Welcome back to Rome Across Europe. Today we almost complete our list of Top 15 Roman Commanders in ancient Rome. As we march along, you can find the entire list here. Or you can check out the individual biographies of #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, #7, #8, #9, #10, #11, #12 and #13. And now it’s time for…
14: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106 – 48 BC)
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, commonly known as Pompey the Great or simply Pompey, was a political and military leader of the late Roman Republic. Having lived from 29 September 106 BC to 29 September 48 BC, Pompey experienced much war and conquest during his life.
He came from a wealthy Italian provincial background, and his father had been the 1st to establish the family among the Roman nobility. Pompey’s father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, was a wealthy landed Italian provincial from Picenum, one of the Homines Novi (new men).
Pompeius Strabo ascended the traditional Cursus Honorum, becoming Quaestor in 104 BC, Praetor in 92 BC and Consul in 89 BC, having acquired a reputation for greed, political double-dealing and military ruthlessness. Strabo supported Sulla’s traditionalist Optimates against the popularist General Marius in the First Marian-Sullan War.
Pompeius Strabo died during the Marian siege against Rome in 87 BC. The 20-year old Pompey then inherited his father’s estates, political leanings and the loyalty of his legions.
Pompey had served 2 years under his father’s command, and had participated in the final acts of the Marsic Social War against the Italians. He returned to Rome and was prosecuted for misappropriation of plunder. Pompey’s betrothal to the judge’s daughter Antistia, however, secured him a rapid acquittal.
For the next few years, the Marians had possession of Italy. When Lucius Cornelius Sulla returned from campaigning against King Mithridates the VI of Pontus in 83 BC, Pompey raised 3 Picenean legions to support Sulla against the Marian regime of Gnaeus Papirius Carbo.
Sulla took full control of Rome declaring himself Ad Vitam Dictatura (Dictator for Life). Sulla was impressed with Pompey’s performance, and over the course of decades, Pompey fought successful campaigns for him.
The first of the campaigns were in Sicily and the Roman province of Africa. Pompey secured Sicily in 82 BC and established a large grain supply for Rome, before defeating Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus and the Numidian King Hiarbas in 81 BC after a hard-fought battle.
Pompey was declared Imperator by his loyal soldiers on the field in Africa and given the title Magnus (the Great) by Sulla. It seems that Sulla was reluctant to honor Pompey though for his young General was still officially a mere Privatus (Private Citizen) who had held no offices in the Cursus Honorum.
When Pompey demanded a triumphus for his African victories Sulla refused and demanded that Pompey must disband his legions. It was Pompey who now refused, presenting himself expectantly at the gates of Rome with his legiones.
Sulla finally gave in, making sure he held his own triumph first. Then Sulla allowed Metellus Pius his triumph, relegating Pompey to an extra-legal third place in a quick succession of triumphs.
Pompey attempted to upstage both his seniors by having his triumphal chariot towed by an elephant, representing his exotic African conquests, but the elephant would not fit through the city gate. Some hasty rethinking and planning was needed, much to the embarrassment of Pompey and amusement of those present.
The title Magnus was meant to insult Pompey and he himself used it only later in his career. Pompey’s career seems to have been driven by desire for military glory and disregard for traditional political constraints.
In any case, Sulla died in 78 BC and Pompey suppressed Lepidus, Sulla’s rival for Consul, on behalf of the Senate. Pompey then asked for Proconsular Imperium in Hispania to deal with the Populares‘ General Quintus Sertorius, who had held out for the past 3 years against Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, Sulla’s most able general.
The Roman aristocracy turned him down fearing the young, popular and successful general. Going with what he knew worked Pompey refused to disband his legions until his request was granted.
The Senate reluctantly complied and granted him the title of Proconsul with powers equal to those of Metellus, and sent him to Hispania. On his way to Hispania, Pompey spent a year subduing rebellious tribes in southern Gaul and organizing the province.
Pompeius Magnus campaigned in Hispania from 76-71 BC and found it difficult to deliver a crushing blow to the resilient King Sertorious. It seems Sertorious successfully deployed effective guerrilla tactics against Pompey’s forces on more than once.
Though Pompey was never able to decisively beat Sertorius, and he nearly met disaster at the Battle of Sucro, he won several campaigns against Sertorius’ junior officers and gradually took the advantage over his enemy in a war of attrition. Sertorius was significantly weakened by 74 BC, with Metellus and Pompey now winning city after city.
After Sertorious was assassinated by one of his own officers, Marcus Perperna Vento, Pompey decisively defeated the young general at their first battle in 72 BC. By early 71 BC, the whole of Hispania and southern Gaul knew of the efficient organization and fair administration in the conquered province by Pompey.
Sometime in 71 BC, Pompey set off for Italy along with his army. It was in Rome where Pompey captured 5,000 gladiator rebels led by Spartacus. This infuriated the very rich Marcus Licinius Crassus, who claimed that the credit should be directed at him as the rightful one who ended the rebellion.
Both Crassus and Pompey were awarded triumphs in Rome, and both were easily elected Consul in 70 BC. Two years after his consulship, Pompey was offered command of a naval task force to deal with piracy in the Mediterranean Sea.
Gaius Julius Caesar whipped up support for Pompey in the Senate and Aulus Gabinius proposed a Lex Gabinia. Over violent opposition, Pompey was granted control over the sea and the coasts for 50 miles inland. This set him above every military leader in the East.
According to Rome’s historians, pirates had freely plundered the coastal cities of Greece, Asia and even Italy itself. The fear of piracy was always potent and it was alleged that these same pirates had earlier assisted Sertorius.
By the end of that winter, the preparations were complete. Pompey allocated 1 of 13 areas to each of his Legatus, and sent out their fleets. According to Plutarch, by the end of the summer of 66 BC or 40 days, Pompey’s forces had swept the Mediterranean clear of opposition.
The grain supply was guaranteed and, once again, Pompey was a hero in Rome. He was hailed as Primus Inter Pares (the First Among Equals).
The expedience of his campaign probably guaranteed Pompey his next and even more impressive command, this time in Rome’s long-running war against Mithridates. In 66 BC, he was nominated to succeed as commander in the Third Mithridatic War against Mithridates VI of Pontus in the East.
Pompey’s command was proposed by the Tribunus Gaius Manilius, supported by Caesar and justified by Cicero in pro Lege Manilia. Like the Lex Gabinia, it was opposed by the aristocracy but was carried nonetheless.
At Pompey’s approach, Mithridates strategically withdrew his forces. Near Armenia, Pompey managed to surprise the Pontic Army by a daring nocturnal attack and all but destroyed it.
The King had no choice but to flee in disarray to his own dominions in the Cimmerian Bosporus. Pompey then advanced to Phasis in Colchis and liaised with his Legatus Servilius before decisively defeating Mithridates.
Pompey then retraced his steps, and in 64 BC marched into Syria, deposed its king, Antiochus XIII Asiaticus, and reconstituted this as a Roman province. In 63 BC, Pompey moved south, and established Roman supremacy in Phoenicia and Coele-Syria.
In Judea, Pompey intervened in the civil war between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. The armies of Pompey and Hyrcanus II laid siege to Jerusalem, and in 3 months the city fell.
In all, Pompey had annexed 4 new provinces to the Republic: Bithynia et Pontus, Syria, Cilicia, and Crete. Pompey’s military victories, political settlements and annexations in Asia created Rome’s new frontier on the east as far east as the Black Sea and the Caucasus.
In 61 BC, Pompey joined Crassus and Caesar in the unofficial military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate. Pompey and Crassus would make Caesar Consul, and Caesar would use his consular power to promote their claims.
Caesar’s consulship of 59 BC brought Pompey land for his veterans, confirmation of his Asian political settlements and a new wife, Caesar’s daughter Julia. Pompey was said to be head over heels in love with her.
