September 28, 2007

September 28 | Pompey the Great

September 29, 106 BCE - September 28, 48 BCE: Age 57

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus earned his "the Great" in many, many respects. He was a great general, an outstanding administrator, a compassionate man, a loving husband and father, and a loyal friend. However he happened to be a contemporary of somebody who was smarter, less scrupulous, and very ambitious: Caesar. They were for many years close friends; Pompey was even married to Caesar's daughter Julia. But the death of Julia took the last restraint off, and Caesar's ambition to rule Rome dragged the relationship into deadly enmity.

There were many traditional safeguards in Republican Rome against the rise of a tyrant; one of them was effectively smashed when Caesar illegally entered Rome with his own battle-hardened army. It was a clear declaration of Caesar's intention to hold absolute power. Pompey, who championed the Republican cause, fled to the East, intending to raise an army and retake the city. He never came close; in fact the rest of his life was spent between humiliating defeats and running away. It was an unequal contest, although it didn't seem so at a time. Pompey was an able general who lived his life based on traditional values; Caesar was a military genius with an eye to the future and an instinctive grasp of the social changes that were rocking Rome. After a final defeat at the Battle of Pharacelsus, Pompey fled with his family to Egypt, where his friendship with the previous Pharoah would, he felt confident, ensure him the protection of the young Ptolemy XIII.

Ptolemy was only 13 at the time. His counsellors advised him that the friendship of the powerful Caesar was more important than old ties to a vanquished man who had lost his army. Pompey was waiting in a ship offshore for Ptolemy's answer. It came in the form of two old comrades, Romans who had fought beside him in the old days, now serving the Egyptian government. They invited him ashore to meet with the Pharoah, but once in the small boat and away from Pompey's ship they stabbed him in the back. They then cut off his head, stripped his body, and took these things to the Pharoah, insultingly leaving the body naked and unattended on shore. (One of his servants managed to gather some timber and cremate him there.)

When presented with the head of his old friend and enemy, Caesar "turned away from him with loathing, as from an assassin; and when he received Pompey's signet ring on which was engraved a lion holding a sword in his paws, he burst into tears" (Plutarch, Life of Pompey 80). Ptolemy's advisers had misjudged the Roman sense of honour completely. Caesar demanded the assassins be executed, and had Pompey's head cremated with honour. Ptolemy was later deposed in favour of his sister, Cleopatra.

Sources: Wikipedia, The Life of Pompey

No comments: