an undefended Rome and capturing those who might resist him.

Pompey planned to mobilise the strength of the world to crush Caesar; the legions of Spain would menace Italy from the west, new forces would be raised in Africa and the resources of the Eastern Mediterranean would be concentrated in Greece under Pompey’s personal control. But for all the plan’s brilliance, it was far from popular within Pompey’s camp; the Senate, composed overwhelmingly of unmilitary men whose ambitions outstripped their abilities, saw abandoning Italy as cowardly, unpatriotic and overly cautious. So began the first murmurings of discontent with Pompey’s leadership.

As soon as Italy was secured, Caesar rushed west, crushed the Pompeian legions in Iberia and pacified the Peninsula. In the meantime, Pompey built up his strength in Greece and assembled an overwhelming military host. Realising that his rival would only grow stronger as time went on, Caesar rushed back to Italy and, in a daring series of embarkations, evaded the Pompeian fleet guarding the Adriatic and appeared in Greece. Pompey rushed out to face him, and the two great generals jockeyed to seize every possible advantage. Each army built a long line fortifications, with small squadrons occasionally making forays across stretch of no-man’s land between the two defensive tracks; Pompey and Caesar had pre-empted trench warfare by two millennia. At the Battle of Dyrrachium, Caesar was outmanoeuvred by Pompey and, having lost a thousand men, had to watch as his troops routed. He eventually rallied his men, but his position was exceedingly precarious; morale was low, supplies were thin and the Caesarians were substantially outnumbered. It seemed all Pompey needed to do was patiently wait for the enemy army to disintegrate. 

Yet there was one last difference between the two commanders. Caesar led the Caesarean faction, answerable only to Gaius Julius. Pompey, however, was the leader of the forces of Senate and People of Rome. He was therefore answerable to the Senate and People of Rome, embodied as it was by a collection of unmilitary ideologues, self-important politicians and amateur commanders; his authority was constantly questioned, his every decision criticised and his subordinates constantly chafed against his authority. They accused him of prolonging the campaign for his own power, mocked him for his perceived lethargy and hinted he feared Caesar. Pompey’s Achilles’ heel, his need for recognition, could not tolerate this, and he reluctantly prepared for a decisive battle.

Pompey’s had one key advantage: his numerical superiority. He had more than three legionaries for every two Caesareans, while there were five Pompeian horsemen for every enemy horseman. Yet his troops were far less experienced than Caesar’s veterans and so attempting complex manoeuvres could spell disaster. Pompey placed his forces with the River Enipeus on his right and presented a battle line as long as Caesar’s, but several ranks deeper. He then massed his cavalry on his far left, and drew up his infantry between the cavalry and the river. Caesar mirrored this formation, with his cavalry opposite Pompey’s. Instead of charging Caesar, Pompey ordered his infantrymen to stand and wait for Caesar’s line to attack them. Caesar later criticised this, noting it denied troops the adrenaline of a running assault, but Pompey’s less experienced troops would have both lost formation in a charge and exhausted themselves before the fighting began.

Pompey planned to use his superior cavalry to overwhelm the enemy horsemen on the far left. From there, they would wheel around, fall upon Caesar’s exposed right flank and cut down the surrounded veterans of the Gallic campaigns. It was a good plan. But it was also predictable, and Caesar was able to pre-empt Pompey’s assault. Caesar drew up a force of crack legionaries behind his cavalry, armed them with javelins and told them to hack down the enemy riders. When Pompey’s horsemen attacked, Caesar’s small cavalry force feigned flight, and the elated Pompeians rushed forwards, only to slam headlong into the previously concealed legionaries. The horsemen of the ancient world could do many things on the battlefield, but charging head-first into a line of prepared spearmen was tantamount to suicide. Pompey’s men were cut to ribbons. Caesar’s squadron of infantry then advanced, surrounded Pompey’s now exposed left and cut down the enemy infantry. The battle was over.

Pompey fled from Pharsalus, an action for which he was later damned by Lucan and Horace. Yet the was was not yet lost. Forces loyal to the Senate existed all across the Mediterranean, and Caesar had shown how much a single army could accomplish. The Senate journeyed to raise forces in North Africa, while Pompey sailed to Egypt, to request the Ptolemaic family, which was in his debt, equip him with a new force. It was not to be. The young Pharaoh’s advisers warned that if Egypt aided Pompey, Caesar’s vengeance would be terrible, but that if they refused Pompey aid and he somehow won the Civil War, his wrath would be similarly terrible. The Pharaoh could only think of one way to both please Caesar and ensure Pompey could never rise again. Accordingly, when Pompey landed in Alexandria, he was promptly betrayed, seized and decapitated. The head was taken to the Pharaoh, and the stump was abandoned on the beach, where it was eventually found and buried by a loyal slave and an old veteran of Pompey’s old campaigns who had since settled in Egypt. 

Unfortunately, the Pharaoh had not accounted for Caesar, who was apoplectic when he was presented with Pompey’s head. Some say his display of sorrow was simply for show, an attempt to win over Pompey’s remaining supporters. Most sources, however, suggest that Caesar was genuinely moved by the ignominious murder of an old friend, whom Caesar himself wished to show mercy towards. Either way, Ptolemy soon found himself embroiled in a war against Caesar, a war which would cost the god-king his life. A few years later, the all-conquering commander would be stabbed to death in the Theatre of Pompey, a part of the massive complex Pompey had erected at the height of his power. Covered with stab wounds, the bleeding Caesar fell at the feet of the statue of his greatest rival. 

Pompey was a great, and in many ways tragic, figure. He has been much maligned in the centuries after his death as a mediocre leader, who exaggerated his own successes and took the credit for other men’s victories. Pompey certainly had his vices; he could be glory-hungry and petty, as evidenced by the Spartacus incident. Yet to claim, as some have, that Metellus and Lucullus had already won his victories for him is ridiculous. Analysing his career as a whole reveals he was a man with a mind uniquely gifted for war who achieved remarkable things. Certainly, he was not as gifted a general as Caesar, but those point to his final campaign as proof of his mediocrity fail to comprehend one fact: that Caesar was a uniquely brilliant commander, whose genius has perhaps not been matched in the last two millennia. 

A conflict between two masters of war inevitably enhances the reputation of one and tarnishes, perhaps unfairly, the reputation of the other. This is as true of Napoleon facing Wellington as it was of Scipio facing Hannibal. The duel between Caesar and Pompey was not a case of an unskilled commander facing a skilled, but of a great leader facing off against a greater. But as Pompey himself noted in his younger years “more men worship the rising rather than the setting sun.”

Caesar., The Civil Wars 

Fields, N., 2012. Pompey. Osprey Publishing  

Goldsworthy, A., 2004. In the Name of Rome: the Men Who Won the Roman Empire. Weidenfeild and Nicholson 

Greenhalgh, P., 1980. Pompey: The Roman Alexander. Weidenfeild and Nicholson 

Lucan., Pharsalia 

Plutarch., The Life of Pompey