Saturday, August 20, 2011


A review of Robin Seager’s Pompey the Great (1979, original) (2002, my copy)

(Rating 4 of 5)

I remember once reading, in a Batman comic of all things, a quote that asked how many great champions are known not for their victories but how they were done in by time and a new generation. Does anyone remember Sony Liston for anything else other than being beaten by Muhammad Ali? Although there are a great many historical figures who legacies survive defeat—Hannibal, Napoleon, Robert E. Lee, and Erwin Rommel are great examples—Ca. Pompeius Magnus does not seem to be one of them. On Amazon a list for ‘Pompey’ only four books came up that were just about Pompeius, two that were about him and Caesar, and the rest were about the famous city or other people with ‘Pompey’ in their names. After the first page, Pompeius does not appear much. Caesar on Amazon has endless works about him carrying into the hundreds. It is strange that Pompeius is confined to the dustbin of history; he is just part of Caesar’s story not a character in his own right. Robin Seager does a great job of telling Pompeius’ own story, in which Caesar plays just a part and only shows up half way through.

The book begins with a summary of the major historic events that had happened to Rome since the fall of Carthage. The Republic was coming to pieces because it could not, with rare exception, function as intended. Pompeius starts his career by raising a private army in the service of the Roman Dictator, Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Pompeius earns the nickname the ‘young butcher’ in his early service to Sulla.

“On a practical level it seemed best to Sulla to find Pompeius further immediate employment. So Pompeius’ position was for the first time placed on a legal footing. He was invested with praetorian imperium by decree of the senate and sent in pursuit of Carbo, who had fled, when the resistance to Sulla collapsed, and despite his pleas for mercy he was put to death and his head sent to Sulla. His defense of Pompeius in 86 might have given him cause to hope, but Pompeius was never to show any hesitation in betraying old friends when the occasion demanded. For him his link with Carbo must merely have underlined the need to prove his loyalty to Sulla by a suitably harsh and dramatic gesture.”(p.27)

After the Marian forces are defeated Pompeius embarks, first under Sulla, then under a restored Republic, on a career that—for a time—makes him the greatest Roman that had ever lived. He becomes the golden boy who has victories all over the Empire. He wins in Africa, Spain, and Greece. He lifts the pirates from the Mediterranean Sea, and settles the Greek east for the Roman Empire. He serves as consul but his career takes an interesting turn when he forms the ‘First Triumvirate’ with Marcus Crassus and Julius Caesar. The triumvirate dominates the Republic for the next decade. Pompeius holds on to power in Rome while Caesar conquers Gaul and Crassus gets himself killed in Parthia. This leads to a standoff with two of the greatest leaders in the history of any civilization. As it was said centuries later as battle between a man who could not accept any other as an equal (Pompeius) vs. the man who would tolerate no superior (Caesar).

“What would Pompeius do if Caesar wanted to exercise it while still retaining his army? ‘What’, said Pompeius very gently, ‘would I do if my son wanted to take a stick to me?’ This reply puts his position in a nutshell. He saw himself as a father, Caesar as his son. In that there was a message, for the optimates could rest assured that Pompeius would act to keep Caesar in his place, subordinate as a son should be to his father, but they were also being warned that he was still not prepared to abandon Caesar, that a bond still existed between them as close as that between a father and his son. Similarly Caesar could read in the words a promise that Pompeius would not forsake him but protect him as a man should his son, but only if he accepted that he owed obedience to Pompeius as a father.”(p.143)

Pompeius chooses to fight for the cause of the optimates but, in opposing Caesar, Pompey is chased out of Italy and in the first time of his life he tastes defeat at the battle of Pharsalus. He has to run as his friends abandon him. Pompeius flees to Egypt where a pharaoh who owes him his crown is expected to provide assistance in his time of need. Pompeius is instead greeted with murder.

The story of C. Pompeius Magnus is one of glory and tragedy. He is raised as high as anyone can go only to be defeat at the hands of one friend and killed at the hands of another. Robin Seager wrote a great book that I would recommend to anyone who wanted to learn more about the famous general Pompey the Great.

{Video was uploaded on YouTube by Princepsmaximus the scenes are taken from the 2003 TNT movie Julius Caesar}

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