At the end of his consulship, Caesar secured command as Proconsul in Gaul. Pompey was given the governorship of Hispania Ulterior, but remained in Rome to oversee the grain supply as curator annonae.
Despite his preoccupation with his new wife, Pompey handled the grain issue well. His political shrewdness was less sure as Clodius turned on him, thus recalling Cicero from exile in 57 BC for support.
With Cicero back in Rome as Pompey’s defender and Clodius’ antagonist, Pompey himself retreated to his lovely young wife and his theatre plans. Obviously such behavior was not expected of the once dazzling young general.
Pompey might equally have been obsessed, exhausted and frustrated. Some tried to persuade him that Crassus was plotting his assassination, while Caesar seemed set on outstripping both his colleagues in generalship and popularity.
By 56 BC, the bonds between the 3 men were fraying. Caesar called Crassus, then Pompey, to a secret meeting, the Lucca Conference, in the northern Italian town of Lucca to rethink their joint strategy. They agreed that Pompey and Crassus would again stand for the consulship in 55 BC.
Once elected, they would extend Caesar’s command in Gaul by 5 years. At the end of their joint consular year, Crassus would have the influential and lucrative governorship of Syria, and use this as a base to conquer Parthia. Pompey would keep Hispania in absentia.
As planned, Pompey and Crassus were elected as consuls in 55 BC, against a background of bribery, civil unrest and electioneering violence.
In 54 BC, Julia died in childbirth along with her baby. Pompey and Caesar shared their grief and condolences, but Julia’s death broke their family bonds.
The following year, Crassus, his son Publius and most of his army were annihilated by the Parthians at the Battle of Carrhae. Caesar, not Pompey, was now Rome’s great new general and the fragile balance of power between them were under threat.
With public anxiety spilling over, rumors circulated that Pompey would be offered dictatorship for the sake of law and order. After the deaths of Julia and Crassus, Pompey sided with the Optimates, the conservative faction of the Roman Senate.
However, trouble was brewing in the Triumvirate after Crassus was killed at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae, and Pompey was growing increasingly jealous of the huge military success Caesar was experiencing.
Caesar sought another matrimonial alliance with Pompey, this time offering his grandniece Octavia (the sister of the future Emperor Augustus) but Pompey refused. Once order was restored, the Senate and Cato avoided granting Pompey dictatorship.
Pompey was instead made sole Consul by the Senate giving him sweeping, but limited, powers. A Dictator could not be lawfully punished for measures taken during his office. As sole Consul, Pompey would be answerable for his actions once out of office.
While Caesar was fighting against Vercingetorix in Gaul, Pompey proceeded with a legislative agenda for Rome. Its details suggested covert alliance with Caesar’s enemies: among his various legal and military reforms was a law allowing retrospective prosecution for electoral bribery.
Caesar’s allies correctly interpreted this as a threat to Caesar once his imperium ended. Pompey also prohibited Caesar from standing for the consulship in absentia, though this had been permitted under past laws.
Finally, in 51 BC, Pompey was more forthright stating Caesar would not be permitted to stand for Consul unless he relinquished his armies. This would, of course, leave Caesar defenseless before his enemies.
As Cicero sadly noted, Pompey had been diminished by age, uncertainty, and his fear of Caesar and the strain of being the chosen tool of a quarreling oligarchy of Optimates. The coming conflict seemed inevitable.
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, however, with Caesar crossing the Rubicon and his invading legions sweeping down the peninsula, Pompey ordered the abandonment of Rome.
Pompey’s legions retreated south towards Brundisium, where he intended to find renewed strength by waging war against Caesar in the east. In the process, neither Pompey nor the Senate thought of taking the vast treasury with them. It was left conveniently in the Templum Saturni when Caesar and his forces entered Rome.
Barely eluding Caesar in Brundisium, Pompey crossed over into Epirus where he had gathered a large force in Macedonia during Caesar’s Spanish campaign. Comprising 9 legions reinforced by contingents from the Roman allies in the east, Pompey’s fleet controlled the Adriatic.
