Pompey the Gr — Sort of Okay, Kind Of

Not Terrible

It was every man for himself.

The First Triumvirate was collapsing. Julia, the beloved daughter of Julius Caesar and adored wife of Pompey the Great, died in childbirth in 54 BC. Her daughter lived only a few days. Pompey fell into deep mourning, which was unusual. This was a time when upper-class marriages were only means to an end — forging political alliances, in the case of Pompey and Caesar, populating the Republic with more elite male citizens (especially in a time when infant mortality — and disposing of girl babies on trash heaps — was at an all time high), and propping up one’s bank account by way of dowries.

The upper classes of Rome made fun of Pompey behind his back because he was actually in love with his wife.

With Julia’s death, Pompey was sidelined for a while by grief. The thin bonds tying him to Caesar, his rival for power, were gone.

Love is powerful, and should never be underestimated.

(If you’d rather listen than read, check out this week’s episode of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast)


Cato the Younger was distracted too. He was once more trying to stamp out corruption in Roman elections by eliminating bribery, which was, you know, against the law. At this point, the Republic was so corrupt that “by dispensing enough bribes, [a candidate] could shield himself from any charge of bribery.”

Cato’s answer was typically, shall we say, Catonian. He proposed a law that assumed every elected official was guilty of bribing his way to victory. Once there, they would be required to prove that they hadn’t engaged in bribery or they would have to forfeit their office.

This plan acknowledged the harsh truth that bribery was indeed universal in ancient Rome. But it failed to anticipate the revolving door of officials being tossed out of office for bribery without replacements, unless the idea was to hold new elections, after which the winners would have to prove they hadn’t won by dispensing cash and gifts. If they couldn’t, they’d be removed from office and there would have to be — you guessed it — more elections.

In the first century BC Roman Republic, eliminating electoral bribery would eliminate office-holders. The government would have ground to a halt, ironically enough paving the way for an unelected strongman to take over. There were at least two of them, if not three, waiting for their chance.

Also, the people of Rome loved the gifts and games that each election cycle brought, so they didn’t want to give it up. They weren’t fond of the best government money could buy, but they wanted to sell it to the highest bidder anyway.

Cato’s proposed decree was immediately vetoed by the tribunes and the People’s Assembly, and he was “mobbed, cursed, and stoned.” He was able to reach high ground and shame the mob into silence, but the proposal failed. He was praised at the next Senate session for his bravery in standing up to the violent masses and his principled stand against corruption. No doubt still bruised from his encounter with the mob, Cato told the Senators that their praise was worthless, because all the men applauding his moral courage were nowhere to be found while the rocks were flying his way. “I cannot praise YOU for leaving an imperiled praetor in the lurch and not coming to his aid,” he said.

Grateful that the Republic was back to business as usual, the Senators just went back to business as usual, giving Rome’s moral mascot a pat on the back for his trouble.


As the civic situation in Rome crumbled into a pile of bribery, corruption, and regular mob violence, the people saw Pompey the Great as the one man who could put an end to it. With a dictator in charge, there would be no more corrupt elections. Mostly because there would be no elections. Mob violence would disappear too, because against all Roman norms, laws, and customs, Pompey would have his army in town to keep the peace.

This was a time of bizarre solutions: end bribery by assuming everyone was handing out bribes. End corrupt elections by ending elections. End mob violence by bringing in the army. Appoint a dictator to save democracy.

Two of the three members of the First Triumvirate had fallen out, now that Julia had died and there was nothing holding Pompey and Caesar together. Crassus was the only person left who might keep the partnership intact and prevent the members from going to war with each other to see who got to take over Rome.

I sure hope nothing bad happens to Marcus Crassus.


What do you get for the man who has everything? Rome’s richest man, twice elected consul, with a seat at the ruling table of the Western world’s greatest power?

Military glory, of course.

Crassus had always wanted to be seen as a great general. He had pretty much won the war against Spartacus before Pompey swooped in at the last minute and took all the credit. He aided in the rise of Julius Caesar, thinking that this pleasure-loving libertine wouldn’t be any competition when it came to military exploits.


Caesar’s victories in Gaul against the barbarians, and his quick sightseeing tour in Britain, meant that Crassus was the only one left in the triumvirate without martial accolades. He had propped Caesar up and joined the Triumvirate to be a check on Pompey, whom he despised for stealing his thunder with Spartacus, but now he was just the guy who paid for everything and watched from the sidelines as his pals the generals got their parades downtown.

