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Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
White bust
Born 29 September 106 BC
Picenum, Italy
Died 28 September 48 BC (aged 57)
Pelusium, Egypt
Cause of death Assassination
Resting place Albanum, Italy
Occupation Military commander and politician
Office Consul (70, 55, 52 BC)
  • Antistia (86–82 BC, divorced)
  • Aemilia (82 BC, her death)
  • Mucia Tertia (79–61 BC, divorced)
  • Julia (59–54 BC, her death)
  • Cornelia Metella (52–48 BC, his death)
Relatives Pompeia gens
Military career
Awards 3 Triumphs

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Latin: Script error: No such module "IPA".; 29 September 106 BC – 28 September 48 BC), known in English as Pompey /ˈpɒmp/ or Pompey the Great, was a leading Roman general and statesman. He played a significant role in the transformation of Rome from republic to empire. Early in his career, he was a partisan and protégé of the Roman general and dictator Sulla; later, he became the political ally, and finally the enemy, of Julius Caesar.

A member of the senatorial nobility, Pompey entered into a military career while still young. He rose to prominence serving the dictator Sulla as a commander in the civil war of 83–82 BC. Pompey's success as a general while young enabled him to advance directly to his first Roman consulship without following the traditional cursus honorum (the required steps to advance in a political career). He was elected as Roman consul on three occasions (70, 55, 52 BC). He celebrated three Roman triumphs, served as a commander in the Sertorian War, the Third Servile War, the Third Mithridatic War, and in various other military campaigns. Pompey's early success earned him the cognomen Magnus – "the Great" – after his boyhood hero Alexander the Great. His adversaries gave him the nickname adulescentulus carnifex ("teenage butcher") for his ruthlessness.

In 60 BC, Pompey joined Crassus and Caesar in the informal political alliance known as the First Triumvirate, cemented by Pompey's marriage with Caesar's daughter, Julia. After the deaths of Julia and Crassus (in 54 and 53 BC), Pompey switched to the political faction known as the optimates— a conservative faction of the Roman Senate. Pompey and Caesar then began contending for leadership of the Roman state in its entirety, eventually leading to Caesar's Civil War. Pompey was defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, and he sought refuge in Ptolemaic Egypt, where he was assassinated by the courtiers of Ptolemy XIII.

Early life and career

Pompey was born around 106 BC in Picenum, son of a provincial noble called Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo. Despite being the dominant local power, Strabo was the first of his family to achieve senatorial status in Rome, and as a result was often belittled as a novus homo, or "new man". He completed the traditional cursus honorum, becoming consul in 89 BC, and acquiring a reputation for greed, political duplicity, and military ruthlessness. Pompey began his career serving in his father's army during the Social War (91–87 BC).

Strabo was granted a triumph for his actions during the Social War, but died in 87 BC when supporters of the recently deceased Gaius Marius were scattered outside Rome by Sulla. Sources differ on whether he succumbed to disease, or was murdered by his own soldiers. Strabo had been accused of embezzlement prior to his death, and as his heir, Pompey was held legally responsible for the alleged crime and put on trial. He was acquitted, supposedly after agreeing to marry the judge's daughter, Antistia.

Despite their defeat, from 86 to 85 BC the Marians led by Carbo and Gaius Marius the Younger took advantage of Sulla's absence in Asia Minor to regain control of Rome. A new round of civil war began when Sulla returned to Italy in 84 BC, and Pompey raised levies from veterans and clients in Picenum in his support. Having beaten the Marians once again, in 82 BC Sulla was appointed Dictator. An admirer of Pompey's abilities, he persuaded him to divorce his first wife and marry Sulla's stepdaughter Aemilia, even though Plutarch claimed she was already pregnant, and died in childbirth soon after.

Sometime around 79 BC, Pompey married Mucia Tertia, who is thought to have been the sister of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Celer. They had three children before their divorce in 63 BC; these were Pompey the younger, usually known as Gnaeus, a daughter, Pompeia Magna, and a younger son, Sextus.

Sicily, Africa and Lepidus' rebellion

The surviving Marians escaped to Sicily, which was held by Perpenna, the resident propraetor. They were supported by a fleet under Carbo, while Ahenobarbus occupied the Roman province of Africa. Sulla sent Pompey to Sicily with a large force, forcing Perpenna to abandon it with minimal resistance. Carbo was captured and later executed, an episode that caused his opponents to nickname Pompey adulescentulus carnifex, or "young butcher". An act of uncharacteristic brutality, Pompey claimed it was justified by Carbo's alleged crimes against Roman citizens.

Roman Province of Africa in 146 BC
Roman Province of Africa

Sulla now ordered Pompey to retake Africa, where he sailed after leaving Sicily in the hands of his brother-in-law, Gaius Memmius. Pompey defeated and killed Ahenobarbus at Utica, then invaded Numidia, whose king Hiarbas was a Marian ally. He quickly subdued Numidia, executed Hiarbas and restored Hiempsal II to the throne. On returning to Rome, his immense popularity led Sulla to order he be given the cognomen Magnus, or "the Great", reportedly after Pompey's boyhood hero Alexander.

