Roman Republic

Roman Italy (1st century BC)

Pompey’s Early Career (83 - 70 BC)

Pompey’s Early Career (83-71 BC)      Pompey’s Eastern Commands (67 - 60 BC)

Pompey in the Service of Sulla (83 - 79 BC)

An inscription (CIL VI 37045; EDR072269) that was probably found on the Capitoline Hill in Rome records that the imperator Pompeius rewarded the men of the Spanish auxilliary cavalry (the Salluitan squadron, named for Salduba in Spain) in his camp at Asculum with Roman citizenship on 17th November (probably of 89 BC), in accordance with the lex Julia (90 BC).  The inscription included the names of the 30 men who formed the general’s consilium, of whom 12 belonged to the Velina, the tribe of Picenum.  They also included:

  1. Ae]ṃili(us) Q(uinti) f(ilius) Pal(atina), almost certainly Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the consul of 78 BC (see below);

  2. L(ucius) Sergi(us) L(uci) f(ilius) Tro(mentina), almost certainly Lucius Sergius Catalina, the praetor of 68 BC, best known for the second Catilinarian conspiracy of 63 BC; and

  3. Cn. Pompeius, Cn. f. Clu.  As G. H. Stevenson (referenced below, at p 96) pointed out, he:

  4. “... can hardly be anyone other than [the general’s] famous son.  It is essential for the understanding of Pompey's subsequent career to realise the influences to which he was exposed in his extreme youth (he was only 17 years old in 89 BC), ... when it was [the question of the enfranchisement of Roman allies]  ... that most sharply divided [the Roman political factions].”

According to Plutarch, after the death of his father, Pompey remained in Picenum:

  1. “... partly because he had estates there, but mostly because he had a liking for its cities, which were ... well disposed towards him as his father's son.  However, when he saw the best and most prominent citizens [of Picenum] forsaking their homes and hastening to the camp of Sulla [on his return from the east in 83 BC] ... he would not deign to go to him [empty-handed]  ... but only after conferring some favour first, in a way that would gain him honour, and with an armed force. ... [To this end], Pompey, who was only2 3 years old and who had [no public office of any kind], conferred [military] command upon himself and, setting up a tribunal in the market-place of Auximum, ... issued an edict ordering ... two brothers named Ventidius, who were acting against him in Carbo's interest, to leave the city.  He then he proceeded to levy soldiers and, after appointing centurions and commanders for them, ... he made a circuit of the other cities [of Picenum], doing the same thing.  All the partisans of Carbo withdrew ... so that, in a short time, he had mustered three complete legions and provided them with food ... and [all the necessary] equipment.  Then he led his forces towards Sulla, ... endeavouring to detach all the places through which he passed from Carbo's interest. [During this march, he engaged with three legates of the consuls who had him surrounded]:

  2. [C. Carinas, a praetor in the following year];

  3. Cloelius [not securely identified]; and

  4. [L. Junius Brutus Damasippus, a praetor in the following year].

  5. Pompey, however, was not alarmed, but collected all his forces into one body and hastened to attack one of the hostile armies, that of Brutus ... [His success threw the enemy] into confusion, so that there was a general rout.  ... Finally, when Carbo himself [the effective leader of the anti-Sullan coalition, who was returning to Rome from his province in Cisalpine Gaul] sent many troops and cavalry against him by the river Arsis, he met their onset vigorously and routed them, ... [after which], they surrendered  to him with their armour and horses”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 7).

Having thus established his credentials and enhanced the forces at his disposal, the young Pompey marched on towards Sulla’s camp, and:

  1. “... when Sulla saw him advancing with an admirable army of young and vigorous soldiers elated and in high spirits because of their successes, he alighted from off his horse and, after being saluted, as was his due, with the title of imperator, he saluted Pompey in return as imperator.  [This was remarkable, since] no-one could have expected that a young man, and one who was not yet a senator, would receive from Sulla this title”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 8).

Frederik Vervaet (referenced below, at p. 133) argued that:

  1. “[Pompey’s] decision to usurp the official rank of propraetor, raise a private army of no less than three legions and join Sulla against Cn. Papirius Carbo (cos. 85, 84  and 82 BC) and C. Marius the Younger (cos. 82 BC) in 83 can be ascribed to circumstance rather than malevolence.  The extreme polarisation and brutality of the ongoing civil war had forced many nobles to make pragmatic, opportunist or politically inspired decisions.”

