Pompey, or, to give him his full Latin name, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, was one of the greatest soldiers of ancient Rome. As a result of his victories in Spain, Asia Minor, and Africa, the power of Rome was greatly extended and new provinces were added to the Empire. He won his first victory at the age of 23, and from then until his final defeat by Julius Caesar, 35 years later, he hardly ever lost a battle.
Pompey first made his name in a civil war which broke out in Rome in 83 BC. This was between the party of the nobles led by Sulla and the democratic party led by Marius. Although not himself a nobleman. Pompey fought on the side of Sulla and brought to his aid three legions which he personally had recruited and equipped.
It was not long before the democratic party was defeated in Italy, but fighting continued in other parts of the Empire. It was a great honor for Pompey to be chosen to go and finish off the war first in Sicily and then in Africa. On his triumphant return to Rome he was loaded with honors and given the surname of "Magnus" or "the Great."
Pompey's next assignment was in Spain where a rebellion had been in progress for four years under the leadership of a very clever and able Roman called Sertorius. He was extremely popular with the Spanish people, thousands of whom had flocked to see him and sworn to fight to the the death. The Roman generals so far had been quite unable to deal with this situation, and even Pompey could at first make little headway. Finally, after five years' fighting, Sertorius was murdered, and the rebellion collapsed.
Revolt of the gladiators
After the conquest of Spain Pompey returned to Italy, and arrived there during the last stages of a very serious rebellion of slaves. There were many slaves in Italy at that time, many of whom were kept as gladiators. These unfortunate people were made to fight each other, often to the death, in order to provide entertainment for the Roman people. In the year 73 BC a party of these gladiators under a Thracian slave called Spartacus escaped and lived as brigands on Mount Vesuvius.
In due course they were joined by slaves from other parts of Italy until finally all the southern part of the country was at their mercy. Then with an army 100,000 strong they turned north. Rome was in great danger, but at this point Spartacus was defeated and killed by the Roman general Crassus. When Pompey arrived in Italy the rebellion was virtually over, but he did round up a few stragglers, and for this claimed the chief credit for putting down the revolt. Crassus was greatly annoyed, and such was the enmity between the two men that another civil war threatened.
The two men patched up their quarrel, however, and agreed to become consuls together. The next years were unhappy ones for Pompey, for like so many other great soldiers he did not make a good politician. By nature he was simple, honest, and straightforward, he altogether lacked the imagination and subtlety needed by a successful politician.
Defeat of the pirates
It was probably a great relief to Pompey when, three years later, he left Rome and set out once more for the wars. This time his assignment was to clear the Mediterranean of pirates. For many years these had been growing in number and were now a serious menace to Rome's corn supply, which came from North Africa. Pompey was a superb organizer, and in the incredibly short space of forty days the pirates had been destroyed.
Asia Minor and the East
Pompey's reputation was now very high. But there was more work for him. For many years there had been considerable trouble in the Roman provinces in Asia Minor. It was felt that a strong hand was needed to put the situation right. Pompey was therefore given great powers, greater than any Roman had ever had before: supreme command of all armies in the East, control of three Roman provinces, and the right to declare war and make peace as he thought fit.
Once again he was brilliantly successful: the enemies of Rome were defeated, existing provinces were enlarged, and new ones conquered – these included Palestine, where Jerusalem was captured after a siege of three months.
Once more Pompey returned to Rome in triumph. In his train were over 300 prisoners of noble birth and a huge quantity of booty from the 900 towns which he was said to have captured. In addition placards told the Romans he had seized 1,000 fortresses and captured 800 ships.
When Pompey landed in Italy Rome was at his mercy. If he had wanted to, he could have marched on the city and made himself king. But this he would not do. Instead he disbanded his army and came to Roman with only a small following. Perhaps he was convinced that he could get all the things he wanted without force. These, indeed, were reasonable enough: land for his soldiers and agreement to the arrangements he had made in the East. However, the Roman Senate was in an ugly mood. Romans were always inclined to be suspicious of great military heroes. They refused both his requests.
Once again Pompey proved to be no politician. Out in the East, where his word was law, he had managed very well, but back in Rome, where it was necessary to scheme and plot, he was helpless. For a time things improved when he joined with Caesar and Crassus in a three-man rule or Triumvirate, as it was called. But then Crassus died and rivalry between Caesar and Pompey grew intense.
Pompey was jealous of Caesar's victories in Gaul and ordered him to disband his army and return to Rome. This Caesar refused to do, and civil war broke out. In the year 48 BC Pompey's army was heavily defeated at Pharsalus in Thessaly. Pompey himself escaped and fled to Egypt, but here he was murdered on the orders of the ministers of King Ptolemy. To the horror of Caesar they then sent him Pompey's head an an offering.
Caesar thus found himself the ruler of the whole Roman Empire; the death of Pompey left him without any rival. But not for long. Four years later he himself was murdered.