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Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
Pompey the Great in middle age, marble bust in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, Denmark.
Consul of the Roman Republic
In office
52 BC – 51 BC
Serving with Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio
Preceded by Marcus Valerius Messalla Rufus and Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus
Succeeded by Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Servius Sulpicius Rufus
Consul of the Roman Republic
In office
55 BC – 54 BC
Serving with Marcus Licinius Crassus
Preceded by Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Marcellinus and Lucius Marcius Philippus
Succeeded by Appius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus
Governor of the Hispania Ulterior
In office
58 BC – 55 BC
Consul of the Roman Republic
In office
70 BC – 69 BC
Serving with Marcus Licinius Crassus
Preceded by Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura and Gnaeus Aufidius Orestes
Succeeded by Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus and Quintus Hortensius
Personal details
Born September 29, 106 BC
Picenum (Italy), Roman Republic
Died September 29, 48 BC (aged 58)
Pelusium, Ptolemaic Egypt
Spouse(s) Antistia (86 BC- 82 BC)
Aemilia Scaura (82 BC - 79 BC)
Mucia Tertia (79 BC - 61 BC)
Julia (59 BC - 54 BC)
Cornelia Metella (52 BC - 48 BC)
Children Gnaeus Pompeius
Pompeia Magna
Sextus Pompeius
Occupation Politician and military commander
Religion Roman paganism

Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus[1] (Classical Latin: [ˈgnae̯.ʊs pɔmˈpɛj.jʊs ˈmaŋ.nʊs]; 29 September 106 BC – 29 September 48 BC), usually known in English as Pompey /ˈpɒmp/ or Pompey the Great,[2] was a military and political leader of the late Roman Republic. He came from a wealthy Italian provincial background, and his father had been the first to establish the family among the Roman nobility. Pompey's immense success as a general while still very young enabled him to advance directly to his first consulship without meeting the normal requirements for office. His success as a military commander in Sulla's Second Civil War resulted in Sulla bestowing the nickname Magnus, "the Great", upon him. He was consul three times and celebrated three triumphs.

In mid-60 BC, Pompey joined Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar in the unofficial military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate, which Pompey's marriage to Caesar's daughter Julia helped secure. After the deaths of Julia and Crassus, Pompey sided with the optimates, the conservative faction of the Roman Senate. Pompey and Caesar then contended for the leadership of the Roman state, leading to a civil war. When Pompey was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus, he sought refuge in Egypt, where he was assassinated. His career and defeat are significant in Rome's subsequent transformation from Republic to Principate and Empire.

Early life and political debut

Pompey's family first gained the position of Consul in 141 BC. Pompey's father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, was a wealthy landed Italian provincial from Picenum, one of the novi homines (new men). Pompeius Strabo ascended the traditional cursus honorum, becoming quaestor in 104 BC, praetor in 92 BC and consul in 89 BC, and acquired a reputation for greed, political double-dealing and military ruthlessness. He supported Sulla's traditionalist optimates against the popularist general Marius in the first Marian-Sullan war.[3]

He died during the Marian siege against Rome in 87 BC, either as a casualty of pandemic plague, or struck by lightning, or possibly both.[3] In Plutarch's account, his body was dragged from its bier by the mob.[4] His twenty-year-old son Pompey inherited his estates, his political leanings and the loyalty of his legions.

Roman statue of Pompey, at the Villa Arconati a Castellazzo di Bollate (Milan, Italy). It was brought there from Rome in 1627 by Galeazzo Arconati.

Pompey had served two years under his father's command, and had participated in the final acts of the Marsic Social War against the Italians. He returned to Rome and was prosecuted for misappropriation of plunder: his betrothal to the judge's daughter, Antistia, secured a rapid acquittal.[5]

For the next few years, the Marians had possession of Italy.[6] When Sulla returned from campaigning against Mithridates in 83 BC, Pompey raised three Picenean legions to support him against the Marian regime of Gnaeus Papirius Carbo.[7]

Sulla and his allies displaced the Marians in Italy and Rome: Sulla, now Dictator of Rome, was impressed by the young Pompey's self-confident performance. He addressed him as imperator and offered him his stepdaughter, Aemilia Scaura, in marriage. Aemilia – already married and pregnant – divorced her husband and Pompey divorced Antistia.[8] Though Aemilia died in childbirth soon after, the marriage confirmed Pompey's loyalty and greatly boosted his career.[9]

Sicily and Africa

With the war in Italy over, Sulla sent Pompey against the Marians in Sicily and Africa.[10] In 82 BC, Pompey secured Sicily, guaranteeing Rome's grain supply. He executed Gnaeus Papirius Carbo and his supporters out of hand, which may have led to his dubbing as the adulescens carnifex (adolescent butcher).[11] In 81 BC, he moved on to the Roman province of Africa, where he defeated Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and the Numidian king Hiarbas, after a hard-fought battle.[12]

After this string of victories, Pompey was proclaimed Imperator by his troops on the field in Africa; once back in Rome, he was given an enthusiastic popular reception and hailed by Sulla as Magnus (the Great) – probably in recognition of Pompey's undoubted victories and popularity. However, it seems that Sulla was reluctant to honor him. The young general was still officially a mere privatus (private citizen) who had held no offices in the cursus honorum. The title may have been meant to cut Pompey down to size; he himself used it only later in his career.[13]

When Pompey demanded a triumph for his African victories, Sulla refused; it would have been an unprecedented, even illegal, honour for a young privatus – by law, Pompey would have had to disband his legions. Pompey refused, and presented himself expectantly at the gates of Rome, upon which Sulla gave in and granted his request.[14] However, Sulla had his own triumph first, then allowed Metellus Pius his triumph, relegating Pompey to an extra-legal third place in a quick succession of triumphs.[15]

On the day the triumph was to take place, Pompey attempted to upstage both his seniors in a triumphal chariot towed by an elephant, representing his exotic African conquests. The elephant would not fit through the city gate. Some hasty replanning was needed, much to the embarrassment of Pompey and amusement of those present.[16] His refusal to give in to his troops' near-mutinous demands for cash is believed by historians to have impressed his mentor and Rome's conservatives, ultimately leading to his rise in Rome's military and political hierarchy.

Quintus Sertorius and Spartacus

Bust of Pompey in the Residenz, Munich

Pompey's career seems to have been driven by desire for military glory and disregard for traditional political constraints.[17] In a very common political move at the time, Pompey married Sulla's step-daughter Mucia Tertia.[18] However, in the consular elections of 78 BC, he supported Lepidus against Sulla's wishes, causing Sulla to remove Pompey from his will. In 78 BC, Sulla died; when Lepidus revolted, Pompey suppressed him on behalf of the Senate. He subsequently asked for proconsular imperium in Hispania[19] to deal with the populares' general Quintus Sertorius, who had held out for the past three years against Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, one of Sulla's most able generals.[20]

The Roman aristocracy turned him down, as they were beginning to fear the young, popular and successful general. Pompey resorted to his tried and tested persuasion; he refused to disband his legions until his request was granted.[20] The senate acceded, reluctantly granted him the title of proconsul and powers equal to those of Metellus, and sent him to Hispania.[21]

On his way to Spain, Pompey spent one year subduing rebellious tribes in southern Gaul and organizing the province.[22]

Pompey remained in Hispania from 76 – 71 BC; he was, for a long time, unable to bring the war to an end due to Sertorius' guerrilla tactics. Though he was never able to decisively beat Sertorius (and he nearly met disaster at the battle of Sucro), he won several campaigns against Sertorius' junior officers and gradually took the advantage over his enemy in a war of attrition. Sertorius was significantly weakened, and by 74 BC, Metellus and Pompey were winning city after city.[23] In 72 BC, the Sertorians controlled little more than Lusitania and many soldiers were deserting.

Finally, Pompey managed to crush the populares when Sertorius was murdered by his own officer, Marcus Perperna Vento, who was decisively defeated in 72 BC by the young general, at their first battle. By early 71 BC, the whole of Hispania was subdued.[23] Pompey showed a talent for efficient organisation and fair administration in the conquered province; this extended his patronage throughout Hispania and into southern Gaul.[24] Some time in 71 BC, he set off for Italy, along with his army.

Meanwhile, Crassus was facing Spartacus to end Rome's Third Servile War. Crassus defeated Spartacus, but in his march towards Rome, Pompey encountered the remnants of Spartacus' army; he captured five thousand of them and claimed the credit for finishing the revolt, which infuriated Crassus.[25]

Back in Rome, Pompey was wildly popular. On December 31, 71 BC, he was given a triumph for his victories in Hispania – like his first, it was granted extralegally. To his admirers, he was the most brilliant general of the age, evidently favoured by the gods and a possible champion of the people's rights. He had successfully faced down Sulla and his Senate; he or his influence might restore the traditional plebeian rights and privileges lost under Sulla's dictatorship.

Due to this, Pompey was allowed to bypass another ancient Roman tradition; at only 35 years of age and while not even a senator, he was elected Consul by an overwhelming majority vote, and served in 70 BC with Crassus as partner. Pompey's meteoric rise to the consulship was unprecedented; his tactics offended the traditionalist nobility whose values he claimed to share and defend. He had left them no option but to allow his consulship.

Campaign against the pirates

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Two years after his consulship, Pompey was offered command of a naval task force to deal with piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. The conservative faction of the Senate remained suspicious and wary of him; this seemed yet another illegal or at least extraordinary appointment.[26] Pompey's supporters for this command – including Caesar – were in the minority, but support was whipped up through his nomination by the Tribune of the Plebs Aulus Gabinius who proposed a Lex Gabinia; Pompey should have control over the sea and the coasts for 50 miles inland. This would set him above every military leader in the East – it was passed despite vehement opposition.

According to Rome's historians, pirates had freely plundered the coastal cities of Greece, Asia and Italy itself. The extent and nature of their threat is questionable; anything that threatened Rome's grain supply was cause for panic, and the Romans tended to exaggerate any such threats. Roman public opinion and Pompey's supporters may have exaggerated the solution. Various settlements, peoples and city-states around the Mediterranean had coexisted several centuries and most had operated small fleets for war, or trade in commodities, including slaves. Their alliances might be loose and temporary or more-or-less permanent; some regarded themselves as nations.[27]

With Rome's increasing hegemony, the independent maritime economies of the Mediterranean would have been further marginalised; an increasing number would have resorted to piracy. As long as they met Rome's increasing requirement for slaves, left her allies and territories untouched and offered her enemies no support, they were tolerated. Some were subsidised.[27] But fear of piracy was potent – and these same pirates, it was later alleged, had assisted Sertorius.