Pompey then asked for a triumph to celebrate his victories, an unprecedented demand for someone so young, and who had yet to hold senior political office. Sulla denied his request but gave way when Pompey refused to disband his army until it was granted, although he tried to offset the impact by awarding triumphs to Lucius Murena and Gaius Flaccus. Pompey held his triumph on 12 March 80 BC, but it marked the end of the close relationship between the two men. Against Sulla's advice, Pompey supported Marcus Aemilius Lepidus in his bid to be elected consul for 78 BC, and was omitted from his will when the dictator died shortly after.

Often cited as an example of Pompey's lack of political insight, as Sulla feared Lepidus now assumed leadership of the reformist populares movement. He also tried to block his state funeral, an act successfully opposed by Pompey and which signalled his claim to be Sulla's political heir. After his consulship expired at the beginning of 77 BC, Lepidus was made proconsul of Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, before his opponents in the Senate forced his recall. Since losing proconsular immunity left him open to prosecution and probable disgrace, Lepidus refused and was declared an enemy of the state. When he marched on Rome at the head of an army, the Senate passed a Consultum Ultimum, giving the interrex Appius Claudius and proconsul Catulus wide-ranging powers to "preserve public safety".

One measure taken by Catulus and Claudius was to appoint Pompey a legate with propraetor powers. He quickly recruited troops from among his veterans in Picenum, and while Lepidus continued south, Pompey moved north to besiege Mutina in Cisalpine Gaul. The town was held by Marcus Junius Brutus, who surrendered after a lengthy siege, before being assassinated next day, allegedly on Pompey's orders. Catulus then defeated Lepidus outside Rome, while Pompey marched against his rear, catching him near Cosa. Lepidus and the remains of his army retreated to Sardinia, where he died.

Sertorian War and first consulship

Sertorian War

The Sertorian War began in 80 BC when Quintus Sertorius initiated a rebellion in Hispania, where he was joined by other Marian survivors like Perpenna. Supported by local tribes, he took control of Hispania Citerior, then forced proconsul Metellus out of neighbouring Hispania Ulterior. Pompey asked the Senate to send him there to retrieve the situation, and he was appointed proconsul, an act which was technically illegal as Pompey had never previously held public office. However, his career in general was marked by a desire for military glory, and disregard for traditional political constraints.

Pompey recruited 30,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry, evidence of the threat posed by Sertorius. En route to Hispania, he subdued a rebellion in Gallia Narbonensis, after which his army entered winter quarters near Narbo Martius. In early 76 BC, he crossed the Col de Portet and entered the Iberian peninsula, where he would remain for the next five years. His arrival boosted the morale of Metellus' troops, while some rebel groups changed sides, but he was then defeated by Sertorius at the Battle of Lauron. This was a serious blow to Pompey's prestige, who spent the rest of the year re-organising his army.

In 75 BC, Sertorius personally campaigned against Metellus, while Pompey smashed Perpenna and Herennius outside Valencia. When Sertorius took charge of operations against Pompey, Metellus defeated his deputy Lucius Hirtuleius at the Battle of Italica. After the indecisive Battle of Sucro, Sertorius withdrew inland, then turned to fight at Saguntum, where Pompey lost 6,000 killed, including his brother-in-law Memmius, reputedly his most effective subordinate. Sertorius himself suffered 3,000 casualties, one of whom was Hirtuleius.

Although Metellus defeated Perpenna in a separate battle, Sertorius was able to withdraw to Clunia, where he repaired the walls to lure his opponents into a siege, while forming garrisons from other towns into a new field army. Once this was ready, he escaped from Clunia and used it to disrupt Roman logistics on land and by sea. Lack of supplies forced Metellus to quarter his troops in Gaul, while Pompey wintered among the Vaccaei.

Reinforced by two more legions, in 73 BC Metellus joined Pompey and made for the river Ebro, while Sertorius and Perpenna advanced from Lusitania. By now, Sertorius was being undermined by internal divisions, allegedly encouraged by Perpenna. Metellus took advantage to re-take many rebel towns, although neither side made much progress until 71 BC when Perpenna murdered and replaced Sertorius. He was then defeated and executed by Pompey, who remained in Hispania to quell the last disorders, showing a talent for organisation and lack of animosity which extended his patronage throughout Hispania and into southern Gaul.

First Consulship

During Pompey's absence in Hispania from 73 to 71 BC, Crassus was charged with suppressing the slave rebellion led by Spartacus known as the Third Servile War. Pompey returned to Italy just before Crassus defeated the main rebel army, arriving in time to massacre 6,000 fugitives from the battle. His claim to have ended the war by doing so was bitterly resented by Crassus.

Pompey, aureus, 71 BC, RRC 402-1
Aureus minted by Pompey for his second triumph in 71 BC, featuring the head of Africa on the obverse (celebrating his victory against Hiarbas). The reverse shows Pompey in his triumphal chariot, with his son Gnaeus seated before and Victory flying above.

Pompey was granted a second triumph for his victory in Hispania, and nominated for the consulship. Since he was both too young and technically ineligible, this required a special senatorial decree. Plutarch suggests Pompey supported Crassus as his co-consul in order to put him under an obligation. The two men were elected consuls for 70 BC, but allegedly differed on almost every measure, rendering their term "politically barren and without achievement."

However, their consulship did see the plebeian tribune recover powers removed by Sulla. One of the most significant was the ability to veto Senatorial bills, an act often seen as a turning point in the politics of the late Republic. Highly popular with the people, the measure must have been opposed by the optimates, and thus passing it required support from both consuls, although most extant sources barely mention Crassus.

Campaign against the pirates (67 BC)

Piracy was a widespread problem throughout the Mediterranean region, while many pirates formed temporary alliances with enemies of Rome, including Sertorius and Mithridates. Principally based in Cilicia, in 68 BC they raided as far as Ostia, Rome's port, and kidnapped two senators. Seeing an opportunity, Pompey asked Aulus Gabinius, tribune of the plebs in 67 BC, to draft a law giving him a command against the pirates. The Lex Gabinia granted him proconsular authority for three years in any province within 50 miles of the Mediterranean, along with the power to appoint legates and significant financial resources.

Concerned by the powers granted to one man, the law was fiercely opposed by the consuls and Senate, but passed by the tribunate. Most of the difficulties Pompey faced came from clashes with officials who resented his authority. In Gaul, consul Piso hampered efforts to recruitment efforts, while in Crete, proconsul Quintus Metellus refused to comply with his instructions.

Pompey spread his forces throughout the Mediterranean to prevent the pirates escaping a Roman fleet by moving elsewhere. Fifteen legates were given specific areas to patrol, while he secured the grain route to Rome. These measures won him control of the western Mediterranean in just 40 days, after which his fleets moved to the east, forcing the pirates back to their bases in Cilicia. Pompey led the decisive assault on their stronghold in Alanya, winning the Battle of Korakesion and concluding the war in only three months.

Most of the pirates surrendered without fighting, thanks to Pompey's reputation for clemency. They were granted lands in cities devastated during the Mithridatic War, notably Soli, renamed Pompeiopolis, and Dyme in Greece, with others sent to towns in Libya and Calabria. These communities retained a strong attachment to both Rome and Pompey.

The Third Mithridatic War, and Re-Organisation of the East

Third Mithridatic War

Asia Minor and surrounding region, first century BC

In 73 BC, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, formerly one of Sulla's chief lieutenants, was made proconsul of Cilicia, and commander in the Third Mithridatic War. This began when the last ruler of Bithynia died in 74 BC and left his kingdom to Rome, sparking an invasion by Mithridates VI of Pontus, and Tigranes the Great of Armenia. Lucullus was a skilled general who won numerous victories, but claims he was protracting the war for "power and wealth" led to a Senate investigation, while by 69 BC his troops were weary and mutinous.

In 68 BC, Quintus Marcius Rex replaced Lucullus in Cicilia, while Manius Acilius Glabrio received Bithynia. He also assumed leadership of the war against Mithridates, but failed to respond decisively when the latter re-occupied much of Pontus in 67 BC, then attacked Cappadocia, a Roman ally. Seeing an opportunity, in 66 BC Pompey used the tribunate to pass the lex Manilia, giving him extensive powers throughout Asia Minor in order to defeat Mithridates, in addition to those granted by the lex Gabinia. The optimates were privately horrified that one man should hold so much influence, but fearful of his popularity allowed the measure to pass.

Incensed at being replaced, Lucullus called Pompey a "vulture" who profited from the work of others, a reference both to his new command and claim to have finished the war against Spartacus. Pompey agreed an alliance with Phraates III, king of Parthia, whom he persuaded to invade Armenia. When Mithridates offered a truce, Lucullus argued the war was over, but Pompey demanded concessions which could not be accepted. Outnumbered, Mithridates withdrew into Armenia, followed by Pompey, who defeated him at Lycus near the end of 66 BC.

Mithridates VI Louvre
Bust of Mithridates of Pontus in the Louvre, Paris

According to contemporary sources, Mithridates and a small contingent escaped the battle, outstripped their pursuers, and reached Colchis on the Black Sea. While there, he took control of the Cimmerian Bosporus from its Roman-backed ruler, his son Machares. Meanwhile, Pompey invaded Armenia supported by Tigranes the Younger, whose father quickly came to terms; in return for the restoration of Armenian territories taken by Lucullus, he paid a substantial cash indemnity and allowed Roman troops to be based on his territory.

In 65 BC, Pompey set out to take Colchis, but to do so had first to subdue various local tribes and allies of Mithridrates. After winning a series of battles, he reached Phasis and linked up with Servilius, admiral of his Euxine fleet, before a fresh revolt in Caucasian Albania forced him to retrace his steps. Victory at the Abas enabled him to impose terms on the Albanians and agree truces with other tribes on the northern side of the Caucasus. Pompey then wintered in Armenia, settling minor border contests and raids between his allies Phraates and Tigranes.

