Pompey: What Have You Done for Me Lately?

By David Trumbull COPYRIGHT, 2005

. . . sir, we make holiday,
to see Caesar and to rejoice in his triumph.
. . .
O you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome,
Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft
Have you climb'd up to walls and battlements,
To towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops,
Your infants in your arms, and there have sat
The livelong day, with patient expectation,
To see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome:
And when you saw his chariot but appear,
Have you not made an universal shout,
That Tiber trembled underneath her banks,
To hear the replication of your sounds
Made in her concave shores?
And do you now put on your best attire?
And do you now cull out a holiday?
And do you now strew flowers in his way
That comes in triumph over Pompey's blood? Be gone!

--Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene 2.

Pompey the Great (106-48 B.C.) was from a plebian family and his father was ill-regarded of the people. However, Pompey quickly overcomes his origins by matching his noble character to his good looks. As was normal for a Roman youth, he enters military service and it is the dictator Sylla, pleased with Pompey's conduct of the wars, who honors him with the attribution "The Great." He is honored with a triumph in Rome and as Sylla's power is on the decline; that of Pompey is ascendant. (Life of Pompey, 13-14).

Civil war yet again rends the Roman Empire as Sertorius battles on in Spain. Pompey goes to Spain to put down Sertorius' rebellion. Pompey pacifies Spain; destroys certain treasonous letters he finds lest they become the occasion of continued civil war. (Life of Pompey, 17-20).

In the meantime Sertorius died, being treacherously murdered by some of his own party; and Perpenna, the chief among them, took the command, and attempted to carry on the same enterprises with Sertorius... Pompey therefore marched directly against, Perpenna... Pompey appeared suddenly with all his army and joining battle, gave him a total overthrow... Pompey guided by a high minded policy and a deliberate counsel for the security of his country. For Perpenna, having in his custody all Sertorius's papers, offered to produce several letters from the greatest men in Rome, who, desirous of a change and subversion of the government, had invited Sertorius into Italy. And Pompey, fearing that these might be the occasion of worse wars than those which were now ended, thought it advisable to put Perpenna to death, and burnt the letters without reading them. --Life of Pompey, 20.

Pompey returns to Italy to find the country convulsed by the slave rebellion of Spartacus. Pompey and Crassus share in the victory over Spartacus. He enjoys a second triumph. (Life of Pompey, 21).

While Rome wearied herself in civil war pirates seized control of the seas. Pompey is sent out to suppress the pirates, under a proposal to grant him broad powers at sea and up to 50 miles inland. Pompey receives command of the mission to put down the pirates in 67 B.C. He delftly deflects the envy that this grand appointment was bound to engender.

The assembly broke up for that day; and when the day was come, on which the bill was to pass by suffrage into a decree, Pompey went privately into the country; but hearing that it was passed and confirmed, he resumed again into the city by night, to avoid the envy that might be occasioned by the concourse of people that would meet and congratulate him. The next morning he came abroad and sacrificed to the gods, and having audience at an open assembly, so handled the matter that they enlarged his power, giving him many things besides what was already granted, and almost doubling the preparation appointed in the former decree. --Life of Pompey, 26.

He shrewdly gets some of the pirates to turn themselves in and betray their fellows, having received from Pompey an offer of mercy. In the space of three months Pompey ends the threat from piracy. (Life of Pompey, 24-28).

Pompey celebrates his third triumph having subdued to Rome Africa, Europe, and Asia. Like Alexander, Pompey has conquered the world before he was forty years old. However, Pompey's figure turns tragic, as his undoing arises from the very things that made him great. Julius Caesar is beginning his ascent to great power and he needs Pompey as a prop. Caesar reconciles Pompey and Crassus, who have regarded each other with mistrust ever since the expedition against Spartacuc. Having the united support of Pompey the most successful general and hero of the people, and Crassus the richest man in Rome and champion of the aristocracy, Caesar is without effective opposition.

For [Caesar] well knew that opposite parties or factions in a commonwealth, like passengers in a boat, serve to trim and balance the unready motions of power there; whereas if they combine and come all over to one side, they cause a shock which will be sure to overset the vessel and carry down everything. And therefore Cato wisely told those who charged all the calamities of Rome upon the disagreement betwixt Pompey and Caesar, that they were in error in charging all the crime upon the last cause; for it was not their discord and enmity, but their unanimity and I friendship, that gave the first and greatest blow to the commonwealth. --Life of Pompey, 47.

As popular leader Caesar enjoys unquestioning support and the older leaders, Pompey and Lucullus, begin to retire from public affairs. His way being now open, Caesar begins, publicly, to seek honors such as those enjoyed by Pompey. And Pompey, lead on by flatterers, is seized with the desire to bring down Caesar whose great power Pompey has heretofore done so much to promote.

For Pompey, yielding to a feeling of exultation...and abandoning that prudent temper which had guided him hitherto to a safe use of all his good fortune and his successes, gave himself up to an extravagant confidence in his own, and contempt of Caesar's power; insomuch that he thought neither force of arms nor care necessary against him, but that he could pull him down much easier than he had set him up... --Life of Pompey, 57.

And Pompey begins to listen to flatterers who lead him on:

...telling Pompey, that he was unacquainted with his own strength and reputation, if he made use of any other forces against Caesar than Caesar's own; for such was the soldiers' hatred to Caesar, and their love to Pompey so great, that they would all come over to him upon his first appearance. By these flatteries Pompey was so puffed up, and led on into such a careless security, that he could not choose but laugh at those who seemed to fear a war; and when some were saying, that if Caesar should march against the city, they could not see what forces there were to resist him, he replied with a smile, bidding them be in no concern, "for," said he, "whenever I stamp with my foot in any part of Italy, there will rise up forces enough in an instant, both horse and foot." --Life of Pompey, 57.

And so The great struggle between Caesar and Pompey begins. And when Caesar crosses the Rubicon, and all Rome is confused, Pompey, the senate, and consuls flee the city. This allows Caesar to enters Rome peacefully, allaying fears that he will be another bloody dictator on the model of Sylla. And when Caesar pursues Pompey, Pompey flees Italy, abandoning the field to Caesar (while calling it a tactical retreat). Thus, Caesar is, within 60 days and with no bloodshed, master of Italy.

Pompey raises a great and glorious army and many of the best citizens flock to him. But Pompey is overly cautious of engaging Caesar's army. He pursues Caesar, aiming to harass and wear him down rather than risking an assault. We may question whether Pompey is merely timid or is executing a cunning strategem, but as long as he pursued this course Caesar was denied the out right victory that he needed to consolidate his power. However, Pompey, fatefully, abandons his well-considered plan to follow the cries of flatterers and of the mob who urge him on to combat at Pharsalia in 48 B.C. Plutarch observes that it was not fated that Pompey should fight and lose to Caesar at Pharsalia. Pompey had more resources and could have delayed engaging until at a more favorable place, but he allowed himself to be swayed by faulty counsel.

Heaven had not appointed the Pharsalian fields to be the stage and theater upon which they should contend for the empire of Rome, neither was he summoned thither by any herald upon challenge, with intimation that he must either undergo the combat, or surrender the prize to another. There were many other fields, thousands of cities, and even the whole earth placed at his command, by the advantage of his fleet, and his superiority at sea...Pompey, whose error had been occasioned by others, found those his accusers whose advice had misled him. --Comparison Pompey with Agesilaus, 4.

After the defeat at Pharsalia, Pompey flees to Egypt where one of his own men basely kills him on the orders of the Egyptian king.

Here Ends Trumbull's Summary of the Life of Pompey.