Pompey: Great General or Marketer?

More people worship the rising than the setting sun.
-Pompey to Sulla


In the waning years of the Republic, two former friends fought. Both were the best generals and richest citizens at the time.

Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus.

Was Pompey the Great, a brilliant general or just a brilliant marketer?

To me: A man who inflated his accomplishments far more than other premier generals of Rome.

At the time of Caesar’s civil war, Pompey was considered the more prominent of the two. Despite what proved to be a minor victory over Caesar, Pompey was soundly defeated
Was the Great General, victor of the Mithridatic War, eradicator of Pirates, victor over Marian loyalists, the Sword of the Senate, really a brilliant military general? Or good at self-propaganda.

In his career, he fought Marians, Kingdoms in Asia Minor, Pirates and Caesar. So, a look at Pompey’s military career.


Marian Conflicts

During Sulla’s civil war, Pompey supported Sulla. Pompey earned Sulla’s gratitude by raising a private army in support. The Marians took control of North Africa and Sicily. Pompey who quickly won local support, ousted the Marians. Sulla conferred the name of ‘Magnus’ or ‘The Great’ on his return (For besting incompetent Marians).

His first real conflict would come in Hispania, which was taken over by Quintus Sertorius. In previous engagements, Pompey had numerical superiority, local support and his opponents weren’t remarkable. It would take him six years to win.

Sertorian War
The Sertorian War would take 6 years for Pompey to overcome, only after the death of Sertorius.

Pompey reinforced the Roman governor of Hispania,. On arrival, A Pompeian legion was routed. Shortly after, Pompey lost the siege of Lauron. He sat and let the city burn, rather than withdraw.

The war had many phases, but what most vexed Pompey was the capture of Lauron by Sertorius. For when he supposed that his enemy was surrounded, and had made some boasts about it, all of a sudden it turned out that he was himself completely enveloped. He was therefore afraid to stir, and had to look on while the city was burned before his eyes – Life of Pompey, Plutarch                                                   

During field engagements, Sertorius was able to beat Pompey or any lieutenant on one wing. Unfortunately, the Sertorius’s subordinates would lose ground on the other wing. Pompey held numerical superiority, but Sertorius frustrated him with guerilla warfare. He targeted Pompey’s supplies very well. Rome had to dispatch additional resources and 2 legions. Sertorius was proving to be more than a match for Pompey.

For a few years, only skirmishing took place. Pompey would win the war when Senators within Sertorius’s camp plotted against him. They destabilized the alliances with the locals and tried to appeal to the Roman troops against his harsh methods. Sertorius retaliated, and while he may not have had complete loyalty, his skill was never doubted. After Pompey left the siege of Palantia, Sertorius attacked. At Calagurris, Pompey and his allies lost 30,000 men.

Sertorius was murdered by Perpenna, the pawn/favorite of the senators in the camp. His death sealed the war’s result. Perpenna bribed the men but never retained as much loyalty. Seeking a decisive engagement against Pompey, the armies clashed. Pompey won.

But in the meantime Sertorius was treacherously killed by his friends, and Perpenna, the ringleader among them, attempted to carry on his work. He had indeed the same forces and equipment, but lacked equal judgement in the use of them. Accordingly, Pompey took the field against him at once, and perceiving that he had no fixed plan of campaign, sent out ten cohorts as a decoy for him, giving them orders to scatter at random over the plain. Perpenna attacked these cohorts, and was engaged in their pursuit, when Pompey appeared in force, joined battle, and won a complete victory. Most of Perpenna’s officers perished in the battle, but Perpenna himself was brought before Pompey, who ordered him to be put to death. –  Life of Pompey, Plutarch

After that, Pompey showed his genuine brilliance at organization, as he administered the province wonderfully, winning loyalty of the locals.

The war can be a mixed result for Pompey. If Sertorius remained in charge, there was a good chance that Pompey would be pushed back. This may have resulted in retreat or Rome replacing him. He won against an incompetent commander, but organized and administered the province in a very efficient manner.

Third Servile War


Pompey wasn’t a major participant during the Third Servile War. As stated in my previous article, Rome never considered Spartacus’s rebellion serious until 71BCE. Once Rome flexed its muscles, Crassus took a full-fledged Roman Army and put down the revolt. Additionally, the Senate had ordered Pompey and Lucullus to return with legions to Rome.

Towards the end of the Slave Revolt, Roman Legions of Pompey and Lucullus moved in. The revolt was of no concern anymore.

Crassus won the decisive engagement, destroying the slave army. Pompey, intercepted just 6000 fugitives from the battle and cut them down. It was just a tiny fraction of the Slave Army. Yet Pompey mentioned HE ended the war.


But although Crassus had been fortunate, had shown most excellent generalship, and had exposed his person to danger, nevertheless, his success did not fail to enhance the reputation of Pompey. For the fugitives from the battle encountered that general and were cut to pieces, so he could write to the senate that in open battle, indeed, Crassus had conquered the slaves, but that he himself had extirpated the war. Pompey, accordingly, for his victories over Sertorius and in Spain, celebrated a splendid triumph – Plutarch: Life of Crassus

As a minor participant Pompey’s claim was very bold. With his popularity with the masses and his desire for more, he turned this minor encounter in his favor. 6,000 men of a broken army isn’t a great achievement for a commander of legions. Pompey’s dispatch with his message arrived before Crassus. It worked, his popularity skyrocketed and he was awarded a triumph and consulship in 70BCE.



Pompey’s Naval theater


Pompey was responsible for the eradication of the Mediterranean Pirates. Primarily, they operated in the Eastern parts of the Mediterranean. Piracy occurred mostly due to the devastation of the region. Plutarch did suggest Mithridates of Pontus sponsored and harbored Pirates.

The power of the pirates had its seat in Cilicia at first, and at the outset it was venturesome and elusive; but it took on confidence and boldness during the Mithridatic war, because it lent itself to the king’s service – Plutarch

Once the Italian mainland started to suffer attacks, and corn imports declined, The Romans tackled the issue. The Lex Gabinia, the law that formally empowered Pompey to tackle the problem of piracy with a lot of authority. His command was for 3 years over the Mediterranean and 50 miles inland. He was assigned 24 legates, and could raise a force of 500 ships, 120,000 infantry and 4000 cavalry. A sum of 144 million sesterces and the ability to raise funds from Treasuries were granted. In effect, Pompey had command of the single largest Roman force at the time. Such a force was a necessity, as the Mediterranean was large. Deploying his forces, he defeated pirate strongholds, pushing them back to the Modern Turkish coast.

Pompey Pirates
Artistic recreation of Pompey fighting the pirates.

Real credit to Pompey once again comes after the campaign. Once they surrendered, he did not inflict harsh punishments. He resettled them in depopulated areas, recognizing piracy occurred owing to lack of regional stability. This goodwill endeared him to the population and enhanced his reputation at home and in the area.

Some of the pirate bands that were still rowing at large begged for mercy, and since he treated them humanely, and after seizing their ships and persons did them no further harm, the rest became hopeful of mercy too, and made their escape from the other commanders, betook themselves to Pompey with their wives and children, and surrendered to him. All these he spared, and it was chiefly by their aid that he tracked down, seized, and punished those who were still lurking in concealment because conscious of unpardonable crimes. – Plutarch

He destroyed the pirate forces, with 400 ships destroyed and captured and 10,000 killed according to Appian. The general had to deal with some issues at home. Consul Piso, who led the opposition to the Lex Galbina had tried to halt reinforcements and supplies to Pompey. As trade flourished, the markets of Rome were well supplied. Piso had little senatorial and no public support. Pompey, did ensure he was not stripped of consulship.


Third Mithridatic War

The Kingdom of Pontus had waged two wars against Rome. The Third War was already being waged when Pompey was given command of the armies. Lucius Lucullus was the initial commander. Despite success on the battlefield, he was unable to follow up on his victories. Pompey through Lucullus’s own brother-in-law spread dissent among the army. Along with support in Rome, Pompey was given command of the forces, Lucullus had won two crushing victories over the Armenians and Mithridatic Kingdoms. Pompey would not face any single decisive engagement.

Mithridatic War

The smartest move made by Pompey, was to secure an alliance with the Kingdom of Parthia. An eventual rival to the Romans, the alliance allowed Pompey to focus on the Mithridatic Kingdom and its allies.

After he had defeated Mithridates during the night, Gnaeus Pompey forced him to flee to the Bosporan kingdom.  Pompey accepted the surrender of Tigranes and restored him to his own kingdom, Armenia, after he had deprived him of Syria, Phoenicia and Cilicia. – Livy

During the war, Pompey didn’t come up against well-equipped armies. Though, he would face numerous opponents. Over the course of his campaigning, he was able to subdue most of the eastern Mediterranean kingdoms. Conquests included Pontus, Albania, Iberia, Syria, and Judea.


Gnaeus Pompey subdued the Jews and captured their shrine at Jerusalem, which had never before been violated – Livy


Credit must be given. While Pompey did not face foes that were completely united or internally stable, he faced numerous opponents and had unreliable allies.  Armenia revolted several times, and its internal politics didn’t help. It required immense energy, time to keep moving and responding to events. Here, Pompey excelled. He was also supported by able subordinates, allowing him to divide his army and respond to multiple threats.

At the end of the conflict, Pompey started administrating the various states for the benefit of Rome. It would benefit Rome later on. Bynthia-Pontus, Syria, Clicia and Crete were made as Roman provinces, under senate control. Other parts of Armenia, Pontus, Cappadocia and Palestinia were made as client/buffer states. Rome exercised control over them. Their main purpose was to be a buffer to the Parthians.

