Ancient History & Civilisation



Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus (c. 106–48 BC)

But it is as relevant to the glory of the Roman Empire as of one man to mention at this point all the names and triumphs of Pompey the Great, for they equalled in brilliance the exploits of Alexander the Great and virtually of Hercules himself.1

FROM THE EARLIEST DAYS OF THE REPUBLIC, ROMAN ARMIES WERE LED BY elected magistrates or men granted pro-magisterial imperium by the Senate. The decision to give the Spanish command to Scipio Africanus in 210 was exceptional given his youth, but was made legal by a vote in the Comitia Centuriata. It was an extreme example of the flexibility of Rome’s political system which permitted the relaxation of the normal regulations governing office-holding at times of crisis. The multiple consulships of Marcellus and Fabius Maximus, and the election of Africanus and Aemilianus to the senior magistracy when they were technically too young, were other instances of this willingness to bend the rules in the interests of winning a war. Yet, once the victory was won, public life rapidly returned to normal, and such careers became impossible, at least until the next emergency.

Even then it was only for a handful of gifted and popular individuals that the conventional pattern of office-holding could be altered. Marius’ run of five consecutive consulships was unprecedented, but essentially confirmed the principle that magistrates and thus commanders were chosen by the electorate, even if the latter were normally not expected to select the same individual repeatedly. No other senator was able to copy Marius and win election as consul even in two consecutive years, at least until the conditions of civil war effectively ended open elections. In this one respect – that simply because one man was given an extraordinary career it did not mean that all senators could expect to emulate him – Pompey the Great’s run of commands conformed to the spirit of the emergency measures which had granted early responsibility to Scipio. In every other important way his career was a radical subversion of the traditions of public life, for he ignored the cursus honorum and took his own path to fame.2

It began when the 23-year-old Pompey raised an army to fight in the Civil War. He had no authority to do this, for he held no rank or office and was simply a private citizen. In 210 Scipio had at least held the aedileship and was probably a member of the Senate, which Pompey most certainly was not, whilst Africanus’ command was formally conferred on him by the Senate and People of Rome. Pompey acted entirely on his own initiative, equipping his army and paying his soldiers from his personal fortune. Once the force existed, neither it nor its commander could be ignored. For more than a decade Pompey was employed first by Sulla and then by the Senate in a series of campaigns, culminating in the war with Sertorius. At no point during these years did he show any desire to embark on a more conventional career, preferring the greater responsibilities which he had assumed by his actions. In 70 BC he joined the Senate and became consul simultaneously, having already been awarded two triumphs. Still only 36, he remained active and was given even more spectacular commands in subsequent years. After such an unorthodox career, it is all the more surprising that Pompey ended his life as the apparent champion of the establishment against the maverick Julius Caesar.


Pompey was not a ‘new man’ – his father Cnaeus Pompeius Strabo had been quaestor in 104, praetor in 92 and consul in 89 – but nor was his family part of the well-established plebeian aristocracy, although they were certainly extremely wealthy, with extensive estates in Picenum. Like Marius, Pompey began life with only two names, for Strabo or ‘squinty’ was merely a nickname at the expense of his father’s appearance. Strabo played a distinguished role in the Social War, taking Asculum by siege during his consulship. Although his ability was widely respected, he was never a popular man, either with his soldiers or other senators, and the distribution of the spoils of Asculum reinforced his reputation for greed. When the Civil War broke out in 88 BC, Pompeius Strabo had no close connection with the leaders on either side, and his attitude was for a long time ambivalent. The Senate, presumably with Sulla’s support, had decided to replace Strabo with the other consul for 88, Quintus Pompeius Rufus, who may have been a distant relation. Rufus was delayed in setting out, and only with the army for just over a day before he was murdered by a mob of soldiers. Strabo was widely believed to have orchestrated the lynching and immediately resumed command of the army. In the following year he eventually sided against Cinna and Marius, but following an indecisive battle he died suddenly. One tradition maintained that he had been struck by lightning during a storm, another that he had fallen prey to a disease which had spread through the camp, but it is possible that his death had not been natural. Such was his unpopularity that his funeral procession was mobbed and the corpse desecrated.3

The teenage Pompey had served with his father’s staff since 89. Little is known about his activities during the campaign, but he did thwart an attempt by one of Cinna’s partisans to assassinate Strabo. In the confused aftermath of this failed attempt, the camp fell into uproar, and it was the 18-year-old Pompey who did most to rally the men and restore order. According to Plutarch he tearfully begged the soldiers to calm down and obey orders and, when a crowd of soldiers had begun to flee from the camp, he threw himself down in the gateway and defied the fugitives to trample over him. The youth was considerably more popular than his father, and most of the soldiers were shamed into returning to their tents. After Strabo’s death, Pompey returned to Rome where he was prosecuted for the misappropriation of much of the plunder taken from Asculum. Eventually it emerged that one of his father’s freedmen was chiefly responsible, but Pompey’s acquittal had as much to do with the skill of his advocates, his own good looks, confident bearing and ready answers, and, most especially, a secret betrothal to the judge’s daughter, Antistia. Word of this quickly spread, so that when the verdict was finally announced the watching crowd immediately bawled out the wedding-cry ‘Talassio!’ – a slightly crude Roman equivalent of ‘You may now kiss the bride.’ The atmosphere in Rome was very tense in the years when it was uncertain whether Sulla would return, and the city was an especially uncomfortable place for a man whose father had fought against the current regime. Pompey soon retired to the family estate in Picenum and remained there for some time.4

By 84 Cinna had begun more urgent preparations to meet Sulla’s invasion. Pompey decided to join his army, but was treated with considerable suspicion and soon returned to Picenum. Shortly afterwards Cinna was murdered during a mutiny by some of his own soldiers and supreme command assumed by the consul Cnaeus Papirius Carbo. In 83 news arrived that Sulla was at last en route to Italy, and Pompey resolved not to risk another rebuff from the Marians and to switch his allegiance to the returning proconsul. Quite a number of young aristocrats, especially those who had lost relatives in Marius’ and Cinna’s purges, would similarly join Sulla after he had landed at Brundisium, but Pompey was determined to stand out and not to arrive empty-handed. Cautiously at first, the 23-year-old began to recruit troops in Picenum. His own popularity, and doubtless a general reluctance to upset the wealthiest local landowner, ensured an enthusiastic response both from communities and individuals. Carbo’s agents were unable to stop the flood of recruits and were soon forced to flee. In a short time Pompey was able to organize some cavalry and an entire legion, appointing centurions and organizing it into cohorts in the proper way, and using his personal fortune to buy the necessary equipment and to pay the legionaries’ wages. He also purchased food and the transport needed for the army to carry its supplies. In time a further two legions would be raised and financed in the same manner. Everything was done carefully and in the approved manner, save for the essential detail that Pompey had no legal authority to raise any troops at all.

When he was ready Pompey began to march south to join Sulla. Several enemy armies attempted to intercept him, but the forces opposing Sulla were, as ever, dogged by divided and incompetent leadership. It should also be remembered that whilst Carbo and hisallies had raised an enormous number of troops – Appian claims some 250 cohorts – the vast majority of these were as raw and untrained as Pompey’s men. Threatened by three forces, each as large or larger than his own, Pompey gathered his legion together and attacked the nearest enemy, which included a contingent of Gallic auxiliary cavalry. The young, self-appointed general began the action when he personally led his cavalry into the attack. Singling out the leader of the Gallic horsemen who came out to meet him, Pompey spurred ahead and struck their leader down, just as Marcellus had once killed Britomarus. The death of their chief panicked the Gauls, who fled to the rear, spreading confusion amongst the rest of the army, which in turn dissolved into rout.