Relying on his naval blockade to wear down Mithridates, Pompey spent 64 BC annexing the independent and wealthy cities of Syria, which were incorporated into a new Roman province. In the process, he acquired large amounts of money and prestige, as well as criticism from his opponents in Rome, who argued doing so exceeded his authority. Meanwhile, an ageing Mithridates had been cornered in Panticapaeum by another of his sons, Pharnaces II of Pontus. He was killed by the rebels. Pharnaces sent his embalmed body to Pompey, in return for which he was granted the Bosporan Kingdom and made an ally of Rome.

Re-organisation of the East

The final collapse of the Seleucid Empire in 89 BC had allowed Pompey to annex Syria, but the instability it caused continued to affect the region, while Judea to the south was disrupted by the Hasmonean Civil War. In early 63 BC, he left Antioch and marched south, reducing coastal cities like Apamea which had used the power vacuum to achieve independence. He then crossed the Anti-Lebanon Mountains, captured Pella, Jordan and reached Damascus, completing the occupation of Syria.

Hyrcanus II Judea
Judea (blue) in 63 BC, after losing the Decapolis (red) to the north

The two brothers involved in the Judean civil war, Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, both asked Pompey for his backing. Suspecting he favoured Hyrcanus, Aristobulus withdrew to Judea, where he was followed by Pompey, who compelled him to surrender Jerusalem. Its defenders refused to comply and took refuge in the Temple, which the Romans first stormed, then looted. Hyrcanus was installed as ruler, but Judea became a client kingdom, while its northern section was removed and re-organised into a league of semi-autonomous cities known as the Decapolis (see Map). Both Judea and the League were made subordinate to the new Roman province of Syria, after which Pompey returned to Cilicia.

Other organisational changes included the merger of parts of Pontus with the province of Bithynia, creating Bithynia and Pontus. The rest of Mithridates' territories were divided between Roman allies, including Antiochus of Commagene, Aristarchus of Colchis, and Pharnaces. Elsewhere, Ariobarzanes I of Cappadocia was restored to his throne, while Lesser Armenia was taken from Tigranes and incorporated into Galatia, with Pompey's client Deiotarus becoming ruler of the new kingdom. Finally, Cilicia received the coastal region of Pamphylia, previously a centre of piracy, along with other inland areas and reorganised into six parts. Although these actions significantly increased Roman state income, they also presented Pompey multiple opportunities to increase his personal wealth and patronage base.

Return to Rome and the First Triumvirate

Faustus Cornelius Sulla, AR denarius, 56 BC, RRC 426-4a
Denarius minted in 56 BC by Pompey's supporter Faustus Sulla. .

Pompey prepared for his return to Italy in 62 BC by distributing 16,000 talents to his troops. Rumours spread that he intended to use them to establish a monarchy, but in the event the army was disbanded upon arrival at Brundisium. Large crowds attended his procession to Rome, a reflection of the reality that although opinion in the Senate was divided, Pompey remained as popular as ever with the urban masses.

His achievements in Asia Minor earned Pompey a third triumph, celebrated on his 45th birthday in 61 BC. He claimed to have increased Rome's annual income from 200 million to 340 million sesterces, as well as handing over a further 480 million sesterces in booty to the state treasury. Pompey refused to provide details of his personal fortune, although many speculated he must have surpassed Crassus. He used some of it to begin construction of one of the most famous structures of Ancient Rome, the Theatre of Pompey.

However, the Senate then refused to ratify the various treaties agreed in the course of Pompey's Eastern Campaigns. Led by Cato the Younger and Metellus Celer, who resented Pompey's recent divorce of his sister Mucia, in 60 BC the optimates also defeated a bill to distribute farmland to his veterans, and landless members of the urban poor. A similar measure had been rejected in 63 BC, resulting in the Catilinarian conspiracy, whose suppression arguably made the Senate over confident in their ability to control popular unrest.

First Triumvirate of Caesar, Crassius and Pompey
The First Triumvirate; left to right, Caesar , Crassus, and Pompey

Although Pompey could not overcome optimate opposition on his own, the situation changed when Julius Caesar sought his support when campaigning for the consulship. The nephew of Marius and a skilled, unscrupulous and highly ambitious politician, an alliance allowed him to harness Pompey's influence with the urban electorate. With Crassus also backing his candidature, Caesar became one of the two consuls for 59 BC, the other being the optimate candidate, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus. This meant he could help pass legislation sponsored by his patrons, while it was in his interest to keep them aligned, an important factor given the rivalry between the two men.

Despite being the most junior, Caesar thus became central to the First Triumvirate, an informal political alliance designed to counter-balance the optimates. Pompey's influence was based on his reputation as a military commander, popularity with the Roman people, and on the votes gained from his personal support and wealth. Reputedly the richest man in Rome, Crassus also had extensive patronage networks, but lacked the military clout which had become essential for success in the late Republican era.