Nevertheless, Caesar managed to cross over into Epirus in November 49 BC, and proceeded to capture Apollonia. Pompey managed to arrive in time to save Dyrrhachium, and he then attempted to wait Caesar out during the Battle of Dyrrhachium, scoring a victory.
Yet, by failing to pursue at the critical moment of Caesar’s defeat, Pompey threw away the chance to destroy Caesar’s much smaller army. As Caesar himself said, “Today the enemy would have won, if they had a commander who was a winner” (Plutarch, 65E).
With Caesar on their backs, the Optimates led by Pompey fled to Greece. Caesar and Pompey had their final showdown at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC.
The fighting was bitter for both sides. Caesar, though, was determined the victor after the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, in which Caesar’s brilliant tactics and superior veterans defeated Pompey’s larger overall numbers.
On the island of Mytilene, Pompey met his wife Cornelia Metella and his son Sextus Pompeius to figure out where to go and what to do next. The decision of running to one of the eastern kingdoms was overruled in favor of Egypt.
After his arrival in Egypt, Pompey’s fate was decided by the counselors of King Ptolemy XIII. On the beaches of Pelusium, a day after his 59th birthday, Pompey was stabbed to death by his betrayers Achillas, Septimius and Salvius.
His head and seal were presented to Caesar, who mourned this insult to the greatness of his former ally and son-in-law. Caesar punished Pompey’s assassins and their Egyptian co-conspirators, putting both Achillas and Pothinus to death. Pompey’s ashes were eventually returned to Cornelia, who carried them to his country house near Alba.
In Appian’s account of the Civil War, Caesar has Pompey’s severed head interred in Alexandria, in ground reserved for a new temple to the goddess Nemesis, whose divine functions included the punishment of hubris.
The career and defeat of Pompey are significant in Rome’s subsequent transformation from Republic to Principate and Empire. He was a hero of the Republic, who seemed once to hold the Roman world in the palm of his hand.
Pompey was idealized as a tragic hero almost immediately after his murder. Plutarch portrayed him as a Roman Alexander the Great, pure of heart and mind, destroyed by the cynical ambitions of those around him.
As Caesar’s enemy in the Civil War, he was defeated several times. Some people see him as a mediocre commander. However, we shouldn’t forget his military campaigns in Spain and against the pirates, and especially his campaign against Pontos and Armenia.
Pompey’s military glory was second to none for a few decades. Pompey’s tactics were usually efficient, albeit not particularly innovative or imaginative.
At times, he was reluctant to risk an open battle. While not hugely charismatic, Pompey could display tremendous bravery and fighting skills on the battlefield, something which provided inspiration to his men.
Pompey still lives on today in Rome with his theatre that was inaugurated in 55 BC. It was Rome’s 1st permanent theatre, a gigantic, architecturally daring, self-contained complex on the Campus Martius.
It was complete with shops, multi-service buildings, gardens and a temple to Venus Victrix. The latter connected its donor to Aeneas, a son of Venus and ancestor of Rome itself.
In its portico, the statuary, paintings and personal wealth of foreign kings could be admired at leisure. Pompey’s architectural triumph carried on as an ideal meeting place for his supporters.
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.
We hope you enjoyed learning more about a great military leader of Rome. Come on back to see the last commander on Rome Across Europe’s Top 15 Roman Commanders.
Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Abbott, Frank Frost (1901). A History and Description of Roman Political Institutions. Elibron Classics (ISBN 0-543-92749-0).
Goldsworthy, Adrian. In the name of Rome: The Men Who Won the Roman Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2004 (hardcopy, ISBN 0-297-84666-3); New York: Phoenix Press, (paperback, ISBN 0-7538-1789-6).
Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Pompey (Loeb Classical Library, 1917).
Southern, Pat. Pompey the Great: Caesar’s Friend and Foe. Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Tempus Publishing, 2002 (paperback, ISBN 0-7524-2521-8).
Stockton, David. The First Consulship of Pompey, Historia 22 (1973), 205-218.