Historical Figures

Pompey the Great, Caesar's rival

Pompey (Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus ) was a general and politician of the Roman Republic during antiquity. He was the ally and then the main rival of Julius Caesar. At a very young age, Pompey won important military victories and earned the title of Magnus, which means “very great”. In 60 BC, he formed a triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Crassus, an alliance which strengthened his influence. The war waged by Julius Caesar in Gaul leaves him full powers in Rome but, on his return, the rivalry between the two men leads to a civil war. Pompey was defeated in 48 BC. He fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated.

Pompey's early career

Pompey was born in Rome on September 29, 106 BC. AD, from a large Roman senatorial family. Still a teenager, he took part in the social war and sided early with Sylla's party. He took the initiative to raise in favor of the latter three legions (83), with which he defeated the partisans of Marius, Papirius Carbo in Sicily and Domitius Ahenobarbus in Africa. On his return, he obtained the triumph outside the legal forms and was greeted by Sylla with the title of "great".

Without extraordinary military qualities, he was lucky enough to be served several times by circumstances:having triumphed over Lepidus without a fight, thanks to the betrayal or flight of the main accomplice of this factious consul (77), he trampled on for four years against Sertorius in Spain but managed to emerge victorious from this war thanks to the assassination of Sertorius by Perpenna ( 72). His popularity was further increased by his victory over Spartacus and his rebellious slaves, already beaten by Crassus (71). He then celebrated his second triumph and, thanks to the support of the soldiers and the people, was elected consul in 70, before having reached the legal age.

Pompey's military successes

In the crisis of the republican regime, Pompey soon appeared as the providential man:by two laws, the lex Gabinia (67) and the lex Manilia (66), he received unprecedented powers, with the supreme command of all land and naval forces, the right to decide absolutely on peace and war, to levy all taxes in the provinces. After having eliminated in two months the piracy which ravaged the Mediterranean (67), Pompey delivered the deathblow to Mithridates, long weakened by the harassment of Luculus; he defeated him on the banks of the Euphrates (66), entered Armenia and forced Tigranes to peace, subjugated Pontus, Paphlagonia and Bithynia, took Syria from Antiochos XIII (64).

He brought the entire coastline of Phoenicia, Lebanon and Palestine under Roman rule, entered Jerusalem and replaced King Aristobulus with Hyrcanus II (63). Then, learning of the death of Mithridates, he received at Amise the submission of his son Pharnaces, to whom he left the kingdom of the Bosphorus (62). He thus brought most of Asia Minor and the Mediterranean East under Roman rule and won the recognition of the equestrian order, whose financial enterprises he encouraged.

The first triumvirate

In Jan. 61, after a triumphant tour through the Greek cities, he landed at Brindisi, in southern Italy, at the head of his legions. One gesture was enough for him to annihilate the Republic, barely recovered from the conspiracy of Catiline. But, too confident in his popularity, he made the imprudence to disband his troops, and, despite the sumptuous celebration of his third triumph "over the whole world" (de orbe terrarum), he soon saw himself relegated to the sidelines by the Senate. He then formed with Crassus and Caesar the association known as the first triumvirate (60) and sealed this union by marrying Caesar's daughter, Julie.

Caesar, taken to the consulship, satisfies Pompey's demands for his veterans (60), and renewal of the triumvirate (56) was accompanied by a real division of the world, in which Pompey obtained Africa, Spain and Rome. However, taking advantage of the absence of Caesar engaged in the conquest of Gaul, Pompey, to eclipse his partner and rival, undertook to conciliate both the senate by his affected moderation and the people by his largesse. Cicero was the architect of his agreement with the senatorial oligarchy, and in 52 Pompey was appointed sole consul, which was contrary to all the traditions of republican collegiality.

Civil War and fall of Pompey the Great

The premature death of Caesar's daughter and, shortly after, the disappearance of Crassus, killed at Carrhae (53), left Pompey alone to face Caesar. With his usual smugness, he underestimated the strength of his adversary, and, in 50, he launched a senatus-consultum which summoned Caesar, then engaged in the Gallic war, to abandon his army while he himself kept his legions. and its provinces:this was the signal for civil war. As soon as Caesar had crossed the Rubicon (Jan. 49), Pompey accumulated errors:abandoning Rome and Italy without a fight, he retired to Greece with the senate, then, leaving his entrenched camp at Dyrrachium, where he had held Caesar in check, he allowed himself to be dragged by his adversary into Thessaly and gave him battle at Pharsalia (August 9, 48), where he was completely defeated, although his army was twice the number of the Caesarian troops.

Taking flight, Pompey then headed for Egypt, expecting to find asylum there with the young Ptolemy XIII, who owed him his throne; but the Egyptian government, fearing the wrath of Caesar, did not even let him disembark and had him assassinated on September 28, -48 while he was still at sea, under the eyes of his wife and son Sextus. His head was carried to Caesar, who wept and punished the murderers.

With the disappearance of the great Pompey and the defeat of his last supporters in Munda (Spain) in -45 the last hopes of the Roman republicans vanished.


- Pompey, the anti Caesar, biography of Eric Teyssier. Perrin, 2013.

- Roman history. Books 40 &41:Caesar and Pompey, by Dio Cassius. The Beautiful Letters, 1996.

- History of Ancient Rome:Weapons and Words, by Lucien Jerphagnon. Plural, 2010.