10 of History's Greatest Kingmakers
10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers

Khalid Elhassan - April 7, 2018

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Marble bust of Pompey the Great, dated circa 50 BC. Pintrest

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.

10 of History’s Greatest Kingmakers
Augustus. Wikimedia

After Defeating Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus Repeated Pompey’s Wholesale Kingmaking

Following his victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BC, Gaius Octavius, better known to history as Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD), acted as kingmaker in the Eastern Mediterranean. Rulers from the Nile in Egypt to the shores of the Black Sea were confirmed, deposed, or installed, as reward or punishment for their stances during the recently concluded conflict. Herod the Great, mentioned in the New Testament as having ordered the Massacre of the Innocents, was among the kings whose fates were decided by Augustus.

Octavius had been born to an affluent plebian family on his father’s side, while his mother was of the patrician Julii lineage, and a niece of Julius Caesar. Octavius’ famous grand uncle launched him into public life, and groomed him to be his heir. He was in Albania, completing his military and academic studies, when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC.

Returning to Italy, Octavius learned that Caesar had adopted him as his son in his will, and made him his chief heir. However, Caesar’s lieutenant, Mark Antony, refused to honor the will, while Caesar’s assassins ignored the teenager. Cicero, an elder statesmen and a leading figure of a politically powerful but militarily weak faction, sought to manipulate him, quipping that he would “raise, praise, then erase” Octavius.

All underestimated Octavius. He paid for public games in honor of his adoptive father to gain recognition and popularity, and wooed Caesar’s veteran soldiers to his side. Cicero’s faction sought Octavius’ aid, bent the rules to appoint him a senator despite his youth, and sent him against Mark Antony, who was forced to retreat from Italy to Gaul. The consuls in official command of the forces arrayed against Mark Antony were killed, so Octavius compelled the Senate to appoint him to a vacant consulship despite his youth.

He then double crossed the Senate, reached an agreement with Mark Antony, and joined him in a power sharing dictatorship. The duo then launched a massive purge that executed thousands of suspected opponents, including Cicero. They then went after Caesar’s assassins, defeating them, and exacting revenge. The duo swore friendship, sealing the bargain with Antony wedding Octavius’ sister. They then divided the Roman empire, with Antony ruling the east, while Octavius stayed in Rome and ruled the west.

Things soured when Antony fell in love with Cleopatra in Egypt, and married her, abandoning Octavius’ sister. Octavius used that as a pretext to attack Antony, whom he defeated in 31 BC,. He then seized Egypt and the eastern provinces, finally bringing the entire Roman empire under his control. Following his victory, Octavius engaged in a round of kingmaking in the Eastern Mediterranean, nearly as extensive as that of Pompey the Great a generation earlier.

Octavius then ended the Roman Republic, whose political structure, created for a city state, had proved impractical for the governance of a vast empire, and led to a century of chaos and bloodshed. For restoring peace, the Senate granted Octavius the honorific “Augustus”, by which he would be known to history. In the Republic’s place, Augustus established a stable, autocratic, and centralized de-facto monarchy. It kicked off a period known as the Pax Romana, that brought to the Greco-Roman world two centuries of peace, stability, and prosperity


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Sources & Further Reading

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Pompey

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Praetorian Guard

BBC History – Augustus

Encyclopedia Britannica – ­Godwine, Earl of Wessex

Encyclopedia Britannica – Ricimer, Roman General

English Monarchs – Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, ‘Warwick the Kingmaker’

History of War – Thomas, Lord Stanley, Earl of Derby

History Today – The Rebellion of Earl Godwin

Indian Express – Who Were the Sayyid Brothers?

Spectator, The, March 4th, 2017 – The Double-Edged Sword of the Praetorian Guard

Wikipedia – Carl Otto Morner

Wikipedia – Chanakya