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Pompey the Great: The Forgotten Roman General Whose Conquests Surpassed Julius Caesar’s

Pompey the Great

Pompey before Cleopatra's brother cut off his head.

The sanguine achievements of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (“The Great”) were more significant than Caesar’s.

But Caesar's ally turned foe was less effective at self-promotion and lacked his rival's command of Latin which Caesar used to publicize his victories in Gaul.

Pompey (106 B.C.-48 B.C.) conquered and annexed the entire Middle East, which became several Roman provinces, including an arid backwater by the name of Judaea, the future birthplace of Christianity and the Jewish Diaspora.

Pompey's conquests also extended the frontiers of the Roman Empire to the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains that straddle Europe and Asia. Pompey reconquered Sicily and North Africa, securing Rome’s vital grain supplies.

After the suicide of Rome’s perennial nemesis, Mithridates VI Eupator, king of Pontus (part of present-day Turkey), Pompey annexed the kingdom, which became yet another province and a victim of Rome’s voracious Imperial imperative.

His conquest of Hispania (Spain and Portugal) created another Roman province. He deposed the king of Syria and turned the kingdom into a client-state of Rome.

Although Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome, put down the slave revolt led by Spartacus, Pompey participated in the suppression of the revolt, which had terrorized Italy as angry ex-slaves butchered Romans wherever they found them on the Italian peninsula.

Spartacus has become an icon of the radical left as the ancient world’s most successful revolutionary – until the Romans captured and crucified him.

The Spartacists, a splinter group of German Communists during the Weimar Republic of the 1920s, were named in honor of the Thracian (Bulgarian) warrior who was enslaved after his defeat by Crassus’ legions.

Pompey conquered Phoenicia, homeland of Rome’s centuries-old foes, the Carthaginians, whose North African empire was also conquered and ravaged by Rome a century earlier after the third and final Punic War (from Punici, or Poenici, Latin for Phoenicia.)

Pompey's conquests dwarfed Caesar's in size and value. Caesar's primary victories took place in Gaul, modern-day France and adjoining territory.

The eastern world Pompey conquered was fabled for its riches, which was no fable. Twelve hundred years before Marco Polo set out from Venice, Romans were spending 100 million sesterces a year on silk imported from China.

Although Pompey never came close to conquering China, the far eastern provinces he did conquer separated the distance between the two empires. .

 Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar without the crown of laurel leaves he favored because it concealed male-pattern baldness.

But Caesar was much better at self-promotion and had a greater command of the Latin language than Pompey. Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars was an instant classic and a self-aggrandizing account of his triumphs for readers back in Rome. Every student of Latin still translates Caesar’s elegant prose.

The fabled riches of the eastern world Pompey had conquered made Gaul a down-market trophy. Pompey did not bequeath to posterity a similar account of his more numerous conquests.

Caesar’s genocidal policies in Gaul remain largely unmentioned in most modern-day historical accounts. In the process of “pacifying” Gaul’s Celtic tribes, he slaughtered one million of them and enslaved another million.

Enslaved POWs were considered the perks of war and one of the primary motives for the cash-strapped Caesar’s conquest of the region.

Today, if he weren’t overlooked by most historians, Pompey might be called culturally sensitive – especially compared to Caesar’s cultural atrocities.

After intervening in a civil war in Judaea, then annexing it and Samaria to the North as, Pompey desecrated the Holy of Holies of the Temple in Jerusalem simply by entering it, perhaps out of curiosity.

Only the High Priests was allowed to enter the Temple’s innermost chamber and only once a year, on Yom Kippur.

Pompey did not steal the fortune in gold stored in the Temple, unlike most Roman conquerors who considered grand theft part of the spoils and cost of waging war.

Instead, after his unintentional sacrilege, Pompey demonstrated atypical religious toleration. He ordered the Temple’s ritual purification after desecrating it and reinstated its high priest, Hyrcanus II, Rome’s ally in the Judaean civil war.

A century later, the Roman emperor Hadrian committed the ultimate abomination by placing a giant statue of Jupiter on the site of the Temple which had been destroyed during the Jewish Revolt against Rome than began in 66 A.D.

In addition to their fatal military rivalry, Pompey and Caesar occupied opposite ends of the Roman political spectrum.

