A statue of Pompeyi the Great in Ancient Rome

On This Day in Ancient History – September 29, 106 BCE – Pompey The Great Was Born


Before Rome was an empire, it was a republic. The republic did not die of natural causes; it was murdered. Before the time of emperors, laws were passed by the Senate and a truly confusing set of public assemblies. Essentially, the senate would pass a law, and then it would need to be voted on directly by the Roman people. Anyone elected to public office in Rome was instantly a member of the Senate; typically, this was the patrician class. They were old money elites from noble families. This created stress between the Senate class and the regular people. Enter Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Pompey the Great

Julius Caesar represented a faction (basically a political party) called the Populares. They were the populists of the time and represented the ordinary people. Pompey is most famous for representing the Optimates (Latin for “best men”), which was the pro-Senate party. 

Pompey was born on Septermber 29, 106 BCE in east Italy. His family was actually a plebeian family even though they sided with the aristocracy. His father, Pompey Strabo, was known as a novus homo (Latin for “new man”), meaning he was the first person in his family line to reach the Roman Senate. 

The Roman consul Sulla started a civil war in 88 BCE and then another one in 84 BCE. Because Sulla was also an Optimate, the Pompey family sided with him against Marius, a Populare. (And you thought partisanship was out of control in the United States). Sulla, Pompey, and the Optimates won both civil wars. Sulla became dictator of Rome, and Pompey earned the title “Magnus” (Latin for “The Great”). 

Pompey eventually became a consul (Latin for “kinda the president for a year”). He fought some pirates, he fought some people you don’t care about, and he probably passed some laws or something. Fast forward to September 29, 61 BCE. On his 45th birthday, Pompey was awarded a triumph for conquering some land in modern-day Turkey. Triumphs were buck wild; you can read about them here

Now for the thing for which he’s famous: getting dragged by Caesar. While he was in different political/military offices, Julius Caesar committed a bunch of crimes. However, he couldn’t be prosecuted because he was governor of a few provinces. So, the Senate tried to strip him of his governorship. Caesar tried to run for consul, which would also give him immunity from prosecution while he was in office (sound familiar?). The Senate wouldn’t let him, so Caesar invaded Rome. This was the famous “crossing the Rubicon.” 

The Senate dispatched loyal Optimate Pompey the Great to deal with Caesar. Pompey’s legions did a pretty good job but Julius Caesar is Julius Caesar. Eventually, Pompey eventually had to flee to Egypt just to stay alive. He was welcomed by Achillas, the guardian of Egyptian king Ptolemy XIII. 

Achillas welcomed Pompey onto his boat and then killed him; this was done to curry favor with Julius Caesar. Pompey was beheaded, and his body was thrown into the water. This all occurred on September 28, 48 BCE, the day before Pompey’s 58th birthday. 

On this day in ancient history, the last best hope for democracy in Rome was born. He was killed yesterday in ancient history. The Roman Republic died a few weeks later.

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