The Last Pompeian

Pompey Magnus was not the only great name of his house. His youngest son, Sextus Pompey continued in the struggle against Caesar and his heirs. In the end, he would be vanquished, but 15 years after his father.

It’s ironic that Sextus Pompey was the commander of a pirate fleet. His father had cleared most of the pirates out of the Mediterranean just 25 years prior with a massive Roman armada. Also Sextus was a roman noble. Corruption and extortion could be attributed to them, but not piracy.

He’d be a thorn in the side of the second triumvirate for nearly a decade, with just a fraction of the military power and resources. Who was this Pirate Warlord and the last great member of the Pompeian house.

A bust commonly believed to be that of Sextus Pompey

Sextus and his older brother Gnaeus Pompey were born in Rome. When Caesar’s civil war erupted, he did not follow his brother and father to Greece, but stayed in Rome. After the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus, he joined his family as they fled to Egypt and Asia Minor in a bid to raise more troops against Caesar. Unfortunately, they saw their father assassinated by his subordinates.

The brothers took up their fathers cause, joining the forces of Labenius and Cato . Caesar would push them out of Africa and they’d retreat to Hispania. Caesar would face off against them in December 46BCE.

An early arrival by Caesar, allowed him to Ulipia which was under siege by Sextus’s older brother, Gnaeus . However Caesarian forces were unable to take a city under Sextus himself, Corduba. The Pompeiian forces were dealt a blow and retreated after Caesar took Ategua. They’d square off in a decisive battle of Munda in 45 BCE. Labenius (Traitor) and many Pompeian troops perished. Gnaeus was captured and executed, but Sextus would escape to his base of operations for a decade.

The food rich island of Sicily.

Sextus, son of Pompey the Great, having assembled a considerable number of the proscribed Romans, and other fugitives, in Epirus, wandering about for a long time, subsisting chiefly by piracy; at length he seized first on Messana in Sicily, and afterwards on the whole province; and having killed Aulus Pompeius Bithynicus, the praetor, he defeated Quintus Salvidienus, a general of Caesar’s, in a sea-fight. Caesar and Antonius, with their armies, passed over into Greece, to make war against Brutus and Cassius. – Livy (history of Rome)

Initially, Caesar did not consider him a threat and focused on consolidating himself. Caesar was assassinated by certain conspirators, starting another civil war over the power vacuum. Sextus, acted on the chaos and attacked Roman shipping and blocking grain shipments.

While being considered a minor threat by the second triumvirate, Sextus trained a small but efficient military force. Octavian and Anthony were focussed on defeating Cassius and Brutus and diving the Roman realm between them. After Philippi, the pirates caught the attention of the triumvirs.

Other similar civil wars took place after Cassius and Brutus, but there was no one in command of all the forces as they had been. The latter wars were sporadic, till finally Sextus Pompeius, the younger son of Pompey the Great, the last remaining leader of that faction, was slain, as Brutus and Cassius had been, Lepidus was deprived of his share of the triumvirate, and the whole government of the Romans was centred in two only, Antony and Octavian. – Appian (The Civil Wars)

At the time, Anthony controlled the eastern realm of Rome, while Octavian had the West. Thus, Sextus would be a major problem for Octavian. For 3 years there were military clashes. Sextus’s preparations paid off. Octavian, being a useless commander could not use the over whelming republican resources to crush the rebel pirate. Unfortunately, Sextus was not able to secure a decisive victory, thus a stalemate endured.

Now famine fell upon Rome, since the merchants of the Orient could not put to sea for fear of Pompeius, who controlled Sicily, and those of the west were deterred by Sardinia and Corsica, which the lieutenants of Pompeius held, while those of Africa opposite were prevented by the same hostile fleets, which infested both shores. Thus there was a great rise in the cost of provisions, and the people considered the cause of it to be the strife between the chiefs, and cried out against them and urged them to make peace with Pompeius. – Appian (The Civil Wars)

40 BCE saw Sardinia captured by Menas, an admiral of Sextus. This granted control of the Western Mediterranean to Sextus.

