Pompey the Great Was One of History’s Greatest Makers of Kings
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC) was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades. He partnered with Julius Caesar to jointly rule Rome in the First Triumvirate, before the duo had a falling out that culminated in a civil war that ended badly for Pompey. Before he was eclipsed by Caesar, however, Pompey had once dominated the Eastern Mediterranean, and engaged in one of history’s most ambitious bouts of kingmaking as he reorganized the region to suit Rome’s needs.
Pompey was born into a powerful family, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. His father was a general who became consul in 89 BC, and had a reputation for double dealing, greed, and ruthlessness. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC, and 19 year old Pompey inherited his vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.
Upon Sulla’s return to Italy from a war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with 3 legions in his march on and seizure of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from his Marian opponents, which Pompey accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC. After executing the captured Marians, Pompey was hailed by h is troops as Magnus, or “the Great”.
After Sulla’s retirement, Pompey menaced the Senate into appointing him commander of the war against the final Marian remnants in Hispania, which he eventually won after considerable effort by 71 BC. He took his army back to Italy with him, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus’ slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC.
In 67 BC, Pompey was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control, and he managed to do so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only 3 months. He was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and granted authority to settle the entire eastern Mediterranean. He did that by annexing some kingdoms to the Roman Republic, and reducing others to client states. He engaged in wholesale kingmaking, removing and appointing kings and rulers throughout a vast territory stretching from the Danube to the Red Sea. That settlement was Pompey’s greatest and longest lasting achievement, which, with few modifications, endured for over 500 years.
Returning to Italy in 62 BC, he sought land upon which to settle his veterans, and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east, but political chaos in Rome prevented that. He finally accomplished his goals after forming a Triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst the trio, sealing the deal by marrying Caesar’s daughter. After Crassus died in 53 BC, followed by Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter soon thereafter, the remaining Triumvirs drifted apart, and finally went to war when Caesar crossed the Rubicon into Italy in 49 BC.
Pompey and the optimates conservative faction fled to Greece, where they raised an army. Caesar followed, and Rome’s two greatest generals finally met at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Caesar proved greater, and Pompey’s army was crushed. Fleeing, he sailed to Egypt, where he was inveigled to come ashore, only to get assassinated and have his head chopped off as soon as his feet touched Egyptian soil.