Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey, was one of the most important Roman generals and statesmen of the late Roman Republic*. His military campaigns were so successful that his fellow Romans called him magnus (great) and compared him to Alexander the Great. Pompey extended Roman power in the East and cleared the Mediterranean Sea of pirates. His fame and popularity led to a fatal rivalry with another popular general, Julius Caesar, for control of the Roman world. Pompey’s defeat and death enabled Caesar to establish himself as dictator, or sole ruler, of Rome.
Pompey learned his military skills while serving under his father, another prominent Roman general. As a young man, Pompey led three legions* in Sicily and Africa in support of the Roman dictator Sulla. Despite his youth, he celebrated a triumph* in Rome. Recognizing Pompey’s military talents, the Roman Senate gave him a special command, later sending him to Spain as a proconsul*. Upon his return from Spain, Pompey helped the general Crassus crush the massive slave uprising led by Spartacus. For this latter success, he celebrated a second triumph. In 70 B.C., Pompey and Crassus served as consuls*.
In 67 B.C., Pompey accepted a special command that involved finding a solution to one of Rome’s most serious problems—piracy in the Mediterranean that threatened grain imports to Rome. He received virtually unlimited power to deal with this critical situation. Although the command was for three years, Pompey solved the problem in just three months. He commandeered ships from the navies of Rhodes, Marseilles, and other Roman allies. He then divided the Mediterranean and its shoreline into 13 zones, assigning a commander and a fleet to each one. The fleets then attacked the pirate hideouts within their respective zones. At the same time, he headed 60 ships eastward from Gibraltar, driving pirates into the arms of waiting Roman fleets or back to the main pirate base at Cilicia in Asia Minor. Trapped pirate ships surrendered in large numbers. With his land forces, Pompey attacked the pirates who fled to their home base. In just three months, Pompey had freed the Mediterranean of pirates, a feat that no other naval commander had been able to accomplish before.
The following year, Pompey was assigned another special command, this time to direct the continuing war in the east against Mithradates, the king of Pontus. Pompey defeated Mithradates, forcing him over the mountains to Crimea, where the king committed suicide. Pompey annexed* Syria, founded numerous colonies, doubled the revenues of the Roman treasury, and greatly expanded and strengthened the range of Roman sovereignty* in the east. The Romans considered Pompey’s eastern campaigns his greatest accomplishment.
* Roman Republic Rome during the period from 509 B.C. to 31 B.C., when popular assemblies annually elected their governmental officials
* legion main unit of the Roman army, consisting of about 6,000 soldiers
* triumph Roman victory celebration consisting of a procession by the victorious general and other notables to the temple of Jupiter
* proconsul governor of a Roman province
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
Upon his return to Rome in 62 B.C., Pompey celebrated his third and greatest triumph. He soon formed an alliance with Caesar and Crassus, called the First Triumvirate, and married Caesar’s daughter Julia. However, Caesar’s popular victories in the Gallic Wars increased the rivalry between the two men, which intensified after the deaths of Julia and Crassus in the late 50s B.C. Patricians*, worried about Caesar’s growing power, considered Pompey their best hope to stop him. When Caesar decided to fight for control of the Roman world, Pompey was placed in charge of government forces. The civil war reached its climax in 48 B.C., when Caesar defeated Pompey at Pharsalus in Greece. Although Pompey escaped to Egypt, he was shortly afterwards assassinated by local rulers hoping to earn Caesar’s favor. (See also Armies, Roman; Government, Roman; Triumvirates, Roman; Wars and Warfare, Roman.)
* annex to add a territory to an existing state
* sovereignty ultimate authority or rule
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic