Last Hero of The Republic: Pompey The Great

A general and statesman of the Roman Republic, Pompey played a crucial role in its expansion. His defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar gradually led to the Republic’s downfall.

Jul 19, 2021By Vedran Bileta, MA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in History
triumph of pompey the great
The Triumph of Pompey, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, 1765, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; with Bust of “young Pompey”, 1st century CE, Louvre Museum, Paris


Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known also as Pompey the Great (ca.106 – 48 BCE) was one of the brightest commanders and political figures of the late Roman Republic. Entering the political scene at a very young age, he played an important role in the bloody civil war that engulfed the Republic. During his long career, Pompey the Great displayed exceptional military talents on the battlefield. He restored Rome’s control over Spain and quelled the Spartacus slave revolt. Most importantly, Pompey eradicated piracy from the Mediterranean, ensuring Rome’s undisputed mastership over the inner sea. His legions extended Rome’s reach to the East, taking Asia Minor, Syria, and Palestine.


To bypass the hostile Senate, Pompey joined two other grandees, Caesar and Crassus, and formed the First Triumvirate, a political alliance designed to benefit all three. But this alliance was not fated to last. Following Crassus’ sudden death in Parthia, Pompey and Caesar engaged in a bloody civil war, which ended with Pompey’s defeat and death.


Pompey The Great: The Early Years

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Portrait of Pompey the Great, 30-50 CE, New Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen, via TheMet


The story of Roman expansion is the story of great men, who through a combination of their status, talents, and skills, helped to make Rome a superpower of the ancient world. Pompey the Great was one such man. Born around 106 BCE in Picenum, a region on Italy’s side of the Adriatic, Pompey was the son of the wealthy and influential Pompey Strabo. Although Strabo was a successful commander and a statesman, serving as a consul in 89 BCE, he and his family were not a part of the established Roman aristocracy. Furthermore, they were not considered true Romans, being born outside the city of Rome. But he did not let that stop him — he was not the kind of person to let anything stop him.


Pompey’s brilliant military career took off at a young age, when he fought alongside his father, the consul, in the battle of Asculum. However, his early success was overshadowed by a scandal. Despite his political and military achievements, Pompey’s father was not a popular man. During his career, he acquired a reputation for greed, political double-dealing, and military brutality. Following Strabo’s death, Pompey was put on trial himself, although it was allegedly his father, who had appropriated the war booty from Asculum. However, Pompey was not only acquitted, he also married the daughter of one of the judges.


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While Pompey was still on trial, the Republic was torn in a struggle between two other powerful men – Marius and Sulla. Pompey inherited not only the wealth but also the loyalty of his father’s legions. Barely 23-years-old, Pompey joined the civil war on Sulla’s side. It was here that he would reveal his military genius.


A General On The Rise

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Bust of “young Pompey”, 1st century CE, Louvre Museum, Paris


After Sulla took Rome, he rewarded the young general by giving him the hand of his stepdaughter. Sulla also entrusted Pompey with pacifying the remains of Marius’ supporters on the islands of Sicily and Sardinia.


The next milestone in Pompey’s military career was the campaign in Africa, where Marius’ followers gathered a large army and enlisted the support of the Numidian king Hiarbas. Not only did Pompey defeat his enemies, but he also invaded Numidia and installed a Roman ally on the throne. Upon his return to Rome, intoxicated by his victories, he demanded a triumph. At first, Sulla refused it, since Pompey was not officially eligible for a triumph. However, after an uproar among both the military and the people, Sulla had to comply.


In addition to the splendid triumph, the 25-year-old received the moniker “Magnus,” meaning “the Great.” Pompey’s boyhood hero was Alexander the Great, and the young general was determined to follow in his idol’s footsteps. As time showed, Pompey indeed had plenty of opportunities to prove himself. Sulla’s death in 78 BCE left the Republic exposed to his enemies. Having crushed the short-lived revolt in Italy, Pompey moved to Spain, where the last followers of Marius gathered under the rebellious general Quintus Sertorius.


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Relief from the altar of Domitius Ahenobarbus, end of the 2nd century BCE, The Louvre Museum, Paris, Via Wikimedia Commons


Arriving in Spain in 76 BCE, Pompey had to face a stubborn and crafty opponent. Sertorius was familiar with the terrain and knew the usual Roman tactics well. It was in Spain where he suffered his first defeat, losing a third of his army in battle. For the next five years, the brutal war continued. Outnumbered, Sertorius’ troops and his local allies employed guerilla warfare. Pompey, afraid of losing another field battle (and his command), resorted to the strategy of destroying rebel strongholds one by one. In the end, the outcome of the confrontation was decided not in battle, but in treachery. After rebel conspirators had assassinated Sertorius, he was able to exploit the chaos in the enemy’s ranks and launched a successful offensive, bringing the war to a close.


