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Pompey

Updated on November 1, 2009

Roman soldier and statesman, Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) was born on September 30, 106 B.C. Pompey was the son of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, a former consul and supporter of Lucius Cornelius Sulla. And the father of Gnaeus Pompeius and Sextus Pompeius.

Pompey was one among several self-seeking individuals brought to the forefront of Roman life during the turbulence generated by foreign and civil wars, political strife and corruption in Rome, and oppression in the Roman dominions. A military commander of great ability and an aristocratic politician without true convictions, he played a dominant role in the demise of the Roman Republic, achieving prominence when the Roman world faced two major questions: Who would be the man to seize power from the Senate, and how much authority would he be able to assume?

Early Life

Pompey took part with his father in the Social War (90-88), but his first chance for real recognition offered itself in 83, when Sulla tried to regain control of Rome from the Marians, or popular party, Pompey came to his support.

Sulla, the Senate reactionary opposed the democratic spirit engendered by Gaius Marius, returned to Rome from his wars in the East, furious because the populares (popular class) had seized control of the Senate from the optimates (the wealthy senatorial class).

Joining Sulla with some troops of his own, Pompey won some victories in Italy and was sent to fight the Marians in Sicily and Africa. He acquitted himself so well that Sulla awarded him the title of Magnus and the distinction of a triumph, which was unexpected, since the young Pompey had not yet held a public office.

Another Marian reaction followed Sulla's death in 78, reaching such serious proportions under Quintus Sertorius in Spain that the Senate, though it mistrusted Pompey, sent him to subjugate the rebels, a task which occupied him from 76 to 71; the rebellion ended with the murder of Sertorius by his lieutenant, Marcus Perperna, in 72 and Pompey's victory over Perperna the following year. Returning to Italy, Pompey once more had good fortune: he met and defeated the remnants of an army of slaves who had revolted under the gladiator Spartacus. The praetor Marcus Licinius Crassus (the richest man in Rome, but miscast in his ambition to become a famous general) had already killed Spartacus; but Pompey, by his victory over the rest of the army, deprived Crassus of the full credit for ending this rebellion. The two men needed each other's help, however, and forced the Senate to grant them a triumph and the consulship for the year 70, even though Pompey was below the legal age and had not held the necessary lower offices. Together they largely restored the constitution that Sulla had abrogated in the Senate's favor.

Realizing that his lessening of the Senate's power had won him popularity with the common people and the business class (known as equites, equestrians or knights), Pompey did not go to a province as a governor after his consulship, but stayed in Rome to further his own cause. By 67, the raids of pirates in the Mediterranean reached such alarming proportions that the tribune Aulus Gabinius conferred on Pompey (by the Lex Gabinia) extraordinary powers to deal with the problem. The weakened Senate had to acquiesce. Though his powers extended for three years, Pompey succeeded within three months in destroying the pirates. He settled the survivors as colonists.

Military Glory and the First Triumvirate

Now came Pompey's greatest opportunity. The so-called Second Mithridatic War (74-63) against Mithridates, king of Pontus in Asia Minor, was going slowly. In 66, the tribune Gaius Manilius proposed that Pompey, in addition to the great power he already had, be given the command in the East. Marcus Tullius Cicero helped the bill to pass with his memorable oration, Pro Lege Manilla. Pompey defeated Mithridates at Nicopolis in 66, added most of Pontus to the province of Bithynia, turned Syria into a Roman province in 64 (thus ending the ancient Seleucid Empire), and made Armenia a client kingdom, a friendly counterweight to Parthia, Rome's enemy beyond the Euphrates. After a siege of three months, Pompey took Jerusalem. In 62, he returned to Rome as the most famous general in the world, vain, pompous, and honorable. Believing that he did not need armed troops in the fashion of Sulla, he ostentatiously disbanded his army and held a magnificent triumph; but the Senate refused to sanction his admirable provincial arrangements in the East or to reward his veterans with allotments of land.

Two other Romans were also at odds with the Senate: Crassus, who sought favorable concessions in tax collecting for his corporations in Asia Minor; and Gaius Julius Caesar, who was being refused the consulship. The three in 60 B.C. formed an unofficial union, known as the First Triumvirate, and succeeded in gaining their ends. Pompey in 59 married Caesar's daughter Julia as a part of the deal.

Cicero was exiled in 58 and then recalled the following year at the insistence of Pompey, who needed his aid. Cicero quickly repaid Pompey by supporting his appointment as superintendent of the grain supply.

To reconcile growing differences, the triumvirs met at Luca in 56 and renewed their alliance. The growing rivalry between Pompey and Caesar was sharpened, however, by the deaths of Julia (in 54) and of Crassus (during an ill-advised expedition against Parthia in 53). While Caesar continued to acquire a personal army and fame in Gaul, Pompey lived grandly in Rome; he was the patron of various building projects, such as a theater in the Campus Martius (and the nearby building in which Caesar was eventually to be murdered).

The Struggle With Caesar

Through lieutenants, Pompey governed the provinces of Hither and Farther Spain, which had been assigned to him for five years. In Rome itself, street fighting, such as that between the gangs of Milo and Claudius, was cunningly countenanced by Pompey so that the Senate would be compelled to ask him to restore public order.

The civil disorder prevented elections in Rome, and Pompey was elected sole consul in 52 B.C. and, theoretically, Rome's most powerful man, the first citizen in the state (or Princeps, as Cicero called him; this title was later given to Augustus, Rome's first emperor).

He gradually allied himself with the senate against Caesar. Finally, the senate, with Pompey's approval, directed Caesar to disband his army and surrender his extraordinary powers; Caesar refused unless Pompey did likewise. The Senate then declared Caesar a public enemy, and, passing the "last decree" (martial law) on January 7, 49, called on Pompey to defend the state.

Caesar promptly crossed the Rubicon River from Gaul and advanced southward against Pompey, who withdrew to the south of Italy and across the Adriatic Sea to Epirus. His plan was to muster the Roman legions stationed in the East and ultimately to save Rome from his rival. He rebuffed the pursuing Caesar at the port of Dyrrachium and then followed him into Greece. Embarrassed by the gratuitous advice of his senatorial colleagues, Pompey joined battle with Caesar at Pharsalus in Thessaly on August 9, 48. Although his forces were much larger than Caesar's, Pompey was decisively beaten.

He then fled to Egypt, where he was treacherously murdered by a former follower at Pelusium, Egypt, on September 28, 48 B.C.

Thus ended a phase of the civil war, and in a sense, the Roman Republic, which was now reduced to dependence upon the career of one man.

Theodatus shows Caesar the head of Pompey. Etching from 1820.
Theodatus shows Caesar the head of Pompey. Etching from 1820.

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      Emily 7 years ago

      Hey, I was wondering if you could help me answer a question about Pompey and how his army gained consulship.

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