Octavian was the main triumvir who clashed with Sextus. He was the heir of Caesar, making it an extension of the fight between Pompey and Caesar.

In 39 BCE, the Triumvirs and Sextus reached an agreement with the Pact of Misenum. As per this, the Triumvirate recognised Sextus’s domain as Sicily and Sardinia and granted him Corsica and Peloponnesus (Southern half of Greece). He was promised a religious posting and consulship in 33 BCE (by then, a ceremonial position without real powers). In return he had to halt his piracy attacks and allow passage of grain shipments to Rome.

Why such an agreement was made? Anthony wanted to invade the Parthian Empire . Such an endeavour required immense manpower. A reduction of anti-piracy operations would help.
Sextus did not give up much. No provisions of disbanding his military forces was recorded. He doubled his domain and lost no troops. The pact favoured him. despite his smaller forces, he was considered a legitimate threat to the security of Rome.
Peace, as it usually is made between such factions wouldn’t last. Anthony refused to cede part of the Peloponnese to Sextus. This led to eventual accusations by Octavian and Sextus against each other for violating the peace treaty. The war resumed again, this time, the end was near.

[Y.R. 714. B.C. 38.] When Sextus Pompeius had again infested the sea with his piracies, nor kept the peace which he had solicited, Caesar, being obliged to make war upon him, fought against him in two indecisive sea-engagements. [Y.R. 715. B.C. 37.] – Livy (History of Rome)

Sextus Pompey suffered a major blow when his admiral, Menas, of Sardinia went over to Octavian, depriving Sextus of half his domain. A strong blow but not enough. Octavian’s navy challenged him in 37 BCE at Messina, and was the pirate lord emerged the victor.

Octavian’s best friend and right hand man, Agrippa would defeat the navy of Sextus

Even with all the resources in Rome, training and equipping a new navy wasn’t cheap. Octavian was not going to be able to do that permanently. So, acknowledging it to himself probably, that he was a lousy military commander, he turned to a competent commander.

Marcus Agrippa, a capable general and his best friend. Agrippa was the same one who would win the final civil war against Anthony, but for now was entrusted in combating Sextus Pompey.

Spending the winter training his men in naval combat, the battle of Naulochus, was a decisive Octavian victory. Both belligerents had 300 ships. Sextus had a more experienced and nimbler fleet, but the heavy Octavian ships had the Harpax, a device invented by Agrippa himself. The harpax, was simply a harpoon launcher, which was fired against an enemy vessel. Once latched on, the crew of the vessel would pull themselves to the ship, board and capture.

The Harpax, invented by Agrippa fired a harpoon with iron clad wires to grapple and eventually board enemy vessels.

In this manner, only 3 heavier vessels of Octavian were lost. All but 17 ships of Sextus were captured. In the mean time, Octavian landed in Sicily with a large army to overrun the island. Sexuts fled, hoping to reach Asia minor, where his father’s name was still large, to continue the fight.

He never reached Asia. He was captured by Anthony and executed without a trial. This was the end of the last great Pompeian. The Caesarians finally vanquished them and would rule Rome for the next century.

Sextus is not as well documented as Brutus, Cassius, Octavian or Anthony but was a major player in the dying Republic era. For 10 years he resisted against the Caesarians, one of the longest periods of resistance. Even more impressive, he didn’t have as many resources as Octavian but bested him several times (Not that Octavian was a brilliant commander).

Using of the Harpax by the Romans.

While he lost against a competent general in Agrippa, he also suffered a blow through the betrayal of Means. The Harpax more than easily swung the tide of battle in favour of Agrippa, or else the more nimbler ships of Sextus would have won against the him at Naulochus.
That was Sextus Pompey, a pirate warlord and the last great Pompeiian.

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