Rome - Pompey

"An Outstanding General, But A Politician With No Ideas". Discuss This Assessment Of Pompey.

The final decades of the Roman Republic saw many talented and colourful politicians, the characters of whom are still remarkably clear to us. One of the greatest and most important of these leaders was a man called Gnaeus Pompeius, or Pompey. Both as a general and a politician he had an enormous impact on politics for many years, his career and reputation being forged in a civil war while he was only in his twenties and ending just as violently in another civil war 35 years later. In this time he did much to help the Republic, not least his military achievements which greatly increased Roman power in the world, but he was also one of the politicians who must shoulder some of the blame for the end of the Republic in division and bitter civil war.

On first examination, the events of Pompey’s career would seem to support the assertion that he was an excellent general but an unsuccessful politician. Pompey had risen to fame and influence in Rome because of his military achievements. Firstly, he had helped Sulla re-take Rome and finally defeat his enemies. Although only young, Pompey was one of the leading figures of the time. His military reputation was further enhanced by his action pacifying Spain and his minor role in the defeat of the rebel Sparticus. Therefore, he had shown himself to be one of the leading Generals of the Republic, while still quite young.

However, it was Pompey’s actions in the East of the Empire between 67-62 B.C. which firmly established his reputation. He dealt expertly with the infamous Pirates who were based on remote rocky fortresses and were damaging Mediterranean trade, then went on to finally end the threat of the Eastern King Mithridates. From this he acquired enormous respect and support from many classes of society. The plebs supported the hero of the hour as usual and the equestrians appreciated both the end of the disruption of the Pirates and the pacification of so much of Asia, leaving it open to exploitation.

Therefore, that he was an exceptional General could hardly be disputed. The problem of the Mediterranean Pirates had been addressed on more than one occasion over the preceding decades and Pompey was the first to have significant successes. Mithridates had been attacking the Roman Empire from his Eastern base for much of his near-60 year reign. However, Pompey was not just a soldier. After the defeat of Mithridates he returned to Rome, disbanded his army and continued his political career. He was at or near the heart of Roman politics for more than a decade before this came to an end in the Civil War with Caesar, and many would see this period as demonstrating his fundamental lack of political sense.

Pompey had shown himself in the past to be without real political ideas and convictions. He had been part of the military force that returned Sulla to power so he could complete his ‘constitution’, yet Pompey a few years later was swept to the consulship on a promise to dismantle the reforms which he and Sulla had fought for. Therefore, he was quite ready to put idealism behind his career in his list of priorities. However, this was hardly an unusual trait in a Roman politician and does not indicate bad political judgement. Pompey’s achievements on return to Rome were however fairly meagre compared to the military glory if the mid 60s. His first speech was delivered as his friend Clodius was accused of sacrilege. According to Cicero the speech pleased no-one, containing fairly empty statements of respect for the Senate which certainly did not please Clodius and had little impact on the Senate either.

Indeed, this time was one where Pompey seemed to be making little impact on anyone. He had disbanded his army on return to Rome, which could have been meant as a sign to the leaders of the Republic in the Senate that he was not a threat and wished to work with, rather than against, the system. He would not after all have been the first Roman hero to use his army for his political advantage. However, the Optimates saw the disbanding of the army as a sign Pompey was weaker and therefore did not work with him. Pompey was interested in gaining support because his veterans needed land to be allocated to them and he wanted his achievements in the East, including treaties and client states, to be confirmed. In 61 BC and 60 BC he remained unable to achieve this, despite his popularity and reputation. That changed however with the "first triumvirate", an agreement with Crassus and Caesar for the achievement of their own private ends. His mass of clientage was still the driving force behind this agreement, but it was not a good sign for his power that he needed the agreement to secure his ends. It seemed that, though retaining his reputation, his power had diminished since he gave up his role as a commander. Indeed, Pompey seemed to be unhappy that his troops and arrangements had been settled in this way, though the corruption and violence of Caesar's consulship - he would rather the Senate had been overwhelmed by the power of the triumvirate and granted its demands, leaving Pompey free to distance himself from the behaviour of his colleagues.

During the next few years Pompey was always at the centre of politics, although his power did not always remain dominant. He made a serious error in supporting, along with Caesar, the attempt of Clodius to become a tribune. Clodius should have felt indebted to Pompey, but instead turned on him and became a vicious enemy for several years, at one time making Pompey practically a prisoner in his own home by using violent gangs. He was to remain distanced from the Optimates for much of the 50s because of his association with Caesar. It could have been that Pompey was sincere in his attempts to work within the system instead of dominating it by force, as he might have been able to do after his Eastern campaigns. However, he might have found this impossible because of his own character. He was resented because of his hypocrisy, mistrusted because of his devious nature. For example, in 77BC Pompey put down the revolt of Lepidus, who had tried to subvert the government as consul and attack Sulla’s constitution - but it was Pompey himself who had encouraged Lepidus to do this. Even the trusting Cicero sometimes saw through the facade to the basic untrustworthiness.

