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Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Latin: CN?POMPEIVS?CN?F?SEX?N?MAGNVS¹), known in English as Pompey the Great (September 29 106 BCSeptember 29 48 BC) was a distinguished and ambitious Roman who, after attempting to politically outmaneuver Julius Caesar and dominate the affairs of the Roman Republic, was defeated in the ensuing civil war and ultimately was murdered by Ptolemy XIII in Egypt.

Pompey the Great
Pompey the Great

Early life and political debut

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was born on September 29, 106 BC, as the son of heir of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, an extremely wealthy man from the Italian region of Picenum. Their branch of the Pompeius family was traditionally provincial, making them the inevitable subject of prejudice from the Roman elite. His family had only achieved a first consulship some 35 years earlier. Thus he was of respectable but somewhat provincial background, a slight taint that clung to him throughout his long competition with the most powerful patricians in Rome. His father, Pompey Strabo, was an important general and the first senator of the family, being elected consul in 89 BC. Pompey grew up with his father in the military camps, involved in army and political affairs. Strabo had fought first with Marius, then with Sulla in the civil wars of 88-87 BC. At age 17, Pompey was fully involved in his father's wars. He also acquired a prot駩 of his own with the young staff officer, Marcus Tullius Cicero. According to Plutarch, sympathetic to Pompey, he was a popular teenager, considered a look alike of Alexander the Great.

Strabo died in the conflicts between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, leaving young Pompey in control of his affairs and fortune. Despite his youth, Pompey sided with Sulla after his return from the Mithridatic War in 83 BC. In Rome, Sulla was expecting trouble with the Cinna administration and found the 23-year-old, and his father's three veteran legions, useful. This political alliance boosted Pompey's career in Rome. Sulla, now the dictator in absolute control of the city, forced the divorce of Aemilia Scaura, his pregnant stepdaughter from her husband to marry his young ally. Pompey was only happy to divorce Antistia, a provincial matrona and take the patrician Aemilia.

The young Pompey was placed high within Sulla's ranks, even so far as among his private council. During Sulla's campaigns across Italy, Pompey would incounter two individuals that would shape both his and Rome's futures: Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gaius Julius Caesar. Pompey would meet Crassus from within the army. Crassus, like Pompey, had been left a small fortune and miliary force by his father, and sided with Sulla. The two would develop a rivialry that would last for years to come. Pompey first meet Caesar when Sulla brought Caesar before him and demanded him to divorce his wife Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna. When Caesar refused, Sulla pardoned him. When Pompey commended on his action, Sulla responded saying that he wanted to leave a few enemies alive for later adventures. Pompey viewed Caesar as not so much an enemy, but as a much respected obstacle. Some reports of the event suggest that Pompey was inspired by Caesar's refusal to divoce his wife, reminding him of the same senario that Pompey had faced only two years prior.

Sicily and Africa

Although his young age kept him a privatus (a man holding no political office of ? or associated with ? the cursus honorum), Pompey was a very rich man and a talented general in control of three veteran legions. Moreover, he was ambitious for glory and power. Happy to acknowledge his son-in-law's wishes, and to clear his own situation as dictator, Sulla sent Pompey to Sicily to recover the island and its invaluable grain supply from the Marians.

Sicily was strategically very important, since the island held the majority of Rome's grain supply. Without it, the city population would starve and riots would certainly ensue. Pompey dealt with the resistance with a harsh hand and when the citizens complained about his methods he replied with one of his most famous quotes: Stop quoting laws, we carry weapons.

He routed opposing forces in Sicily and then went to Africa, where he continued his string of unbroken victories in 82-81 BC. His ruthless extermination of opposing forces created bitter hatred among the surviving Marians. Proclaimed imperator by his troops on the field in Africa. Pompey demanded a triumph for his African victories. Pompey refused to disband his legions and appeared with his demand at the gates of Rome where, amazingly, Sulla gave in and agreed to award him his triumph. It is also around this point that Pompey gained his cognomen Magnus, meaning The Great. Legend says that it was Sulla himself who had the idea. The veracity of this claim has not been established.

Hispania and Spartacus

Pompey's reputation for military genius, and occasional bad judgment, continued when he demanded proconsular imperium (although he had not yet served as Consul) to go to Spain to fight against Sertorius, a Marian general who maintained a lone presence there. He refused to disband his legions until his request was granted, and he joined Metellus Pius against Sertorius. The campaign against the brilliant guerrilla general would last from [[76 BC to 71 BC. It is significant that the war was finally won only when rivals murdered Sertorius, not because neither Pompey or Metellus Pius had been able to achieve a clean victory on the battlefield.

In the months after Sertorius' death, however, Pompey revealed one of his most significant talents; a genius for the organization and administration of a conquered province. Fair and generous terms extended his patronage throughout Spain and into southern Gaul. When Crassus was facing difficulties against Spartacus at the end of the Slave Revolt in 71 BC, Pompey returned to Italy with his army to bring a decisive ending to the revolt.

Disgruntled opponents, especially Crassus, said he was developing a talent for showing up late in a campaign and taking all the glory for its successful conclusion. This would grant Pompey Crassus's permanent enmity, something that would not be resolved for over decade. Back in Rome, Pompey celebrated his second extralegal triumph for the victories in Hispania. Admirers saw in Pompey the most brilliant general of the age. In 71 BC, at only 35 years of age (see cursus honorum), Pompey was elected Consul for the first time, serving in 70 BC as junior partner of Crassus, with the overwhelming support of the Roman population.

The Pirates and the Middle East

By 69 BC, Pompey was the darling of the Roman masses although many Optimates were deeply suspicious of his intentions. His primacy in the state was enhanced by two extraordinary proconsular commands, unexcelled in Roman history. In 67 BC, two years after his consulship, Pompey was nominated commander of a special naval task force to campaign against the pirates that controlled the Mediterranean. This command, like everything else in Pompey's life, was surrounded with polemic.

The conservative faction of the senate was most suspicious of his intentions and afraid of his power. The Optimates tried every means possible to avoid it. Significantly, Caesar was one of a handful of Senators who supported Pompey's command from the start. The nomination was then proposed by the Plebeian Tribune Aulus Gabinius who proposed the Lex Gabinia, giving Pompey command in the war against the Mediterranean pirates, with extensive powers that gave him absolute control over the sea and the coasts for 50 miles inland, setting him above every military leader in the east.

It took Pompey only a few months to clear the Mediterranean of the danger of pirates. In three short months (67-66 BC), Pompey's forces literally swept the Mediterranean free of the pirates, showing extraordinary precision, discipline, and organizational ability. The quickness of the campaign showed that he was a talented general also at sea, with strong logistic abilities too. Pompey was the hero of the hour.

Pompey was then nominated to the Mithridatic War to fight Mithridates VI of Pontus in the East. This command essentially entrusted Pompey with the conquest and reorganization of the entire Eastern Mediterranean. This was the second command that Caesar support in favor of Pompey. He conducted the campaigns of 65 BC to 62 BC with such military and administrative star power that, Rome annexed much of Asia firmly under it?s control.

Pompey destroyed not only Mithridates, but also defeated Tigranes the Great, king of Armenia, with whom he later developed treaties. He conquered Antiochus XIII of Syria, which he annexed, and moved on to Jerusalem, which he captured. Pompey imposed an overall settlement on the kings of the new eastern provinces, which took intelligent account of the geographical, and political factors involved in creating Rome's new frontier on the East. For all his campaigns, Pompey defeated Mithridates, Tigranes, Antiochus XIII of Syria, Pontus and Syria become Roman provinces, and Jerusalem is captured, all in the name of Rome.

With Tigranes as a friend and ally of Rome, the chain of Roman protectorates was extended as far east as the Black Sea and the Caucasus. The amount of tribute and booty Pompey brought back to Rome was almost incalculable (Plutarch lists 20,000 talents in gold and silver added to the treasury), the increase in taxes to the public treasury rose from 50 million to 85 million drachmas annually. His administrative brilliance was such that his dispositions endured largely unchanged until the fall of Rome.

Pompey?s Return to Rome

In December 62 BC, Pompey finally returned to Rome with a dilemma to address. On one hand he wanted his third triumph, on the other he wanted to run for a second consulship. Roman laws state that a general cannot cross the pomerium without losing the right of the triumph, but an electoral candidate must be in the city in order to apply personally for the election. Pompey tried to use diplomacy and asked the senate to postpone the consular election for the day after the triumph. The Optimates, led by Cato the Younger, strongly opposed and forced Pompey to choose. He chose the triumph, but didn't let go of the consulship. If he couldn't be elected, at least he could bribe the voters to pick his candidate, Affranius. According to several sources, it was a huge scandal with the voters heading in masses to Pompey's house outside the pomerium.

His third triumph took place on September 29, 61 BC (Pompey's 45th birthday), celebrating the victories over the pirates and in the Middle East, was to be an unforgettable event in Rome. Two entire days were scheduled for the enormous parade of spoils, prisoners, army and banners depicting battle scenes complete the route between Campus Martius and the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. To complete the festivities, Pompey offered a triumphal banquet and made several donations to the people of Rome, enhancing his popularity even further.

