Cnaeus Pompeius Magnus (c.106-48 BC) is remembered as Julius Caesar’s sometime ally and later enemy in both politics and war. Pompey, who Pliny compared in his military skill to Alexander the Great, was a formidable commander in his own right.
The son of Cnaeus Pompeius Strabo, Pompey came from a family of influence but not huge status. His father was wealthy and had served in the official positions of quaestor, praetor, and consul. They were not a part of Rome’s established aristocracy. Pompey himself had never held any public office when, at the age of 23, he first raised an army.
The Unelected General
In 83 BC, Rome was being torn apart by civil war. Pompey, using the fortune left to him by his late father, raised three legions from his family’s estates and the veterans who had fought for his father. Pompey had served on his father’s staff, and so had some experience of military command.
Roman generals were usually elected, but these were unusual times. Siding with Sulla, Pompey fought well in Italy, Sicily, and North Africa, bringing success for his allies and the title of Magnus, or “The Great,” for himself.
Despite his achievements, Pompey chose not to seek election to the Senate and the authority that would bring. Instead, for the next decade, he acted as a military commander outside the formal institutions of the Roman state. During that time, he made himself useful, putting down trouble across the Roman territories.
Spartacus and Crassus
In 73 BC, a group of gladiators led by Spartacus launched a slave revolt. It was an event that shook Rome to its core. These supposedly inferior people put the Roman legions to flight and terrified citizens, especially the wealthy ones.
In 72 BC, another man who had served Sulla in the civil war, Marcus Licinius Crassus, was put in charge of suppressing the slaves. Crassus succeeded. Spartacus was killed in battle and thousands of his adherents crucified.
Pompey, returning too late to fight Spartacus, caught and massacred the last of his fleeing followers. He tried to use this to claim he had been the one to put down the revolt; leading to friction with Crassus.
Then they realized they could do better by working together. Combining for an election campaign, they used Crassus’ vast wealth and Pompey’s popularity to win the powerful positions of consuls.
After four years of Roman politics, Pompey returned to action in 67 BC. Provided with 500 warships, 120,000 infantry, and 5,000 cavalry, he went to subdue pirates threatening Roman grain supplies in the eastern Mediterranean.
It was another hugely successful campaign. By showing mercy to the defeated, Pompey extracted information from beaten Pirates, winning a swift and almost bloodless victory.