So Crassus set off to conquer Syria and teach the Parthian Empire, which bordered the province, a lesson. The Parthians were seen as one of the few remaining formidable and organized foes Rome faced. Taking them out would make him the greatest living hero of his age. Better than Pompey’s old victories from years before. Better than Caesar kicking around a few barbarians.

Or so he thought.

He marched his legions into the Syrian desert and crossed the border into the Parthian Empire. In any other venue, the heavily armed and armored Roman legions would have been unbeatable, but in the dry, hot, flat desert, the fast-moving Parthian cavalry stayed out of reach and slaughtered the Romans from a distance with deadly hails of arrows. The Parthians were famous for turning around in the saddle while riding away from their enemies and firing one last arrow. The “Parthian shot” or “parting shot” as it is known today.

The Parthians offered a deal whereby the Romans could retreat in safety if they gave up all of their land east of the Euphrates River. Crassus refused. He had seen this whole campaign going very differently, in which he gained territory and won big battles like those other guys. His troops threatened to mutiny if he didn’t negotiate, so he went to a meeting with the Parthians.

One of his officers mistook the meeting for a trap and grabbed at the reins of Crassus’s horse to lead him to safety. The Parthians, believing this was the precursor to an attack, killed Crassus and his officers and then attacked the waiting Roman army, killing or capturing most of them.

According to legend, the Parthians poured molten gold down Crassus’s throat, since that’s apparently what you do when you have the richest man in the known world dead at your feet. His head was sent back to the Parthian king, who used it as a prop in a Greek play he was watching.

Military Conquest Safety Tip Number Two Hundred Fifty Seven: The Syrian desert in summertime is no place to have a battle.

Especially against an army used to fighting in the Syrian desert. In summertime.

Instead of a triumph, Crassus lost his army and the aquilae, the eagle standards each legion carried.

And Rome’s three-headed monster had lost one of its heads. Literally.


Julius Caesar was away in Gaul. Crassus’s head was in the palace of the Parthian king, the rest of him was, presumably, somewhere in the Syrian desert. Pompey was in Rome, and even though he wasn’t in charge, he was in charge.

He and the conservatives couldn’t agree on who should run for consul in 52 BC, so there were no consuls. Recent elections had grown even more corrupt and more violent. The people of Rome feared revenge from the Parthians and whatever fallout there would be from the collapse of the Triumvirate. As a result, Cassius Dio wrote, “The Romans were absolutely without a government.”

Our old friend Clodius — the one who had dressed in drag to get close to Caesar’s wife and arranged for the exiles of both Cato and Cicero — got himself killed in a scrape with an opposing faction. Like other populists in Roman history, Clodius had many followers and admirers who saw him as Rome’s last hope. They laid his body out on the rostra in the Senate, then set it on fire. Not only did the Senate house burn down, but also the Basilica Porcia, the meeting hall of Cato the Elder.

Once one of the most symbolic and ironic fires in Roman history had burned itself out (Rome’s fire chief, Crassus, being elsewhere), the crowd went to go see Pompey. “Consul!” they shouted at his door. “Dictator!”

All he had to do was pick one.


The Senators met in emergency session at a downtown temple to pass a law granting quasi-dictatorial powers to the few elected officials that were left. Pompey was ordered to levy troops to keep the peace. Finally he had gotten what he had always wanted — the approval of Rome’s establishment. All that had to happen was anarchy and a fire.

Marrying one of Cato’s relatives would have been way easier. And there would have been cake.

Pompey remained outwardly reluctant to assume total power, promising to consult the Senate and Caesar and the mourning followers of Clodius and pretty much anyone with a stake in the governing of the Republic and not step on anyone’s toes. He served at the will of the people of Rome. But while he said all the right things, “there were no elections, no consuls, no revenge for Clodius.” Pompey stayed in neutral. “He did not authorize anybody to either seek the [consulship] or to quit seeking it.”

Here’s another thing Cato got wrong about Pompey. He assumed the general was just like Caesar, tenaciously ambitious, committed to absolute power. But Pompey seemed to never know what he wanted, getting into bed with Caesar and the Senate and going back and forth between them both. The people of Rome howled “Dictator” at him every time he showed his face in public, but he didn’t take the job.

I think we all know what Julius Caesar would have done in his place. But we’ll get to that soon enough.


Since Pompey seemed to be biding his time, the Senate made him a new offer: he would be sole consul for the year. This was just dictatorship by another name, within the framework of the Republic. The Senate believed that by granting Pompey this power they could control him, at least a little. Consuls had to operate under the law and could be held accountable for their actions. Dictators had much more freedom of movement. They could, for example, put the severed heads of their enemies on sticks. That sort of thing.