By the end of that winter, the preparations were complete. Pompey allocated one of thirteen areas to each of his legates, and sent out their fleets. In forty days, the western Mediterranean was cleared.[26] Dio reported communication was restored between Hispania, Africa, and Italy;[28] and that Pompey then attended to the largest of these alliances, centered on the coast of "Rough Cilicia".[29] After "defeating" its fleet, he induced its surrender with promises of pardon, and settled many of its people at Soli, which was henceforward called Pompeiopolis.[30]

De Souza (2002) finds that Pompey had officially returned the Cilicians to their own cities, which were ideal bases for piracy and not – as Dio would have it – for the dignified reformation of pirates as farmers. Pompey's entire campaign is therefore in question; its description as "war" is hyperbole – some form of treaty or payoff is likely, with Pompey as chief negotiator. This was standard practice, but undignified and seldom acknowledged; Rome's generals were supposed to wage and win wars. A decade on, in the 50s BC, the Cilicians and pirates in general remained a nuisance to Rome's sea trade.[31]

In Rome, however, Pompey was hero; once again, he had guaranteed the grain supply. According to Plutarch, by the end of the summer of 66 BC, his forces had swept the Mediterranean clear of opposition. Pompey was hailed as the first man in Rome, Primus inter pares (the first among equals). Cicero could not resist a panegyric:[32]

"Pompey made his preparations for the war at the end of the winter, entered upon it at the commencement of spring, and finished it in the middle of the summer."

The expedience of his campaign probably guaranteed Pompey his next and even more impressive command, this time in Rome's long-running war against Mithridates. By the 40s BC, Cicero could comment less favourably on the pirate campaign, and especially the funded "resettlement" at Soli/Pompeiopolis; "we give immunity to pirates and make our allies pay tribute."[33]

Pompey in the East

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Pompey in the Temple of Jerusalem, by Jean Fouquet.

Pompey spent the rest of that year and the beginning of the next visiting the cities of Cilicia and Pamphylia, and providing for the government of newly conquered territories. In his absence from Rome (66 BC), he was nominated to succeed Lucius Licinius Lucullus as commander in the Third Mithridatic War against Mithridates VI of Pontus in the East. Pompey's command was proposed by the tribune Gaius Manilius, supported by Caesar and justified by Cicero in pro Lege Manilia.[34] His brother-in-law Quintus Metellus Celer served underneath him at this time and followed him in his exploits in the East. Like the Gabinian law, it was opposed by the aristocracy, but was carried nonetheless.

Lucullus, a plebeian noble, was incensed at the prospect of his replacement by a "new man" such as Pompey. The outgoing commander and his replacements traded insults. Lucullus called Pompey a "vulture" who fed from the work of others. Lucullus was referring not merely to Pompey's new command against Mithridates, but also his claim to have finished the war against Spartacus.[35]

At Pompey's approach, Mithridates strategically withdrew his forces. However, Pompey managed to besiege his camp, but could not prevent his enemy from breaking the encirclement and retreating further east. But, afterward, near Armenia, Pompey managed to surprise the Pontic army by a daring nocturnal attack and all but destroyed it, leaving the king with no choice but to flee in disarray. Tigranes the Great refused him refuge, so he made his way to his own dominions in the Cimmerian Bosporus. Pompey secured a treaty with Tigranes, and in 65 BC set out in pursuit of Mithridates, but met resistance from the Caucasian Iberians and Albanians. The Romans won a succession of decisive victories over these people on the Abas and the Cyrus rivers and at Seusamora, destroying their forces.[36] Pompey then advanced to Phasis in Colchis and liaised with his legate Servilius, admiral of his Euxine fleet, before decisively defeating Mithridates.[37]

Pompey then retraced his steps, wintered at Pontus, and made it into a Roman province. In 64 BC, he marched into Syria, deposed its king, Antiochus XIII Asiaticus, and reconstituted this, too, as a Roman province.[37] In 63 BC, he moved south, and established Roman supremacy in Phoenicia and Coele-Syria.[38]

In Judea, Pompey intervened in the civil war between Hyrcanus II, who supported the Pharisee faction and Aristobulus II, who supported the Sadducees. The armies of Pompey and Hyrcanus II laid siege to Jerusalem. After three months, the city fell.[39]

"Of the Jews there fell twelve thousand, but of the Romans very few.... and no small enormities were committed about the temple itself, which, in former ages, had been inaccessible, and seen by none; for Pompey went into it, and not a few of those that were with him also, and saw all that which it was unlawful for any other men to see but only for the high priests. There were in that temple the golden table, the holy candlestick, and the pouring vessels, and a great quantity of spices; and besides these there were among the treasures two thousand talents of sacred money: yet did Pompey touch nothing of all this, on account of his regard to religion; and in this point also he acted in a manner that was worthy of his virtue. The next day he gave order to those that had the charge of the temple to cleanse it, and to bring what offerings the law required to God; and restored the high priesthood to Hyrcanus, both because he had been useful to him in other respects, and because he hindered the Jews in the country from giving Aristobulus any assistance in his war against him."

(Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 14, chapter 4; tr. by William Whiston, available at Project Gutenberg.)

