5. The Great Roman Warrior eclipsed by Julius Caesar
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known as Pompey or Pompey the Great (106 – 48 BC), was one of the greatest statesmen and generals of the Roman Republic’s final decades. Pompey was first Julius Caesar’s son-in-law and partner in the First Triumvirate that divided up and ruled Rome, then his rival, and finally his enemy. His career, as well as the ups and downs of his relationship with Caesar, were pivotal in the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.
Pompey was born into a family that had only recently joined the senatorial ranks. However, it was a powerful and incredibly wealthy family, with vast holdings in Picenum in central Italy. Pompey’s father, who had a reputation for double-dealing, greed, and ruthlessness, was a general who became consul in 89 BC. An ally of Sulla, he was killed during the civil war against the Marians in 87 BC. As a result, a then-nineteen-year-old Pompey inherited his father’s vast wealth and, more importantly, his legions.
When Sulla returned to Italy from the war against Pontus, Pompey joined him with three legions to march on and seize of Rome. Sulla then sent him to recapture Sicily and Africa from the Marians, which he accomplished in two lightning campaigns by 81 BC. Pompey then executed the captured Marians and was named Magnus, or “the Great” by his troops. 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.
Pompey returned to Italy with his army, ostensibly to help put down Spartacus’ slave revolt, but in reality to guarantee his election to the consulship in 70 BC. In 67 BC, he was given authority throughout the Mediterranean to settle a piracy problem that had grown out of control. He did so in a brilliant campaign that lasted only three months. Pompey was then appointed to command a war against Pontus, and was granted authority to settle the entire Eastern Mediterranean. He accomplished that by annexing some kingdoms into the Roman Republic, and reducing others to client states.
3. Pompey and Caesar were allies, before they fell out
Pompey’s settlement of the Eastern Mediterranean’s affairs was his greatest achievement. With few modifications, it lasted for over 500 years. He returned to Italy in 62 BC with a reputation as Rome’s greatest warrior and general. Pompey sought land upon which to settle his veterans, and legislation to ratify his settlement of the east. However, he was thwarted by political chaos in Rome. Pompey finally accomplished his goals after forming a Triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus to divide Rome’s power amongst themselves, 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 in 49 BC. Caesar invaded Italy that year, forcing Pompey and the conservative optimates to flee 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.
Flavius Aetius (391 – 454) was the last great general and warrior of the Western Roman Empire. Born into a military family, he spent part of his youth as a hostage of the barbarian Visigoths, and later the Huns. Living amongst the barbarians gave Aetius valuable insider knowledge and insights, which came in handy later as he fought to prevent Attila the Hun from overrunning Western Europe. Attila ruled a multi-tribal empire dominated by the Huns, that spanned Eastern and Central Europe. During his reign, 434-453, he earned the moniker “The Scourge of God” for his depredations.
Attila terrified the civilized world, invaded Persia, terrorized the Eastern and Western Roman Empires, plundered the Balkans, and extorted vast sums of gold from the Romans. He crossed the Danube in 440, plundered the Balkans, and destroyed two Roman armies. The Roman emperor admitted defeat, and Attila extorted from him a treaty that paid 2000 kilograms of gold up front, plus an annual tribute of 700 kilograms of gold each year. In 447, Attila returned to the Balkans, which he ravaged until he reached the walls of Constantinople, before recoiling.
1. As a reward for Saving Rome, Aetius was murdered by his Emperor
In 450, the Western Roman Emperor’s sister sought to escape a betrothal to an old aristocrat whom she disliked. So she begged Attila’s help, and sent him her engagement ring. Attila interpreted that as a marriage proposal, accepted, and asked for half of the Western Roman Empire as dowry. When the Romans balked, Attila invaded, visiting his usual depredations. Aetius was put in charge of organizing the resistance. By then, the Western Roman Empire was a shell of its former self, and lacked the military means to stand up to the Huns on its own. So Aetius formed an alliance with the barbarian Visigoths.
Aetius promised the Visigoths a homeland in southwestern France in exchange for fighting off the Huns alongside the Romans. At the climactic battle of the Catalaunian Plains in 451, Aetius and the Visigoths defeated Attila and beat back his invasion. Aetius’ success aroused the jealousy of the Western Roman Emperor Valentinian III, who felt intimidated by his formidable general. On September 21st, 454, Aetius was delivering a report to the emperor when Valentinian leaped up from his throne, and out of the blue, accused the general of drunken depravities. Then, before the startled Aetius knew what was happening, the emperor and a co-conspirator hacked the general to death with a sword.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading