Gnaeus Pompeius was one of the most significant personalities during the late Roman Republic.
He was considered a military wunderkind who, at an early age, was given great responsibilities and never failed to deliver victory.
However, history remembers him not as the greatest Roman of his era but rather as a side player in the events which brought down the republic and, in the end, a loser on the battlefield.
Learn more about the rise and fall of Pompey Magnus on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
If things had gone even slightly differently, the name Pompey might be as well known today as that of Julius Caesar.
There have been several episodes of this podcast where the name Pompey has come up, and that is sort of how history views him. He was a significant player in the events which led to the fall of the Roman Republic, but he was not the lead player.
However, there was a time when if you were to be transported back to Rome and asked people on the street who the greatest Roman was, most of them would have said Pompey.
Gnaeus Pompeius, referred to from here on out simply as Pompey, was born in the year 106 BC, he was born into a successful family, but not an illustrious family.
His father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, was the first of his family to become a senator, eventually rising to the rank of consul in 89 BC.
Pompey’s public career began serving under his father during the Social War, which took place between 91 to 87 BC. The Social War was a rebellion by various Italian allies against Rome.
During a brief civil war during this period, Pompey’s father died, and Pompey took over his father’s debts and estate.
One of the figures to come out of the Social War was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who has also been mentioned in several episodes.
After the war, he was sent off to fight King Mithrades of Pontus in the first First Mithridatic War, which caused enormous controversy. When Sulla came back in 83 BC, it sparked the largest civil war that Rome had ever seen.
Sulla landed his forces in Brundusium in the south of Italy. Pompey, who had raised his own army, decided to back Sulla and marched south to link up with him.
Pompey distinguished himself during the civil war, earning the respect of Sulla, who, in no small part, managed to win and get declared dictator due to Pompey.
The forces of Sulla’s opponent, Marius, fled to Sicily and North Africa where Pompey followed.
In Sicily in 82 BC, he captured one of the leaders of the Marian forces, Gnaeus Papirius Carbo, and had him executed. This earned him the nickname adulescentulus carnifex or the young butcher.
In North Africa, he defeated the Marian commander Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and deposed the king of Numidia.
Around this time, after this string of successes, his troops began to call him Pompeus Magnus, or Pompey the Great, the term previously used to describe Alexander the Great.
He soon formally adopted Mangus as his cognomen.
Upon his return to Rome, he demanded the greatest honor that could be bestowed upon a Roman, a triumph, and he refused to disband his army until he got it. The resistance to granting him a triumph was that he was only 24 years old, incredibly young for such an honor
Pompey was just getting started.
In 76 BC, he entered Hispania to put down a rebellion by a Roman General named Quintus Sertorius. His record in Hispania wasn’t perfect, he did suffer one major defeat, but in the end, he won and managed to restore Roman rule to the region while at the same time building his power base.
While he was finishing up in Hispania, the Third Servile War broke out. This was the slave revolt that was led by Spartacus, which I covered in a previous episode.
The Romans were led by Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome but a man that had no military accomplishments. In 71 BC, Pompey managed to return to Italy at the very end of the campaign and was given much of the credit for ending the war, which angered Crassus to no end.
His victories in Hispania resulted in him earning a second triumph, which now put him in very rare company.
At this point, Pompey had become one of the senior men in Rome, and there was talk of electing him consul. However, the minimum age to run for consul was 42, and Pompey was only 36.
The Senate passed a special resolution waiving the requirement for Pompey, and he was elected to Consul in 70BC alongside Crassus.
The two men disagreed on everything, and as one consul could veto the other, almost nothing was done that year.
After his consulship in 67 BC, Pompey was called upon to solve a problem that Rome had suffered for years: pirates. Pirates had been active all over the Mediterranean, and they were hindering shipping and commerce.
Pompey managed to solve the problem in only 40 days. Many of the pirates gave up without a fight due to Pompey’s reputation and the fact that he offered clemency to pirates who gave up without a fight.
It was after this that he achieved what was arguably his greatest accomplishment.
Every since Sulla had been sent to Pontus to fight King Mithrades, Rome had problems with him, something which I covered in a previous episode.
Who did the Senate turn to to finish the job and defeat King Mithrades? Pompey, of course.
In 66 BC, he is given control of the Roman armies in Asia Minor, and he goes on to finally, decisively defeat King Mithrades.
However, he went much further than that. He added Pontus and the nearby region of Bithynia as Roman provinces. When the Seleucid Empire collapsed, he annexed Syria as well in 64 BC. In the process, he also made Judea into a client kingdom of Rome.
These regions were very wealthy and brought a lot of money to Roman coffers. They also made Pompey quite wealthy as well and grew his base of clients beyond what he had established in Hispania and in Italy.
When he returned to Rome in 61 BC, he was given his third triumph, which was considered to be the greatest triumph in history, lasting a full two days, beginning on his 45th birthday.
At this point, Pompey is riding high. He has more military glory than anyone else in the Republic. He has a network of clients around the Mediterranean. He is a former consul, he has become incredibly wealthy, and he is unquestionably the most popular Roman with the masses.
