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Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
Marble bust of Pompey the Great
BornSeptember 29 106 BC
DiedSeptember 28 8 BC
OccupationPolitician and military commander

Pompey the Great (Latin: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) 106-48 B.C., general, statesman, and triumvir during the last years of the Roman Republic. His soldiers are credited with bestowing the title Magnus (the Great) while serving in Africa (82–81 BC).

Early career

Pompey came from a wealthy family which owned land in Picenum; although of the senatorial nobility, his family was elected to their first consular offices only in 141. He had what amounts to a normal education, having a love for the Greek language and literature, but his military training, political ambitions, and character were developed while serving on the staff of his father, Pompeius Strabo, who greatly enlarged his consulship by gaining allies and clients, paying off during the civil war of 88-87 as Strabo allied himself with general Gaius Marius over rival Lucius Sulla.

However, after his father's death Pompey separated himself from Marius. It is still unclear as to what Pompey himself may have done, but he went “missing” from an army under general Cinna who was sent to the Balkans to deal with Sulla’s troops; Cinna was taken and hanged by his own men (84 B.C.) Pompey next shows up in Picenum with three recruited legions in an attempt to recover Rome and the Italian peninsula from the Marians, operating as an independent ally of Sulla, who made use of his military training (he would, a short time later, marry Sulla’s daughter). During several quick, and savage, campaigns (82-81) in Sicily and Africa, Pompey earned the title “Sulla’s butcher” for his habit of killing Marian leaders who had surrendered to him.

His victory in Africa complete, he returned to Rome, demanding that a triumph be given to him, and stationing his army at the gates to ensure his demands were met. He later supported Marcus Lepidus, a renegade of Sullan supporter, for the consul in 78; but when Lepidus attempted revolt, however, Pompey supported law and order and stopped the rebellion. But he still refused to disband his army, using it to pressure the Senate to grant him the power of proconsul and head to Spain to assist Metellus Pius in bringing the Marian leader Sertorius to bay

Restoring order in Spain taxed Rome’s resources, as well as Pompey’s military skills, to the limit, but after Spain was subdued Pompey imposed a settlement which hinted at his own political aims, and having an authority over territory which consisted of Spain, southern Gaul (France), and northern Italy to the Rubicon. In the year 70 B.C. he took his army back into Italy, for all intents and purposes to put down the revolt of the slaves led by Spartacus, but in actuality to assure his own election to the consulship for that year. Pompey had promised change and reform, and the removal of Sulla cronies who had been tainted by corruption. He had a rival also running for consul, Licinius Crassus, a wealthy man who had earned the triumph for actually putting down the Spartacus revolt; a bargain was struck between the two, and they both jointly were elected to the consul. Pompey thus earned his second triumph.

Reorganizing the East

Pompey sat in Rome while rivals undermined a consulman, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, who was in Anatolia in a campaign against Mithradates, as well as trying to recover the eastern Mediterranean Sea from piratical control. In 67 B.C. the tribune Aulus Gabinus forced a bill granting Pompey the power to solve the pirate problem; while Pompey was settling them in the east as farmers, another tribune had a bill passed over a weak opposition granting Pompey not just the authority to make war against Mithradates, but to control and organize Rome’s eastern provinces (66 B.C.). Wasting no time, Pompey took command from Lucullus and soundly defeated Mithradates in Asia Minor (now Turkey). With Mithradates gone, Pompey began consolidating the eastern provinces. In Armenia he set up on the throne Tigranes, for 6,000 talents of gold. He rejected the king of Parthia’s request that the Roman frontier be no further than the Euphrates River, setting up a system of Roman protectorates from Colchis on the Black Sea to the states south of the Caucasus Mountains. He created the new provinces of Cilicia and Bithynia-Pontus, and annexed Syria and Judea, leaving the latter a “temple-state” dependent on Rome.

In December of 62 Pompey’s power and prestige was at its height when he returned to Italy and finally disbanded his army at Brundisium (Brindisi) and received his third triumph (61). His ascendancy in Italy during the next ten years was slowly eroded by the growing power and prestige of Julius Caesar, who through maneuver with Crassus merely tried to steal Pompey’s star, as opposed to the inner circle of nobles called the Optimates, who were revolutionary in nature and gradually gained dominance in Rome, much to the annoyance of Pompey, who was not a revolutionary himself, but wanted to be recognized as first citizen, even by way of proposing a marriage (he had divorced his third wife for this purpose) of a relative of one of the young senators, Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger; the offer was promptly turned down. His eastern settlement ratification and demands of land for his veterans were also rejected as well.

