Pompey was made sole consul in 52 BC. To what extent did he engineer the situation so that he would be called upon to "save the state?
Rome in 52 AD was a rather parlous state as it was still reeling from the effects of the slave revolt a few years earlier which had been crushed by Crassus and the constant bickering and infighting between himself, Julius Caesar and the same Crassus. Becoming First Consul in 49 BC was obviously important and crucial to the continued well being of the Republic and Pompey obviously felt very much in control when faced with such a situation which put him at the top of the Roman Empire. As mentioned by Gibbon (1947), Pompey was a rather vacillous personality full of inner self ambition, and this culminated is his eventual assassination which ended his claims forever.
Pompey was an able and brilliant general who was called upon many a time to save Rome from inner strife and civil war. He was effective in his destruction of the pirates in the Aegean Sea and was also extremely astute in several battles. His reputation with the Senate was such that they made him First Consul largely at Cicero’s insistence but this was obviously due to the fact that the conservative faction in the Senate had no one who to back. However Pompey’s insistence on sweeping dictatorial powers did not have much truck and threatened from all sides, he had to accept that he was eventually doomed.
The role of the Senate also has to be examined in the context of power and power sharing which was not always hugely successful but served as a system of checks and balances within the Roman government.
Pompey was quite a ruthless man and this obviously lent himself to certain strategies which were successful personally but were rather ruinous on a political level. He attempted at various stages to influence the Senate in granting power to him to wage war but also he constantly clashed with senators such as Cicero and others on the fine mechanism of the Roman republic and how it was supposed to be run.
He also had some problems in his personal life with the death of his son in infancy and this undoubtedly affected him greatly as it made him a much harder personality and also very haughty and pretentious. This made him appear as the only choice for conservatives to take over the running of Rome after Ceasar.
Intricate politics in the Roman republic
In 54 BC, Pompey’s wife died and Julia happened also to be Julius Caesar’s daughter. This important event actually broke the family bonds between the two and after Crassus’ heavy defeat at Carrhae where the latter’s son Publius also died, it appeared that Caesar was now the great general and not Pompey. However Caesar was not giving up on a rapproachmant with Pompey and actually offered his grandniece Octavia as Pompey’s wife although the latter refused and actually married Cornelia Metella who was the young widow of Crassus’ son, Publius. Through this strategy, Pompey appeared to be drifting towards the group known as the optimates whom he was seeing as the lesser of the two evils.
As the situation continued to deteriorate, Pompey continued leaning towards the optimates in the sense that he felt that these would eventually triumph in the long term struggle. However as Cicero noted, Pompey had diminished himself considerably in various areas and was increasingly being seen as an unworthy successor to Caesar. This however did not stop the Senate from offering him the position of First Consul which undoubtedly was a position of power but not a total one, which was evidently what he craved all along.
Pompey used his power as First Consul to beef up the military and install martial rule in the city with power to crush all sorts of revolt or protest. This demonstrates that at the end of the day, he was a dictator like all others and would not hesitate to impose his ruthlessness on others. Cicero was doubtful on the effect that such a stance would have on the general public but coming from the conservative faction he had no real choice but to back Pompey. Pompey wanted absolute control over state affairs due to the fact that he was still rather afraid of Caesar and his power to influence decisions and politics. He began fearing for his life with good reason so the only way to guarantee him safety was to impose his own form of despotism and dictatorship.
However Pompey went ahead in an attempt to crush Caesar once and for all in the Spring of 49BC when the latter crossed the Rubicon and the former was perforce forced to abandon Rome. Both armies met at Brundisium and Caesar ended up victorious and entered Rome. What does this tell us of Pompey’s tactics? Although he managed to persuade the Senate that he was indeed one of the best military commanders and also a good politician, the end result was that he failed to actually implement any of his promises and the whole campaign collapsed completely without much ado.