Bust of Cicero (1st-cent. BC) - Palazzo Nuovo - Musei Capitolini - Rome 2016
Marcus Tullius Cicero, leader of optimate opposition to the triumvirate who became an ally of Pompey

Caesar immediately proposed an new agrarian bill, which passed with the help of Pompey's veterans, who filled the streets of Rome and allegedly intimidated the Senate. The measure was opposed by Bibulus, who was attacked in the forum by hired thugs, and subsequently retired from politics. Caesar then ensured ratification of Pompey's settlements in the east, while the Lex Vatinia made him governor of Gallia Cisalpina and Illyricum. He was also assigned Gallia Transalpina after its governor died in office, before leaving Rome to launch the Gallic Wars in 58 BC. Pompey also married Caesar's daughter Julia, even though she was betrothed to another man.

Pompey now used the populist politician Publius Clodius Pulcher to attack Cicero, leader of optimate opposition to the triumvirate in the Senate. Clodius succeeded in having Cicero exiled, but when he turned against Pompey, the latter had Cicero recalled. When food shortages caused popular unrest in 58 BC, a grateful Cicero backed Pompey's appointment as praefectus annonae, a temporary position set up for such occasions. This allowed Pompey to display his administrative abilities, and the rapid resolution of the issue won him immense popularity.

With the alliance showing signs of strain, the triumvirs met at the Luca Conference in 56 BC to discuss future strategy. Although Pompey and Crassus generally viewed each other with mutual mistrust, there are also indications Pompey felt his popularity and status as the foremost soldier of the Republic was threatened by Caesar's success in Gaul. Pompey set aside his differences with Crassus to promote their joint candidature as consuls for 55 BC, supported by Caesar. This succeeded, after prolonged periods of the violence which had become a feature of Roman elections.

Once in office, they ensured passage of a law giving Crassus the province of Syria and command of a punitive expedition against Parthia, providing him opportunities for both military glory and loot. Meanwhile, Pompey was assigned the restive provinces of Hispania, along with Africa, while Caesar's governorships in Gaul were extended. All three men were given these positions for a period of five years, as well as the right to levy troops and "make peace and war with whomsoever they pleased."

From confrontation to civil war

Retrato de Julio César (26724093101)
The Tusculum portrait, a bust of Julius Caesar in the Archaeological Museum of Turin, Italy

In 54 BC, Caesar continued his conquest of Gaul, Crassus opened his campaign against the Parthians, and Pompey remained in Rome, where his wife Julia died in child birth in September. Contemporary sources suggest that combined with the death of Crassus at Carrhae in May 53 BC, her death removed any obstacle to direct confrontation between Caesar and Pompey.

The consular elections in 52 BC had to be suspended due to widespread violence. In a sign of shifting allegiances, the optimate Bibulus now proposed Pompey be elected sole consul, an unprecedented act backed by Cato and supported by the tribunate. Having restored order, Pompey married Cornelia, a daughter of Metellus Scipio Nasica, whom he appointed as his colleague for the last five months of the year.

As consul, Pompey helped enact legislation which some historians view as crucial to understanding the drift to war in 49 BC. Accused of using violence during his consulship in 59 BC, Caesar had previously been shielded by his proconsular immunity. With private support from Pompey, new laws made such prosecutions retrospective, which meant Caesar would probably be put on trial the moment he left Gaul and lost his Imperium. To avoid this, he had secured approval to stand for the consulship in 48 BC while still in Gaul, but another law backed by Pompey required electoral candidates to be physically present in Rome.

Although the two continued to co-operate in public, Pompey increasingly viewed his colleague as a threat, as did much of the Senate. Both of the consuls elected for 50 BC, Paullus and Marcellus, were opponents of Caesar, as was Curio, a plebeian tribune. They initiated legislation to remove Caesar from his command in Gaul, who allegedly bypassed this by bribing Paullus and Curio. The latter now argued both he and Pompey should disarm at the same time, or be declared enemies of the state.

Pompey the Great, Augustean copy of a 70-60 BC original, Venice Museo Archeologico Nazionale (22205132751)
Bust of Pompey the Great c. 27 BC – 14 AD, copy of original 70 to 60 BC

This was a clever move crafted by Caesar, since it was popular with those senators who wanted to avoid war, but unacceptable to the optimates. Its rejection made open conflict more likely, and the Senate agreed to fund additional troops. When Pompey fell ill while recruiting shortly after, the celebrations that followed his recovery arguably made him over confident that his popularity would enable him to overcome any opponent. With the Republic sliding towards war, Caesar crossed the Alps with a single veteran legion and arrived at Ravenna, close to the border with Italy.

Caesar now proposed a compromise under which both he and Pompey would disband their troops simultaneously, a suggestion that was rejected. By this stage, he clearly believed appearing in Rome without troops or the protection of a consulship risked political oblivion. At the same time, a significant minority within the Senate, led by the two consuls elected for 49 BC, Marcellus and Crus, trusted him with neither. Both sides mistrusted Pompey, who has been criticised for "weak and ineffectual leadership" in this period.

