Pompey was the son and heir of Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, an extremely wealthy man from the Italian city of Picenum. Their branch of the Pompeii family was traditionally provincial, making them the inevitable subject of prejudice from the Roman elite. Strabo was an important general and the first senator of the family, being elected consul in 89 BC. Pompey grew up with his father in the military camps, involved in army and political affairs. According to Plutarch, a notorious Pompey fan, he was a popular teenager, considered a look alike of Alexander the Great. It was during this time that Pompey developed a friendship with Marcus Tullius Cicero.
Strabo died in the conflicts between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, leaving young Pompey in control of his affairs and fortune. Despite his youth, Pompey sided with Sulla after his return from the Mithridatic War in 83 BC. In Rome, Sulla was expecting trouble with the Cinna administration and found the 23-year-old, and his father's three veteran legions, useful. This political alliance boosted Pompey's career in Rome. Sulla, now the dictator in absolute control of the city, forced the divorce of Aemilia Scaura, his pregnant stepdaughter from her husband to marry his young ally. Pompey was only happy to divorce Antistia, a provincial matrona and take the patrician Aemilia.
Although Pompey's young age kept him a privatus (a man holding no political office of – or associated with – the cursus honorum), Pompey was a very rich man and a talented general in control of three veteran legions. Moreover he was ambitious for glory and power. Happy to acknowledge his son-in-law's wishes, and to clear his own situation as dictator, Sulla sent Pompey to deal with the last strongholds of Marius supporters. The provinces of Sicily and Roman Africa were his destination.
Sicily was strategically very important, since the island held the majority of Rome's grain supply. Without it, the city population would starve and riots would certainly ensue. Pompey dealt with the resistance with a harsh hand and when the citizens complained about his methods he replied with one of his most famous quotes: Stop quoting laws, we carry weapons. In Africa the series of victories continued and in 81 BC he was acclaimed imperator (not emperor) by his troops. According to tradition, Pompey immediately requested the senate for a triumph, although he had neither senatorial nor consular status. The senate refused his application but Pompey stationed his legions outside Rome and refused to leave until they agreed. At that time, Sulla intervened and gave Pompey his triumph. It is also around this point that Pompey gained his cognomen Magnus, meaning The Great. Legend says that it was Sulla himself who had the idea. The veracity of this claim has not been established.
After the unprecedented triumph at a youthful age and without proper status, Pompey asked for proconsular imperium, before becoming consul, in order to fight Sertorius, the last Marian general on the loose, in Hispania. The request was granted and, together with Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, he set out for the Iberian Peninsula. This was a new stage in Pompey's career. Until now, he was used to relatively easy victories, but Sertorius was a talented general, experienced in guerrilla warfare. The campaign lasted from 76 to 71 BC, without any significant military victory from either side, and ended only with Sertorius's assassination.
Pompey returned to Italy in 71 BC, to help Marcus Licinius Crassus control the Spartacus slave rebellion. His appearance was decisive in ending the revolt and this granted him Crassus' permanent enmity. Back in Rome, Pompey celebrated his second extralegal triumph for the victories in Hispania. In 70 BC, at only 35 years of age (see cursus honorum), Pompey was elected consul for the first time, as junior partner of Crassus, with the overwhelming support of the Roman population.
In 67 BC, two years after his consulship, Pompey was nominated commander of a special naval task force to campaign against the pirates that controlled the Mediterranean. This command, like everything else in Pompey's life, was surrounded with polemic. The conservative faction of the senate was most suspicious of his intentions and afraid of his power. The so-called Optimates tried every mean possible to avoid it. The nomination was then proposed by a Plebeian Tribune to the Popular Assembly and there approved beyond doubt. It took Pompey only a few months to clear the Mediterranean of the danger of pirates. The quickness of the campaign showed that he was a talented general also at sea, with strong logistic abilities too.
He did not return to Rome. Instead he went to the Asian provinces to substitute Lucullus in the command of the war against king Mithridates of Pontus, a man who had caused trouble for the Republic for more than 20 years. The results of his campaign of 66 to 61 BC were:
He also explored the Caucasus region, going as far as the Black Sea, taking notes and reports on geography, politics and natural resources of the regions. In December 61 BC, Pompey finally returned to Rome with a dilemma to address. On one hand he wanted his third triumph, on the other he wanted to run for a second consulship. Roman laws state that a general cannot cross the pomerium without losing the right of the triumph, but an electoral candidate must be in the city in order to apply personally for the election. Pompey tried to use diplomacy and asked the senate to postpone the consular election for the day after the triumph. The Optimates, led by Marcus Porcius Cato, the Younger, strongly opposed and forced Pompey to choose. He chose the triumph, but didn't let go of the consulship. If he couldn't be elected, at least he could bribe the voters to pick his candidate, Affranius. According to several sources, it was a huge scandal with the voters heading in mass to Pompey's house outside the pomerium.