Pompey in Sicily and Africa (81 - 80 BC)

Pompey in Sicily

Sulla comprehensively defeated Carbo and the younger Marius and took possession of Rome in 82 BC, after which, Marius was killed at Praesneste and Carbo fled to Africa and then to Sicily.  According to the surviving summary of Book 89 of Livy’s now-lost ‘History of Rome’:

  1. “Cn. Pompey, who was sent to Sicily by the Senate with special powers, killed Cn. [Papirius] Carbo, who met his death crying like a woman”, (‘Perioche’, 89: 2).

It is usually (and reasonably) assumed that Pompey executed Carbo on Sulla’s orders.

Pompey in Africa

Sulla, who was quickly appointed as dictator, unleashed a vicious program of proscription against his surviving  enemies.  One of these, Cn. Domitius Ahenobarbus, who had been an associate of Marius, fled to Africa, where he was joined by many  others who found themselves in the same situation.  Domitius, with the help of King Hiarbas of Numidia, raised an army in order to continue the resistance to Sulla,  According to Plutarch:

  1. “ While [Pompey was still] engaged in settling the affairs of Sicily, he received a decree of the Senate and a letter of Sulla ordering him to sail to Africa and wage war with all his might against Domitius”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 11: 1).

Pompey’s army duly:

  1. “... routed the enemy with great slaughter ... and hailed Pompey as imperator.  ... The [enemy] camp was soon taken, and Domitius was killed.  Then some of the cities submitted at once to Pompey, and others were taken by storm.  ... [Hiarbas ] was captured, and his kingdom given to Hiempsal.  Taking advantage of the good fortune and momentum of his army, Pompey now invaded Numidia.  He marched through the country for many days, conquered all who came in his way ... They say that it took him only 40 days to defeat [Domitius and Hiarbas], take control of Africa and adjust the [Romans’] relation with its kings, despite the fact he was still only 24 years of age”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 12: 3-5).

When Pompey returned to his camp at Utica, he received a letter from Sulla”

  1. “... in which he was commanded to send home the rest of his army, but to remain there himself with one legion, awaiting the arrival of the general who was to succeed him”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 13: 1).   

Pompey then behaved as young men do: in an act that Frederik Vervaet characterised (at p. 133) as ‘remarkable and defiant insubordination’, he returned to Italy with his army.  

Pompey’s First Triumph (21st March 81/80 BC)

Sulla decided to overlook Pompey’s defiance: Frederick Vervaet (referenced below at p. 134) argued that he:

  1. “... pragmatically chose the lesser of two evils after learning that the equestrian propraetor had not returned with the intent to attack him.  After all, [Pompey] had still been a most useful ally and commanded significant popularity, while many of [his own] closest associates ... probably did not cherish the prospect of another civil war, this time within the victorious faction.”

Plutarch claimed (not altogether convincingly) that:

  1. “... Sulla went out and met Pompey and, and after giving him the warmest welcome, saluted him in a loud voice as ‘Magnus’ and ordered those who were nearby by to give him this surname”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 13: 1).   

When Pompey realised that he had faced Sulla down, he again did what young men do: he pushed his luck and demanded a triumph.  According to Plutarch, Sulla initially refused this request, arguing that:

  1. “The law ... permitted only a consul or a praetor to celebrate a triumph ...”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 14: 1).   

As we have seen, although Pompey had assumed propraetorian power as a privatus, Sulla had earlier legitimised this by saluting his as imperator in 82 BC.  However, the fact remained that he was not yet of senatorial rank and he had was not even old enough to stand for an elective office.  Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Pompey was indeed awarded a triumph: for example, according to

by Pliny the Elder:

  1. “The first harnessed elephants that were seen at Rome were [those used] in the triumph of Pompeius Magnus over Africa, when they drew his chariot ... Procilius says, that [they] were unable to go in harness through the gate of the city”, (‘Natural History’,  8: 2).

This account of the triumph is particularly important because Pliny cited the late-Republican antiquarian Procilius, who might well have witnessed it.

Before we look at this triumph in more detail, we should place it in its historical context, starting with Sulla’s triumph of 81 BC:  as Cicero noted in  the speech that he delivered in 67 BC in support of the proposal that Pompey should be given command in the ongoing war against King Mithridates VI of Pontus:

  1. “... hitherto, our generals have maintained the conflict with [Mithridates] in such a way as to bring home the trappings of victory over him, but not victory itself:  one [such] triumph ... was celebrated by L. Sulla and another ... by [L. Licinius Murena, Sulla’s governor of Asia in 84-81 BC], brave men and great generals both, but their triumphs left Mithridates beaten and conquered but still upon his throne”, (‘On the Lex Manilia’, 3: 8, translated by Humfrey Grose Hodge, referenced below, at p. 21)

According to Pliny the Elder:

  1. “...  the gold that C. Marius the younger conveyed to Præneste [in 82 BC] from the Capitoline Temple  [which had been burned down in 83  BC] and all the other shrines [in Rome] amounted to 13,000 pounds in weight, such being the sum that figured in the inscriptions at the triumph of Sulla; on which occasion it was displayed in the procession, as well as 6,000 pounds of silver.  The same Sulla had, the day before, displayed in his triumph 15,000 pounds of gold, and 115,000 pounds of silver, the fruit of all his other victories”,  (‘Natural History’, 33: 5).

