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The Life of Pompey
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known a Pompey or Pompey the Great, was a military and political leader in the time of the fall of the Roman republic. He was a strong and powerful leader, that harnessed the public, allowing him to thrive. Plutarch, a greek-roman biographer, outlines Pompey’s life in The Parallel Lives-Life of Pompey. He was a citizen of Rome and was someone who supported Pompey. Some believed that Pompey was too young or inexperienced, however, it is shown how he did many beneficial things for the Roman empire. He brought change to the way that the system worked, and it was often for the better. He also was not one to side with politicians, he made sure he did things the way that he saw best, and took support from the public. Pompey’s legacy on Rome was quite different from the past, leaving a lasting impact on ancient Roman society, which can be seen in Plutarch’s The Parallel Lives-Life of Pompey.
Before Pompey became such a prominent figure, he began collecting power at quite a young age, which helped propel him into power in the future. In his early career, he worked under Sulla as a lieutenant. Sulla, at the time, was a highly ranked individual with lots of power. Working with someone with supreme power, obviously allowed Pompey to benefit greatly simply from watching from Sulla. Sulla saw this in Pompey and knew that the charisma and charm that he harnesses, would allow him to become someone in his position one day. Sulla was afraid, however, that Pompey would become a rival and challenge Sulla for his power. However, the population all supported Pompey and wanted to see him rise to power. This forced Sulla to have to grudgingly give Pompey the title of “Magnus”. This title means “the great” and receiving this title at the age that Pompey was, was revolutionary. Many of Pompey’s predecessors were trained since they were born to take power, but never fully got the public’s approval. Pompey was able to gain a high title despite his inexperience while having constant support from the public. The power that Pompey had, came directly from the people’s opinions from him and this is what allowed him to keep gaining power.
Many years later, Pompey eventually came to power and was ultimately ruling Rome. The state of his power was mainly based on the public’s opinion on him. Sometime into his career, one of Pompey’s inmates created a law, that gave him the power over all men, much like a monarchy. He would get control of the mainland as well as part of the sea. This was a massive amount of power that he was being given, and the people supported it. Many of the chiefs and officials, however, did not think that he should be given all of that power. Catulus, for example, came forward to speak against the law and “the people had regard enough for him to be quiet for some time; but after he had spoken at length in Pompey’s praise and without any disparagement of him,” (Plutarch 181) he was still unable to convince the public that Pompey did not deserve the power, so soon after, he had to retire. It is clear that during this time period, the opinion of the people is what mattered most. Catalus was unable to stay in power after the people so directly disagreed with him, and he knew that he had isolated himself from the population, so he no longer would have the power that he wanted because he looked bad in the public’s eye.
The reaction that Ceaser had, shows further how important it was to please the public and how much power they held. While all of the other leaders outright disagreed with the law, Ceaser was the only one that supported it. He did not do this because he particularly liked Pompey, but instead because he knew it was what the people wanted. In the text, it states, “he sought to ingratiate himself with the people and win their support” (Plutarch 180), so the only reason he agreed with the law that gave Pompey so much power, is so that the public would remain on his side. These actions show, that at that time in Rome, the people’s opinions were vital in Roman politics, and in order to stay in power you needed the public’s support. It also goes to show, how intently the public supported Pompey, and how they truly believed that he should have great amounts of power. The Roman empire was not always in a state that gave the people all of the power, in fact sometimes the people were simply ignored, but Pompey’s reign was able to impact and change the political climate, by giving power to the people.
Aside from the fact that the public was dictating much of what was going on in the climate, Pompey also impacted Rome, by using the power that he had to build the empire and end many wars, like the war against pirates. After he had gotten immense power from the law, he divided the waters and coasts of the Mediterranean Sea into thirteen districts. He then assigned a certain part of his resources to each part of the sea and they brought back many fleets of ships, but some still were able to escape and seek refuge on land. Pompey intended to also capture them, however, he first wanted to clear all of the pirated from the Tyrrhenian Sea. However, he did have some people who still were not supportive of him, Consul Piso constantly was interfering with Pompey’s resources and letting out crews, even though Pompey did not want that. In order to get ahead of the damage that Consul Piso was doing, he sent fleets to Brundidium and he himself went to Tuscany and Rome. The citizens were extremely pleased with the course of action, “what caused their joy was the unhoped for rapidity of the change.” (Plutarch 185). They were surprised and joyous about the fact that Pompey was making quick and effective change. This shows that in Roman society, the leaders before him were often slow with any action that they took, and citizens were unable to see the changes they were trying to implement. Continuing his success in the war, some of the large pirate bands began to beg him for mercy rather than fighting him in battle because he was treating them all humanly, and did no further harm to them once he took their ships. Once he gave them mercy, many more bands followed, hoping for mercy and not having harm done to them. Some even left their other commanders and surrendered to Pompey with their wives and children. However, his military force was still strong; in a battle near the Taurus mountains, the families eventually surrendered themselves with the land that they were in control of. Within ninety days, the war was brought to an end. As Plutarch writes in The Life of Pompey, he was able to end a war without hurting many people, and keeping the citizens happy. This was just another way that Pompey changed the Roman climate. He listened to what the people want and did not try to show grand amounts of power, instead, he effectively finished the war. This war, along with many other wars that he ended that had begun with Sulla allowed him to show the public that different ways of leading are not necessarily bad, instead, he can accomplish much more.
In a final analysis, Plutarch’s The Parallel Lives-Life of Pompey shows the positive impacts and changes that Pompey was able to bring to the Roman society. Though there is a potential bias, because he supported Pompey, regardless of the inexperience that Pompey had, he was still able to make some impressive changes in the Empire and in the system. First, he was able to have a supreme leader as someone to learn from, and from there he earned his title as “Pompey the great”. He was also able to have a law passed in his favor, giving him ultimate power, mainly based on the fact that the public trusted and supported him, which many other members of the council did not agree with. Finally, his military tactics were much less aggressive and quite different than that of leaders from the past, but regardless he was able to end wars and get the result he desired. Pompey brought about many changes to the Roman Empire, and while this was a reason for worry, he was able to accomplish what he was meant to do, and ultimately changed the society for the better.
- Plutarch. “The Life of Pompey.” Plutarch • Life of Pompey, penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Pompey*.html#ref39.
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