This was the first of several victories which Pompey would win before he had even reached Sulla and his main army. The welcome he received exceeded even his own hopes, for the proconsul dismounted to greet the young general, hailing him as imperator, the appellation traditionally awarded only to a victorious commander. Pompey became one of Sulla’s most trusted senior subordinates, and the latter never failed to rise from his seat or to bare his head as a mark of respect whenever his young ally appeared, honours which he notably failed to extend to many more distinguished men.5

Neither side in the war was paying much respect to precedent and law, for Carbo had himself elected consul again for 82, taking Marius’ son, who was not yet 30, as his colleague. In the spring Pompey was sent to Cisalpine Gaul to assist another of Sulla’s men, the proconsul Metellus with whom he would later serve in Spain. The two men won a number of victories in Northern Italy whilst Sulla himself took Rome. Some of Carbo’s Samnite allies lured him away and almost retook the city, but he managed to return in time to win a narrow victory at the battle of the Colline Gate. At one point during the fighting Sulla had ridden to his left wing, which was coming under heavy pressure, and was singled out as a target by two of the enemy. Intent on controlling the battle, he failed to notice the threat and could well have been killed had his groom not been more alert and whipped the general’s white horse forward to avoid the javelins thrown at him. The Roman style of command exposed the general to considerable danger, even when he stayed out of the actual fighting.6

His hold on Rome now firmly established, Sulla had himself made dictator rei publicae constituendae (dictator to restore the Republic), reviving the old supreme magistracy, but placing no six-month limit on its powers. The vengeance he wrought on his enemies was no less brutal than that of Marius and Cinna, but was in many ways far more organized. Samnite prisoners taken at the Colline Gate had been massacred en masse, but in Rome itself Sulla followed a more formal process and posted lists of names in the Forum. The men named in these documents were ‘proscribed’, immediately losing all their rights as citizens and making it lawful for anyone to kill them. The corpse, or most often the dead man’s severed head, had to be brought to the authorities as proof of death and many of these gruesome trophies soon decorated the Forum and other public spaces of Rome. Most of the victims’ property went to Sulla and the Treasury, but the dictator was generous in distributing such profits amongst his supporters and many of these became extremely rich. Later there would be many rumours of names being added to the proscription lists simply to satisfy personal hatreds or through sheer avarice.

The chief casualties of the proscriptions fell amongst senators and equestrians, because of both their political significance and their wealth. Afterwards Sulla enrolled many new members into the Senate, doubling its previous size to around 600. Over the next year or so he introduced a programme of legislation, reducing the power of the tribunes of the plebs and making this office less attractive to the ambitious by forbidding them to hold any further magistracies. The courts were reformed and the traditional restrictions on office holding and the activities of magistrates and governors either re-stated or strengthened. Sulla’s reform programme as dictator was the most comprehensive until Julius Caesar gained the same office following his own victory in a later civil war.

Yet on balance what is most striking is how little Sulla sought to change the basic nature of the Republic. For all the viciousness with which the leaders in Rome’s internal struggles fought each other, these conflicts rarely had any significant ideological basis. Men fought to seize power or to prevent it passing to a hated rival. Though some revolutionaries made promises of grants of land or abolition of all standing debts in order to win support, no one seems to have planned to change the way the Republic worked in any of its fundamentals. The chief aim was always for a leader and his associates to supplant those who currently dominated the State. Sulla won such a victory, and the cornerstone of his reforms was to pack the Senate with his partisans.

Although the Civil War was virtually over in Italy, Marian sympathizers continued the struggle in some of the provinces. Sulla sent Pompey to Sicily in the autumn of 82 and for the first time he was granted some official power when the Senate gave him propraetorian imperium. The campaign did not take long, for the Marian propraetor Perperna swiftly fled, but it was completed by the capture and execution of Carbo himself. Pompey incurred some opprobrium from the manner in which he treated the enemy leader, although the latter won only scorn through his failure to meet execution with the courage expected of a Roman aristocrat. There were other stories of the young commander relishing the licence derived from almost unrestricted power, but on the whole Pompey was believed to have behaved with more restraint than many of Sulla’s men.7

After Sicily he was sent to Africa, leading a massive invasion force of six legions. His forces landed at Utica just outside Carthage, which was now a Roman colony. Soon afterwards a group of soldiers dug up a hoard of Punic coins and the rumour swiftly ran through the camp that during the war with Rome many wealthy Carthaginians had buried their valuables for security. For several days all discipline collapsed as the legionaries went into a frenzy of treasure-hunting. It was an indication of the questionable discipline of many of the legions raised amidst the confusion of civil war. Their commander realized that nothing could be done to restore order and simply wandered through the surrounding plain, laughing at the furiously toiling legionaries. No more gold was discovered and in the end the men gave up their quest. Pompey announced that their self-imposed fatigue was punishment enough and at last moved the army against the enemy. A confused fight developed during a rainstorm, with Pompey’s men gaining the advantage, but being unable to exploit it. In the aftermath of this action the young commander was almost killed when he failed to answer the challenge of a nervous sentry – a risk which has been not uncommon throughout history and was always especially great with hastily raised troops. A decisive victory was won soon afterwards and Pompey made a point of fighting the battle bareheaded to avoid becoming a target for any more of his own men. He rounded off the African campaign by an enormous hunting expedition, declaring that even the animals ought to have a display of Roman power and skill.8

A dispatch arrived from Sulla instructing Pompey to remain in the province with a single legion and send the remainder of the army back to Italy. His soldiers saw this as a slight to their beloved commander and demanded that he lead them personally back to Italy. Pompey mounted the tribunal which was always built in a camp occupied for any time, and tried unsuccessfully to restore discipline. After a while he gave up and, tears streaming down his face, retired to his tent, but he was promptly hauled back on to the platform. Only after he had sworn an oath to kill himself if the legionaries did not give up their demands did the uproar finally subside, and even so he did actually accompany the troops back to Italy.

At first Sulla feared a renewal of civil war, but reports soon made it clear that Pompey’s loyalty had not changed. The dictator greeted his young protégé warmly, bestowing on him the title Magnus – ‘the Great’ – although Plutarch claims that Pompey himself did not employ the name for several years. Sulla may have been a little reluctant to grant the young commander the triumph he requested, but in the end relented. Pompey’s plans were grandiose, and probably betray a measure of immaturity, for he wanted to ride in a chariot drawn by elephants and was only thwarted in this ambition by the discovery that such a team could not fit under one of the main gateways on the processional route. A further problem came when the still unruly soldiers decided that they had not been given a sufficiently generous share of the booty and threatened to disrupt the parade. To counter this Pompey threatened to forgo the triumph altogether and deny them the honour of marching in procession through the city. The threat worked and this time the unrest quickly subsided. In the end the ceremony went well, but it was less the splendour of the occasion than the fact that Pompey had achieved it whilst he was still in his mid-twenties and had never held a magistracy that would be remembered. Scipio Africanus had not received a triumph after his victory in Spain.9