During the war in Judea, Pompey heard of Mithridates' suicide; his army had deserted him for his son Pharnaces.[37] In all, Pompey had annexed four new provinces to the Republic: Bithynia et Pontus, Syria, Cilicia, and Crete. Rome's Asian protectorates now extended as far east as the Black Sea and the Caucasus. Pompey's military victories, political settlements and annexations in Asia created Rome's new frontier on the east.

Return to Rome, and third triumph

News of Pompey's victories in the east – and probably of his divine honours there – reached Rome before he did. He had cult at Delos and was "saviour" in Samos and Mytelene. Plutarch quotes a wall-graffito in Athens, referring it to Pompey: "The more you know you're a man, the more you become a god". In Greece, these honours were standard fare for benefactors. In Rome, they would have seemed dangerously monarchic.[40]

In Pompey's absence, his old supporter Cicero had risen to the consulship. His old enemy and colleague Crassus supported Caesar. In the Senate and behind its scenes, Pompey was probably equally admired, feared and excluded; on the streets he was as popular as ever. His eastern victories earned him his third triumph. On his 45th birthday, in 61 BC, he rode the triumphal chariot, a magnificent god-king, but one of Republican form, ritualistically reminded of his impermanence and mortality. Even so, he was accompanied by a gigantic portrait head of himself, studded with pearls.[41][42]

His third triumph exceeded all others; an unprecedented two days were scheduled for its procession and games (ludi). Spoils, prisoners, army and banners depicting battle scenes wended the triumphal route between the Campus Martius and the Capitoline temple of Jupiter. To conclude, he gave an immense triumphal banquet and money to the people of Rome, and promised them a new theatre.[41][42] Plutarch claimed this triumph represented Pompey's – and therefore Rome's – domination over the entire world, an achievement to outshine even Alexander's.[43][44]

In the meantime, Pompey promised his retiring veterans public lands to farm, then dismissed his armies. It was a reassuringly traditional gesture, but the Senate remained suspicious. They debated and delayed his eastern political settlements[45] and the promised gifts of public land. From now on, Pompey seems to have toed a cautious line between his enthusiastic popular supporters and the conservatives who seemed so reluctant to acknowledge his solid achievements. It would lead him into unexpected political alliances.

Caesar and the First Triumvirate

Although Pompey and Crassus distrusted each other, Crassus' tax farming clients were being rebuffed at the same time Pompey's veterans were being ignored, and by 61 BC, their grievances had pushed them both into an alliance with Caesar, six years younger than Pompey, returning from service in Hispania and ready to seek the consulship for 59 BC. Their political alliance, known subsequently as the First Triumvirate, operated to the benefit of each. Pompey and Crassus would make Caesar Consul, and Caesar would use his consular power to promote their claims.

Caesar's consulship of 59 BC brought Pompey land for his veterans, confirmation of his Asian political settlements and a new wife. She was Caesar's daughter, Julia; Pompey was said to be besotted by her.[46] In the same year, Clodius renounced his patrician status, was adopted into a plebeian gens and was elected a Tribune of the plebs. At the end of his consulship, Caesar secured proconsular command in Gaul. Pompey was given the governorship of Hispania Ulterior, but remained in Rome to oversee the grain supply as curator annonae.[47]

Despite his preoccupation with his new wife, Pompey handled the grain issue well. His political acumen was less sure. When Clodius turned on him in turn, Pompey defended himself by supporting Cicero's recall from exile (57 BC). Once back in Rome, Cicero stepped back into his role as Pompey's defender and Clodius' antagonist, but Pompey himself retreated to his lovely young wife and his theatre plans; such behaviour was not expected of the once dazzling young general.[47]

Pompey might equally have been obsessed, exhausted and frustrated. His own party had not forgiven him for allowing Cicero's expulsion. Some tried to persuade him that Crassus was plotting his assassination. Meanwhile, Caesar seemed set on outstripping both his colleagues in generalship and popularity.

By 56 BC, the bonds between the three men were fraying.[47] Caesar called first Crassus, then Pompey, to a secret meeting, the Lucca Conference, in the northern Italian town of Lucca to rethink their joint strategy. They agreed that Pompey and Crassus would again stand for the consulship in 55 BC. Once elected, they would extend Caesar's command in Gaul by five years. At the end of their joint consular year, Crassus would have the influential and lucrative governorship of Syria, and use this as a base to conquer Parthia. Pompey would keep Hispania in absentia.

In 55 BC, Pompey and Crassus were elected as consuls, against a background of bribery, civil unrest and electioneering violence.[48] Pompey's new theatre was inaugurated in the same year. It was Rome's first permanent theatre, a gigantic, architecturally daring, self-contained complex on the Campus Martius, complete with shops, multi-service buildings, gardens and a temple to Venus Victrix. The latter connected its donor to Aeneas, a son of Venus and ancestor of Rome itself. In its portico, the statuary, paintings and personal wealth of foreign kings could be admired at leisure. Pompey's triumph lived on.[49] His theatre made an ideal meeting place for his supporters.

From confrontation to war

In 54 BC, Julia, Caesar's only child and Pompey's wife, died in childbirth along with her baby. Pompey and Caesar shared their grief and condolences, but Julia's death broke their family bonds.[50] The following year, Crassus, his son Publius and most of his army were annihilated by the Parthians at Carrhae. Caesar, not Pompey, was now Rome's great new general and the fragile balance of power between them was under threat. Public anxiety spilled over: rumours circulated that Pompey would be offered dictatorship for the sake of law and order.