Slaves And Pirates

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Golden coin showing Pompey the Great in triumphal quadriga, 71 BCE, via The British Museum


The hard-won victory in the Sertorian War strengthened Pompey’s influence in Rome and increased his popular support. His next victories, however, would catapult the young general to the top and secure his place in history. While Pompey the Great was fighting in Spain, Italy was threatened by a dangerous enemy. In 73 BCE, a Thracian slave Spartacus started a revolt. What followed was a series of Roman defeats at the hands of Spartacus and his growing army. It was only in 71 BCE that the legions led by Marcus Licinius Crassus defeated Spartacus’ forces. However, instead of Crassus, the honor for crushing the revolt fell on Pompey, freshly returned from Spain, who intercepted and wiped out the scattered bands of slaves. As a result of his victories, he was granted a second triumph.


Pompey the Great and Crassus were by now two main political figures in Rome. Both grandees refused to disband their armies (as required by tradition) and demanded the consulship – a violation of every rule imaginable. The Senate had no choice but to accept. Together with Crassus, Pompey was elected as a consul at 70 BCE. He was only 35. In another break with tradition, Pompey did not assume control of a province. Instead, he used his new power to deal with the increasing problem that threatened Rome’s grain supply: piracy in the Mediterranean.


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Silver coin of Sextus Pompey, showing his father Pompey the Great on the left, and the Roman warship on the right, 44-43 BCE, The British Museum, London


By the latter half of the second century BCE, piracy had once again become a considerable threat to Mediterranean shipping. Fearsome marauders targeted grain ships. Crews were captured and enslaved, while important or wealthy passengers were held hostage for ransom. Even a young Julius Caesar was captured and ransomed (although he captured and crucified the pirates after he was released). At first, Rome tolerated piracy as it provided a plentiful supply of cheap slaves, vital for its agriculture and mining industry. However, once the pirates started threatening Rome’s grain supply, driving the grain prices up, and causing food shortages, something had to be done.


It fell to Pompey to end the menace once and for all. And he performed the task with flying colors. The law of 67 BCE gave Pompey unprecedented authority and funds for combating piracy. His colossal fleet of over 500 warships covered the entire Eastern Mediterranean, striking at the pirate’s dens, from Crete and the southern coast of Anatolia to the pirates’ Cilician stronghold. Within a few months, Pompey not only eradicated piracy, but also boosted the Roman economy. Former pirates were resettled in the interior and employed as farmers, thus diminishing the attraction of piracy.


Glory In The East

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Bust of Mithridates VI Eupator, 1st century CE, Louvre Museum, Paris


While Pompey was combating piracy, Rome was embroiled in a long war against Mithridates VI of Pontus, a powerful ruler who held control over the entirety of Asia Minor and had a strong ally in the Kingdom of Armenia. With no end in sight, in 66 BCE his allies proposed a new law, which allowed Pompey the Great to become the supreme commander of all Roman forces in the East.


Pompey joined the campaign with great fervor. He soon expelled Mithridates from Asia Minor, forcing the Pontic king to flee north, to Crimea. Then, he moved into Armenia. The sources differ on whether the Romans were invited or attacked in force, but in the end, Rome had an ally on the Armenian throne. After defeating the Caucasian tribes, Pompey moved to Crimea. Aware that resistance was futile, in 63 BCE Mithridates chose to take his own life, thus ending the war. To secure the stability of the new provinces, Pompey invaded Syria, bringing an end to the once glorious Seleucid Empire. He also annexed the northern part of the kingdom of Judea.


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The Triumph of Pompey, Gabriel de Saint-Aubin, 1765, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Pompey’s four-year campaign extended Roman dominion over most of the East. Newly acquired provinces brought prestige and wealth to the Roman Republic, while from Crimea to Mesopotamia, the chain of client states created a buffer zone against the powerful Parthian Empire. The enormous wealth drawn from the East was partly redistributed to the army, which further secured their loyalty. Pompey also gained the goodwill of the Hellenic cities, by restoring their autonomy. When he returned to Rome in 61 BCE, Pompey was awarded his third triumph. It was the biggest, most lavish, and longest triumph (it lasted for two days!) that Rome had ever seen. To the Romans, it must have seemed like Pompey had conquered the entire world. And they were not entirely wrong. The conqueror of the East, the victor in Spain, the crusher of the slave revolt, and the eradicator of piracy, Pompey truly was “the Great.”


The First Triumvirate

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Vignette with profiles of the three Triumvirs, Raphael Morghen after Giovanni Battista Mengardi, 1791-94, The British Museum, London


Pompey the Great was the most popular man in Rome. Everyone adored the successful general. Everyone but the Senate. Wary of his power and popularity, the Senate rejected his proposal for land-grants to his veterans and denied ratifying the autonomy Pompey gave to the eastern cities. Never the one to give up, he turned for help to another successful general and statesman – Julius Caesar.


Unlike Pompey, Caesar rose slowly but steadily through the ranks of Roman politics, respecting the tradition that Pompey ignored. Caesar also belonged to one of Rome’s most powerful families and was an accomplished politician and diplomat. When Caesar returned from Spain in 60 BCE, the two grandees quickly established a rapport. Together with Crassus, they agreed to pool their resources. Pompey had the military muscle, Caesar had the political connections, and Crassus, the richest man in Rome, had the cash. To seal the political alliance, Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia.


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Grain ship depicted on the mosaic found at Piazzale del Corporazioni in Ostia Antica, 2nd century CE, Ostia, Via


The First Triumvirate, as it is known today, was a mutual arrangement that allowed its members to bypass the Senate and rule the Republic together. In 59 BCE, Caesar was appointed consul, allowing Pompey to fulfill the promises given to his veterans in the East. Unlike Caesar, who left for Gaul, Pompey withdrew from military affairs and remained in the capital. During this time, Pompey reorganized Rome’s grain supply, laying the foundation for a system where grain from Sicily, Egypt, and North Africa was exported to Rome by sea. In 55 BCE Pompey served once again as consul, together with Crassus. However, the next two years saw tensions rising within the Triumvirate. Julia’s death in 54 BCE ended Pompey’s political alliance with Caesar. A year later, trying to outdo Pompey, Crassus was killed in Parthia. The removal of Crassus set the two remaining triumvirs on a collision course.


Pompey’s End

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Pompey’s Head Brought to Julius Caesar, Florentine Painter, C.1450, Via the Walters Art Museum


Caesar’s successes in Gaul alarmed the Senate. Once again, a powerful and popular military man, backed by his legions, threatened the Republic. It was deja-vu, but with a twist. The hero of the Republic was now a man whom the Senate once despised, a man who broke all the traditions: Pompey the Great. Perhaps Pompey had counted on his wealth and military experience to win the day. But after Caesar famously crossed the Rubicon in 49 BCE, the once-mighty general was unable to defeat his former ally. Caesar had battle-hardened legions, while Pompey had to build his Republican army from scratch.


After a year of avoiding decisive battle, in 48 BCE, Pompey felt ready to engage his opponent. At first, he was successful, routing Caesar’s legions near Dyrrachium. It was to be his final victory. It is hard to say whether it was his hubris, or a miscalculation that ruined the day. At Pharsalus, Pompey’s legions were decisively defeated by Caesar’s smaller army. Beaten, Pompey fled to Alexandria, hoping that king Ptolemy XIII, his former client, would assist him. Instead, he was betrayed. While Pompey was disembarking in Alexandria, he was assassinated and beheaded. Ptolemy probably hoped to curry favor with Caesar. Upon his arrival in Egypt, however, the victor reacted in disgust. According to Cassius Dio, the last triumvir wept for his fallen opponent.


Pompey The Great: Last Hero Of The Republic?

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Bust of Pompey the Great, 1st century CE, Louvre Museum, Paris


Pompey the Great’s legacy is a complicated one. Through military successes and diplomacy Pompey brought the Roman Republic to its apex. In the East, he extended Roman reach up to Mesopotamia. In the West, he solidified Roman control over Spain and Africa. His eradication of Mediterranean piracy created a unified inner sea, boosting the trade and economy of the Roman state. Lastly, the client states Pompey helped to establish would remain loyal to Rome for centuries and play an important role in the confrontation with Parthia, and later the Sassanid Empire.


Nevertheless, his successes were overshadowed by the political fallout, in which he played an important role, directly and indirectly. An ambitious upstart, Pompey operated out of the established protocols and traditions. Bypassing the Senate, Pompey tied the loyalty of the legions to himself, instead of the Republic. His wide-ranging commands, first in the Mediterranean, and later the East, further undermined the Republican system, with Pompey becoming the most powerful man in Rome. Perhaps the best evidence of Pompey’s influence can be found in the East, where grateful Hellenistic cities introduced a Pompeian calendar, counting time from the region’s conquest/liberation by Pompey the Great in 63 BCE.


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Julius Caesar’, Act III, Scene 1, the Assassination, William Holmes Sullivan, 1888, Royal Shakespeare Company Collection, via ArtUK


Pompey’s meteoric ascent, his popularity among the people, and the legions’ loyalty to him alarmed the Senate, who tried to curtail his powers. The answer was the Triumvirate, which neutralized the Senate, and left the Republic under the control of Pompey, Caesar, and Crassus. Thus, it is not surprising that the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, two ambitious military men, marked the end of the Roman Republic. Following Caesar’s assassination (poetically, Caesar met his end at the steps of the building named after Pompey), the subsequent civil war would crush the old order, and usher in the Roman Empire.

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By Vedran BiletaMA in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Early Modern History, BA in HistoryVedran is a doctoral researcher, based in Budapest. His main interest is Ancient History, in particular the Late Roman period. When not spending time with the military elites of the Late Roman West, he is sharing his passion for history with those willing to listen. In his free time, Vedran is wargaming and discussing Star Trek.