Pompey chose not to become a senator, although it seems certain that Sulla would willingly have enrolled him in his Senate. It would have been difficult for him now to begin the traditional cursus and seek such junior posts as quaestor or aedile, and so instead he preferred to remain outside conventional politics. This certainly did not mean that he lacked ambition to become a dominant figure in the Republic, but simply that he was pursuing this aim in his own unique way. His marriage to Antistia had been contracted for an immediate political advantage and in 82 the dictator decided that a similar bond was necessary to tie the young Pompey to him. The latter was instructed to divorce Antistia and marry Sulla’s stepdaughter Aemilia, who was already pregnant by her current husband. The blow was especially harsh for Antistia, whose father had been murdered because of his connection to Pompey and whose mother had committed suicide soon afterwards. However, marriage alliances were a traditional part of Roman political life and it was only in the degree of cynicism that this differed from many aristocratic weddings. The initiative came from Sulla, but Pompey appears to have displayed little reluctance to comply, for the match was certainly advantageous to both parties. The marriage proved to be of brief duration, for Aemilia died shortly afterwards in childbirth. Senators rarely remained single for long, and in 80 he wedded Mucia, a member of the distinguished Mucii Scaevolae family, and thus made another useful political connection.

For senators marriage was most often a matter of political expediency and greater affection was often bestowed on mistresses than on wives. Plutarch tells us that Pompey for a while carried on an affair with the courtesan Flora, whose beauty was such that she was used as a model for a portrait which Metellus Pius had placed in the Temple of Castor and Pollux – an early example of a practice which became common in the Renaissance. Flora is said to have boasted that the young general’s passion for her was so great that she could always show his toothmarks after they had made love. Yet even in this case, Pompey revealed the ambition of a politician who most of all wanted others placed in his debt, for eventually he passed Flora on to a friend of his who was also in love with her, but whom she had rebuffed on his behalf. His sacrifice was considered all the greater because he was still believed to be in love with her.

At times the young Pompey’s behaviour was more akin to that of a Hellenistic prince than a Roman aristocrat. He was widely considered to be extremely handsome, with a ready smile and knack of winning affection. Many likened him to the youthful Alexander, a comparison which is said to have pleased him deeply. Although he held no formal power and remained outside the Senate, he nevertheless wielded considerable influence. In late 79 he threw his support behind the electoral campaign of Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, who as a result won the consulship for the next year instead of Sulla’s preferred candidate. The latter may already have resigned as dictator and would soon retire to his country villa. His health was failing and he had only a few more months left to live, but malicious tongues claimed that he gave himself over to debauchery. Lepidus had openly proclaimed his intention of repealing much of Sulla’s legislation, especially his curbing of the power of the tribunate.

Pompey’s judgement of men’s character was often poor and his confidence in his own ability to control their behaviour misplaced. The reasons for his support of Lepidus are unclear, but the decision was soon to prove a serious error. When Sulla fell prey to a disease which, according to our sources who go into gruesome detail, caused his flesh to rot and his body to be covered in lice-infested sores, Lepidus tried to prevent his receiving the public funeral so important to senators. Pompey, whether through lingering affection for his former leader or through bitter memories of the mistreatment of his father’s corpse, was one of those who ensured that the funeral was carried out properly and not disturbed. Sulla’s ashes were interred in the Campus Martius, in a monument bearing an inscription of his own devising which declared that no man had ever done more good for his friends or more harm to his enemies.

Within a few months of taking office Lepidus was at the head of an army in open revolt against the Senate. Whatever link there had been between the two men had disappeared, for Pompey had not joined the rebellious consul and showed no reluctance to answer the call of a desperate Senate to march against him. He quickly raised several legions – once again largely from his home turf of Picenum and bearing most of the cost himself – and in a short campaign suppressed the rising. He captured and executed Lepidus’ senior legate, Marcus Junius Brutus (the father of the man who would lead the conspiracy against Julius Caesar in 44). Lepidus fled to Sardinia where he fell into despondency and died shortly afterwards. It was said that he was more depressed by discovery of his wife’s repeated infidelity than by the failure of his revolution. Many of the rebels, including Perperna, fled to Spain, where they would eventually join Sertorius. Italy was once again at peace, but Pompey showed a marked reluctance to disband his legions and return to private life. Lucius Marcius Phillipus, one of his oldest allies in the Senate, suggested that the victorious young commander should be sent to assist Metellus Pius in Spain. His case was greatly strengthened when both of the men elected consul for the next year failed to display any enthusiasm for taking up this command themselves. In the end the Senate accepted that they had little option other than to grant the province of Nearer Spain and proconsular imperium to the 28-year-old Pompey, for this offered the best chance of defeating Sertorius. Phillipus quipped that Pompey was not being sent as a proconsul (pro consule), but ‘instead of both consuls’ (pro consulibus).10

As we have seen, in Spain Pompey found himself up against a much tougher opponent than any he had faced in his earlier campaigns. ‘Sulla’s pupil’ was taught several sharp lessons by the Marian commander, especially in their early encounters. Yet Pompey learned from his experiences and consistently displayed his own superiority over any of Sertorius’ subordinates. In the end he and Metellus gradually forced their opponent back into a smaller and smaller section of the peninsula. Sertorius’ victories became less frequent, whilst he continued to suffer losses which he was unable to replace and his supporters, both Roman and Spanish, began to waver in their allegiance. The struggle in Spain was a grim war of attrition, waged with little mercy on either side. Excavations in Valencia have revealed a burnt level dating to the time when the town was captured by Pompey’s men. Within it were a number of skeletons. Some had died from wounds evidently inflicted during the fighting, but at least one – an older man who may well have been an officer – had been tortured and was found with a pilum thrust up his rectum. The war in Spain was long and caused much devastation and disruption to the settled life of the provinces. After its conclusion Pompey devoted considerable effort to reorganizing the province, founding such towns as Pompaelo (modern Pamplona) to encourage some of the more unruly hill tribes into a more settled and peaceful existence. It was not until 71 that he finally took his army back to Italy.11


Although free of civil strife since the defeat of Lepidus, Italy was not at peace. In 73 a group of some eighty or so gladiators had escaped from a gladiatorial school in Capua and taken refuge on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. Raiding the local area they were joined by many runaway slaves until their leader, Spartacus, found himself in command of a substantial and ever growing army. Little is known about this remarkable man, save that he was Thracian. Various sources claim that he had fought against the Romans and been captured, or that he had served as an auxiliary with the legions. Both might be true, although perhaps the second claim is a little more doubtful, as the Romans were fond of declaring that their most dangerous opponents were always those whom they had trained themselves, just as Jugurtha had learned how to fight when serving with Aemilianus at Numantia.

Whatever the truth of his origins, he displayed a genius for tactics, leadership and organization, turning his disparate mob of German, Thracian, Gallic and many other nationalities of slaves into a formidable army. The Romans first sent small forces against the slaves, but these were defeated. Then they mustered full-size armies under consular commanders only to have these just as thoroughly trounced by Spartacus, who with each victory captured more weapons and armour to equip his forces. In time the slaves established workshops to manufacture military equipment, trading the plunder they took from wealthy country estates for iron, bronze and tin. When both the consuls of 72 had been defeated, the Senate entrusted the main command against the slaves to Marcus Licinius Crassus, who had been praetor in the previous year. Crassus was another man who had sided with Sulla during the Civil War – both his father and older brother had been killed in the Marian purges. He served Sulla well, if not as spectacularly as Pompey, and commanded one of the wings of the army at the battle of the Colline Gate. A grateful dictator granted a good deal of property confiscated from the victims of the proscriptions to Crassus, who rapidly converted this into an enormous fortune through shrewd investments and business activity.