The Augustan fasti Triumphales record a triumph of 81 BC on 27th and 28th of January: this can be confidently identified as the two-day triumph described by Pliny, which Sulla celebrated as dictator, ostensibly over Mithridates.  This entry is now followed by a lacuna of some 30 lines.  We know of three triumphs that followed quickly on the heels of that of Sulla, all three of which were recorded in fragments from Book 36 of  a now-lost work by Granius Licinianus (‘History of Rome’,  2nd century AD):

  1. “... when [Pompey] was 25 years old and still a Roman knight, [he] did something that had never been done before: he celebrated a triumph as pro-praetor from Africa on [12th] March.  Some writers say that on this occasion the Roman people were shown elephants in the triumph. But when he came to enter the city, the triumphal arch was too small for the four elephants yoked to his chariot, although they tried it twice.”

  2. “Triumphs were also celebrated by :

  3. [L. Licinius[ Murena from Asia; and

  4. [C.] Valerius Flaccus, from Celtiberia and Gaul.”

  5. As noted above, Cicero also mentioned the triumph of Murena, Sulla’s governor of Asia in 84-81 BC.  Flaccus, the brother of Sulla’s master of horse, had served as governor of Gaul in 86 - 81 BC. 

The precise dates on none of these triumphs is known. John Rich (referenced below, at p. 251) suggested that Murena’s triumph followed that of Sulla in 81 BC, followed by those of Flaccus and Pompey before the end of 80 BC.  If this is the correct order, and if we assume that it is unlikely that all three took place in the period 29th January - 12th March 81 BC, then Pompey’s triumph would have been celebrated on 12th March 80 BC.

The celebration of Pompey’s triumph over Africa and the story about the unfortunate incident with the four elephants was also reported by Plutarch (‘Life of Pompey’, 14: 1) and by Pliny the Elder (‘Natural History’, ,8: 2),  who cited he late-Republican antiquarian Procilius, who might well have witnessed it.  There was another potential mishap during this triumph: according to Plutarch:

  1. “... when [Pompey’s]  soldiers, who had not got as much as they expected, were inclined to raise a tumult and impede the triumph, he said he did not care at all, but would rather give up his triumph than truckle to them.  Then Servilius [probably P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus, cos 79 BC], a man of distinction and one who had been most opposed to Pompey's triumph, said he now saw that Pompey was really great, and worthy of the honour (‘Life of Pompey’, 14: 4). 

The most likely scenario that emerges from all this is one that was put forward, for example, by Frederik Vervaet (referenced below, at p. 135):

“There is, indeed, every indication that Sulla and the Senate again decided to swallow their pride [and allow Pompey to triumph], probably in consideration of the fact that [he] still commanded a fiercely loyal force of at least six battle-hardened legions.”

It is also entirely possible that the triumph (despite its mishaps) increased Pompey’s standing in the City. 

And it is clear that he might also have been easily made a senator at that time, had he wished it; but he was not eager for this, as they say, since he was in the chase for reputation of a surprising sort. And indeed it would have been nothing wonder­ful for Pompey to be a senator before he was of age for it; but it was a dazzling honour for him to celebrate a triumph before he was a senator. And this contributed not a little to win him the favour of the multitude; for the people were delighted to have him still classed among the knights after a triumph.


Lepidus’ Revolt (77 BC)

Sulla retired from public life in 79 BC, immediately after the election of the consuls for 78 BC:

  1. M. Aemilius Lepidus (who received Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul as his provinces for 77 BC); and

  2. Q. Lutatius Catulus. (whose allotted province is unknown).

It seems that Sulla’s exasperation with Pompey was unabated: according to Plutarch:

  1. “...against [Sulla’s] wishes, Pompey made Lepidus consul by canvassing for him and making the people zealously support him through their goodwill towards himself.  Seeing Pompey walking through the forum with a throng, Sulla said: ’I see, young man, that you rejoice in your victory; and certainly, it was a generous and noble thing for Lepidus, the worst of men, to be proclaimed consul by a larger vote than Catulus, the best of men, because you influenced the people to take this course.  Now, however, it is time for you to be ... watchful for your own interests; you have made your adversary stronger than yourself.’  But, it was in the terms of his will that Sulla showed most clearly that he remained badly disposed towards Pompey: for, while he bequeathed gifts to other friends and made some of them guardians of his son, he omitted all mention of Pompey.  And yet, Pompey bore this with great composure and loyalty, so that, when Lepidus and sundry others tried to prevent the burial of Sulla’s body in the Campus Martius and to prevent him from receiving public burial honours of any kind, he [Pompey] came to the rescue and ensured that he was buried in honour and security”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 15).

