Useful Notes / Pompey the Great

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"What! Will you never cease prating of laws to us that have swords by our sides?

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, better known simply as Pompey or Pompey the Great ('Magnus' means 'great'), was an ancient Roman general, politician, and the most famous rival of Julius Caesar.

Pompey was born in 106 BC to a very rich but not very distinguished family—his father had managed to become consul, but otherwise the Pompeia were rural nobodies, and Pompey was very much an outsider in the Roman political world. His father allied with the dictator Sulla against the Marians, and he died during a Siege in a conflict against the Marians, either directly or by disease. The Marians issued an order of arrest and seizure of assets, citing his father's corruption (either actual or alleged). The young Pompey managed to clear his name during the first civil war, but when the Marians took over the capital, triggering Sulla's second war. At the age of twenty-three, he illegally raised a private army made up of his father's old clients. When Sulla won, young Pompey, alongside other Sullans, such as Marcus Licinus Crassus helped the dictator with The Purge of the capital. Pompey earned the nickname adulescens carnifex (teenage butcher) during this time.

He had ruthless ambition as a young man and saw Sulla's brazen power-grab and trampling of norms as a way for young men to set their path forward. Indeed he was known to say "If Sulla could do it, why not I?" which annoyed the older man in time. Pompey nagged him for a triumph in the capital for his services in Sulla's wars in Africa. Sulla eventually agreed even if Pompey was too young and legally had not earned the ranks of quaestor and consulship that would have normally qualified this privilege. Pompey even arrogated to Sulla that: "More men worship the rising sun than the setting sun". In response, Sulla cut him out of his will but otherwise indulged him because he was equally complicit in the latter's crimes. Pompey typified the mentality of the Late Republican-Proto-Empire: be sharp enough to pick the right side and don't let silly things like norms, morals, laws, rules get in your way. In a blatant breach of the Roman constitution, he became consul at the age of thirty-five without having ever been a senator.

While he was a skilled commander in his own right, Pompey acquired a not entirely undeserved reputation for 'finishing' wars that had already been won by other, less famous Roman generals. More importantly, when confronted with a general who was highly talented and innovative such as Quintus Sertorius, Pompey was actually beaten in battle and forced into retreat, at Saguntum and others. Sertorius had fled to Hispania and organized local tribes and groups and more or less was converted a Roman province into his own Republic. His innovative guerrilla warfare left Pompey confused and rely on other Sullan generals to take Hispania, town by town, but even then his victory was only achieved by treachery when one of Sertorius' generals and friends assassinated him at a banquet (in a manner quite like how Caesar died). The guy who killed Sertorius, Perpenna Vento, then surrendered to Pompey by offering a list of his old boss' contacts and client lists. Pompey accepted the surrender, read the lists, burnt it (but we can assume that he memorized a few or all of the names) and then killed Vento and claimed victory over Sertorius. On his way back to Rome, he ran into the surviving followers of the already dead Spartacus, who had apparently opened a channel of communication with Sertorius. Pompey's veteran soldiers easily defeated these remnants, and Pompey promptly claimed glory for having defeated the entire slave revolt, much to the anger of Marcus Crassus who actually did defeat Spartacus.

Regardless of his methods, and how much credit he did or did not steal, Pompey was incredibly popular in Rome and certainly quite a gifted general, at least against weaker armies and smaller threats. He earned, or gave himself, the title Magnus after a highly successful campaign against the pirates that plagued the Mediterranean and a war in the Near East that (amongst other things) firmly brought Judea under Roman domination. Of course there was much propaganda in this. The way Pompey dealt with the pirates was suppress some of them, and generously offer pardons to the rest, and resettle them and make them give up a life of crime, which most of them unsurprisingly accepted (as confirmed in an episode of Virgil's Georgics). In this matter at least, Pompey was more merciful than Caesar. The title alluded to his stated intentions of being seen as Alexander the Great's Roman Spiritual Successor owing to his great success in his early youth, as well as conquering "the East". He took his fetish for Alexander to the extend of imitating him, such as claiming to wear a cape that Alexander supposedly wore, building towns in the East called Pompeiopolis and Magnopolis, with supporters calling him a God and indeed even having a Mystery Cult worshipping him as a God in Delos. As a wealthy general, Pompey also saw invested in architecture, roads, theatre and sculpture. In many statues, Pompey was presented as holding a globe in his hands. Indeed, the historian Mary Beard has called Pompey "the first Roman Emperor" in that he more or less codified the imperial Cult of Personality, that Caesar and other Emperors after him followed. In the East, Pompey also had coins minted with his likeness, something that nobody before had done in the Republican era, and which Caesar imitated when he, as dictator, minted coins in Rome with his own likeness. After all if Pompey could, why not Caesar.