Crassus began his command in the Servile War by ordering the legions which had been routed under his predecessors to suffer the archaic punishment of decimation. One out of every ten soldiers was chosen by lot to be beaten to death by his colleagues. The surviving 90 per cent of the legions suffered a more symbolic punishment, being issued with a ration of barley instead of wheat and – at least in some cases – forced to lay out their tents outside the walls of the army’s camp. Such a brutal measure was an indication of the prevalent fear of the slaves as well as Crassus’ ruthless determination to succeed. To these two legions he added a further six of newly raised troops. The praetor defeated a group which had broken away from Spartacus’ main army, and then built an immense line of fortifications hemming the rest of the slaves into the toe of Italy. Spartacus managed to break out, but was finally brought to battle in 71 and defeated after a very hard fight. At the start of the action the former gladiator had slit his own horse’s throat – the animal had been captured from a defeated Roman commander and was of great value – to demonstrate to his men that he would not run away but would fight and die with them. The gesture was reminiscent of Marius’ decision to place himself in the front rank at Aquae Sextiae.

Plutarch claims that Spartacus was cut down as he tried to reach Crassus himself, having already killed two centurions who met him together. Most of the slaves were killed, but 6,000 adult male prisoners were taken. Crassus had them all crucified at regular intervals all along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua as a ghastly demonstration of the fate awaiting slaves who rebelled. With a society that relied so heavily on slavery, the thought that the slaves might turn on their outnumbered masters was one of the Romans’ darkest fears. Yet precisely because Spartacus had proved so formidable an opponent when alive, the threat he had posed was played down after his death. Crassus was denied a triumph and had to make do with the lesser honour of an ovation.12

When Pompey’s army returned to Italy he happened to run into and annihilate a group of several thousand slaves who had escaped Spartacus’ defeat. Showing a rather petty jealousy given the scale of his own achievements and the second triumph which he was soon to celebrate, Pompey claimed to have been the man who completed the Servile War. This only fuelled an existing animosity between the two men which dated back to Crassus’ jealousy of the more prominent place given to the other by Sulla. Pompey was now 35 and had decided at long last to enter formal politics by seeking the consulship. Crassus, who was eight or nine years older and whose career since the Civil War had been largely conventional, was also keen to seek the senior magistracy. Both men kept their armies not far from Rome under the pretext of waiting to march in their triumph and ovation respectively. Perhaps this was a barely veiled threat, perhaps it reflected each man’s suspicion of the other, but at some point in the last months of 71 the two successful commanders buried their personal animosity and announced a joint electoral campaign. The Senate swiftly realized that such a combination could not be opposed and permitted Pompey to stand whilst still below the legal age set down in Sulla’s law and both men to stand in absentia, since neither was permitted to enter the city until the day of their triumph and ovation. Pompey’s popularity and Crassus’ money, combined with their genuine achievements and, possibly, fear of their armies, resulted in a landslide victory. On 29 December 71 BC Pompey rode in triumph along the Sacra Via, entered into his consulship and became a senator all on the same day.13

There was one last act in Pompey’s transition to something approaching a legitimate place in Roman public life – a piece of political theatre of the type loved by the Romans. It was traditional for the censors elected every five years to make a formal record of any equestrians who had come to the end of their military service, recording details of their actions and formally praising or condemning their behaviour. By the first century BC this was a fairly archaic practice, since equestrians no longer provided cavalry for the legions and only a proportion chose to serve as tribunes or other officers, but diminishing relevance rarely caused the Romans to abandon traditional ceremonies. As the censors were engaged in this task a rumour spread that Pompey was approaching, accompanied by the twelve lictors which marked him out as a consul and leading a horse which symbolized the old military role of an eques. The consul ordered his lictors to clear a path for him to the censors, but such was the shock of the latter that it took them a moment to frame the traditional words enquiring whether a man had fulfilled his duty to the Republic. Pompey replied in a voice which carried to the watching crowd that he had served whenever the State had asked him to and had always done so under his own command. Amidst tumultuous cheering and applause, the censors formally escorted the consul back to his house as a mark of respect.14


The alliance between Pompey and Crassus did not last long, and their consulship was marked by a good deal of bickering. Pompey fulfilled his electoral promise to restore the power of the tribunate, removing the restrictions which Sulla had placed on this office. Since both consuls had just completed a successful war, neither showed any desire to take a province after their year of office was over. Pompey had now added political legitimacy to his wealth and prestige and was content for the moment with a position as one of the most prominent members of the Senate. He was soon to find, just as Scipio Africanus had done more than a century before, that a youth spent in the field and at the head of an army provided a poor schooling for the rough and tumble of Roman politics.

At the beginning of his consulship, he had asked Marcus Terentius Varro – descendant of the man who had lost the battle of Cannae and a noted polymath who wrote numerous and wide-ranging studies – to prepare him a manual explaining senatorial procedure and conventions. Now that he could no longer command obedience or defeat opponents in battle, Pompey found it difficult to get what he wanted by turning his prestige and wealth into real political influence. Crassus used his money with great skill, granting loans to the many senators who struggled to afford the high costs of a political career, and over time placed the overwhelming majority of the Senate in his debt. Pompey lacked the experience and instinct to do the same. His oratory was undistinguished and as time went by he spent less and less time in the Senate and rarely acted on behalf of anyone in the courts. He seems to have been very sensitive to criticism and hostility and preferred to avoid any damage to his prestige by staying out of public life. Yet after a few years he began to become frustrated that his great deeds did not seem to have brought him the permanent pre-eminence which he felt that they deserved. Like Marius he remembered the adulation of the People when he had returned to the city in victory and realized that only when fighting a great war did he truly outshine the rest of the Senate. Pompey began to look for another major war to fight and in 67 BC found his opportunity.

Piracy was a feature of life in the Mediterranean for most of the classical period. When strong kingdoms with powerful navies existed, it was usually reduced to a minimum or even for short periods eradicated. However, Rome’s defeat of Macedonia and the Seleucid Empire, combined with the inexorable decline of Ptolemaic Egypt, removed the fleets which had kept piracy in check in the eastern Mediterranean. Many of the coastal communities in Asia Minor, especially in Cilicia, Crete and the other smaller islands, took to raiding by sea, finding the rich profits of plunder and ransom a welcome addition to the meagre rewards of fishing and agriculture. The spread of piracy was further encouraged when Mithridates of Pontus gave the pirate chieftains money and warships to aid him in his war with Rome. In spite of coming from so many different communities and lacking any formal political hierarchy, the pirates appear to have rarely fought amongst themselves and often sent forces or money to aid those under threat. Travel became difficult – the young Julius Caesar was just one of the prominent Romans taken hostage and ransomed by pirates – and trade began to suffer. The population of Italy and especially the city of Rome had long ago expanded beyond the level at which it could be fed solely by home-grown produce and now relied on massive grain imports from Sicily, Egypt and North Africa. The pirates’ activities began to threaten this lifeline, causing grain supplies to diminish and prices to soar.