However, Pompey did have some political successes during this time. His relationship with Caesar had been growing colder in the late 50s - both Crassus, the other triumvir, and Julia, Pompey’s wife and Caesar's daughter, died in 54BC and 53BC respectively. This weakened the links between the two men. Pompey showed political astuteness when he married Cornelia, the daughter of the Optimate, Quintus Metellus Scipio. This was part of a reconciliation with the Optimates. Pompey could use their support to enhance his own authority, for the Optimates he was a vital bulwark against Caesar. The question of interest here is who exactly was using who in this situation. Pompey could have been planning a union with the Optimates for some time. He would still remember the trouble he had been caused on his return to Rome from the East because of the opposition he had received from the Senate, something which took him by surprise and considerably delayed the settlement of his veterans and Eastern achievements. The Optimates had lost much from the dismantling of the Sullan reforms, but they retained power in the 50s and were often very vocal.

Therefore, the marriage to Cornelia in 53BC and the resulting warming of relations with the leaders of the Republic was a good political move. It is of the same character as most of Pompey’s political successes - a manipulation behind the scenes, just as with the first triumvirate. It was the start of a renewal of Pompey’s power, and in 52BC he was voted ‘sole consul’ for the year, to deal with the increasing political violence. He does seem to have hijacked the Optimates rather than the other way around, but like most such deals in Rome it was successful because of mutual advantage. Caesar, Pompey and Crassus had shown in the first triumvirate that personal differences could be laid aside for the achievements of ends.

The evidence does not therefore seem to support the statement that Pompey was "an outstanding general, but a politician with no ideas". Pompey does seem more successful as a general, whereas his political career was far more mixed, but to describe him as a "politician with no ideas" is to underestimate what he had achieved and the good political moves he made, despite his failures. He survived in Roman politics for many years despite opposition from many rivals and by the end of his career had many of the Republic’s leaders supporting him. Indeed the statement could be seen the other way around - that Pompey was an astute politician but didn’t have the essential qualities that a general needed. He was undoubtedly a competent military leader yet his career was ended not by political mistakes but by military defeat. In the Civil War he made decisions the wisdom of which have been questioned, not least the decision to evacuate Italy and head East, moving to his power base but leaving Rome - and its treasury - open to Caesar. He fought Caesar in his usual style, with meticulous planning. Caesar was however a more than competent enemy, being a brilliant general with an original and innovative campaign. Caesar also had a more unified force that Pompey’s, which was divided between the different Optimate leaders. Yet Pompey was an experienced general, near the heartland of his support and with an army far larger than that of Caesar, and so it could be said that he should not have been beaten.

Perhaps he should have chosen to be one or the other - if he were a politician then he should have learned better how to manipulate the system and work with other people - including his equals. He had been shown by the success of the Triumvirate that working in unison with others was a good way forward. One of the crucial reasons for the war which was to destroy him was his inability to tolerate someone else of equal or greater power and military reputation, and as Caesar became the dominant military figure because of his success in Gaul and Britain, Pompey became eclipsed: and found he could not tolerate this. However, if he was a military leader at heart then he should have been willing to use un-constitutional means and go for power when it was offered to him. This leaves the question of whether he was right to disband his army when he landed in Italy and refuse to become dictator when a mob apparently suggested this in 52BC. Of course, some argue that on both occasions he was brought down by his arrogance, presuming because of his reputation he would have power without his army or the post of dictator. Others argue he was at heart a "constitutionalist", seeking power and domination within the framework of the system, not to overthrow it. Lucan gives us this view, pointing out that in the Civil War the side of Caesar was fighting for regnum, while it was the fear of this that drove Pompey’s forces. Of course, Pompey died before these good intentions could be tested.

Ultimately, it could be simply that Caesar was a better general and that Pompey was outwitted on the battlefield, which does not necessarily mean Pompey was not a good General himself. Pompey had dominated politics and been regarded as a leading figure - or the leading figure - for a long time. He was never defeated politically but had to be brought down in a civil war by a very talented opponent. It is unfair to say he had no ideas, unrealistic to claim he was not an ‘Outstanding General’. He did make mistakes, but also made many good decisions and stayed at the top of Roman politics for too long to be considered a bad politician. He was defeated, but it took Julius Caesar to do this.


Frank Burr Marsh, A History of the Roman World From 146 to 30 B.C., Methuen and Co. Ltd, 1971

Ronald Seager, Pompey - A Political Biography, Basil Blackwell, 1979

David Shotter, The Fall of the Roman Republic, Routledge, 1994

Ronald Syme, The Roman Revolution, Oxford University Press, 1974

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