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Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus

(106 BC - 48 BC)

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus is best known in history as a member of the First Triumvirate with Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus. He was awarded the cognomen MAGNUS as a result of extraordinary military skill demonstrated at a very early age. His interest was less in politics than in military endeavors and as a result he became an unwitting tool in the hands of Caesar's enemies.

Gnaeus Pompeius was born in 106 B.C.E. in the northern Italian town of Picenum. His family had entered senatorial status only 35 years prior to his birth and coming from a provincial town rather than Rome, he was not readily accepted by Roman patricians. He learned his military skills from his father, Pompeius Stabo and fought under his leadership at the age of 17 during the Social Wars.

Pompey attached himself to Sulla during the 1st Civil War. This was a cruel war during which Pompey too was ruthless. He was given the nickname teenage butcher. When the war ended, there were still some rebellious factions whom Pompey was sent to put down. After subduing the remnants of Marius' forces in Africa and Sicily, he returned to Rome and was given the cognomen Magnus. (There are some stories that he gave himself the name.) It was unusual for so young a man to both have a triumph and be given such an honorific. Surely this was a man to be noticed.

In addition to his early successes, brutal though they are said to have been, Pompey was responsible for subduing the rebellious Spartacus and his army of slaves; this earned him the enmity of Crassus who had already put down the main force of the slave revolt that had terrorized Italy. He was awarded the task of ridding the pirates from the Mediterranean (another position Crassus had desired). He conquered Mithridates, King of Pontus, Tigranes, King of Armenia, and Antiochus, King of Syria and went on to capture Jerusalem.

Returning to Rome, Pompey received a triumph for the third time. He formed a coalition with Caesar and Crassus, called today the First Triumvirate. This annoyed the politicians as they saw their power being usurped by the three men. Crassus was probably brought into the group by Caesar, since Caesar had borrowed much money from the very wealthy Crassus.

Pompey then married Caesar's daughter Julia, thus binding him closer to Caesar. When Julia died in 54 B.C.E., a chasm grew between the two. Pompey returned his loyalties to the Optimates and found himself on the opposite side of the political arena from Caesar.

When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the senate commissioned Pompey to stop Caesar and his troops. A second civil war ensued. Pompey's forces were defeated at the battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C.E., Pompey himself sought the safety of Egypt where he was murdered by order of the Pharaoh's ministers. Upon arriving in Alexandria, Caesar was presented with the 'gift' of Pompey's head. He was furious that his former colleague and fellow Roman had been killed.

Joan Jahnige, August 2003

Sources:

The Oxford Classical Dictionary. Oxford University Press, New York, 1970, pp. 857-858.

Ancient Romans Rosalie and Charles Baker III, Oxford University Press, New York, 1998, pp. 73-80.


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