In 74 the Senate had sent the former praetor Marcus Antonius against the pirates. Antonius was given wide-ranging powers and considerable resources but, unlike his more famous son Mark Antony, had little ability and was defeated in a naval battle fought off Crete in 72. Antonius died soon after his defeat, and in 69 the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus was sent against the strongholds on Crete. He proved a competent commander, but the campaign involved besieging one walled town after another and progress was slow. In spite of his successes, the pirate problem became even worse, and in one instance two praetors along with their lictors and entire entourage were kidnapped as they travelled through a coastal area of Italy, whilst Ostia itself was raided.15

By 67 the shortage of grain had become critical and the tribune Aulus Gabinius proposed the re-creation of the massive province and extraordinary powers which had been allocated to Antonius. At first Gabinius made no mention of Pompey as the most obvious recipient of this command, but it is clear that there was already a close association between the two men. Cicero claims that Gabinius was heavily in debt and it is most probable that Pompey secured his support by assisting him financially. The Lex Gabinia was passed by the Popular Assembly and Pompey granted proconsular imperium not only over the Mediterranean itself, but for a distance of 50 miles inland. It is not entirely clear whether his imperium was equal or superior to that of any other proconsul whose province overlapped with his, but probably the former was the case.

To assist him he was given twenty-four legates – all of whom were to have held a military command in the past or at least to have been praetor – each assisted by two quaestors. His forces would eventually consist of a fleet of 500 warships, supported by an army of 120,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry, along with the money and resources of food and other essentials needed to maintain them. Many of these troops were probably not well-trained and disciplined legionaries, but hastily raised local levies. The figures may also have included existing garrisons in the provinces covered by Pompey’s extended imperium, who fell under his control for the duration of the campaign. In spite of its vast scale, this was to be essentially a policing action. Pompey needed numbers, so that he could put pressure on the pirates from all directions simultaneously, and only a small fraction of his forces were likely to face heavy fighting.16

Although Antonius had been granted similar imperium, it was only Pompey’s personal prestige which secured the enormous resources placed at his disposal, making this command utterly unprecedented in scale. Strikingly the command was secured for him by the tribunate, whose powers he had himself restored during his consulship. The manner in which this province was allocated to him conformed to the way that Marius had been appointed to fight Jugurtha, the Cimbri and Teutones, and Mithridates. Only a handful of generals possessed sufficient popular support to subvert the normal senatorial allocation of provinces and resources in this way. Such was the People’s faith in Pompey that the price of corn in the Forum is supposed to have fallen as soon as he was appointed. Even many senators who were reluctant to grant so much power to one man – let alone a man whose prestige and wealth already outstripped all rivals – seem to have acknowledged that this was the best way to deal with the scourge of piracy. Pompey’s legates were a highly distinguished group, consisting primarily of men from the old-established noble families.

Pompey’s strategy was made possible by the huge forces under his command, but was also a tribute to his organizational genius. The Mediterranean was divided into thirteen zones – six in the west and seven in the east, each commanded by a legate with military and naval assets at his disposal. The western commands were allocated to Aulus Manlius Torquatus, Tiberius Claudius Nero, Marcus Pomponius, Publius Atilius, Lucius Gellius, and Aulus Plotius who was entrusted with the Italian coast. In the east were Cnaeus Lentulus Marcellinus, Cnaeus Cornelius Lentulus Clodianus, Marcus Terentius Varro (the same man who had written the manual on senatorial procedure), Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, Lucius Sisenna, Lucius Lollius and Marcus Pupius Piso. These men were given strict orders not to pursue any enemy beyond the boundaries of the region allocated to them. Pompey himself was tied to no set area and kept a squadron of sixty warships at his immediate disposal. The role of the other legates is not specified in our ancient sources. Some may have been involved in supervising the enormous logistical exercise required to maintain this massive effort. It is also more than likely that others were given mobile squadrons like that commanded by Pompey himself to pursue pirate ships from one region to another.

In early spring of 67 the campaign opened in the western regions, which Pompey is said to have swept free of pirates in a mere forty days. The pirates, allowed to go about their business almost unmolested for many decades, were unprepared for his onslaught and gave way with little fighting. After a brief stop in Rome, where one of the consuls from 67 had been cheerfully attempting to undermine his authority and had ordered the demobilization of some of his troops, Pompey took his mobile command eastwards to deal with the pirates’ heartland. Here the fighting was expected to be tougher, but the pirates still appear to have been utterly wrong-footed and for all their teamwork in easier days, now tended to respond as individuals. Some tried to flee, but a growing number began to surrender. The Roman attitude to brutality was pragmatic, and now was not the time for mass executions. The pirates and their families were not mistreated, and many began to act as informants, providing the Romans with information to plan operations against other chieftains.

As word spread of the reception given to these men, more and more of the enemy gave themselves up. Pompey had prepared siege equipment for taking the strongholds along the mountainous coast of Cilicia, but found that almost all capitulated as soon as he arrived. Occasionally the pirates fought and were defeated, but their resistance swiftly crumbled. Florus describes ships’ crews throwing down oars and weapons and clapping their hands – the pirates’ gesture of surrender – almost as soon as they saw Roman galleys approaching. This time the campaign lasted forty-nine days. Pompey’s forces captured seventy-one ships in combat and had a further 306 handed over to them. About ninety of these were classed as warships and fitted with rams. An inscription set up to mark the triumph, and conforming to the tradition which required victory to be quantified as much as possible, claimed that 846 vessels were taken throughout the entire campaign, although this figure may well have included even the tiniest of craft.

Pompey’s treatment of his 20,000 captives showed a shrewd understanding of the causes of piracy, for he knew that they would swiftly resume their profession if allowed to return to their coastal communities. The old pirate strongholds were slighted or destroyed and the prisoners settled in more fertile regions. Many went to the coastal city of Soli in Cilicia, which was renamed Pompeiopolis, and became a prosperous trading community. The wholesale transplanting of troublesome warriors and their families to better land had been employed by the Romans before in Liguria and Spain and proved just as effective with the pirates. Raiding and piracy were not permanently eradicated from the Mediterranean, but they never again occurred on a similar scale to the early decades of the first century BC. Under the emperors the Roman navy would be established on a more permanent basis and fill the vacuum left by the decline of the Hellenistic powers.17

In the war against the pirates the Roman Republic had mobilized huge resources and, under the skilful command of Pompey, won a swift and, on their side, almost bloodless victory over numerous if disunited enemies. This was a considerable achievement of planning and logistics as much as fighting, and it was unfortunate that it ended with an incident which reflected less well on Pompey. In 67 Metellus was still operating against the pirates of Crete in a campaign which would earn him the honorary title of Creticus. Hearing of Pompey’s generous treatment of prisoners, representatives from a stronghold under siege by Metellus’ legions were sent to him in Cilicia offering to surrender. Pompey readily accepted, seeing this as further proof of his great fame, but Metellus resented any interference in his own war and refused to acknowledge this. The former sent one of his legates, Lucius Octavius, who is said even to have fought for the pirates against Metellus’ men, although this did not prevent their eventual defeat. The desire of both Pompey and Metellus to win sole credit for winning a war and to place this before the interests of the State was typical of the mentality of the senatorial élite. Yet in Pompey’s case it suggests a petty jealousy and refusal to allow anyone else any credit whatsoever, given that the scale of his own achievements was already so much greater than those of Metellus or indeed anyone else.18


Pompey spent the winter with his main army in Cilicia. At the beginning of 66 another extraordinary command was bestowed upon him by the Popular Assembly at the behest of a tribune, giving him control of the eastern Mediterranean and the ongoing war with Mithridates of Pontus, whom Sulla had defeated but not destroyed. Gabinius’ year of office was over and he was soon to be employed as one of Pompey’s legates, so this time the law was brought forward by one of the new tribunes, Caius Manilius. There was considerable support for the Lex Manilia both from senators and, especially, from the equestrian order. Marcus Tullius Cicero, who later published the speech he delivered in favour of the bill, declared that Pompey possessed in abundance the four chief attributes of a great general, namely ‘military knowledge, courage, authority and good luck’ (scientam rei militaris, virtutem, auctoritatem, felicitatem). When Pompey heard of his appointment he publicly complained that the State gave him no opportunity to rest and spend time with his family. Even his closest friends found this feigned reluctance embarrassing, for he had long desired to take the field against Mithridates and had certainly encouraged, even if he had not actually engineered, the political manoeuvrings which eventually gave this to him.19

In 74 Mithridates had overrun the Roman province of Bithynia and driven into neighbouring Asia. His opponent was Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the man who as quaestor in 88 had been the only senator to follow Sulla in his march on Rome. Lucullus was a strategist and tactician of truly exceptional talent, who, in spite of limited resources, consistently outmanoeuvred Mithridates and defeated his armies either in battle or through starvation. The invaders were expelled from the Roman provinces, and Pontus itself attacked. When the king formed an alliance with Tigranes of Armenia, the Roman army drove deep into the latter’s territory. Both Armenia and Pontus produced armies which were exceptionally large in numbers, but contained only a few units of real fighting ability. Tigranes is supposed to have joked that Lucullus’ men were ‘too few for an army, but too many for an embassy’, shortly before the legions cut his great host to pieces in a matter of hours.

By 68 the war seemed virtually over, but in spite of his skills as a general, Lucullus lacked the knack of winning his soldiers’ affection and was deeply unpopular with the army. He was also disliked by many influential groups back in Rome, in particular the equestrian businessmen whose companies operated in provinces. Lucullus had severely restricted the illegal activities of many of their agents, a measure which did much to win back the loyalty of the provincials to Rome. In 69 Asia was taken from Lucullus’ province, and a year later Cilicia was also removed and placed under the command of another. On the point of total victory, the Roman general was starved of troops and resources, whilst his own legionaries became mutinous. As Roman pressure relaxed, the enemy counter-attacked and in 67 the legate Triarius was defeated by Mithridates. Losses were heavy, with no fewer than twenty-four tribunes and 150 centurions falling. Such high casualties amongst officers may well indicate the need for junior leaders to take too many risks in an effort to inspire dispirited soldiers. In the aftermath of the battle Mithridates was almost killed by a centurion who mingled with the king’s entourage and managed to wound him in the thigh before being hacked to pieces by the enraged royal bodyguard.

By the end of the year both Mithridates and Tigranes had recovered most of their kingdoms, and Lucullus was left with a pitiful remnant of the forces he had once controlled. Even these had no great affection for him and refused his pleas to disobey the order which summoned these legions to join the newly arrived Pompey. Plutarch describes the Roman commander wandering the camp with tears in his eyes as he begged his men to stay with him. It was a rather pathetic end to the military career of a very able soldier. A meeting at which Pompey formally took over the command seems to have degenerated into a shouting match. Rather meanly, his successor only permitted Lucullus to take 1,600 soldiers – men so mutinous that Pompey considered them to be utterly useless for active service – home with him to march in his triumph.20

Pompey’s province included Bithynia, Pontus and Cilicia, and he was given all the resources which his predecessor had lacked, especially since he continued to hold the Mediterranean command granted by the Lex Gabinia. He also had the power to begin a new war or establish a peace at his own discretion. One of Sulla’s laws had forbidden a governor to lead troops beyond the borders of his own province without the express permission of the Senate, and Lucullus’ unauthorized invasion of Armenia had provoked some criticism at Rome, even though it made sound military sense. From the beginning Pompey was given far greater freedom of action. Whilst his fleet – apart from those squadrons still tied to specific regions – patrolled the Mediterranean coast and the Bosporus, Pompey mustered an army of 30,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry. Mithridates had about the same number of infantry, but 1,000 more horsemen, with him on the western border of his kingdom.

This region had been fought over several times during Lucullus’ campaigns and had been thoroughly devastated and plundered, and the Pontic army had difficulty finding food as they waited to meet the Roman invasion. Desertion was punished by crucifixion, blinding or burning alive, but in spite of such brutal punishments, the king lost a steady flow of men. Wondering whether Pompey’s lenient treatment of the pirates might be extended to him, Mithridates sent ambassadors to the Roman camp, only to be faced with a demand for unconditional surrender. As the supply situation grew worse, the king retreated into the interior of his kingdom. The Romans were better prepared, and as Pompey followed the Pontic army his legions were supplied by convoys bringing food from his bases back in the province. Mithridates sent his cavalry to strike at the Roman lines of communication, but although this caused some shortages it was not enough to deter his pursuers.21

By this time the armies had reached a part of the Pontic kingdom known as Lesser Armenia. It was a fertile area, largely untouched by war, but Pompey’s foraging parties had difficulty operating in the face of the confident enemy cavalry and his own supply dumps were now a great distance away. Mithridates had pitched his camp on high ground, making it unlikely that a direct attack against such a good defensive position would succeed. Pompey shifted his own camp into a more wooded region where the Pontic cavalry could operate less freely. The move encouraged Mithridates, who judged that his opponent had overextended himself and was now admitting his weakness. He readily accepted the challenge when Pompey sent forward most of his own cavalry to demonstrate outside the Pontic camp on the next morning. Mithridates’ horsemen attacked, and pursued when the Roman cavalry began to retreat. The Pontic troops were led on and on, until Pompey sprang his ambush. A force of 3,000 light infantry and 500 cavalry had been concealed during the night in a scrub-filled valley between the two camps. This force suddenly attacked Mithridates’ cavalry in the rear. Some of the Pontic horsemen were caught at the halt by the Roman infantrymen and, denied cavalry’s chief advantages of speed and momentum, were massacred. This brief action – in many ways reminiscent of tactics used by Sertorius against Pompey in Spain – shattered both the morale of Mithridates’ proud cavalry and the king’s faith in them.22

The precise chronology of the campaign is uncertain, but at some point Pompey was reinforced by the three legions which had formed the garrison of Cilicia, bringing his strength up to well over 40,000 men in spite of attrition suffered in the campaign. This gave him a marked numerical advantage over the king, but the latter showed no inclination to risk a battle other than from highly advantageous ground. Therefore, Pompey resolved to starve the enemy out of his strong position and, using his own increased manpower, constructed a ring of forts connected by a ditch and wall around the enemy army. The entire system measured almost 19 miles in length (150 stades) and compares to similar lines built by Crassus in Southern Italy and Caesar in Gaul.