Now at his zenith, by this time Pompey had been largely absent from Rome for over five years and a new star had arisen. He had been busy in Asia during the consternation of the Cataline Conspiracy, when a young Julius Caesar pitted his will against that of the Consul Cicero, and the rest of the Optimates. His old colleague and enemy, Crassus, had loaned Caesar money. Cicero was in eclipse, now hounded by the ill will of Publius Clodius and his factional gangs. New combinations had been made and the conquering hero had been out of touch.

Back in Rome, Pompey deftly dismissed his armies, disarming worries that he intended to spring from his conquests into domination of Rome as Dictator. Yet Pompey was still a supreme tactician; he simply sought new allies and pulled strings behind the political scenes. The Optimates had fought back to control much of the real workings of the Senate; in spite of his efforts, Pompey found their inner counsels were wounding closed to him. His magnificent settlements in the East were not promptly confirmed. The public lands he had promised his veterans were not forthcoming. From now on, Pompey's political maneuverings suggest that, although he toed a cautious line to avoid offending the conservatives, he was increasingly puzzled by Optimate reluctance to acknowledge his solid achievements. Pompey's baffled frustration would force him into strange political alliances.

Caesar and the First Triumvirate

Although Pompey and Crassus distrusted each other, they both felt aggrieved in 61 BC. Crassus' tax farming clients were being rebuffed at the same time Pompey's veterans were being ignored. Thus entered Caesar, six years younger than Pompey, and returning from service in Hispania, and ready to seek the Consulship for 59 BC. Caesar somehow managed to forge a political alliance with both Pompey and Crassus (the so-called First Triumvirate). Pompey and Crassus would make him Consul, and he would use his force as Consul to force their laws. Plutarch quotes Cato as later saying that the tragedy of Pompey was not that he was Caesar's defeated enemy, but that he had been, for too long, Caesar's friend and supporter.

Caesar's tempestuous Consulate in 59 brought Pompey not only the land and political settlements he craved, but a new wife; Caesar's own young daughter, Julia. Pompey was supposedly besotted with his bride. After Caesar secured his proconsular command in Gaul at the end of his Consular year, Pompey was given the governorship of Hispania Ulterior, yet was permitted to remain in Rome overseeing the critical Roman grain supply, exercising his command through subordinates. Pompey handled the grain issue with his usual excellent efficiency but his success at political intrigue was less sure.

The Optimates had never forgiven him for abandoning Cicero when Publius Clodius forced his exile; only when Clodius began attacking Pompey was the great man persuaded to work with others towards Cicero's recall in 57 BC. Once Cicero was back, his usual vocal magic helped soothe Pompey's position somewhat, but many still viewed him as a traitor for his alliance with Caesar. Other agitators tried to persuade Pompey that Crassus was plotting to have him assassinated. Rumor (quoted by Plutarch) also suggested that the aging conqueror was losing interest in politics in favor of domestic life with his young wife. He was occupied by the details of construction of the mammoth complex later known as Pompey's Theater on the Campus Martius; not only the first permanent theater ever built in Rome, but an eye-popping complex of lavish porticoes, shops, and multi-service buildings.

Caesar, meanwhile, was gaining a greater name himself as a general of genius in his own. By 56 BC, the bonds between the three men were fraying; Caesar called first Crassus, then Pompey, to a secret meeting in the northern Italian town of Luca to rethink both strategy and tactics. By this time, Caesar was no longer the amenable silent partner of the trio. At Luca it was agreed that Pompey and Crassus would again stand for the consulship in 55 BC. At their election, Caesar's command in Gaul would be extended for an additional five years, while Crassus would receive command in Syria (from which he longed to conquer Parthia and extend his own achievements). Pompey would continue to govern Spain in absentia after their consular year. This time, however, opposition to the three men was electric; it took bribery and corruption on an unprecedented scale to secure the election of Pompey and Crassus in 55. Their supporters received most of the important remaining offices. The violence between Publius Clodius and other factions were building and civil unrest was becoming endemic.

Confrontation to War

The triumvirate was about to end. The bonds of the triumvirate were snapped by death. First, Pompey's wife (and Caesar's only child), Julia, died in 54 BC in childbirth. Later that year, Crassus and his army were annihilated by the Parthian armies at the battle of Carrhae. Caesar's name, not Pompey's, was now firmly before the public as Rome's great new general. The public turmoil in Rome resulted in whispers as early as 54 that Pompey should be made dictator to force a return to law and order. After Julia's death, Caesar sought a second matrimonial alliance with Pompey, offering a marital alliance with one of his endless supply of grandnieces. This time, Pompey refused. In 52 BC, he married Cornelia, daughter of Metellus Scipio, one of Caesar?s greatest enimies, and continued to drift toward the Optimates. They had apparently decided that Pompey was the lesser of two evils.

