Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Pompey the Great: conqueror of the East

Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) (106 BC-48BC)
‘Sulla had given the Romans their first glimpse of what it might mean to be the subjects of an autocrat, and it had proved a frightening and salutary one. This was a discovery that could never be unmade.…What had once been unthinkable now lurked at the back of every Roman’s mind: “Sulla could do it. Why can’t I?”’ Tom Holland, Rubicon (2006), p. 109
The legacy of Sulla was therefor a bitter one. The sons of those who had been proscribed were excluded from political life, and the way was open for other ambitious men, many of whom had family connections with Sulla, to use the traditional venue to popularity- military victory- to force their way to power. 

These ambitions were played out against a background of thuggery and anarchy in Rome itself. By the mid 60s the city contained at least 750,000 inhabitants, a huge mass of citizen-freedmen, slaves and foreigners, many of them very poorly housed. This population had to be conciliated by regular supplies of food and, increasingly, by lavish entertainments put on by the politicians.

The rise of Pompey

Gnaeus Pompeius was the son of one of Rome’s principal officers during the Social War, who had died in disgrace following accusations of treachery.  Pompey served with his father and built up a strong personal following in eastern and central Italy.  When Sulla returned from the east, Pompey, who was married to his stepdaughter, joined forces with him.  He defeated his enemies in Africa so effectively that, while still in his mid-twenties, his troops acclaimed him, as ‘the Great’.  At his Triumph he was said to have tried to drive a chariot pulled by elephants through the city gates only to find that the gate was too narrow. In the 70s he enhanced his reputation by defeating Sertorius, a governor of Spain who had opposed Sulla, after six years of hard fighting. 


On his return from Spain he helped quell the remnants of the slave uprising in Campania led by the Thracian gladiator, Spartacus. The
Marcus Licinius Crasses
c.115-53 BC
Senate had initially entrusted the command initially to the ex-praetor, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a former subordinate of Sulla, who had became extremely wealthy during the prescriptions. Crassus finally cornered and killed Spartacus in Apulia in 71 BC, crucifying 6,000 of his slave followers along the Appian Way.  However, five thousand fugitives who managed to escape northwards were intercepted by Pompey, who thus claimed credit for finishing the war. It was he and not Crassus who was voted the full glory of a triumph, riding in a chariot pulled by four white horses, and he marked his success by adding two weeks of games to the celebrations.


Pompey exploited his successes to win the consulship for the year 70, even though he was six years under age and not a member of the Senate, whose powers he proceeded to undermine. Crassus shared the consulship with him in an unhappy partnership. During the following years, Crassus was content to remain at home and increase his wealth, but Pompey was anxious to increase his military reputation. 

Pompey and the pirates

His opportunity came in 67 when, over the heads of the Senate, one of the tribunes gave him a three-year command to suppress the pirates who were menacing Roman shipping, and even striking at Ostia, the port of Rome.  He was given an unprecedented force of 500 ships and 120,000 men and his command embraced the entire Mediterranean. Never before had the command of the Republic been so concentrated in the hands of a single man.  He destroyed the pirates in a three-month campaign.

Pompey in the East

Then, with the authority give him by another tribune, he moved east to deal finally with the threat of Mithridates VI, the ruler of Pontus. In the following months, he created the ‘Roman Near East’. He incorporated Pontus, turned Armenia into a client kingdom and in 64 BC the collapsed kingdom of Syria, with its great city of Antioch was taken over and made a province. He captured Jerusalem and caused great and lasting Jewish distress by walking into the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Following the conquests, he established a number of client states.  His boast was that 
‘he had found Asia on the rim of Rome’s possessions, and left it in the centre’. 
In 63 Mithridates committed suicide. Pompey's victory was complete.

Coin of Pompey the Great, proconsul
with the head of the King of Rome
Numa Pompilius

Too much power?

Pompey was able to claim that he had raised the revenue of Rome by 70 per cent. He had also increased his own revenue and could claim to be a richer man than Crassus.  There was considerable alarm in the Senate at his increased power, and for a while he was refused leave to return to the city. He finally entered it in 61 and his Triumph (his third) was held in September in unprecedented splendour.  However, he had returned to a city in turmoil.

3-D reconstruction of the Theatre of Pompey

Pompey was no revolutionary, but to conservative republicans, he seemed too much like a king. They resented the new theatre he had begun to build in the Campus Martius, that towered over the voting booths and seemed the symbol of his dominance of Rome. The opposition was led by the die-hard republican, M. Porcius Cato (Cato the Younger). Rome seemed to be heading for political stalemate.