Caesar sought a second matrimonial alliance with Pompey, offering his grandniece Octavia (the sister of the future emperor Augustus). This time, though, Pompey refused. In 52 BC, he married Cornelia Metella, the very young widow of Crassus's son Publius, and the daughter of Caecilius Metellus Scipio, one of Caesar’s greatest enemies. Pompey was drifting back toward the optimates. It can be presumed that they thought him the lesser of two evils.

In the same year, Clodius was murdered. When his supporters burned down the Senate House in retaliation, the Senate appealed to Pompey. He reacted with ruthless efficiency. Cicero, defending the accused murderer Titus Annius Milo, was so shaken by a Forum seething with armed soldiers, he was unable to complete his defense.

Once order was restored, the Senate and Cato avoided granting Pompey dictatorship – it recalled Sulla and his bloody proscriptions. Instead they made him sole Consul; this gave him sweeping, but limited, powers. A Dictator could not be lawfully punished for measures taken during his office. As sole Consul, Pompey would be answerable for his actions once out of office.

While Caesar was fighting against Vercingetorix in Gaul, Pompey proceeded with a legislative agenda for Rome. Its details suggested covert alliance with Caesar's enemies: among his various legal and military reforms was a law allowing retrospective prosecution for electoral bribery. Caesar's allies correctly interpreted this as a threat to Caesar once his imperium ended. Pompey also prohibited Caesar from standing for the consulship in absentia, though this had been permitted under past laws.

This seemed to put paid to Caesar's plans after his term in Gaul expired. Finally, in 51 BC, Pompey was more forthright; Caesar would not be permitted to stand for Consul unless he relinquished his armies. This would, of course, leave Caesar defenseless before his enemies. As Cicero sadly noted, Pompey had been diminished by age, uncertainty, his fear of Caesar and the strain of being the chosen tool of a quarreling oligarchy of optimates. The coming conflict seemed inevitable.[51]

Civil war and assassination

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The Flight of Pompey after Pharsalus, by Jean Fouquet

In the beginning, Pompey claimed he could defeat Caesar and raise armies merely by stamping his foot on the soil of Italy, but by the spring of 49 BC, with Caesar crossing the Rubicon and his invading legions sweeping down the peninsula, Pompey ordered the abandonment of Rome. His legions retreated south towards Brundisium, where Pompey intended to find renewed strength by waging war against Caesar in the east. By using his strategic resources in the East, as well as his naval strength to defeat Caesar's forces. In the process, neither Pompey nor the Senate thought of taking the vast treasury with them, probably thinking Caesar would not dare take it for himself. It was left conveniently in the Temple of Saturn when Caesar and his forces entered Rome.

Barely eluding Caesar in Brundisium, Pompey crossed over into Epirus, where, during Caesar's Spanish campaign, Pompey had gathered a large force in Macedonia, comprising nine legions reinforced by contingents from the Roman allies in the east.[52] His fleet, recruited from the maritime cities in the east, controlled the Adriatic. Nevertheless, Caesar managed to cross over into Epirus in November 49 BC, and proceeded to capture Apollonia.[52]

Pompey managed to arrive in time to save Dyrrhachium, and he then attempted to wait Caesar out during the siege of Dyrrhachium, scoring a victory. Yet, by failing to pursue at the critical moment of Caesar's defeat, Pompey threw away the chance to destroy Caesar's much smaller army. As Caesar himself said, "Today the enemy would have won, if they had a commander who was a winner" (Plutarch, 65E).

According to Suetonius, it was at this point that Caesar said that "that man (Pompey) does not know how to win a war." With Caesar on their backs, the conservatives led by Pompey fled to Greece. Caesar and Pompey had their final showdown at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. The fighting was bitter for both sides, and although Pompey was expected to win, due to advantage in numbers, the brilliant tactics and the superior fighting abilities of Caesar's veterans led to a victory for Caesar. Pompey met his wife Cornelia and his son Sextus Pompeius on the island of Mytilene. He then wondered where to go next. The decision of running to one of the eastern kingdoms was overruled in favour of Egypt.

After his arrival in Egypt, Pompey's fate was decided by the counselors of the young king Ptolemy XIII. While Pompey waited offshore, they argued the cost of offering him refuge with Caesar already en route to Egypt; the king's eunuch Pothinus won out. In the final dramatic passages of his biography, Plutarch had Cornelia watch anxiously from the trireme as Pompey left in a small boat with a few sullen, silent comrades, and headed for what appeared to be a welcoming party on the Egyptian shore at Pelusium. As Pompey rose to disembark, he was stabbed to death by his betrayers, Achillas, Septimius and Salvius.[53]

Plutarch has him meet his fate with great dignity, on his 60th birthday. His body remained on the shoreline, to be cremated by his loyal freeman Philip on the rotten planks of a fishing boat. His head and seal were presented to Caesar, who, according to Plutarch, mourned this insult to the greatness of his former ally and son-in-law, and punished his assassins and their Egyptian co-conspirators, putting both Achillas and Pothinus to death. Pompey's ashes were eventually returned to Cornelia, who carried them to his country house near Alba.[53]

