Pompey the Great: Almost anyone who has grown up in Western culture can tell you something about Julius Caesar, including, maybe, the names of two of his assassins, Brutus ("Et tu Brutus?") and Cassius (who had, according to Shakespeare, "a lean and hungry look.") But how many know anything about the man that Caesar had to beat to take over Rome? Prepare to meet Pompey the Great.

Yes, that was really his name. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was Rome's most famous general during the closing period of the Roman Republic. At age 17 he fought in the Social Wars (90-88 BC), an attempt by the Latin League to escape Roman control. In 83 BC he joined Sulla against Marius, and Pompey's brilliant military skill won the day for Sulla. During his successful campaign against Marian forces in Africa in 81 BC, Pompey was given the surname "Magnus", (the Great) -- at his own instigation, according to some sources.

Pompey's greatest claim to fame was the final victory over the frightening and embarrassing slave revolt led by Spartacus (73-71 BC) -- and it really was just a claim: the actual victor was one of Pompey's political rivals, the super-rich Marcus Licinius Crassus. In 70 BC, Pompey and Crassus were elected as Rome's two consuls, but they didn't work well together, because Crassus bitterly resented Pompey's usurpation of Crassus's victory over Spartacus. Shortly thereafter, in three months in 67 BC, Pompeii ended the perennial pirate menace in the Mediterranean. Then he went east and won the third Roman war against Mithradates of Pontus (on the Black Sea), one of Rome's most persistent foes. In the process, Pompey added most of the modern Middle-East to the Roman Empire.

After this unbroken string of military victories, Pompey was ripe for political power. In 60 BC, he Joined Julius Caesar and Crassus in an uneasy alliance and ruled Rome with them in the "First Triumvirate." In 59 BC, Caesar offered his daughter, Julia, to Pompey as his fourth wife. The marriage to Julia, which was the price of peace between Caesar and Pompey, ended in 54 BC when Julia died in childbirth. Crassus was killed in a Parthian war the next year, and the stage was set for a confrontation between the two dominant characters at the end of the Republic.

Pompey had become increasingly jealous of Caesar's highly publicized victories in Gaul, and both Pompey and Caesar found willing allies in the Senate: Pompey courted the "Optimates" (the "best people") while Caesar aligned himself with the "Populares" (everybody else in the Senate) and, more importantly, with the Plebian activists who could manipulate the Roman mob. In 52 BC Caesar went back to Gaul to put down a revolt, and that gave Pompey what he thought was his golden opportunity.

With Caesar away, Pompey got control of the Senate, and on January 1 of 49 BC the Senate ordered Caesar to leave his army in Gaul and return to Rome as a private citizen. Realizing that to return without his forces could well prove fatal, Caesar marched his army out of Gaul and across the Rubicon River, which was then the northern border of Roman Italy.

Pompey and his Senate majority quickly realized they had made a major mistake in provoking Caesar. Pompey mobilized the home legions, which were loyal to him, but, not being strong enough to fight Caesar in Italy, he retreated with them across the Adriatic to Greece and there began to prepare for a defense against Caesar's inevitable attack. Caesar took Rome without a battle and then rooted out any Pompeian remnants on the peninsula. Before attacking Pompey in Greece, Caesar protected his rear by removing his own enemies and any of Pompey's supporters from Spain. Both in Italy and in Spain Caesar benefited from defections from Pompey's forces.

After cleaning up Spain, Caesar turned to Greece and finally faced Pompey at Pharsalus in Thessaly on August 9, 48 BC. Pompey had the advantages of a larger army and of holding the defensive position, but at the crucial moment defections from Pompey's army turned into a torrent. Whole legions, especially among the foreign auxiliaries, upon whom Pompey had depended, came over to Caesar's side. Pompey was utterly defeated, but managed to escape alive from the battlefield.

Pompey fled with a shipload of supporters to Egypt, where he hoped to find protection and perhaps raise another army with the help of Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt with his sister, a young girl named Cleopatra. Caesar was in close pursuit. Exactly what happened on Pompey's arrival in Egypt is not known, but we can imagine what went through Ptolemy's mind when Caesar's great fleet showed up off Alexandria. Ptolemy invited Caesar ashore and on his arrival presented him with a gift -- the severed head of Pompey.   Cleopatra, as it turned out, gave Julius Caesar even more.

And that was Pompey, a great battle general, but not a great planner and certainly no match for Julius Caesar.

Pompey on the Internet:

Plutarch's Biography: http://classics.mit.edu/Plutarch/pompey.html

Encyclopedia Britannica's take on Pompey: http://www.britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/5/0,5716,62305+1+60756,00.html

What he looked like: http://www.bowdoin.edu/dept/clas/arch102/propaganda/pompey.portrait.html

A page of Pompey links from the Ancient History section of About.com: http://ancienthistory.about.com/homework/ancienthistory/msub_pompey.htmabove.