On 1 January 49 BC, Caesar sent an ultimatum stating that either his compromise was accepted, or he would march on Rome "to avenge his country's wrongs". With Pompey already recruiting troops in Campania, on 7 January the Senate felt confident enough to declare him a public enemy. Four days later, Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy.

The Road to Pharsalus

When the war began, Pompey could draw on the resources of the Roman state and his clients in the East, while Caesar was a rebel with no navy and a smaller army. Pompey's position was actually weaker than it looked, since he was simply an advisor to the Senate, many of whose members either preferred a negotiated solution, or regarded him with as much suspicion as Caesar. Military decisions had to be approved by the consuls, and he could only issue recommendations, not orders. This meant Cicero rejected a request to help with recruitment, and Cato refused to take up his office in Sicily, vital for control of Rome's grain supply.

La Fuite de Pompée
The Flight of Pompey after Pharsalus, by Jean Fouquet

Plans to defend Italy were undone by the speed with which Caesar moved, advancing directly on Rome with minimal resistance. Although outnumbered, his troops were experienced veterans, while many of Pompey's were new recruits, a weakness made worse by lack of co-ordination. Cato's brother-in-law, the optimate leader Lucius Domitius, was cut off and captured in a hopeless defence of Corfinium, and his 13,000 men incorporated into Caesar's army. Led by Asinius Pollio, they were later used to occupy Sicily.

Pompey had abandoned Rome, ordering all senators and public officials to accompany him as he withdrew south to Brundisium. From there, he transported his troops across the Adriatic to Dyrrhachium in Thessaly, an operation performed with almost complete success. Caesar could not pursue him without ships, so first secured his rear by subduing Pompeian forces in Hispania, before returning to Rome in December 49 BC. This gave Pompey time to train recruits provided by his local allies, creating an army that outnumbered his opponent by nearly two to one. Meanwhile, his navy under Bibulus destroyed two fleets being built for Caesar, ensuring Pompey retained control of the sea lanes.

Despite this, in January 48 BC Caesar managed to evade his patrols, cross the Adriatic and land in what is now southern Albania. After capturing Oricum and Apollonia, he advanced on Pompey's main supply base at Dyrrhachium. The latter arrived in time to block the attempt, and establish a fortified camp on the other side of the River Apus, where the two armies remained until spring. Neither commander was anxious to begin hostilities, since Caesar was too weak militarily, while as with Mithridates, Pompey preferred to starve his opponent into submission.

Map of Ancient Greece for Caesar's Civil War (Latin)
The Pharsalus campaign, 48 BC

In April, Caesar was reinforced by troops under Mark Antony, which meant he was strong enough to defend his lines. However, without siege equipment he could not take Dyrrhachium, or risk leaving Pompey in his rear, while his men were short of food. Although Pompey was well supplied by sea, water was scarce because Caesar had dammed the local rivers, while the Pompeian cavalry lacked forage for their horses. Ending the stalemate became a matter of urgency for both generals, and after a series of unsuccessful assaults, in late July Pompey managed to break through part of Caesar's defensive lines. Since this made the blockade pointless, Caesar decided to cut his losses and withdrew to Apollonia.

At this point, reinforcements from Syria arrived in Thesssaly led by Pompey's subordinate Metellus Scipio. Caesar moved south to confront this threat and link up with his deputy Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, allowing his men to sack Gomphi en route. Pursued by Pompey, he then withdrew to the area near Pharsalus, but failed to tempt Pompey into giving battle. Although it was later claimed Pompey only did so after being pressured by his subordinates, the delay may simply have been a reflection of his natural caution.

Regardless, Pompey's army of around 38,000 outnumbered the 22,000 men commanded by Caesar, with 7,000 cavalry to 1,000. On 9 August he deployed his men in battle formation, planning to use his superior cavalry to outflank his opponent on his left. Caesar had anticipated this, and repulsed the cavalry which fled in confusion, exposing the infantry behind them. Under pressure from the left and in front, the Pompeian army collapsed.


-0035 Altes Museum Portrait Kleopatra VII anagoria
Roman bust of Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt, mid-1st century BC, Altes Museum, Antikensammlung Berlin, showing Cleopatra with a "melon" hairstyle and Hellenistic royal diadem worn over the head

Caesar pursued Pompey to prevent him from gathering other forces to renew the war. Pompey had stopped at Amphipolis, where he held a meeting with friends to collect money. An edict was issued in his name that all the youth of the province of Macedonia (i.e. Greece), whether Greeks or Romans, were to take an oath. It was not clear whether Pompey wanted new levies to fight or whether this was concealment of a planned escape.

When he heard that Caesar was approaching, Pompey left and went to Mytilene, on the island of Lesbos, to take on board his wife Cornelia and his son. Pompey then set sail and stopped over only when he needed to get food or water. He reached Attaleia (Antalya) in Pamphylia, where some warships from Cilicia had been assembled for him. There, Pompey heard that Cato the Younger was sailing to Africa. Pompey blamed himself for not having used his superior navy and not having stationed at a place where he could have had naval backup if he had been defeated on land instead of fighting far from the coast. He asked the cities in the area for money to man his ships and looked for a temporary refuge in case the enemy caught up with him.