Suetonius was also highly critical of Pompey on two important decisions. The first was the known fact that pompey’s indecision caused him to backtrack several times when he could have destroyed Caesar’s armies in one fell swoop and the second was that his constant meddling in tactics would only bring about more pain and destruction for his own men. Suetonius was also critical of Pompey’s administration as First Consul as on several occasions, Pompey was at a loss to take some important administrative decision. In fact at the Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey was expected to win but was routed and this resulted in his exile to Egypt where he eventually met his death.
Von Fritz in “Pompey‘s Policy before and after the outbreak of the civil war of 49 BC” argues that the political skills of the First Consul were rather good but he was undone but the infighting and violence prevalent in Rome at that time.
Other authors such as Gruen in The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, have argues that Pompey was the weaker of the triumvirate of himself, Crassus and Caesar with the latter being undoubtedly the best of them all on all counts. Greenhalgh, P., Pompey. The Republican Prince, continues to espouse the theory that Pompey was an excellent politician and in fact had several new and avante garde ideas for his time but these could not be implemented due to the fact that the political system in the Roman republic were still rather backward and without much propensity to change.
Leach in Pompey the Great, is even more lyrical about Pompey’s achievements largely basing them on his charisma and the ability to convince. He alludes that Pompey could do no harm and that the Senate was in his thrall most of the time thus resulting in his impressive record of convincing them to make him First Consul.
Lintott, in Violence in Republican Rome, espouses on the climate of wanton violence which existed in the Roman capital at the time and again reinforces the theory that Pompey could not actually succeed if this was not to be repressed in a brutal manner.
Ancient sources are also important for us to understand Pompey’s tactics. These include Plutarch’s Pompey where there are extensive references to Pompey’s aptitudes and characteristics as a general although there is also considerable criticism with regard to his tactics as a politician.
Cicero’s Letters to Atticus are also an important read as they espouse the battles and tactics which went on inside the Senate whilst attempting to grant Pompey some sort of authority, although at the end everything failed. In Letters to his Friends, Cicero is also circumspect about Pompey and in Letters to Quintus he emphasizes the fear felt on entrusting Pompey with such an important command. Plutarch’s Cato Minor is also an intriguing read regarding the situation in Rome at that day and emphasizes the crucial need to act to avoid a civil war which was threatening to engulf the whole empire. The civil war question is addressed in more detail in Appian’s Civil wars which offers a graphic account of what went on in the barnacles of Roman politics in those heady days.
Conclusion: was Pompey really a failure?
Several sources and historical accounts argue that Pompey was a failure in the military and political field but a clear analysis with hindsight does indicate that this was not wholly the case. Essentially, Pompey had considerable political and diplomatic skills as he managed to persuade the Senate to appoint him First Consul on the strength of his military record, conservative views and also a strong propensity to get things done. His ability to convince the Senate to give him total command is not one to be taken to lightly and continues to confirm his strong political and personality skills.
However it has to be admitted that indecision and other drastically disastrous decisions on the battlefield on Pompey’s part did contribute to his eventual downfall as a leader. Pompey had to face a superior military genius who was Julius Caesar and this had an obvious effect on what the final outcome of the whole conflict would be. Pompey would have perhaps been advised to hedge his bets with Caesar although it was inevitable that a clash would have come at some point. However one cannot deny that Pompey’s military prowess and his reputation as a hardline conservative on military matters curried him more favour than Caesar with the Senate. In the end though, Pompey’s credentials counted for nothing and he failed miserably on the battlefield to impose his rule which eventually ended in his assassination.
Plutarch Pompey esp. 47-59
Cicero Letters to Atticus 8.3 (SB 153)
Cicero Letters to his Friends 8.1.3-4 (SB 77; 81)
Cicero Letters to Quintus 2.3; 3.6-7 (SB 7; 26-27)
Plutarch Cato Minor 47-48
Appian Civil Wars 2.19-25
Cassius Dio Roman History 40.45-57
Gruen, E., The Last Generation of the Roman Republic,2nd ed., Berkeley 1995, 153-155, 233-239, 337-350.
Greenhalgh, P., Pompey. The Republican Prince, London 1981, 81-93.
Leach, J., Pompey the Great, London 1978, 150-160.
Lintott, A., Violence in Republican Rome, Oxford 1991, 174–203.