In that year the murder of Publius Clodius, and the burning of the Senate house by an inflamed mob led the Senate to beg Pompey to restore order, which he did with ruthless efficiency. The trial of the accused murderer, Milo, is notable in that Cicero, counsel for the defense, was so shaken by a Forum seething with armed soldiers that he was unable to complete his defense. After order was restored, the suspicious Senate and Cato, seeking desperately to avoid giving Pompey dictatorial powers, came up with the alternative of entitling him sole Consul without a colleague; thus his powers, although sweeping, were not unlimited.

While Caesar was fighting for his life against Vercingetorix, Pompey proceeded with a genuinely beneficial legislative agenda for Rome, which also revealed that he was now covertly allied with Caesar's enemies. While instituting legal and military reorganization and reform, Pompey also passed a law making it possible to be retroactively prosecuted for electoral bribery - an action correctly interpreted by Caesar's allies as opening Caesar to prosecution once his imperium was ended. Pompey also prohibited standing for the consulship in absentia, although this had frequently been allowed in the past. This was an obvious blow at Caesar's plans after his term in Gaul expired. Finally, in 51 BC, Pompey made it clear that Caesar would not be permitted to stand for Consul unless he turned over control of his armies. This would, of course, leave Caesar defenseless before his enemies. In any event, Pompey had diminished by age, uncertainty, and the harassment of being the chosen tool of a quarreling Optimate oligarchy. As Cicero sadly noted, Pompey had begun to fear Caesar. The coming comflict was inevitable.²

Civil War

Although in the beginning, Pompey claimed he could defeat Caesar and raise armies merely by stamping his foot on the soil of Italy, by the spring of 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon and his invading legions sweeping down the peninsula, Pompey ordered the abandonment of Rome. His legions fled south towards Brundisium, where Pompey intended to find renewed strength by waging war against Caesar in the East. In the process, almost unbelievably, neither Pompey nor the Senate thought of taking the vast treasury with them, which was left conveniently for Caesar when his forces entered Rome.

Escaping Caesar by a hair in Brundisium, Pompey regained his confidence during the siege of Dyrrhachium, in which Caesar nearly lost the war. Yet, by failing to pursue at the critical moment of Caesar's defeat, Pompey threw away the chance to destroy Caesar's armies. As Caesar himself said, "Today the enemy would have won, if they had had a commander who was a winner." (Plutarch, 65). With Caesar on their backs, the conservatives led by Pompey fled to Greece. The armies clashed in the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. The fighting was hard for both sides but would eventually return a decisive victory for Caesar. Like all the other conservatives, Pompey had to run for his life. He 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 favor of Egypt.

Arriving in Egypt, Pompey's fate was decided by three counselors of Ptolemy, the boy-king. While Pompey waited offshore for word, they argued the cost of offering him refuge with Caesar already en route for Egypt. It was decided to murder Caesar's enemy to ingratiate themselves with him. On September 29, his 58th birthday, the great Pompey was lured toward a supposed audience on shore in a small boat in which he recognized two old comrades-in-arms from the glorious, early battles. They were his assassins. While he sat in the boat, studying his speech for the boy king, they stabbed him in the back with sword and dagger. Cutting his head off, the body was left, contemptuously unattended and naked, on the shore. His freedman, Philipus, organized himself a simple funeral pyre and cremated the body on a pyre of broken ship's timbers.

Caesar arrived a short time afterwards. As a welcoming present he received Pompey's head and ring in a basket. He was not pleased in seeing his enemy, once his ally and son-in-law, murdered by traitors. When a slave offered him Pompey's head;" ?he turned away from him with loathing, as from an assassin; and when he received Pompey's signet ring on which was engraved a lion holding a sword in his paws, he burst into tears." (Plutarch, 80). He deposed Ptolemy, executed Pothinus, and elevated Cleopatra to the throne of Egypt. Caesar gave Pompey's ashes and ring to Cornelia, who took them back to his estates in Italy.

In late 45 BC, Pompey was deified by the Senate through the request of Caesar. In a stroke of irony, Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC, in Pompey's Theater at the base of Pompey?s statue. It is rumored that Caesar prayed to his best friend, son-in-law, and greatest rival as he lay dying.

Historic View

To the historians of his own and later Roman periods, the life of Pompey was simply too good to be true. No more satisfying historical model existed than the great man who, achieving extraordinary triumphs through his own efforts, yet fell from power and influence and, in the end, was murdered through treachery:

He was the hero of the Republic, who seemed once to hold the Roman world in his palm only to be brought low by his own weak judgment and Caesar's indomitability. Pompey was idealized as a tragic hero almost immediately after Pharsalus and his murder: Plutarch portrayed him as true Roman Alexander, pure of heart and mind, destroyed by the cynical ambitions of those around him. The truth, of course, is another matter.

Pompey's marriages and children:



1- Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, son of Gnaeus, grandson of Sextus

2- Many historians have suggested that 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

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