The epitome of Livy summarised the events of this period as follows:

  1. “Sulla died and the Senate honoured him by allowing his burial on the Campus Martius.  Lepidus, who tried to revoke the acts of Sulla, caused a war.  He was expelled from Italy by his colleague Catulus and died in Sardinia, where he had tried in vain to stir up a war.  Marcus Junius Brutus, who had received Cisalpine Gaul [as his province], was killed by Pompey”, (‘Periochae’, 90: 1-4).

Plutarch then noted that, soon his death of Sulla’s prophecies were fulfilled, when:

  1. “... Lepidus tried to assume Sulla's powers.  He took no circuitous route and used no pretence, but appeared at once in arms, stirring up and gathering about himself the remnants of the long-enfeebled, [opposition to Sulla that had managed to outlive him].  Lepidus’ colleague, Catulus, to whom the uncorrupt and sounder element in the Senate and people attached themselves, was [renowned for his] wisdom and justice ... [but] was thought to be better adapted for political than military leadership. ... [Thus, when Lepidus stirred up a revolt is Etruria] Pompey ... took the side of the nobility and was appointed commander of an army against Lepidus, who  ... was employing [Marcus Junius Brutus] to hold Cisalpine Gaul with an army”, (‘Life of Pompey’, 16).

According to Granius Licinianus, summarising Sallust:

  1. “... when the tribunes of the plebs called on the consuls [in 78 BC] to restore the tribunician power [which Sulla had removed], Lepidus was the first to refuse, and most of the crowd at an assembly agreed with him when he said, in a speech that still survives, that it was not beneficial for the tribunician power to be restored.  He passed a corn law without opposition, which provided a corn allowance ... for the people, and he made many other promises: to recall the exiles, to rescind the acts of Sulla, and to restore to its owners the land which had been used for military colonies.  The inhabitants of Faesulae broke into the strongholds of the veterans and, after killing many of the veterans [whom Sulla had settled there] and reclaiming their land, they defended their actions before the Senate, on the grounds that the rural population had been forced to do this after being driven from their homes.  The consuls were assigned an army and set off for Etruria, as the Senate instructed, (‘History of Rome’, Book 36). 

According the Florus:

  1. “... a civil war that arose [in 78 BC] was suppressed almost as soon as it began.  Yet the spark that kindled it, however insignificant, sprang from the funeral pyre of Sulla.  Lepidus, desirous of change in affairs, presumptuously prepared to rescind the acts of that great man; and his action might have been justified, if only he could have carried it out without involving the State in a great disaster.  However, since Sulla ... had proscribed his enemies, for what purpose would Lepidus have recalled those of them that survived other than war ? And, since the estates of the condemned citizens, assigned to others by Sulla, though wrongfully seized, were nonetheless held legally, the demand for their restoration undoubtedly tended to disturb the tranquility of the State.  It was expedient, therefore, that the sick and wounded State should ... be allowed to rest, lest its wounds should be torn open by the very attempt to heal them. Lepidus, therefore, having alarmed the State by his excited harangues, which seemed like a trumpet-call [to the rebels], set out for Etruria and from there directed his arms and troops against Rome.  But Catulus and Pompey, who had been leaders and standard-bearers under Sulla's domination, had already occupied the Mulvian Bridge and the Hill of Janiculum with another army.  Having been immediately driven back by these generals at his first onslaught and declared an enemy by the Senate, Lepidus fled without further bloodshed to Etruria and on to Sardinia, where he died of disease and remorse. The victors were content with restoring peace, a thing that has rarely happened in civil wars”, (‘Epitome of Roman History’, 2: 11)

Their consular year was marked by mutual alienation, as a result of Lepidus’ opportunistic rejection of Sulla’s constitutional reforms. 

When Lepidus left for his province in 77 BC, his political enemies moved against him, with the leading senator, Lucius Marius Philippus in the lead.  He arranged for Lepidus to be recalled to Roma and, when Lepidus refused, for the passage of a senatus consultum ultimum.  Two men were appointed to defend the state:

  1. Appius Claudius Pulcher, one of the consuls of 79 (who happened to be in Rome, rather  than in his province of Macedonia,  because of ill-health) was named interrex;

  2. Catulus, who had yet to leave for his (unknown) province.     

Pompey, who had several ‘veterans’ in Picenum at his disposal, was appointed as legate with praetorian power. 