Cassius Dio describes Caesar's reactions with skepticism, and considers Pompey's own political misjudgments, rather than treachery, as instrumental in his downfall.[54] In Appian's account of the civil war, Caesar has Pompey's severed head interred in Alexandria, in ground reserved for a new temple to the goddess Nemesis, whose divine functions included the punishment of hubris.[55] For Pliny, the humiliation of Pompey's end is anticipated by the vaunting pride of his oversized portrait-head, studded entirely with pearls, and carried in procession during his greatest Triumph.[56] Suetonius, however, states of Caesar "He even restored to their position the statues of Lucius Sulla and of Pompey which had been broken up by the common people." [57]

Theodatus shows Caesar the head of Pompey; etching, 1820


Pompey's military glory was second to none for a few decades. Yet, his skills were occasionally criticized by some of his contemporaries. Sertorius or Lucullus, for instance, were especially critical.[58] Pompey's tactics were usually efficient, albeit not particularly innovative or imaginative. They could prove insufficient against greater tacticians. However, Pharsalus was his only decisive defeat.[59] At times, he was reluctant to risk an open battle. While not hugely charismatic, Pompey could display tremendous bravery and fighting skills on the battlefield, something which provided inspiration to his men.[60] While being a superb commander, Pompey also earned a reputation for stealing other generals' victories.[61]

On the other hand, Pompey is usually considered an outstanding strategist and organizer, who could win campaigns without displaying genius on the battlefield, but simply by constantly outmaneuvering his opponents and gradually pushing them into a desperate situation.[62] Pompey was a great forward planner, and had tremendous organizational skill, which allowed him to devise grand strategies and operate effectively with large armies.[63] During his campaigns in the east, he acted like a sledgehammer, relentlessly pursuing his enemies, and choosing the ground for his battles.

Above all, he was often able to adapt to his enemies. On many occasions, he acted very swiftly and decisively, as he did during his campaigns in Sicily and Africa, or against the Cilician pirates. During the Sertorian war, on the other hand, Pompey was beaten several times by Sertorius. Therefore, he decided to resort to a war of attrition, in which he would avoid open battles against his chief opponent but instead try to gradually regain the strategic advantage by capturing his fortresses and cities and defeating his junior officers.[60] In some instances, Sertorius showed up and forced Pompey to abandon a siege, only to see him strike somewhere else.[64] This strategy was not spectacular but it led to constant territorial gains and did much to demoralize the Sertorian forces. By 72 BC, the year of his assassination, Sertorius was already in a desperate situation and his troops were deserting. Against Perpenna, a tactician far inferior to his former commander in chief, Pompey decided to revert to a more aggressive strategy and he scored a decisive victory that effectively ended the war.

Against Caesar too, his strategy was sound. During the campaign of Greece, he managed to regain the initiative, join his forces to that of Metellus Scipio (something that Caesar wanted to avoid) and trap his enemy. His strategic position was hence much better than that of Caesar and could have starved his army to death. However, he was finally compelled to fight an open battle by his allies and his conventional tactics proved no match to that of Caesar and his better-trained troops.

Later portrayals and reputation

For the historians of his own and later Roman periods, Pompey fit the trope of the great man who achieved extraordinary triumphs through his own efforts, yet fell from power and was, in the end, murdered through treachery.

He was a hero of the Republic, who seemed once to hold the Roman world in his palm, only to be brought low by Caesar. Pompey was idealized as a tragic hero almost immediately after Pharsalus and his murder. Plutarch portrayed him as a Roman Alexander the Great, pure of heart and mind, destroyed by the cynical ambitions of those around him. This portrayal of him survived into the Renaissance and Baroque periods, for example in Corneille's play The Death of Pompey (1642). In spite of his war against Caesar, Pompey was still widely celebrated during the imperial period, as the conqueror of the orient. At Augustus' funeral procession, pictures of him were carried as he was still widely considered as the great conqueror of the Orient. As a triumphator, he also had numerous statues in Rome, one of which was on the forum of Augustus. Though the imperial power did not honor him as much as his archenemy, who was considered a god, his reputation among many aristocrats and historians was equal or even superior to that of Caesar.[65]

Pompey has appeared as a character in several modern novels, plays, motion pictures, and other media.

Theater, film and television


  • In Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series of historical novels, Pompey's youthful exploits are depicted in Fortune's Favorites, the formation of the First Triumvirate and his marriage to Julia is a large part of Caesar's Women and his loss of Julia, the dissolution of the First Triumvirate, his later political career, the civil war between him and Caesar and his eventual defeat and his betrayal and murder in Egypt are all told in Caesar.
  • In comics, he appears as Julius Caesar's foe throughout the The Adventures of Alix series.
  • Pompey is a recurring character in the Roma Sub Rosa series of novels by Steven Saylor, portraying his role in the Civil War with Caesar. His final appearance is in Saylor's novel The Judgment of Caesar, graphically depicting his murder by Ptolemy in Egypt.
  • Pompey also appears frequently in the SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts, narrated by Senator Decius Metellus, a fictional nephew of Caecilius Metellus Pius. Decius despises Pompey as a glory-seeker and credit-grabber, while acknowledging that he is a political dunce who was eventually swept up into the optimates feud with Caesar.
  • Pompey is a major recurring character in Robert Harris's trilogy of the life of Cicero, (Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator), in which Pompey is portrayed as bombastic and dim-witted, though fearsome.