Pompey was derisively called a novus homō, literally “a new man” or noveau riche because he was not of aristocratic birth. Pompey’s father was a wealthy provincial but not a member of the aristocracy.

Perhaps in reaction to his position on the social ladder, Pompey sided with Rome’s aristocratic, Senatorial caste called patricians.

As a check on the power of Pompey and the Roman Senate, Caesar, like the Gracchi brothers a century earlier, allied himself with the common people or plebeians of Rome.

As one of two consuls or co-rulers of Rome, Caesar almost went broke paying for bread and circuses in order to keep hungry, blood-thirsty plebeians on his side and prevent them from rioting.

Typically, after their one-year consulship ended, ex-consuls were appointed provincial governors, where they recouped their consular expenses by taxing and robbing the governed. Caesar relined his pockets as governor of Gaul.

For their efforts on behalf of the poor, both the Gracchi brothers and Caesar were assassinated by Roman aristocrats who loathed Caesar’s populist politics almost as much as they did his seizure of power.

After conquering Gaul and illegally crossing the Rubicon with his army, his shills proclaimed him dictator of Rome “in perpetuity.” His “perpetuity” ended abruptly on the floor of the Senate.

Not only jealousy but a sincere desire to restore the Roman Republic motivated his assassins, who shanked the man who had ended the Republic 23 times. A literal, Manson-like case of overkill.

Caesr's Assassination

Caesar was stabbed 23 times by 60 really angry Senators.

The great conqueror of Gaul, armed only with a sharp writing utensil called a stylus, pen, resisted more than 60 assailants ferociously but futilely.

Caesar, Crassus and Pompey formed a triumvirate or three-man power-sharing arrangement that was cemented by Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter, Julia, which produced a child.

It was not a marriage of political convenience as Pompey was said to be besotted by his much younger bride.

Political rivalry and the death of both Pompey’s wife and child soon ended the triumvirs’ alliance.

Crassus was killed while fighting the Parthians (Persians), and the contest between the surviving triumvirs ended with the Battle of Pharsalus in Greece in 48 B.C. Caesar’s outnumbered forces nevertheless defeated Pompey’s due to Caesar’s superior generalship.

Pompey was urged to find sanctuary in Rome’s eastern provinces, but he unwisely chose Egypt, possibly because it was closer and easier to access by sea than the longer land route to Asia.

Aware that Caesar was en route to Egypt in pursuit of Pompey, the advisors of the boy pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra’s brother and husband, stabbed Pompey and offered his head to Caesar as a peace offering.

Caesar allegedly wept when presented with the grim trophy of his former friend and son-in-law.

Skeptical contemporaries believed Caesar’s tears were of the crocodile variety. He had Pompey interred in a temple at Alexandria devoted to Nemesis, the goddess of hubris or overweening arrogance that leads to disaster. See Oedipus Rex.

Pompey’s burial site may have represented implicit criticism of his power lust, which Caesar shared in spades.

An open bisexual whom Romans cheerfully called “every woman’s husband and every man’s wife,” Caesar seems to have had a conciliatory, feminine side.

He was unique among Roman conquerors, who without exception killed their defeated rivals. Caesar often spared his.

The most famous beneficiary of Caesar’s mercy was his enemy and Pompey’s ally, the greatest orator of the age, Cicero.

After Caesar’s assassination, his heirs and successors, Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) and Mark Antony, did not demonstrate Caesar’s mercy.

Cicero, a long-time critic of Caesar’s dictatorship, was beheaded and his hands and head were nailed to the gates of Rome as a warning to any remaining enemies.

Caesar’s enduring fame and Pompey’s obscurity, despite the latter’s superior military achievements, proves once again Churchill’s famous phrase that history is written by the victors.

The Commentaries on the Gallic Wars provided the first contemporary account of the conquest of Gaul and cemented Caesar’s enduring fame if not his equal infamy.

The conqueror's effective PR campaign, like his military campaigns, has secured his place among the victors’ pantheon.

Excerpted in part from Frank Sanello's Fractured History Tales or Why (Almost) Everything You Thought You Knew About the Past Never Happened. Genesee Avenue Books, 2011

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Pompey and Caesar.

Thanks for that really wide ranging study of some of the most famous characters of Ancient Rome. I must admit I would have chopped off the head of Cicero, quite happily, myself.

He was banged into me in Latin class at school. I will forever associate him with leather straps, and stinging hands.