The Roman army was now drawing its supplies from Acilisene on the Upper Euphrates, whilst the king’s foraging parties operated only under great risk of attack and ambush. Soon the Pontic soldiers were reduced to slaughtering and cooking their pack animals. Whether the Roman line of fortifications was incomplete or was designed to have some gaps in it because of difficult terrain, Mithridates was able to escape under cover of darkness, concealing his move by leaving fires burning in his own camp. As a further deception he had arranged a number of meetings with potential allies in the immediate future. Having thus skilfully disengaged, the king marched towards the neighbouring kingdom of Armenia, hoping to join forces with his old ally Tiridates. He seems to have continued moving mainly at night, relying on local knowledge of the paths, and camped each day in a position too strong for Pompey willingly to attack. The terrain was mountainous and such easily defensible positions were common.

Keeping pace with the king, but unable to catch him as he moved, Pompey sent patrols a considerable distance in advance of his troops to scout the routes through the mountains. These men discovered a pass which eventually led by a roundabout route to rejoin the path being followed by Mithridates. Pompey force-marched his army along the new path, gambling on being able to move fast enough to get behind the king. As usual he marched by day, driving his men on over the rugged terrain under the hot sun. His legionaries must have been very weary by the time they began to take up ambush positions in a narrow defile through which the main road passed. Mithridates was unaware of the Roman move, and may even have dared to hope that the Romans had given up the chase altogether. At nightfall his army continued its retreat in its usual manner, the column a disorganized mixture of units, individuals and baggage, and encumbered with wives, servants and other camp followers so that it was in no way prepared to resist attack.

As soon as the enemy army was fully in the defile Pompey sprang his ambush, ordering his trumpeters to blare out their challenge whilst the legionaries yelled their war cry and drummed their weapons against their shields, and the army’s servants clashed cooking pots with anything else metal that they could find. The deluge of noise was immediately followed by a barrage of missiles – pila, javelins, arrows and even stones rolled or hurled down the slope. Then the Romans charged into the panicking mass. The moon was behind them and its eerie light cast long shadows ahead of the legionaries, causing those few of the enemy who attempted to resist to misjudge the range and throw their own javelins too soon. In some places the crowd was so densely packed that men could neither escape nor fight and were cut down where they stood.

A few of the Pontic soldiers resisted bravely, but the issue was never in doubt and Mithridates’ army was almost destroyed. Plutarch and Appian both say that 10,000 men were killed and others, along with the baggage train, captured. The king escaped with a small body of cavalry and later joined up with a few thousand foot soldiers. Plutarch claims that at one point he had only three companions, one of them his concubine Hypsicrates, whose masculine nickname had been won by the bravery with which she fought in battle on horseback. The king fled to his stronghold at Sinora, where he had stored many valuables, some of which he used to reward those followers who were still loyal. When Tigranes refused the fugitives admission to Armenia and placed a price on his head, Mithridates fled to the northernmost part of his realm in the Crimea, taking the land route round the eastern shore of the Black Sea to avoid the Roman fleet patrolling its waters.23

Pompey sent only a small force after the king, and even this soon lost contact. His priority now was to deal with Tigranes and Armenia. A Parthian invasion, encouraged by Roman diplomacy and supported by his rebellious son who was also called Tigranes, had prevented the king from aiding his ally and son-in-law Mithridates. In spite of his age – he was now well into his seventies – Tigranes had repelled the invaders when they attacked his main fortress of Artaxata. Yet as Pompey’s army advanced against him, he seems quickly to have decided that it was better to seek peace, even if this meant giving up some land and power. After initial negotiations, the king came in person to the Roman camp to surrender. Obeying the instruction to walk on foot rather than ride up to the tribunal on which Pompey sat, Tigranes then threw down his royal diadem and sword. Such an open admission of utter helplessness in the face of Roman power, and of willingness to trust to whatever mercy they chose to extend, was a highly proper conclusion to one of Rome’s wars, and Pompey readily seized the chance to display his clemency in victory. The king was ordered to pay Rome an indemnity of 6,000 talents, but was allowed to retain all of the territory which he still controlled. The outcome delighted Tigranes, who paid on his own initiative a bounty to each of Pompey’s soldiers, with considerably larger sums for the centurions and tribunes. His son had joined Pompey after the failure of the Parthian invasion, but was dismayed to be given only the rule of Sophene. Soon afterwards he became rebellious and was imprisoned by the Romans.24

Pompey had driven Mithridates from his kingdom and received Tigranes’ surrender in his first year of operations. If the speed of his success owed much to the victories won by Lucullus in previous years, this should not entirely detract from the skill with which Pompey had fought the campaign. By the end of the campaigning season of 66 when his main army divided into three and constructed camps for the winter, the Roman general was beginning to consider how he might best use the great resources placed at his disposal to win further glory on the Republic’s behalf. In December the army’s winter quarters were suddenly attacked by King Oroeses of Albania. The assaults failed, and Pompey took a column in pursuit of the retreating enemy, inflicting heavy losses on them when he caught their rearguard crossing the River Cyrus. Deciding that this punishment was enough for the moment and reluctant to embark on further winter operations for which he had not had time to prepare, he then returned his men to camp.

In the following spring he discovered that Oroeses’ neighbour, King Artoces of Iberia, was also preparing to attack him, and decided to launch an immediate pre-emptive strike. Pushing down the valley of the River Cyrus he reached the strong fortress of Harmozica before the bulk of Artoces’ army had advanced to support the position. With only a small force at his immediate disposal, the king retreated, burning the bridge over the Cyrus behind him, a move which prompted the garrison of Harmozica to surrender after a brief resistance. Leaving a force of his own to control both the city and the pass, Pompey pushed on into the more fertile lands beyond. Artoces continued to retreat, in one case even after he had begun negotiations with the Romans. In a repeat of the previous summer’s campaign against Mithridates, Pompey force-marched his legions to get behind the king and cut off his retreat. The result was a battle rather than an ambush, but the Roman victory was just as complete. The Iberian army included large numbers of archers, but Pompey ordered his legionaries to charge at speed, ignoring the loss of formation and order this entailed, swiftly closing the range and sweeping the enemy bowmen away. Artoces is said to have lost 9,000 dead and 10,000 captured and capitulated soon afterwards.25

From Iberia Pompey now turned west towards Colchis and the Black Sea coast. Nature, more than any human foe, was the chief obstacle in this stage of the campaign, as his army marched through the rugged Meschian mountains. Strabo tells us that his men constructed 120 bridges to cross the river winding through the valley. One of the most marked differences between the professional legions of the Late Republic and their predecessors produced by the old militia system was their much greater technical and engineering skill. Spectacular feats of building roads through apparently impassable terrain and bridging rivers were celebrated almost as much as victories won by the army in battle. On reaching the Black Sea Pompey discovered that Mithridates had reached the Crimea and, never one to be daunted by repeated failure, was once again seeking to build up his power for a renewal of war with Rome. Judging that the fleet was sufficient to contain and blockade the king, the main Roman army moved on once more. Pompey had decided that the Albanians deserved another and greater display of Roman might and invaded King Oroeses’ realm. The legions forded the River Cyrus, a line of cavalry horses stationed upstream to provide some protection from the fast-flowing water for the men on foot and the baggage animals. The advance to the next obstacle, the River Cambyses, proved difficult, especially when the local guides led them astray – always a danger when operating in previously unknown terrain. Few maps existed in the ancient world, and scarcely any contained information detailed enough for an army to plan its movements – but eventually the river was reached and crossed without opposition.