Cato the Younger, whose last experience with a sole consul was the bloodthirsty tyrant Sulla, was finally coming around to the inevitable — Pompey was the best option Rome had at this moment. He told the Senators, “Any government is better than no government at all.”

Pompey invited Cato to meet with him, wanting Cato to be his “associate in government.” Cato, typically, replied that he was only on the side of the Republic. If Pompey was as well, then they could work together.

While this answer was maddeningly typical of Cato, it once again squandered an opportunity. Pompey was no tyrant-in-waiting, and was even less so after the death of his beloved wife. It seems like he was willing to play the role of the “useful tool” the Senate wanted — his gravitas, and his army, would maintain order, but the governing would be left to the Senators. All Cato had to do was go along.

Going along was not a thing Cato the Younger could do.

So Pompey acted alone, restoring order and putting Milo, leader of the faction that had killed Clodius, on trial. He proposed a law banning political violence, and created a special court to try the men who had burned down the Senate house. Both sides would get what they wanted. Cicero would defend Milo, and Cato would be on the jury.

Milo was convicted of murder, and the followers of Clodius were convicted for inciting the violence that led to the Senate fire. Order and justice had been restored, confirming Pompey’s place as the head of state under the guiding hand of the Senate. Having a fellow with no real dictatorial ambitions was a refreshing change of pace.


Meanwhile, back in Gaul, a fellow with real dictatorial ambitions was planning his next move. Since Pompey had essentially invited Caesar to share in the government, Caesar lent his approval to Pompey’s one-man consulship as long as Caesar got to run for consul himself, in absentia.

This was one of those things that always sent Cato off the deep end. Pompey was becoming a known quantity for Cato — a bland waffler who didn’t really seem to want absolute power, but Caesar surely did.

So Cato the Younger spent another long day in front of the Senate, filibustering against the law that would let Caesar campaign for office from what would one day be France, giving him the immunity from prosecution he needed from his last turn as consul. Caesar wrote that the proposed law received “a very violent opposition from Cato, who, in his usual manner, consumed the day with a tedious harangue.”

Julius Caesar was no fan of stubborn nags.

Cato proposed an exception to the law that candidates had to nominate themselves in person. This law passed. So Caesar could escape prosecution by running for consul in absentia, but he first had to show up in Rome to nominate himself, whereby he would be subject to prosecution.

Caesar’s followers saw the contradiction right away and raised a protest with Pompey, who told them “he hadn’t been thinking of Caesar at all” in regard to the contradictory laws, and then wrote out an addendum saying that the in-person nomination requirement did not apply to Julius Caesar.

So much for Pompey the Great as scheming tyrant of Rome. It’s like he wasn’t even paying attention.

Finally seeing Pompey as more of a power vacuum than a power wielder, Cato put himself forward to run for consul. But he campaigned as you might expect. He didn’t mention his war record or his many successes in government. He paid no bribes. He didn’t get his friends and supporters to round up votes. “He would not put on shoes. He would not do any of the things “by which the multitude is courted and captivated.”

Cicero took him to task, saying that “when affairs demanded a man like [Cato] for office, he would not exert himself nor try to win the people by kindly intercourse with them.” In short, despite the crisis Cato himself claimed the Republic faced, he couldn’t stop being Cato for even the short time it would take to get elected and pass all the laws necessary to keep Caesar in check.

Cato agreed, saying “no man of sense would change to please others.”

After his defeat, Cato announced that this was his final election. According to one of his biographers, “Cato had renounced the role of savior of Rome for the salvation of his personal integrity.”


Pompey named Cato’s old nemesis Metellus Scipio as his co-consul for the remainder of the year and sealed the deal by marrying Metellus’s daughter. The marriage put Pompey firmly on the side of the Roman establishment.

Well. That seemed pretty easy, didn’t it? I’m looking at YOU, Cato.

The stage was set for the final act: a battle between Pompey and Caesar for ultimate control of Rome. Both men dropped any pretense of friendship. Caesar won a final smashing victory in Gaul and a law was proposed ending his campaign, since the work was done. Pompey didn’t weigh in on the idea, letting it hang out there for a couple of months. When told that the consuls wanted to take away his command, Caesar put his hand on his sword and said, “This will give it to me.”

Pompey, like always, didn’t see Caesar as a real threat. A Senator asked him, “Suppose then, that Caesar kept his army?”

Pompey replied, “Suppose that my son took a stick to me.”

Julius Caesar, conqueror of Gaul, was no better than “a boy with a stick” as far as Pompey the Great was concerned.

I guess we’ll just have to see about that.



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Host of the History’s Trainwrecks Podcast — this is the stuff they never taught us in history class.