Such megalomania at such a young age, ultimately set the stage for what we would now recognize as a mid-life crisis. In the decade of the fifties, he became part of the First Triumvirate, a coalition between him, his rival Marcus Licinus Crassus and the junior partner, Julius Caesar. The latter was the nephew of Marius and a supporter of the populare faction, while Crassus and Pompey had enriched and profited of Sulla's actions and his conservative cause. The coalition was bound by a desire on the part of the two Sullans to secure their privilege and clout, and extend their influence with the help of Caesar, who for his part had his own agenda, being a relatively poor but brilliant young aristocrat who had been steered away from the normal course of his career thanks to Sulla but who now wanted to make up for lost time. Between them, the three became unofficial rulers of Rome, dividing the best provinces between them. Caesar and Crassus both wanted and got wars so they could gain plunder and glory, while Pompey, Happily Married to Caesar's teenage daughter Julia, settled down in Rome for an extended honeymoon. Soon, cracks began to appear in the triumvirate. Crassus was spectacularly defeated and killed fighting the Parthians, an invasion he launched to get the honors that Pompey had taken from him. Caesar unexpectedly proved a superb general, conquering the Gauls and winning vast new territories for Rome. Despite being a successful Social Climber and achieving much honors as a general, Pompey lived to see his career overshadowed by the upstart Caesar who despite being a poor lawyer was proving to be a better general than he ever was. He would probably have split from Caesar anyway but his genuine happy marriage with Julia, that was rare enough that it was much commented on and joked about even in that time, held their alliance. That ended with the death of poor Julia in childbirth. The optimate senators, led by Cato the Younger, had loathed Pompey seeing his elevation as an unwarranted concession made by Sulla despite serving their cause. But they hated and feared Caesar more and the capital was breaking down in street fights led by gangs of populares and optimates. They need a sword to stop them, so the optimates turned to the man who trampled and marched on Rome in his youth to come and defend the Republic. Pompey was nominated a consul, illegally, since that was an elected office, but the optimates made an exception to contain the crisis.

When it finally came down to a Caesar versus Pompey battle at Pharsalus, Greece in 48 BC, the younger man proved the better general. Pompey fled to Egypt expecting sanctuary; instead, he was betrayed and murdered by a palace cabal, who sent his head as a gift to Caesarnote . Nonetheless, Caesar would finally be assassinated in the Senate, with his body falling before a statue erected in honour of Pompey Magnus.


Tropes as portrayed in fiction:

  • Historical Hero Upgrade: On account of him ultimately defending the Republic at Pharsalia against Caesar, he's often seen as a heroic or more principled Republican than Caesar, even if his entire career proves that he was an ambitious Social Climber ruthless even by the standards of his time and utterly amoral and unprincipled about throwing people under the bus to get ahead.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: According to Plutarch he was very handsome as a youth - even beautiful - even if his surviving statues show an average looking, overweight guy (see the bust at the top of the page.)
  • Overshadowed by Awesome: invoked Later authors see this as the main reason for his jealousy of Caesar. Had it not been for the latter, he would be the great military prodigy and genius of his day, but he lived to see his achievements exceeded and dwarfed by the latter, and become an addendum to his career.

Depictions, Allusions, And Others:

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     Comic Books  

  • Astérix portrays Pompey as The Starscream to Julius Ceasar in Asterix and the Actress, which is more or less accurate.

     Literature  

  • Several of William Shakespeare's plays reference Pompey:
    • Measure for Measure has a pimp named Pompey.
      Escalus: Troth, and your bum is the greatest thing about you; so that in the beastliest sense you are Pompey the Great.
    • And of course, Julius Caesar: One of the senators at the start of the play is upset that Rome is celebrating Caesar's victory over Pompey, when they were both great Roman generals.
    • Henry V, where Captain Fluellen can't stop talking about how slipshod the English army is compared to how Pompey the Great would have run things.
    • In Love's Labour's Lost the lower characters put on a show of "The Nine Worthies" for the King and his lords (a la the Mechanicals Play Within A Play scene in A Midsummer Night's Dream). One of them plays Pompey.
    • In Antony and Cleopatra, one of the major characters is Sextus Pompey, the son of Pompey the Great, who has rebelled against the Roman Government.
  • Pompey is a major protagonist in Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome series.
  • He appears in Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series.
  • Appears in the Robert Harris novels Imperium and Lustrum. He's portrayed as a capable general but not quite as adept in politics.

     Live-Action TV  

  • Shows up quite a bit in the first half of Rome as Julius Caesar's rival, a Worthy Adversary.
  • Xena: Warrior Princess lopped off his head.
  • As per history, Pompey shows up with his army in the series finale of Spartacus: War of the Damned. After he and his army have done away with the fleeing rebels, he proceeds to take credit for quelling the rebellion from Crassus. The series foreshadows his future alliance with Crassus and Caesar. Numerous characters refer to him as "The Butcher."
  • Pompey is one of the main characters of the 2002 miniseries Julius Caesar, which also shows him as one of the Roman dictator Sulla's men before he becomes an ally of Caesar.

     Web Video  


Alternative Title(s): Pompey, Pompeius

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