Oroeses had mustered a sizeable army, numbering some 60,000 foot and 22,000 horse according to Strabo, although Plutarch gives the number of cavalry as 12,000. Roman numbers are not stated in our sources, but may well have been substantially less than the 40,000–50,000 Pompey had mustered against Mithridates in the previous year. Many troops were needed to act as garrisons or to mop up the last fragments of resistance in the recently conquered territory, whilst the problems of supplying men and animals in the often difficult terrain anyway discouraged the use of too large a force. Pompey may have had a force half the size of the one he had led in 66 and could well have been heavily outnumbered by the Albanians. The latter certainly had an advantage in cavalry, some of whom were heavily armoured cataphracts, and Pompey needed to find a way of dealing with these as the king, obviously intent on forcing a pitched battle, advanced to meet him.

Throwing out his own horsemen as a screen, he advanced down on to a level plain flanked by hills. Some of his legionaries were concealed in defiles on this high ground, the men covering their bronze helmets with cloth to prevent the sun from reflecting on the metal and giving away their position. Other cohorts of legionaries knelt down behind the cavalry, so that they could not be seen from the front. Oroeses advanced against what seemed to be no more than a line of horsemen. Pompey repeated another tactic he had used against Mithridates, ordering his cavalry to attack boldly and then, feigning panic, to withdraw. The Albanian cavalry pursued them eagerly, confident both in their own numbers and in their individual superiority, and as they did so lost much of their order. The Roman auxiliary horsemen retired through the gaps between the infantry cohorts, which then stood up. Suddenly the Albanians were faced with a fresh and well-formed line of infantry who came forward against them, yelling their battle cry. Behind the legionaries the Roman cavalry rallied and moved round behind the line to attack the enemy flanks, whilst more cohorts emerged from the concealing defiles to threaten the enemy rear. The position of the Albanian army was hopeless, but in spite of this the warriors appear to have fought very hard. One account claims that Pompey fought hand-to-hand with the king’s brother and killed him in the best traditions of Alexander the Great or Marcellus. Although a hard fight, the battle proved decisive, for Oroeses soon accepted the peace terms imposed on him.26


After the victory in Albania, Pompey began to march towards the Caspian Sea, but is said to have turned back when only three days’ journey from its shores, according to Plutarch deterred by lands infested with poisonous snakes. Instead he returned to Pontus where most of Mithridates’ strongholds had now been reduced or persuaded to surrender, yielding enormous spoils. Along with the gold, silver and artwork, one stronghold yielded detailed accounts of the murders of family members and collections of passionate love letters written to concubines, as well as the Pontic king’s collection of biological specimens and his scientific studies, which the general ordered one of his freedmen to translate into Latin. After this Pompey annexed Syria, dissolving the last remnants of the Seleucid monarchy which had briefly returned after Tigranes’ withdrawal from the area. A civil war raging in the Hasmonean kingdom of Jerusalem prompted Roman intervention, and Pompey captured the city after a three-month siege, much of the fighting taking place in and around the great Temple. The first man over the wall in the final successful assault was Faustus Cornelius Sulla, the dictator’s son. After the storming, Pompey and his senior officers entered the Holy of Holies inside the Temple, following the Roman urge to be the first to do anything, but out of respect removed nothing from it.

This was followed in 63 by a campaign against the Nabataean Arabs whose capital was at Petra, but on his way to besiege the city Pompey was halted by the arrival of a courier carrying a report of Mithridates’ death. The army had not yet completed the construction of its marching camp and there was no tribunal from which the commander could address his men. Instead, the soldiers heaped up pack saddles into a mound and Pompey announced the news to the ecstatically cheering legionaries who hailed him asimperator for this completion of his victory. Mithridates, at last despairing of his ability to rebuild his strength and return to glory and power when most of his officers and his own son turned against him, had ordered a Galatian bodyguard to kill him, since years of dosing himself with antidotes to poison had rendered him immune to its effects.27

The war which Pompey had been sent to the east to fight was now over. For the last two years it had effectively provided a pretext for other operations against peoples of the same general area, but Pompey seems to have achieved just about all that he wanted to do. He had, for instance, declined opportunities for starting a war with Parthia, perhaps aware that this empire was more powerful and militarily strong than any of the opponents whom he had faced so far and could not be defeated in anything other than a long war. Pompey had won fame and glory enough in a region associated with Alexander, the greatest conqueror of all. Although the fighting was at an end, his task was not complete. More than a year was still to be spent on the reordering of the eastern Mediterranean. Provinces were organized, cities founded or re-founded – including Nicopolis, dedicated to Nike the Greek god of victory and intended to commemorate the defeat of Mithridates – and client kingdoms regulated. Many aspects of Pompey’s settlement would endure until the end of Roman rule in the region. The scale of his activity was massive and once again a testament to his genius for organization. In a sense Pompey personified Roman imperialism, where destructive and ferocious war-making was followed by the construction of stable empire and the rule of law. Later in the first century BC the poet Virgil would have Jupiter state that it was Rome’s destiny ‘to spare the conquered and overcome the proud in war’ (parcere subiectis et debellare superbos), imposing law and order on the world. From the Roman perspective, that was essentially what Pompey had done.28


In 62 Pompey landed in Brundisium. In the months before his arrival some senators are said to have been concerned that he might seize power by force just as Sulla had done after his war with Mithridates. Crassus conspicuously left Rome and took his family to a rural estate, although this seems likely to have been a gesture intended to add to the growing hysteria rather than motivated by genuine fear. Yet the circumstances were in no way like 83, for there were no armed opponents waiting for Pompey, and the returning general soon made it clear that he had no wish to become dictator. Instead he came back to Rome and, after celebrating a spectacular two-day triumph in late September which commemorated both the pirate campaign and all his eastern wars, disbanded his legions. In later years he would use some of the spoils from the war to construct Rome’s first stone theatre – a complex of buildings greater in scale than any previous triumphal monument. His achievements as a general dwarfed those of any senator alive, and indeed of all but a handful of those in former generations. It was noted that his three triumphs commemorated victories on different continents – Africa, Europe and Asia.

Yet Pompey’s homecoming was not entirely happy. Almost immediately he divorced his wife, who had been scandalously unfaithful during his absence, but for a while he failed to find a suitably well-connected replacement. The fear which had preceded the victorious commander’s return soon turned to hostility as senators began to resent any individual having so much prestige and looked for means of clipping his wings. He was criticized for attempting to bribe the electorate into voting for one of his former legates, Lucius Afranius, in the race for the following year’s consulship. More importantly he failed to secure the formal ratification of his Eastern Settlement or to have grants of land made to those veterans from his army whom he had not already settled in Asia. Neither proposal was at all unreasonable or contrary to the Republic’s best interests, but still many of the most influential senators chose to thwart them and, once again, Pompey’s inexperience as a political operator made it difficult for him to get what he wanted at Rome.

In the end he was forced into more desperate measures and, sometime in 61–60, he formed a secret political alliance with his old rival Crassus and Caius Julius Caesar. To strengthen the bond Pompey married Caesar’s daughter Julia, and in spite of the huge age difference the marriage proved to be an extremely happy one. At first the political association was equally successful. Supported by the money and influence of the other two, Caesar won the consulship in 59 and during his year of office confirmed the Eastern Settlement in law and distributed land to Pompey’s veterans. He also set himself on the road to rivalling Pompey’s wealth and military record. Just over a decade later the Roman Republic would once again be plunged into civil war when these two former allies fought for supremacy.

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