Marriages and offspring

Chronology of Pompey's life and career

  • 106 BC September 29– Born in Picenum
  • 83 BC– Aligns with Sulla, after his return from the Mithridatic War against King Mithridates IV of Pontus; Marriage to Aemilia Scaura
  • 82–81 BC– Defeats Gaius Marius's allies in Sicily and Africa
  • 81 BC– Returns to Rome and celebrates First triumph
  • 76–71 BC– Campaign in Hispania against Sertorius
  • 71 BC– Returns to Italy and participates in the suppression of a slave rebellion led by Spartacus; Second triumph
  • 70 BC– First consulship (with M. Licinius Crassus)
  • 67 BC– Defeats the pirates and goes to Asia province
  • 66–61 BC– Defeats King Mithridates of Pontus; end of the Third Mithridatic War
  • 64–63 BC– Pompey's March through Syria, the Levant, and Judea
  • 61 BC September 29– Third triumph
  • 59 BC April– The first triumvirate is constituted; Pompey allies to Julius Caesar and Licinius Crassus; marriage to Julia (daughter of Julius Caesar)
  • 58–55 BC– Governs Hispania Ulterior by proxy, construction of Pompey's Theater
  • 55 BC– Second consulship (with M. Licinius Crassus), Dedication of the Theatre of Pompey
  • 54 BC– Julia dies; the first triumvirate ends
  • 52 BC– Serves as sole consul for intercalary month,[66] third ordinary consulship with Metellus Scipio for the rest of the year; marriage to Cornelia Metella
  • 51 BC– Forbids Caesar (in Gaul) to stand for consulship in absentia
  • 50 BC– Falls dangerously ill with fever in Campania, but is saved 'by public prayers'[67]
  • 49 BC– Caesar crosses the Rubicon River and invades Italy; Pompey retreats to Greece with the conservatives
  • 48 BC– Caesar defeats Pompey's army near Pharsalus, Greece. Pompey retreats to Egypt and is killed at Pelusium.
Political offices
Preceded by Consul of the Roman Republic
with Marcus Licinius Crassus
70 BC
Succeeded by
Quintus Caecilius Metellus Creticus and Quintus Hortensius
Preceded by Consul of the Roman Republic
with Marcus Licinius Crassus
55 BC
Succeeded by
Appius Claudius Pulcher and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus
Preceded by Consul of the Roman Republic
Without Colleague
Intercalary Month, 52 BC[68]
Succeeded by
Gnaeus Pompey Magnus and Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio
Preceded by
Gnaeus Pompey Magnus
Consul of the Roman Republic
with Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio
52 BC
Succeeded by
Marcus Claudius Marcellus and Servius Sulpicius Rufus


  1. Pompey's full name was Gnaeus Pompeius Gnaeī fīlius Sextī nepōs Magnus "Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, son of Gnaeus, grandson of Sextus", in Classical Latin spelling CN·POMPEIVS·CN·F·SEX·N·MAGNVS.
  2. William Smith, A New Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology and Geography, 1851. (Under the tenth entry of Pompeius).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Appian, Civil Wars, 1.9.80, (Loeb) at Thayer
  4. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, 1. (Loeb) at Thayer: [1]:see also Velleius Paterculus, Roman History 2, 21. (Loeb) at Thayer: [2]
  5. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pg 126
  6. Boak, History of Rome, pgs 145-6
  7. Dio describes Pompey's troop levy as a "small band": Cassius Dio, 33, fragment 107 (Loeb) at Thayer:[3]
  8. Aemilia's first husband had offered Sulla unwelcome criticism.
  9. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pg. 136
  10. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pg. 141
  11. Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, 6.2.8
  12. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pgs. 143-5
  13. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pg 148 – 149.
  14. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pg. 149
  15. Pompey's age, his equestrian status and his victory over Roman foes should have disqualified him from a triumph. Sulla's consent (formalised by his obedient senate as a Republican permission) made it a "nontraditional" and strictly illegal triumph, but a triumph nevertheless. See Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph, The Belknapp Press, 2007. 16 – 17.
  16. Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pg. 151
  17. Holland, Rubicon, pgs. 141-42
  18. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  19. The Iberian peninsula, roughly comprising modern Spain and Portugal.
  20. 20.0 20.1 Plutarch, Life of Pompey, pg. 158
  21. Boak, History of Rome, pg. 152
  22. Pro lege Manilia, Cicero
  23. 23.0 23.1 Boak, History of Rome, pg. 153
  24. Holland, Rubicon, pg. 142
  25. Holland, Rubicon, pgs. 150-51
  26. 26.0 26.1 Boak, History of Rome, pg. 160
  27. 27.0 27.1 De Souza, 149 – 179, for background and detailed critique of primary sources on Pompey's commission and its fulfillment. Limited preview available from googlebooks [4]
  28. This probably refers to the grain supply; the extent of its interruption before Pompey's campaign is not known. The reference to Hispania might relate to Sertorius' revolt and resistance – abetted, in some accounts, by "Cilician pirates" – or its aftermath.
  29. Approximate to Southern Turkey. Once a Seleucid province, in Pompey's day and for some time to come it was a semi-independent territory whose sovereignty was debated by neighbouring Greek polities. It resisted such claims, but was eventually absorbed into Rome's empire.
  30. Dio, Roman History, pg. 63
  31. De Souza, 176 ff.
  32. pro Lege Manilia, 12 or De Imperio Cn. Pompei (in favor of the Manilian Law on the command of Pompey), 66 BC.
  33. Cicero, On duties, 3.49; cited in De Souza, 177.
  34. Pompey, the Roman Alexander,P Greenhalg p101-4
  35. Pompey, the Roman Alexander,P Greenhalg p107
  36. Pompey, Eric Teyssier
  37. 37.0 37.1 37.2 Boak, History of Rome, pg. 161
  38. The Hellenized cities of the region, particularly the cities of the Decapolis, used a calendar that counted its dates from Pompey's conquest. See Pompeian era.
  39. Despite this, Aristobulus II would survive to briefly usurp Hyrcanus II, who was later (31 BC) executed by King Herod I.
  40. In Beard, M., North, J., Price, S., Religions of Rome, Vol. 1, a history, Cambridge University Press, 1998, 147.
  41. 41.0 41.1 Beard, 16: for comments on Pompey's 3rd triumph, see also Plutarch, Sertorius, 18, 2, at Thayer [5]: Cicero, Man. 61: Pliny, Nat. 7, 95.
  42. 42.0 42.1 Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007, p9. The traditional accounts exaggerate, certainly in the matter of gold, silver and military cash donatives. Appian's very doubtful "75,100,000" drachmae carried in the procession is 1.5 times his own estimate of Rome's total annual tax revenue: See Appian, Mithradates, 116.
  43. Beard, 15–16: citing Plutarch, Pompey, 45, 5.
  44. Beard, 16. For further elaboration on Pompey's 3rd triumph, see also Plutarch, Sertorius, 18, 2, at Thayer Uchicago.edu: Cicero, Man. 61: Pliny, Nat. 7, 95.
  45. Dio, Roman History, pg. 178
  46. Boak, History of Rome, pg. 167
  47. 47.0 47.1 47.2 Boak, History of Rome, pg. 169
  48. Boak, History of Rome, pg. 170
  49. Beard, 22-3.
  50. Holland, Rubicon, pg. 287
  51. Many historians have suggested Pompey was, in spite of everything, politically unaware of the fact that the optimates, including Cato, were merely using him against Caesar so that, with Caesar destroyed, they could then dispose of him.
  52. 52.0 52.1 Boak, History of Rome, pg. 176
  53. 53.0 53.1 Plutarch, Pompey, 79–80
  54. Dio, 42,4–5, at Thayer
  55. Appian, Bella Civilia, II 90, cited in Michael B. Hornum, Nemesis, the Roman state and the games, Brill, 1993, p.15.
  56. Pliny, Historia Naturalis, 37, 14–16.
  57. Suetonius, "Lives of the Caesars: Translated by Catherine Edwards", 34.
  58. Plutarch
  59. Pompey the great, John Leach
  60. 60.0 60.1 Pompey the great, John Leach
  61. Brice, pg. 145
  62. John Leach
  63. Pharsalus, Si Sheppard
  64. Appian
  65. Pompey, Eric Teyssier
  66. See Abbott, 114
  67. Juvenal, Satire X, 283
  68. Abbott (1901), 114


  • Abbott, Frank Frost (1901). A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics (ISBN 0-543-92749-0).
  • Boak, Arthur E.R. A History of Rome to 565 A.D. (MacMillan, New York, 1922)
  • Brice, Lee L., Warfare in the Roman Republic: From the Etruscan Wars to the Battle of Actium: From the Etruscan Wars to the Battle of Actium, ABC-CLIO, 2014. ISBN 9781610692991
  • De Souza, P., Piracy in the Graeco-Roman World, Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0-521-01240-9
  • Cassius Dio, Roman History, Volume 3 (Loeb Classical Library, 1914)
  • Goldsworthy, Adrian. In the name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 (hardcopy, ISBN 0-297-84666-3); New York: Phoenix Press, (paperback, ISBN 0-7538-1789-6).
  • Greenhalgh, Peter. Pompey The Republican Prince, George Weidenfield and Nicolson Ltd, 1981, ISBN 0-297-77881-1
  • Hillman, Thomas P. The Reputation of Cn. Pompeius Magnus among His Contemporaries from 83 to 59 B.C., Diss. New York 1989.
  • Holland, Tom. Rubicon – The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, Abacus, London, 2004, ISBN 0-349-11563-X
  • Nicols, Marianne Schoenlin. Appearance and Reality. A Study of the Clientele of Pompey the Great, Diss. Berkeley/Cal. 1992.
  • Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Pompey (Loeb Classical Library, 1917)
  • Seager, Robin. Pompey the Great: A Political Biography. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002 (hardcover, ISBN 0-631-22720-2; paperback, ISBN 0-631-22721-0).
  • Southern, Pat. Pompey the Great: Caesar's Friend and Foe. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus Publishing, 2002 (paperback, ISBN 0-7524-2521-8).
  • Stockton, David. The First Consulship of Pompey, Historia 22 (1973), 205-218.
  • Tröster, Manuel. Roman Hegemony and Non-State Violence. A Fresh Look at Pompey’s Campaign against the Pirates, Greece & Rome 56 (2009), 14-33.
  • Van Ooteghem, J. Pompée le Grand. Bâtisseur d’Empire. Brussels 1954.
  • Wylie, Graham J. Pompey Megalopsychos, Klio 72 (1990), 445-456.

External links

  • Pompey's War - Jona Lendering details Pompey's conquest of Judea