The downsides: Pompey had violated his own treaty with the Parthian Empire when fighting the Armenians. This would be the start of conflicts between the two. The area was devastated and would take years to recover.

The Conquest increased his personal reputation. He was hailed as the best Roman General of his time. He gained a huge network of clients and a fortune, making him the richest Roman. During the Caesar’s civil war, he hoped to draw up on his clients to raise an army against Caesar.


Caesar’s Civil War

The final set of engagement’s fought by Pompey was against Caesar. Julius had been at odds with the senate for a few years over his fear of being prosecuted. The senate was bogged by Pompey and Caesar’s supporters. Most Senators were anti-Caesar and sided with Pompey and last minute negotiations failed.

Pompey dictator
Pompey was asked to defend the Republic against Caesar.

Upon this, the city went into mourning, as in the presence of a public calamity; and Marcellus, followed by the senate, marched through the forum to meet Pompey, and standing before him said: “I bid thee, Pompey, to defend thy country, to employ the forces now in readiness, and to levy others.” Lentulus also said the same, being one of the consuls elected for the coming year.  – Plutarch: Life of Pompey

Hearing Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Pompey fled. He wanted to raise armies in the East where he had clients and wealth. He had wrongly assumed Caesar crossed in force,
Why Pompey fled, no one knows. At the start, the war favored Pompey. In Hispania, he had 7 experienced legions ready. In the East, he had a large network of clients and allies. He was immensely rich himself. The senate had declared Caesar and enemy. Pompey had authority to raise forces in Rome and use its treasury. Caesar had 10 understrength (though experienced) legions. Pompey was criticized heavily by Cicero for abandoning Italy, and rightly so. A defense of Rome was crucial if he was a ‘champion’ of the Republic.

Battle of Dyrrachium, Caesar’s second military defeat.

When Caesar crossed the Adriatic into Greece, the Battle of Dyrrachium, with aid of traitors, Pompey routed Caesar.

Caesar would conquer Italy and destabilise the Spanish forces in little time.  When he made a surprise crossing, Caesar suffered just the 2nd defeat of his military career at Dyrrhachium. Pompey received information through a couple of gallic deserters from Caesar. Pompey managed to attack Caesar’s fortifications with superior numbers. The Caesarians were routed. Pompey though was over cautious. He never took advantage of the rout, believing it to be a feint. Caesar had remarked:
“To‑day victory would have been with the enemy if they had had a victor in command.” 

 – Plutarch

At the battle of Pharsalus, Caesar’s position improved. Pompeian forces outnumbered Caesar, and a significant edge in Cavalry. The tactics used by Pompey were just too conventional. Caesar’s hidden cohorts destroyed the Pompeian cavalry. His infantry proved superior to Pompey’s and victory was Caesars.

Pompey fled. He fled towards Asia Minor, Cyprus and Syria while taking part in a few minor engagements.

Upon this intelligence Pompey laid aside his design of going into Syria, seized all the money he found in the public bank, borrowed as much more as he could of his friends, sent great quantities of brass on board for military uses; and having raised two thousand soldiers, amongst the public officers, merchants, and his own servants, sailed for Pelusium. – The Commentaries of Caesar.

Pompey wound up in Egypt, only to be assassinated by a former subordinate, Lucius Septimius.

The end of a prominent Roman in the last years of the Republic.



Pompey, was a brilliant administrator and organizer. . He could organize any type of pursuit, with adequate supplies for his men very well. He was able to harass the enemy continually. It was notable during the Mithridatic War. He had a great deal of Charisma and had the genuine loyalty of his men. After conflicts, his able administration of provinces would benefit not only the locals, but Rome as well

Pompey in terms of battlefield innovation, was not spectacular. Dyrrhachium was a success with the help of deserters. At Pharsalus, his conventional tactic of flanking with superior cavalry and tiring out Caesar’s men was ruined thanks to Caesar’s repositioning of his army and the veterans. Pompey seemed brilliant as the legion’s organizational structure made it a brutal war machine. Through all his conflicts, he held numerically more forces which were well supported. He never had to fight with limited supplies. While During the Third Mithridatic War, he was outnumbered, he had a distinct qualitative advantage over his rivals.

Pompey will always be a prominent Roman.  Was he ‘Great’? At marketing himself and organization, Yes. As a general, he was average and not a great general. He isn’t in the league of Caesar, Scipio Africanus and Aemilianus, Marius or Sulla.

If Pompey was at Alessia instead of Caesar, he would NEVER have conducted the battle the way Caesar did. Nor would he win at Pharsauls in reversed roles. Not many could really turn an unwinnable position into a decisive victory.


Want to read about the Ancient Greek world? Check out the Athenian Inspector’s blog at: http://athenianinspector.wordpress.com/

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