In 48 BC, Pompey the Great was assassinated in Egypt by courtiers of pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Besides Julius Caesar, he had been the foremost military commander in the Roman world, entrusted by the Senate to bring Caesar to heel.
Before the Battle of Pharsalus earlier that year, Pompey had been confident of victory. He had certainly proven his formidable military ability in the past. When peers questioned the number of troops the Republic held, Pompey confidently replied, according to Plutarch: “in whatever part of Italy I stamp upon the ground, there will spring up armies of infantry and cavalry.” Yet though willing to fight under the great Pompey, most of his recently mustered legionaries were raw recruits. Whether they could match Caesar’s veterans remained a question.
Caesar, on the other hand, championed realism. He focused on the strengths he held, rather than ones he felt entitled to. Fresh from fighting in Gaul, Caesar commanded an army unmatched in both their skill and in their loyalty to him. Caesar also knew that whereas many of Pompey’s accomplishments were won through classical generalship, Caesar represented a new form of tactical cunning that had gained him victories against outrageous odds. Caesar’s skill would see Pompey defeated and, ultimately, slain on the shores of Pelusium where on 28 September 48 BC he had disembarked seeking refuge.
The Battle of Pharsalus, 48 BC
On 9 August 48 BC, Pompey’s troops met Caesar’s at the Battle of Pharsalus. Caesar’s position was rotten, and both men knew it. His army was approximately 30,000 strong, with a provisions problem resulting from a successful blockade of troops and supplies. Pompey’s army was around twice the size. Pompey positioned himself with the sea behind and mountains protecting his flanks, which meant he had successfully forced his opponent into a desperate corner. Taking no chances, Pompey decided to settle down and starve Caesar out. He needed to win.
So why didn’t he? Sources largely agree that Pompey’s plan was sound, and even Caesar contemplated peace when he realised his situation. Unfortunately for Pompey, when he set off to war he was joined by esteemed figures of the Republic and their counterparts from foreign lands: senators, princes, knights, all exasperated by the slow pace of Pompey’s success. According to Appian, they sought battle, “some by reason of inexperience […] and some because they were tired of the war and preferred a quick decision to a sound one.”
Even Caesar would later write sympathetically about the pressure placed upon Pompey. Yet Pompey’s desire to be liked resulted in him meeting his opponent in open battle: Caesar crushed him. Later the victor would write that he had lost only 230 men in the battle. Pompey lost upwards of 6,000. Pompey fled in disguise to Egypt. Whilst the battle did not end the civil war, it was a decisive victory for Caesar. For many, this was the day the Republic died.
Having smashed the Republic’s army and defeated its top general, Caesar found himself in a position of power. So long as Pompey himself remained active, Caesar knew he would continue to be a dangerous figurehead for his opponents. Caesar therefore made quick in pursuit and set sail for Egypt.
Following the death of Alexander the Great over 270 years before, many of his former generals had established themselves as rulers across the former empire. One such general was Ptolemy, who took control of Egypt and created one of the greatest Greek kingdoms in antiquity. Under his descendants, his dynasty was one of the strongest and most prestigious kingdoms for over a century. By 48 BC, however, much had changed.
At the time of Pompey’s flight, Ptolemaic dynasty had become crippled by internal strife. Rome was also firmly in control of what was essentially a client state. When Ptolemy XII was exiled from his own country, he fled to Rome, indebted to creditors. Pompey had housed the exiled monarch, and thanks to his efforts, helped return Ptolemy to power. So indebted was Ptolemy XII to Rome that Cicero wrote that the Egyptian king had “sacrificed much […] even the very dignity on which the mystique of kingship rested when he appeared before the Roman people as a mere supplicant.”
Egypt had, through Ptolemy XII, become subservient to Rome. Following Pharsalus, it was now Caesar, rather than the Senate, that controlled Rome. Was Egypt now supplicant to Caesar?
Why was Pompey the Great assassinated?
As a result, Pompey’s arrival on Ptolemy XIII’s doorstep left Ptolemy’s advisors in an awkward position.The Egyptians knew that they owed the man. But they also knew that Caesar was in pursuit. Feeling obliged to open their doors to Pompey, yet seeking to align themselves with the winner of the civil war, Ptolemy’s regent – a eunuch named Pothinus – devised a strategy that would win Egypt the favour of Julius Caesar.
On 28 September 48 BC, Septimius, head of the Egyptian army, sailed to Pompey the Great’s ship on a meagre fishing boat with a few military men. Pompey’s wife and advisors sensed trouble; they pleaded with him not to embark on the tiny vessel. Upon boarding and being shown a galling lack of respect, Pompey asked Septimius: “Am I mistaken, or were you not once my fellow soldier?”. Septimius’s response was to nod once soberly, making no reply, according to Plutarch.
Septimius then drove a sword into Pompey. The others on the boat then moved in too with their own daggers to finish the job. Plutarch writes, that, at the moment of assassination, Pompey “[drew] his toga over his face with both his hands, and neither saying nor doing anything unworthy of himself […] endured their blows, having lived for fifty-nine years, and ending his life one day after his birthday.”
Dumping his corpse on the beach, Septimius carved Pompey’s head from his body and brought the decapitated head to Pothinus who made it ready to present to Caesar in a display of loyalty to him. Caesar was greeted with the severed head and signet ring of his opponent. But rather than rejoice, Caesar is supposed to have wept.
In trying to endear themselves to Caesar, the Egyptians had instead deprived Caesar of deciding Pompey’s fate. They had also killed a man close to Caesar’s heart. In granting former opponents clemency, Caesar was able to present himself to the Roman people as a reasonable and judicious figure. Indeed, this was how he had won the public loyalty of several high-profile former opponents, such as Cassius, Cicero, and Brutus (though many would not remain loyal for long). With Pompey’s assassination, Pompey’s men became scattered and Pompey’s sons continued the civil war in place of their father for years afterwards.
Ponthius’ decision to kill Pompey saw him killed as retribution, alongside Septimius, the murderer of Pompey. The assassination placed Caesar firmly in the camp of Ptolemy’s sister: Cleopatra VII. Soon he would fight for her side in an Egyptian civil war against Ptolemy XIII, and for 17 years Cleopatra would rule Egypt. Pompey’s death marked the end of the Republic as Rome had known it. Triumphant in victory, Caesar proclaimed himself Dictator Perpetuo (‘Dictator for life), and began a dynasty that would last until the death of Nero.