Pompey, however, was not necessarily popular with many of the Senators.
The Senate refused to ratify the treaties he signed while in the East, and they refused to distribute land to his veterans and to other landless Romans.
It was at this point he was approached by a very ambitious Senator six years his junior named Gaius Julius Caesar.
Caesar suggested that he, Pompey, and his nemesis Crassus get together and run things. Together, they could get all of their pet projects passed, which didn’t necessarily conflict with each other. Pompey had popularity, Crassus had the money, and Caesar was the balancing force between them.
Today we know it as the First Trimvurate.
To seal the deal, Pompey married the daughter of Julius Caesar, Julia.
Caesar was elected consul in 59 BC and managed to ram all their projects through the senate.
After his term as consul was complete, Caesar left Rome to become the proconsul in the provinces of Transalpine Gaul, Cisalpine Gaul, and Illyricum.
Caesar was up in Gaul, basically becoming the Julius Caesar that everyone knows. He engaged in a series of conquests that were totally unapproved by the Senate but which were very popular with the people.
Back in Rome, Pompey focused on domestic matters, not military ones. In 57 BC, he was put in charge of the Roman grain supply, which gave him imperium powers normally granted to a proconsul.
In 55 BC, the three renewed their agreement, and Pompey, alongside Crassus, was elected to his second term as consul.
As part of the deal, Caesar’s term as proconsul of Gaul was extended another five years, Crassus was given control of Syria, and Pompey was given control of Hispania, however, he never actually left Rome and governed it by proxy.
It was around this time that Pompey built the Theater of Pompey in Rome, which was the first permanent theater ever built in Rome.
Things soon fell apart. Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter Julia died in childbirth in 54 BC, and Crassus died while trying to achieve his military glory in Parthia in 53 BC.
With Crassus dead and the bond between Pompey and Caesar that Julia provided gone, tensions between them began to rise.
Pompey saw Caesar’s conquests in Gaul as taking away from his status in Rome.
Pompey was elected as consult for a third time in 52 BC, and in a highly unusual move, supported by most of the senate, he was elected consul by himself.
He helped usher through a series of laws that would make Caesar retroactively liable for laws that he broke. So long as Caesar had Imperium, he was immune from being tried. However, his imperium was going to expire with his term as proconsul in 49 BC.
Caesar’s plan was to run for consul again, which would extend his immunity, however, to do that, he had to appear in person in Rome to declare his candidacy. The moment he crossed the pomerium, the traditional boundary of Rome, he would lose the imperium that he had in Gaul.
Pompey and the Senate thought they had Caesar in a legal trap.
Caesar, however, did what no one expected and marched to Rome with his army. This was the crossing of the Rubicon and saying, “The die is cast.”
Pompey was given command of a consular army, but he wasn’t really in control. He was no longer consul by this time, and everything had to be approved by the Senate.
Moreover, Caesar had veteran troops, and Pompey had to raise an army from scratch.
The Senate wasn’t prepared for a military confrontation, so when Caesar headed towards Rome, Pompey realizing he was outnumbered, advised the Senate to fall back, first to Brundesium in the south and then all the way to Macedonia.
Pompey claimed that they could regroup and raise legions in the east, where he still had a large number of clients from the time he spent there, and he did.
He controlled the Roman navy, and the army he assembled was twice the size of the one that Caesar commanded. Pompey managed to destroy a fleet that Caesar was built to transport his troops across the Adriatic.
Caesar and his forces did manage to cross the Adriatic. After four years of cat and mouse, with Pompey and most of the senators in exile, things came to a head in 48 BC at the Battle of Pharsalus.
It had been years since Pompey led troops in battle, and Caesar had been leading his legions in combat almost non-stop for over a decade. On paper, Pompey’s forces outnumbered Caesar’s 38,000 to 22,000, and moreover, Pompey had 7,000 cavalry against Caesar’s 1,000.
When push came to shove, Caesar decisively defeated Pompey on the battlefield, leaving many of the leaders of the anti-Cesarian faction either dead or in flight.
As for Pompey, he fled to Egypt dressed as a civilian. Many of the clients he had established in the east were now dead or captured. He went to the one place where he thought he would be welcome and find support, Egypt.
However, when he came ashore, he was killed and beheaded by a Roman mercenary who was serving in the Egyptian army, Lucius Septimius. He was killed because the pharaoh at the time, Ptolemy XIII, thought he could curry favor with Caesar in the civil war with his sister, Cleopatra VII.
His plan didn’t work.
History mostly remembers Pompey for what happened at the end of his life, not for what he did during it.
When he fought the biggest battle of his career, and indeed the most important battle in the history of the Roman Republic, he lost. That loss resulted in him losing his life in a most ignoble way for a Roman of his stature.
It is interesting to think that if the Battle of Pharsalus had gone another way, if his calvary charge had been successful, then Pompey would have gone down as the greatest Roman general in history and as the savior of the republic.
Instead, he is considered the man that lost the Roman Republic.