Pompey laid siege to Mutina, which was held by Marcus Junius Brutus, one of Lepidus's commanders.  He accepted Brutus’ surrender but then executed him, before marching through Etruria in pursuit of Lepidus, who was advancing towards Rome.  Catullus led an army against him and defeated his army before it reached the city.   Pompey caught up with Lepidus near Cosa, but Lepidus was still able to embark part of his army and retreat to Sardinia, where he died. 

Pompey now refused to obey Catullus’ demand that he should now disband his army and demanded to be sent to Spain.

Sertorian War (80 - 72 BC)

Sulla’s enemy, Q.Serorius, had served as praetor in 83 BC and received Nearer Spain as his province in the following year.  Through his efforts, Spain was to provide a refuge for like-minded men during Sulla’s period in power.  Sulla probably sent Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius, the consul of 80 BC, to Spain as proconsul in 79 BC.  He suffered a series of reverses in 79-8 BC and, when neither of the consuls of 78 BC would accept Spain as their province, Pompey was well-placed to insist that he should be sent to aid Metellus, whose term in Spain was further extended.


According to Sallust (who lived at about the same time as Pompey):

“... Pompey, believing from his earliest youth, thanks to the flattery of his supporters, that he would be like King Alexander [of Macedonia], was an emulator of that man’s deeds and intentions”, (‘Histories’, 3: 62, translated by John Ramsey, referenced below, at p. 283).

In his introduction to this fragment, Ramsey observed that:

“To commemorate his victory in [74 BC in the war in Spain against the rebel followers of Q. Sertorius, which led to his second triumph], Pompey set up a trophy monument on a summit at Col de Pertus, near the town of Panissars, in the Pyrenees

(Plin. HN 7.96; Exsuper. 8 [56Z]; Dio 41.24.3), slight remains of which have survived in situ to this day. In a similar fashion, Alexander the Great had marked the easternmost extent of his conquests in India with a set of twelve massive altars (Arr. Anab. 5.29.1; Strabo 3.5.5, p. 171).

But Pompey, believing from his earliest youth, thanks to the flattery of his supporters, that he would be like King Alexander, was an emulator of that man’s deeds and intentions.

Pompey’s Consulship (70 BC) 

According to Robert Broughton (referenced below, at p. 124), in 71 BC:

  1. M. Licinius Crassus, as proconsul,  had defeated almost all of the forces of Spartacus and celebrated an ovation; and

  2. Pompey as proconsul in Spain, claimed victory in Spain and the settlement of his province. He celebrated at triumph on 29th December.

Broughton noted that:

  1. “At the summons of the Senate, [Pompey] had proceeded to Italy [earlier in the year] to aid Crassus against Spartacus, and arrived in time to crush the last remnant of the fugitives in the north.  His illegal candidacy for the consulship [he was under the minimum age of 35 and not yet a senator] won support from Crassus and the popular leaders to whom he promised he restoration of the powers of the tribunes, [which had been reduced by Sulla], and other reforms.”

Robert Broughton then noted ( at p. 126 that Pompey and Crassus, having been elected, co-operated in restoring the powers of the tribunes of the Plebs and revived the censorship.  However, they became estranged from each other during this period, and both refused provincial commands at the end of it (presumably so that they could stay in Rome and keep an eye on each other).          


Read more:

Ramsey J. T. (translator), “Sallust: Fragments of the Histories; Letters to Caesar”, (2015) Cambridge, MA

Rich J., “The Triumph in the Roman Republic: Frequency, Fluctuation and Policy”, in:

  1. Lange C. H. and Vervaet F. J. (editors), “The Roman Republican Triumph Beyond the Spectacle”, (2014) Rome, at pp. 197-258

Vervaet F. J., ‘Si Neque Leges Neque Mores Cogunt’: Beyond the Spectacle of Pompeius Magnus’ Public Triumphs”, in:

  1. Lange C. H. and Vervaet F. J. (editors), “The Roman Republican Triumph Beyond the Spectacle”, (2014) Rome, at pp. 134-48

Grose Hodge H. (translator), “Cicero: Pro Lege Manilia; Pro Caecina; Pro Cluentio’ Pro Rabirio Perduellionis Reo”, (1927) Cambridge MA

Stevenson G. H., “Cn. Pompeius Strabo and the Franchise Question”, Journal of Roman Studies, 9 (1919) 95-101

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