Pompey – Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was one of the greatest Romans, a rival of Julius Caesar, who lived 106 – 48 BC, in the last years of the Roman Republic before the Empire.

It is likely that Pompey knew the coast of Turkey very well from the time when he led an attack on the ‘pirates’ or ‘corsairs’ in the area.  This coast was an important route for trade with Rome and most particularly the grain trade from Egypt and the Levant…

Piracy was a feature of the Mediterranean throughout the classical period but in earlier times, the great Greek navies with their fast and formidable warships, called triremes, had adequately controlled the pirates.  However, when Rome took over Asia Minor in the late 2nd Century BC, Rome eliminated Greek naval power and her failure to introduce an alternative left a vacuum in which piracy flourished.

The coastal communities in Asia Minor especially Lycia, Pamphyllia, Cilicia, the island of Crete and other small islands took to raiding merchant ships by sea finding rich profits and ransom money a welcome addition to the poor rewards of fishing and agriculture.  The spread of piracy was encouraged by Mithridates, King of Pontus 120 – 63 BC, who was the chief opponent of Rome in Asia Minor and he gave money and warships to pirate chieftains to aid him in his war with Rome.

The pirates seem rarely to have fought among themselves but frequently aided those under pressure from Rome.  Trade and travel became difficult – the young Julius Caesar was just one of the prominent Romans taken hostage on his way to Rhodes and ransomed by pirates.  Even the coast of Italy itself was threatened.  The populace of Italy and especially Rome had long expanded beyond the level at which it could be fed by home-grown produce and now relied on massive grain imports from Sicily, Egypt and North Africa. The pirates’ activities began to threaten vital life lines causing grain supplies to diminish and prices to soar.  In 74 BC Rome sent the former Praetor (senior magistrate ), Marius Antonius (Mark Anthony’s father), but he was defeated in a naval battle off Crete in 72BC.  In 69BC the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus was sent against the strongholds on Crete but despite some successes the problem became worse.   The future of Rome now depended on a solution, a permanent solution to the problem of pirates.

Pompey’s background was wealth and privilege with extensive estates at Picenum outside Rome.  He was extremely handsome with a ready smile and a sweet disposition (Plutarch).  By 23, using his family’s wealth and his popularity he was able to buy equipment, food and transport to pay the wages of three legions (about 20000 men).  As an unelected general, Pompey and his army marched south to join Sulla, who received him with great respect.  Together they took hold of Rome and Sulla was made ‘dictator rei publicae constiuendae’ (dictator to restore the Republic).  Pompey was sent to Sicily and Carthage on his return after great successes he was warmly received and at 25 Sulla bestowed on him the title ‘Magnus’ (The Great).

Even then, he chose not to become a senator and it was too late for him to start on a traditional career (cursus) and seek posts as Quaester (junior magistrate) or Aedile or Tribune. When Sulla’s health failed in 79 BC, the senate authority was challenged by Lepidus and Pompey with Catullus answered the call raising several legions from his estates – bearing most of the cost himself.  He quickly captured Legidus’s senior legate, Marcus Junius Brutus (father of the man who would lead the conspiracy against Julius Caesar in 44BC) and executed him.  The remainder of the rebels fled to join Sertorius in Spain who as a rebel against Rome controlled most of the peninsula using his military ability and powers of leadership over Romans and natives alike.  In 78 BC, the senate then offered Pompey, at the age of 28, the post of Proconsul Imperium of the province of Nearer Spain as their best chance of defeating Sertorius.  At the beginning Pompey was taught several sharp lessons by the more experienced but as the war progressed and with more reinforcements, Pompey began to display his superiority over Sertorius and the war turned into a grim war of attrition.  (Valencia was burnt by Pompey’s men).  After the assassination, in Spain, of Sertorius in 72BC, when he was found to be cooperating with Mithridates and the pirates, the rebellion rapidly collapsed.  Pompey then set about reorganising the province and founded such towns as Pamplona and settled the hill tribes.  Then he returned to Italy with his army.  He had been away seven years and was now 35 .  He decided at last to enter formal politics by seeking a consulship although still below the legal age.

On the 29th December 71 BC, Pompey rode in triumph along the Via Sacra and entered into his consulship and became a senator on the same day.  However, he soon found that a youth spent in the field at the head of an army as poor schooling for the rough and tumble of politics.  The ‘optimates’ (a strongly conservative coalition of aristocratic interests, which periodically closed ranks to defend the traditional supremacy of the senatorial establishment against the challenges from ‘popularis’ leaders who sought advancement by popular means, especially by the use of  the tribunate of the plebs. and military dynasts).

Pompey seems to have been very sensitive to criticism and hostility and preferred to stay out of public life.  He came to realise that only when fighting a great war did he truly outshine the rest of the senate.  In 67BC (aged 39) he found his great opportunity.  The shortage of grain had become critical.  All commerce was at a standstill.  In the senate a tribune, Aulus Gabinius, proposed that Pompey be given a commission to drive the pirates off the seas.  This was as a result of pressure from the equites (businessmen) who said in the words of Pompey ‘seafaring is more important to us than life itself’.  A law was drawn up giving Pompey supreme naval command which amounted, in fact to an absolute authority and uncontrolled power over everyone.  His command was to extend over the sea as far as the Pillars of Hercules (now Gibraltar and Tangier) and over all mainland up to fifty miles from the  sea.  There was not many places in the Roman world which were not included within these limits and in this area were a number of great nations and powerful kings.  He was given power to choose from the senate fifteen subordinate commanders to whom he would assign special tasks to take from the treasury as much money as he initially wanted to raise a fleet of 200 ships and to arrange personally for the levying of troops and sailors in whatever numbers he wanted.  In fact 500 ships were manned and an army of 120,000 regular infantry (the equivalent of 20 legions) and 5,000 cavalry were collected A measurable indication of the degree of seriousness posed by the activities of the pirates.  When  it was known that Pompey wasto take charge all the prices of foodstuffs fell which shows the degree of relief felt my the people of Rome.

The details of how Pompey fought the war are not clear but we are told by Plutarch that he divided the Mediterranean and the adjacent coasts into thirteen separate areas.  These included the Tyrrhenian Sea, the Libyan Sea and the seas around Sardinia, Corsica and Sicily. When these areas were under control Pompey himself led his sixty best ships, large vessels rowed by slaves and carrying detachments of soldiers, straight to the hive of the pirates at Corycus in Cilicia (now in Southern Turkey).  It is highly probable that this great fleet sailed down the coast we know from Miletus to Alanya.  In taking this route he should have been able to re-provision his ships with food and water at Miletus, Iasus, Halicarnassus (Bodrum), Cnidus, Loryma, Marmaris, the Gulf of Fethiye, Patara, Kalkan, Phellus( Kas), Finike, Phaselis and Antalya.  The terminal naval battle took place near the Cape of Coracesium, near Alanya, and the pirates were completely defeated and surrendered all the cities and islands which they had fortified together with ninety warships with bronze rams  they also yielded 20,000 prisoners. Plutarch says that Pompey did not exact punishment, except on known criminals.He was more concerned to settle them down in towns were they could be controlled and lead the Roman way of life.

After the war was over, Pompey spent some time visiting the cities of the east until the senate gave him the next great task – the conduct of the war against King Mithridates and Tigranes in Pontus and Bithynia, in the Black Sea on the north coast of Turkey.  By the time this was completed successfully and he had returned to Rome in triumph, Julius Caesar whose patron he was, had risen to great power, become a serious rival of Pompey and eventually defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus . He was was later brutally assassinated at the age of 54 on the orders of Ptolemy XIII.with whom he had sought refuge in Egypt. However, that is another story.  The final footnote is that when Julius Caesar was himself assassinated in Rome, his own body fell at the base of Pompey’s statue.

The inscription on Pompey’s Temple to Minerva:

Gnaeus Pompeius, Imperator, having ended thirty years war, defeated, killed or subjected 12,183,000 men, sunk or captured 846 ships, brought under Roman protection 1,538 towns and fortified settlements and subjected the lands from the Sea of Azov to The Red Sea, fulfilled his vow to the goddess Minerva according to his merit.

Note: Minerva, the Goddess of Wisdom and the Arts , was also the Goddess of War, her worship ousting that of Mars.   She is generally shown in statues wearing a helmet.