The Rise of Pompey the Great, the ‘Roman Alexander’ | History Hit

The Rise of Pompey the Great, the ‘Roman Alexander’

History Hit

08 Aug 2023
Depiction of Pompey the Great.
Image Credit: Public Domain

Pompey the Great was a Roman general so magnificent that he has been proclaimed ‘The Roman Alexander‘. His reputation was also  also dulescentulus carnifex (“teenage butcher”). Throughout his life, he triumphed in arduous military campaigns, won countless victories and came to epitomise loyalty to the Republic. For his ruthlessness, his other nickname was reportedly dulescentulus carnifex: “teenage butcher”.

Ultimately his life ended in tragedy, brutally assassinated at the hands of his Egyptian allies. If not for this act of betrayal, Roman history as we know it might have look very different.

The Roman Republic in the 1st century BC

Since overthrowing its Etruscan kings in 509 BC, the Roman Republic had by the 1st century BC expanded from its origins in central Italy to master the regions of Macedonia, Greece, much of the eastern Mediterranean and the Iberian and Italian peninsulas. Few in the known world could rival Rome and its armies. As Roman expansionism intensified, individual commanders sought to claim the wealth and glory exploited from conquered lands. Others looks inwards.

So-called “Sulla”, free copy (probably from the time of Augustus) after a portrait of an important Roman from the 2nd century BC.

In 83 BC, Cornelius Sulla, a powerful Roman general, made history when he seized absolute power in Rome. After a bloody victory, he assumed the title Dictator. Rome would never be the same again. Not only had Sulla waged a civil war in which thousands of Roman citizens had perished, but he had also manipulated Roman laws to grab total power. Though he would eventually fade from public life, he had set a precedent and a viable route to acquire power.

Rome had never had a Civil War before Sulla. But another would occur in quick succession. It stemmed from the forming of a political alliance in 60 BC.

The First Triumvirate

The Triumvirate was a secret alliance in Rome between three intensely wealthy and ambitious men: Gaius Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Through this political alliance, these men ensured each was kept in considerable power through the covert support of the other two. As their ambitions rested on this informal political alliance keeping them in power, the need to support their fellow triumvirs was essentialPompey and Caesar, for example, strengthened their relationship by a marriage between Pompey and Caesar’s daughter, Julia. Yet of the three men, in 60 BC, one in particular outshone the rest in both fame and glory. That man was Pompey.

What was Pompey the Great known for?

Pompey’s formidable military record, impeccable reputation, and vast personal wealth, meant that he had become one of the most famous men in Rome. Pompey first gained recognition 20 years before, during Sulla’s Civil War. Pompey quickly made a name for himself by recovering the provinces of Sicily and Africa from Sulla’s opponents. In return, Sulla bestowed extravagant courtesies upon his young general. Not only did he allow him the title of imperator (an honorific that ordinarily only the Senate could grant) but he also permitted Pompey to marry his stepdaughter.

January 16th is the anniversary of one of the most important historical events - the birth of the Roman Empire. This day, in 27 BC marks the day that Octavian was appointed the title Augustus, and became the first Emperor of Rome. Augustus ordered the gates of Janus to be closed, marking an end to the period of Civil War that had characterised Rome for decades before. Entering into a new era of peace, how did Augustus monopolise peace as a concept, and allow Rome to hold onto this new era and way of life across its Empire? This week Tristan is joined by Hannah Cornwell, author of Pax and the Politics of Peace, to talk about this transitional period, its reflections in art and monumental architecture, and ultimately, how the Roman Empire came to be.
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But Pompey demanded more from Sulla, claiming, according to Plutarch, that “more worshipped the rising sun [Pompey] than the setting sun [Sulla]”. Perhaps seeing himself in Pompey’s ambition, Sulla relented and granted Pompey a triumph. Another lavish triumph followed in 71 BC for his reconquest of Spain; a third ten years later for success in modern-day Turkey. Such splendour won Pompey few friends, but his outstanding military and political achievements quickly made him impossible to ignore.


By 60 BC Pompey’s influence in Rome was widespread. But his fellow Triumvirs Caesar and Crassus were similarly ambitious. Their conflicting desires would prove the Triumvirate’s greatest problem. Tension brewed and soon spilled into the public eye. During a trial in which Pompey was defending a fellow Senator, Clodius, an old enemy of his (and supporter of his fellow Triumvir, Crassus), began a chant in the crowd aimed at disparaging Pompey and his ambitions to lead military campaigns in Egypt.

According to Cicero, Clodius shouted: “Who’s starving the people to death?” To which the crowd replied: “Pompey!” “Who is eager to go to Alexandria?” asked Clodius. “Pompey!” replied the crowd. Finally, Clodius turned to the crowd and asked them who they wanted to see go instead. “Crassus!” boomed the crowd. In the brawl that broke out afterwards, men pulled Pompey from his speaking platform as Crassus’ supporters began to hurl abuse and spit on him.

It was a long fall from grace for a man with three Roman triumphs. The Triumvirate, it was now clear to see, was fraying and so too was Pompey’s support. Crassus, it appeared, was determined to reign in Pompey’s power. The richest man in Rome was not satisfied with simply being one of the most powerful men in Rome; he wanted to be the most powerful.

The fall of the Triumvirate, 53-49 BC

Such was the extent of Crassus’ determination that soon after the trial incident, Pompey suspected Crassus would send assassins after him. Ultimately, Crassus would meet his own end before any assassination of Pompey could take place. His attempt to recapture Mesopotamia from the Parthians culminated in the catastrophic Battle of Carrhae, in which his opponents outsmarted him before reportedly humiliating him in a grotesque death.

Assignment of Roman provinces to Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus.

Carrhae had been one of the worst defeats the Romans had ever known, with over 30,000 Roman casualties – including Crassus. Of the original Triumvirate, only Caesar and Pompey remained. The alliance of Caesar and Pompey had always been rocky, but the death of Julia Caesar in childbirth the year before in 54 BC had already severed the last legal tie between the two men.

Crassus’ death was the nail in the coffin. The Triumvirate perished. Pompey and Caesar, now finding themselves separated, set upon two diverging paths that ultimately led to one of the most famous wars in antiquity. As Caesar started to achieve success in his Gallic Campaign, the conservative Roman senators back home grew wary. Caesar, they could see, was becoming more powerful with every victory. Could Caesar use his power to manipulate the Republic‘s laws and gain himself a dictatorship? Sulla had done exactly the same.

Attempts to quell Caesar’s power failed, and Caesar, finding himself demonised in Rome, took matters into his own hands. In January 49 BC, he crossed the River Rubicon with his veteran army. Caesar thus committed treason against the Republic. Civil war was inevitable. With no remaining ties to Caesar and empowered by the Roman Senate, Pompey took command of the Republic’s army. Pompey was to battle Caesar.

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