First Triumvirate

Pompey joined with Crassus and Caesar in the First Triumvirate, a pact which would bind them to wrest consulships from the Optimates; doing so would strain all their resources. Once made a consul, Caesar forced a land bill through, and a short time later, a bill to acquire public land in Campania. But his immediate ambition was a long-term command, which he got in Illyria and Gaul; this benefited Pompey as well, as his men would be absorbed into Caesar’s army, giving them employment. He also would benefit on a more intimate level: he married Caesar’s sister, Julia.

The Optimates would continue to deal with Pompey in a treacherous manner. In 56 they created impediments based on religion to prevent Pompey from being dispatched on an expedition to Egypt; the optimate Publius Clodius also designed to convince Pompey that Crassus had plans to take his life. While this was going on, officially the Optimates made attempts to suspend Caesar’s law for the Campanian land distribution.

Crassus, aware of Pompey’s suspicions, met Caesar at Ravenna; Caesar afterward met Pompey at Luca. The resulting Luca conference (56) settled their mutual suspicions and set the next phase of the triumvirate, which was for Pompey and Crassus gaining consulship in 55 as well as five-year commands in the provinces for each, while Caesar would gain an additional five-year renewal. Their ambitions were met shortly after a period of violence and corruption, gaining the needed consul seats as well as their commands; lesser magistracies went to their supporters. But the days of the Triumvirate were numbered; Crassus, while campaigning in Mesopotamia, would suffer defeat and death, and Julia would herself die in 54, removing the strongest bond yet between Caesar and Pompey.

Civil War

Anarchy had also brewed inside Rome, resulting in periods of mob violence, including the burning down of the Senate house. Watching from outside the walls was Pompey, who was committed to waiting until an alliance with the Optimates was unavoidable. Titus Annius Milo was running for consul, bitterly opposed by Pompey and Clodius; in January, 52 followers of Milo killed Clodius. As the violence was increasing, and with no senior magistrates in the city, the Senate summoned on Pompey to restore order.

Pompey, as sole consul, then enacted legislation aimed at reforming the courts, stopping bribery and corruption, and preventing candidature in absence. His acts also demonstrated duplicity of character, specifically against Caesar, who found that some of the laws created had him in mind, and effectively shut down his own ambitions for the consulship. This was reinforced by attempts to recall Caesar and his legions from Gaul; Caesar for his part used his wealth and time to buy men who would obstruct his Senatorial enemies. Pompey made his intentions finally clear in 51, stating that Caesar should not become a consul member while in command of an army. In 50, Gauis Marcellus failed to force the Senate to declare Caesar an enemy; the Senate at that time was evenly divided between support for Pompey and Caesar. Marcellus took consuls with him to Pompey, and placed a sword in his hands; the clear meaning being that Pompey must take the war to Caesar. Finally, on January 7, 49, the Senate declared a state of war existed between Rome and Caesar. Caesar would cross the Rubicon with his legions four days later.

Pompey’s plan was to allow the Italian peninsula to be controlled by Caesar, and to use his eastern resources and the sea to starve out Caesar’s forces. At first it nearly succeeded, but due to incompetence, bad luck, and the fact that he was facing a military genius left Pompey in defeat on the plain of Pharsalus in 48, fleeing from his camp just as the enemy was storming it. Although his supporters would continue to harry Caesar for a further three years in Spain, Africa, and the East, Pompey would not play a role in it. Sailing for Egypt in the hopes of gaining an ally in young King Ptolemy XIII, he instead was killed just as his boat landed on September 28, 48 B.C. Ptolemy, in an act that he had hoped would impress Caesar, presented Pompey's severed head in a wine urn.

See also


  • Goldsworthy, Adrian. In the name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London (2004)
  • Holland, Tom. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic, Doubleday, New York (2003)
  • Plutarch. The Lives of the Notable Grecians and Romans, Great Books, volume 13, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. and the University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (1990)
  • Seager, Robin. Pompey the Great: A Political Biography, Blackwell Publishing, Oxford (2002)
  • Southern, Pat. Pompey the Great: Caesar's Friend and Foe, Tempus Publishing, Gloucestershire, UK (2002)