According to Plutarch, Pompey considered going to Parthia, but was advised Parthia's king, Arsaces, was untrustworthy and the place unsafe for Pompey's wife. This last point put Pompey off. He was advised to go instead to Egypt, which was only three days' sail away, and whose king, Ptolemy XIII, although only a boy, was indebted by the friendship and the help Pompey had given to his father, Ptolemy XII.

According to Caesar, Pompey went from Mytilene to Cilicia and Cyprus. There, he learned that the inhabitants of Antioch and the Romans resident there had taken up arms to prevent him from going there. The same action had been taken in Rhodes against Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Crus, the consul of the previous year, and Publius Lentulus, an ex-consul, who were also escaping. They reached the island and were barred from the port, with the islanders having been informed that Caesar was approaching. Pompey gave up on going to Syria. He took funds from the tax collectors, borrowed money to hire soldiers, and armed 2,000 men. He boarded a ship with many bronze coins.

Pompey set sail from Cyprus with warships and merchant ships. He heard that Ptolemy was in Pelusium with an army and that he was at war with his sister Cleopatra VII, whom he had deposed. The camps of the opposing forces were close, thus Pompey sent a messenger to announce his arrival to Ptolemy and to request his aid.

Potheinus the eunuch, who was the boy king's regent, held a council with Theodotus of Chios, the king's tutor and Achillas, the head of the army, amongst others. According to Plutarch, some advised driving Pompey away, and others welcoming him. Theodotus argued that neither option was safe: if welcomed, Pompey would become a master and Caesar an enemy, while, if turned away, Pompey would blame the Egyptians for rejecting him and Caesar for making him continue his pursuit. Instead, assassinating Pompey would eliminate fear of him and gratify Caesar.

Caesar thought this was decided because Ptolemy's forces included many of Pompey's soldiers who had been taken to Alexandria from Syria by Aulus Gabinius to restore Ptolemy XII when he had been deposed. These soldiers had subsequently remained in Egypt as part of the Ptolemaic army. Caesar therefore assumed that the king's advisors had decided to murder Pompey in case he tried to manipulate the Roman contingent of the Egyptian forces, in order to seize power.

Theodotus shows Caesar the head of Pompey; etching, 1820

On 28 September, Achillas went to Pompey's ship on a fishing boat together with Lucius Septimius, who had once been one of Pompey's officers, and a third assassin, Savius. Pompey's associates saw this lack of pomp with suspicion, and advised Pompey to put back out to open sea, out of reach of the Egyptians' missiles. Achillas claimed that the sea's sandy bottom and shallows had not allowed him to approach with a ship. However, the royal ships were seen taking crews on board, and there were soldiers on the shore.

Cornelia thought Pompey was going to be killed, but he boarded the boat. The lack of friendliness on the boat prompted Pompey to tell Septimius that he was an old comrade, the latter merely nodding. He thrust a sword into Pompey, and then Achillas and Savius attacked him with daggers. The people on Pompey's ship could see this and, horrified, fled. Because the wind was favorable, the Egyptians did not pursue them.

Pompey's body was thrown into the sea. Philip, one of Pompey's freedmen who had boarded the boat, wrapped it with his tunic and made a funeral pyre on the shore. Pompey died the day before his 58th birthday.

When Caesar arrived in Egypt a few days later, he was appalled. He turned away, loathing the man who brought Pompey's head. When Caesar was given Pompey's seal ring, he cried. Theodotus left Egypt and escaped Caesar's revenge. Pompey's remains were taken to Cornelia, who gave them burial at his Alban villa.


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

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. Pompey was a great forward planner, and had tremendous organizational skill, which allowed him to devise grand strategies and operate effectively with large armies. During his campaigns in the east, he relentlessly pursued his enemies, 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. In some instances, Sertorius showed up and forced Pompey to abandon a siege, only to see him strike somewhere else. 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 in 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 he could have starved Caesar's army to death. However, he was finally compelled to fight an open battle by his allies, and his conventional tactics proved no match to those of Caesar (who also commanded the more experienced troops).

Later portrayals and reputation

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The head of Pompey on a denarius minted in 40 BC by his son Sextus Pompeius Magnus Pius

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 once seemed 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 Pompey 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 Pierre Corneille's play The Death of Pompey (1642).

Despite his war against Caesar, Pompey was still widely celebrated during the imperial period as the conqueror of the Orient. For example, pictures of Pompey were carried at Augustus' funeral procession. And, as a triumphator, he had numerous statues in Rome, one of which was on the forum of Augustus. Although the imperial power did not honour Pompey as much as it did his arch enemy, who was considered a god, his reputation among many aristocrats and historians was equal, or even superior, to that of Caesar.

Marriages and offspring

Pompey was married five times. These marriages were not only romantic matches, but political arrangements, often dictated by Pompey's political career and need to form alliances with other powerful Roman men.