The third triumph took place on September 29 61 BC (Pompey's 45th birthday), celebrating the victories over the pirates and in the Middle East, was to be an unforgettable event in Rome. Two entire days were scheduled for the enormous parade of spoils, prisoners, army and banners depicting battle scenes complete the route between Campus Martius and the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. To complete the festivities, Pompey offered a triumphal banquet and made several donations to the people of Rome, enhancing his popularity even further.
After a series of unprecedented commands, triumphs and offices, Pompey decided then to play by the rules and lay low. He disbanded the legions and prepared to live as a Roman politician. He had other preoccupations in mind, like finding farmlands to fulfil the promises made to his retired veterans. It was not an easy task to go on opposition to the conservative faction of the senate. An improbable ally soon appeared: Marcus Licinius Crassus, his former partner in the consulship and utter enemy. But a common friend of them soon appeared. Julius Caesar had returned from the Hispania provinces and was looking forward to his first consulship in 59 BC. The three formed the first triumvirate, an informal alliance made to pursue their interests. Pompey's and Crassus's money and political influence would make Caesar consul and, in return, Caesar would do his best to protect their interests. To confirm the alliance, Pompey married Julia Caesaris, Caesar's only daughter. Despite the differences in age and upbringing, this would prove to be a love match.
After 59 BC, Pompey was nominated governor of Hispania Ulterior. However, he stayed in Rome where he had the responsibility for the city's grain supply, governing the province by proxy. He also engaged, with his wife Julia as counselor, in the construction of Pompey's Theater in Campus Martius.
In 55 BC Pompey was once more elected consul with Crassus as his senior partner, rumor says due to massive amounts of bribery. They honored the agreement with Caesar and prolonged his proconsular imperium in Gaul (where he was fighting the Gallic wars) for another five years.
The triumvirate, however, was about to end. Crassus died in his tragic campaign against the Parthians, losing an entire army and both his sons. This left Pompey alone with Caesar against the powerful conservatives. Then, in 54 BC, Julia Caesar dies in childbirth, leaving Pompey desolated by grief. Moreover, Caesar's successes in Gaul were over shining Pompey's victories and he became jealous.
After the breaking of the triumvirate, Pompey sought an alliance with the Optimates and married in 52 BC for the fifth time, with Cornelia Metella, daughter of Metellus Scipio, a powerful conservative. Together with his new father-in-law, Pompey was consul for the third time in 52 BC. Using his senior consular powers, Pompey published a series of laws with the purpose of reforming the courts of justice and the army. One of them stated the possibility of prosecuting someone for electoral bribing in the past. This pleased the conservatives immensely because it gave the grounds to sue and exile Caesar, once he returned to Rome. In the next year, it was Pompey himself who forbade Caesar to stand for consulship in absentia.
In Gaul, Caesar started to worry about his future. With no more allies, Civil War was now inevitable and in the spring of 49 BC Caesar crossed the Rubicon and invaded Italy with his thirteenth legion. Pompey ordered retreat of the conservative forces and the abandonment of Rome and her treasury. Accompanied by his allies and his legions he fled to Brundisium in the south of Italy.
With Caesar on their backs, the conservatives led by Pompey fled to Greece. The armies clashed in the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. The fighting was hard for both sides but eventually return a decisive victory for Caesar. Like all the other conservatives, Pompey had to run for his life. He met his wife Cornelia and his son S--tus Pompeius on the island of Mytilene. He then wondered where to go next. The decision of running to one of the East Kingdoms was overruled in favour of Egypt.
Pompey arrived in the shore of Egypt late in September. He asked king Ptolemy for asylum and waited in his boat for clearance. Meanwhile Ptolemy was conspiring his death, thinking wiser to kill Caesar's enemy than to rescue him. In September 29 (his 58th birthday) Pompey was asked to come ashore alone in a small boat. Not knowing of the king's plans, Pompey accepted the invitation. On the boat, Pompey the Great was murdered by two men, who cut off his head and left his body on the shore. His freedman, Philipus, organized himself a simple funeral pyre and cremated the body.
Caesar arrived a short time afterwards. As a welcoming present he received Pompey's head and ring on a basket. He was not pleased in seeing his enemy, once his ally and son-in-law, murdered by traitors. Plutarch says that he burst into tears. He put the king Ptolemy's councillors to death and the king himself disappeared shortly afterwards. Caesar gave Pompey's ashes and ring to Cornelia, who took them back to his estates in Italy.
Pompey's marriages and children:
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