Pompey Magnus: Butcher of Rome

 The year was 67 BC. Roman seas and coastal towns faced the bloody terror of the Cilician pirates.The presence of pirates disrupted trade and halted agricultural development, and destroyed many Roman lives. The people knew something needed to be done and there was only one man for the job: Pompey the Great.  

Pompey was a man of great accomplishment, a man whose triumphs were legendary throughout Rome, and a man wholly qualified to take on the ruthless Cilician Pirates. 

But Pompey was also a man obsessed with recognition and esteem, an obsession that caused him to use almost everyone he met for political advancement and personal gain, and an obsession that ultimately led to his demise.

This episode is brought to you by Famous Men of Rome. A collection of stories gathered from the chronicles of history and myth; it’s perfect for parents and teachers looking for a better experience for their younger students of classical history.

Education and Youth

Pompey was born into a prominent Roman family. His father, Strabo, was a quaestor, praetor, and eventually a consul. He was a great general, but it must be noted that he was politically deceitful and merciless towards his enemies, so much so that Plutarch wrote, “For never have the Romans manifested so strong and fierce a hatred towards a general as they did towards Strabo, the father of Pompey.”

During this time, Rome was entrenched in a Civil War between Marius and Sulla, two military commanders entrenched in war for control of the nation. Strabo supported Marius and fought fiercely in battle for him. Pompey served under his father’s command, learning the military strategies and gaining valuable experience in battle. However, he also learned to emulate his father’s opportunistic ways. 

During the Civil War, Strabo died of an unexpected illness. Unfortunately, when he died he was in the middle of being accused of stealing public lands. By Roman law, Pompey inherited the charges. Such charges could derail any Roman citizen’s political ambitions. However, Pompey spoke so impressively during his preliminary trial that  he was not only acquitted, but the judge also offered Pompey his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Following his father’s death, Pompey no longer felt that he would benefit from his allegiance to Marius. Instead, he saw an opportunity with Sulla, and began serving under the Roman leader. In just a short time, Sulla became enamored with Pompey and his potential, so much so that he too offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to Pompey. Pompey readily agreed, sensing an opportunity for political growth, and divorced his first wife in order to marry Aemelia. All this despite the fact that she was pregnant with another man’s child. 

Aemelia soon died in childbirth, but Pompey’s career continued to grow.

Pompey’s Triumphs

Sulla ordered the Senate to give Pompey the task of reclaiming Sicily and Africa from the Marians. Pompey accomplished this in just two brutal campaigns, barbarically executing the Marian leaders. He was so ruthless towards his enemies that they began to nickname him the “adolescent butcher”. 

Sulla gave him a different nickname, calling Pompey “Magnus”, or great. 

Pompey was not satisfied with these titles. He wanted all of Rome to know of his greatness, so he demanded that he be given a triumph for his success in Sicily and Africa. 

In Roman times, Triumphs were given to the best Roman generals in celebration of their military successes. Triumphs consisted of large parades and festivities. Some of Rome’s greatest celebrations ever took the form of Triumphs. In order to be given the glory of a Triumph however, the person being honored had to hold the office of dictator, consul, or praeter.

Now, Pompey had never held a major public office and was completely unqualified to be given a triumph. His asking for a Triumph was completely unprecedented, so Sulla initially refused his request. This did not deter Pompey. According to an account from Plutarch, Pompey threatened Sulla’s position, telling him that the people “worship the rising sun more than the setting”. Sulla immediately granted him his triumph. 

Pompey continued to have military success. With this success, he began to demand more and more recognition for his achievements. He became well-known throughout the Republic and was soon named consul, even though he had very little political experience and was younger than the age required for consuls.

Nevertheless, Pompey began his consulship. He served with Crassus, a man widely known as “richest man in Rome”. Although they initially worked well together, early into the consulship the two fought bitterly and were unable to accomplish anything significant during their term. Despite his issues with Crassus and relative ineffectiveness as consul, the people of Rome continued to shout the praises of Pompey. 

It was soon after Pompey’s consulship came to an end, Rome came face to face with the Cilician pirates.. The pirates had begun a long series of raids, attacking shoreline villages and preventing trade and passageway through the Mediterranean. The Romans knew Pompey’s courage and fierce style of fighting was their best chance against the pirates.

Pompey lived up to his reputation. He divided the Mediterranean Sea into 13 different sections, and sent a fleet to each district. Pompey himself took his fleet to the Strait of Gibraltar and began to sail upwards. As his fleet sailed north, they chased each pirate ship into one of the thirteen districts, where they were swiftly defeated by one of Pompey’s fleets. Pompey had created a trap for the pirates, one so successful that within three months all pirate vessels in the Mediterranean had been defeated.

Pompey demanded that he be given another triumph for his efforts, even though his accomplishment was outside the customary requirements for a Triumph. Once again, Sulla obliged.

Pompey would demand triumph one more time, this time for defeating The Poison King, Mithridates VI Eupator. This request was granted, and his legend continued to grow throughout the Republic.

Julius Caesar

It was around this time that another less well recognized Roman hero began to rise in popularity.. Julius Caesar was a young general seeing great military success in Spain. Pompey recognized his potential, and sought to become allies with Julius Caesar. The two became so close that Julius Caesar gave Pompey his daughter, Julia’s, hand in marriage. Caesar, Pompey, and Pompey’s former co-consul Crassus grew to be three of the most influential people in all of Rome. Caesar recognized the uniqueness of their three positions, and united the former enemies in a formal alliance, The First Triumvirate, that would secure their advancement in Roman public life. Caesar held control of the people, Pompey was the greatest military mind of the time, and Crassus held financial control in almost every aspect of Roman society. One would think that a powerful trinity like this would be nigh unbreakable. However, the Triumvirate was a bond not of union of mind, but rather an opportunity for each of the 3 men to benefit in their own respective right. 

However, as time went on Pompey began to grow very wary of Caesar’s personal military victories and admiration from the Roman people. As more citizens and soldiers flocked to Caesar’s side, Pompey’s jealousy grew, and the Triumvirate became less and less unified. This sentiment was strengthened when Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, died, and Pompey no longer shared the bonds of family with Caesar. When Crassus died not long after, the Triumvirate was completely broken.

Out of the remains of the Triumvirate, Pompey rose to seize full control of the empire, a goal many years in the making. Pompey’s first move was to order Caesar to disband his personal army. Caesar famously refused and a Civil War ensued. 

Pompey had the support of the Senate nobles, but it was Caesar who had the support of the people. Caesar marched towards Rome with his army, and the senate nobles fled. Soon, Pompey himself had no choice but to flee as well. 

His Death

Caesar pursued the nobles, defeating them in battle after battle. Eventually he reached Pompey, whom he finally defeated in an 8 hour long struggle at Pharsalus. Pompey again fled, this time to Egypt where he was brutally murdered by the Egyptian king. 

Pompey’s story is the story of a man who saw others as an opportunity to gain recognition and fortune. He viewed marriage as a tool of political advancement and used his mentors and friends to better his own position. He was obsessed with recognition, and was willing to break Roman law and tradition, his marriages, and his friendships to bring honor to his name.

Ambition itself is not a bad thing: In fact it can be a great engine for accomplishment. However, ambition must be rightly ordered. Ambition can be defined as a desire for honor. However, if one has an improper understanding of honor, or an understanding of honor without virtue, then his ambition turns to vice. When looking at Pompey’s treatment of his friends and allies, I am reminded of the famous scene in Macbeth in which Macbeth murders Duncan. Shakespeare described Macbeth’s feelings in that moment, writing, “I have no spur to prick the sides of my intent, but only vaulting ambition which o’rleaps itself and falls on th’other.”

Like Macbeth, Pompey had great ambitions and was willing to compromise his friendships and principles for those ambitions. His opportunism led him to great success, but because it was improperly ordered it was also the cause of his downfall.