Pompey's first marriage, in 86 BC, was to Antistia, the daughter of a judge who was overseeing Pompey's trial for financial misconduct. In 82 or 81 BC, he was influenced to divorce Antistia in favour of Sulla's stepdaughter, Aemilia, who died in childbirth shortly afterwards. He married Mucia Tertia in 79 BC, this time gaining an alliance with the powerful gens Caecilia. He divorced Mucia in 61 BC, possibly for political reasons, and married Julia, the daughter of his political rival Julius Caesar, in 59 BC. Finally, after Julia's death in 54 BC, he married Cornelia Metella, who survived him after his own assassination in 48 BC.

According to the classicist Shelley Haley, Pompey "made use of marriage in a traditional fashion to further his political career", but emphasis on Pompey's ambition has often "caused the modern scholar to lose sight of the woman in such an alliance and to ignore the intimate relationships possible at the heart of such a marriage." For most of these marriages, few or no primary sources exist, and it is often difficult to establish matters of fact amidst the political biases and agendas of later historians.

Pompey had three children who survived to adulthood, all with Mucia Tertia:

His fourth wife, Julia, died giving birth to a child who was born prematurely and lived only a few days. The gender of the child is unknown, because the sources are contradictory. Christian Settipani has speculated that he may have had another daughter.

Pompey's wives have also featured in post-Roman literature and art, such as Pierre Corneille's plays Sertorius and The Death of Pompey, as well as George Frideric Handel's opera Giulio Cesare.

Pompey's theater

After returning from his campaigns in the east, Pompey spent a large part of his new wealth on building projects. The grandest of these was a great stone theater complex, on the Campus Martius and the lower slopes of the Pincian Hill in northern Rome. Based, so it was said, on that of Mytilene, it was Rome's first stone theater and a landmark in the history of Roman architecture.

Pompey commissioned and collected hundreds of paintings and statues to decorate the theater. Pliny records the names of several "old masters" whose works were acquired, and there is evidence that Pompey patronized at least two contemporary Italian sculptors, Pasiteles and Coponius.

On 12 August 55 BC, the Theater of Pompey was inaugurated. Containing seats for an estimated 10,000 spectators, it had a temple of Venus (Pompey's patron goddess) constructed at the back of the cavea, or auditorium, in such a way that the tiers of the seats formed the steps leading up to the front of the temple. Attached to the southeast side of the theater was a great porticus or rectangular garden, measuring approximately 180 by 135 meters, with covered colonnades running around the sides, providing shelter for the spectators in the event of rain. The walls of the colonnades were decorated with paintings gathered from the art collections of the Roman world. Either in the porticus or the theater itself were numerous statues, the arrangement of which was entrusted to Cicero's good friend Atticus. They included fourteen statues, representing the nations which Pompey had conquered, and one of Pompey himself was placed in a large hall attached to the porticus, where meetings of the Senate could be held.

Plutarch tells us that Pompey built himself a house in the vicinity of the theater, "like a dinghy behind a yacht," more splendid than his old house on the Carinae but not extravagant enough to incite envy.

Chronology of Pompey's life and career

  • 29 September 106 BC – Born in Picenum;
  • 89 BC – Serves under his father at Asculum (during the Social War);
  • 83 BC – Aligns with Sulla, after his return from the First Mithridatic War against King Mithridates VI of Pontus, raising a legion and cavalry in hopes of joining him;
  • 82 BC – Marriage to Aemilia at the behest of Sulla, but Aemilia is already pregnant and eventually dies during childbirth;
  • 82–81 BC – Defeats Gaius Marius' allies in Sicily and Africa;
  • 81 BC – Returns to Rome and celebrates first triumph;
  • 80 BC – Pompey marries Mucia, of the Mucii Scaevolae family;
  • 79 BC – Pompey supports the election of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who openly revolts against the Senate a few months later. Pompey suppresses the rebellion with an army raised from Picenum and puts down the rebellion, killing the rebel Marcus Junius Brutus, father of Brutus, who would go on to assassinate Julius Caesar;
  • 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, obtaining his second triumph;
  • 70 BC – First consulship (with Marcus Licinius Crassus);
  • 67 BC – Defeats the pirates and goes to the province of Asia;
  • 66–61 BC – Defeats King Mithridates of Pontus, ending the Third Mithridatic War;
  • 64–63 BC – Marches through Syria, the Levant, and Judea;
  • 29 September 61 BC – Third triumph;
  • April 59 BC – The first triumvirate is constituted. Pompey allies with Julius Caesar and Crassus, marrying Caesar's daughter Julia (wife of Pompey);
  • 58–55 BC – Governs Hispania Ulterior by proxy, while the Theater of Pompey is constructed;
  • 55 BC – Second consulship (with Marcus Licinius Crassus), and the Theater of Pompey is finally inaugurated;
  • 54 BC – Julia dies, and the first triumvirate ends;
  • 52 BC – Serves as sole consul for an intercalary month, but has a third ordinary consulship with Metellus Scipio for the rest of the year, marrying his daughter 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";
  • 49 BC – Caesar crosses the Rubicon river and invades Italy, while 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.

See also

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