Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.12.15

Robin Seager, Pompey the Great: A Political Biography. Second edition.   Oxford:  Blackwell Publishing, 2002.  Pp. xi, 269.  ISBN 0-631-22721-0.  $24.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Peter C. Nadig, RWTH-Aachen (
Word count: 1308 words

Until the late 1970's only two biographies on Pompeius were available in French and German: The huge volume by the Belgian scholar Jules van Ooteghem and Matthias Gelzer's profound "Pompejus".1 The first monographs in English on this Republican leader were finally published between 1978 and 1981 by Leach,2 Seager 3 and Greenhalgh.4 Of these Seager's remained the most reliable treatise in English though it had been long out of print. The book under review is the newly revised and expanded edition.

For the new edition of Seager's Pompey the Great, the author has made several significant modifications and additions. The main text has been largely reproduced unchanged apart from some minor corrections and revisions. But some new parts supplement the original book. To make the access to the historical context easier for a general reader an introductory chapter on the essential Roman politics dating from the Gracchi to Sulla has been added (pp. 1-19). An afterword was also added in which some of the scholarly literature on Pompeius since 1979 is being discussed (pp. 173-183). Also new are a very useful chronological table (Appendix 1 on pp. 184-188) and an equally helpful glossary on technical Roman terms (pp. 247-251). Another improvement are the five excellent maps which are placed after the preface.

The main part of "Pompey the Great" has been structured into fourteen compact chapters. The first chapter, entitled "Cn. Pompeius Strabo" (pp. 20-24), gives a brief outline of the family history, i.e. the life of Pompeius' father, the consul of 89. Especially due to the novelty of his family, his father's unpopularity and untimely death in 87, Pompeius lacked the connections and friendships with the senate in Rome. Thus he was basically left on his own. Yet he inherited lands in Picenum and the massive clientela there on which his future support rested. Chapter two, "Pompeius, Cinna and Sulla" (pp. 25-29), summarizes the "Cinnamun tempus" and Pompeius' initial support for Sulla in 81, when he raised an army from his father's veterans and clients. This private army proved not easy for Sulla, who arranged a political marriage with one of his stepdaughters for the young "imperator" and swiftly employed him to fight the forces of Cn. Papirius Carbo in Africa and Sicily. Since he also fought against the Numidian king Hiarbas, Pompeius demanded and got a triumph. At this point Seager characterizes him: "In 80 and for a further decade Pompeius was a Sullan: an ambitious, arrogant and unmanageable one, it is true, but nevertheless, for what the label is worth, a Sullan" (p. 29).

Pompeius' rise to his first consulship is the topic of chapter three (pp. 30-39). It covers the time after Sulla's death, when Pompeius helped to subdue the rebellion of M. Lepidus and M. Brutus and received an extraordinary command to fight Q. Sertorius in Spain in 77, where he stayed till 71. Back in Italy his troops mopped up some fugitives of Spartacus' revolt, thus snatching the glory for finishing the revolt from Crassus. Yet Pompeius and Crassus were elected as consuls for the 70. Here Seager points out the immense differences in the situation of these men: Crassus being eligible for the office and Pompeius being too young. The only joint move of both consuls was the restoration of the legislative powers of the tribunes. The following two chapters, "The Commands against the Pirates and Mithradates" (pp. 40-52) and "Pompeius in the East" (pp. 53-62), analyze the zenith of Pompeius' military career, when he was away from Rome between 67 and 62. The defeat of Mithradates and the surrender of Tigranes finally made Pompeius redraw the map of the Near East. Chapter six is concerned with the events in Rome during his absence, which culminated in Cicero squashing the Catilinarian conspiracy during his consulship in 63 (pp. 63-74). Chapter seven, "The Return of Pompeius" (pp. 75-85), highlights the accompanying fears of the general's return to Rome at the peak of his power. Yet Pompeius promptly disbanded his troops after landing in Italy thus removing any fears that he would come back like a Sulla, who also had fought against Mithradates. Even though he could celebrate another triumph he was nevertheless unable to get political acceptance of his achievements. In consequence he finally made a coalition with Caesar and Crassus. Thus the consulship of Caesar (chapter 8, pp. 86-100) in 59 brought a solution for Pompeius' veterans and his settlement in the East. Chapter nine, "The exile of Cicero" (pp. 101-110), marks the activity of the notorious tribune Clodius, who initiated Cicero's expulsion from Rome but also mocked Pompeius and attacked his settlement in the East. Thus offended, Pompeius withdrew from public life but played a part in Cicero's recall from exile in 57.

Chapter ten deals with "The Conference of Luca" in 56 (pp. 110-119). During his consulship Caesar had acquired a five-year command over Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. From there he could depart on his conquest of Gaul while also being in close touch with events in Italy. Thus the meeting at Luca was of great importance for the years to come. Not only was the pact of the three mighty men extended, but it was also agreed that Crassus and Pompeius were to be consuls for the next year. The latter move was in the hope to end the riots that had disturbed the city and impeded political life there during the past two years. In the following chapter "The Second Consulship and the Growth of Anarchy" (pp. 120-132) Seager explains the historical developments that led to Pompeius' second term as consul. While this office was brought forward with force, it did not end the riotous situation in Rome. During this consulate Caesar's Gallic command was extended for another five years, but also a proconsulship of the same length over both Spanish provinces was created for Pompeius. He never traveled there, however, but handed the administration of Spain over to a legate, a precedent later used in the Principate. Chapter twelve, "The Third Consulship and the Approach of Civil War" (pp. 133-151), gives a detailed outline of the crisis in Rome, which peaked in January 52 after the murder of Clodius, Pompeius being made sole consul, and the estrangement from Caesar. An account of the final conflict, "The Civil War," is given in chapter 13 (pp. 152-168), to which a brief conclusion (pp. 169-172) is added. Here Seager sums up the evaluation of Pompeius' achievements as seen by the later ancient authors.

In addition to the new appendix 1 (chronological table) mentioned above, two brief appendices about the chronology of Caesar's legislation in 59 (pp. 189-190) and the question of a terminal date for Caesar's Gallic command -- which is not mentioned in the sources -- (pp. 191-193) illuminate some controversial dates. All references in the text are arranged in easily accessible endnotes (pp. 194-246). A select bibliography and a general index round up this handy volume.

There are some flaws, which however do not mar the value of this book. The introductory chapter is without any notes and gives only reference to some further general reading on this period at the end. The discussion of new literature in the afterword is focussed only on some selected contributions in English.5 One might have also wished a more thorough upgrading in the bibliography.

The additions to "Pompey the Great" were designed to make the book "more accessible not only to scholars and students but to those with a more general interest in Rome and its history" (p. vii). The new edition makes this volume one of most ready references on this subject in English, and the chronological table and the glossary especially are exemplary for a biography on a Roman topic. In fact, Seager's work has stood the test of time and will continue even more to do so.


1.   J. van Ooteghem, Pompée le grand, bâtisseur d'empire. Brussels 1954; M. Gelzer, Pompeius, Munich 1959, new edition edited by E. Hermann-Otto, Stuttgart 1984.
2.   J. Leach, Pompey the Great, Oxford 1978; 1986.
3.   Robin Seager, Pompey the Great: A Political Biography, Oxford 1979.
4.   P. Greenhalgh, Pompey, The Roman Alexander. London 1980, and Pompey, The Republican Prince. London 1981.
5.   For a more current bibliography cf. K. Christ, Krise und Untergang der Römischen Republik, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (4th printing), 2000, 507-513, 528; F. Hinard (ed.), Histoire Romaine I. Des origines à Auguste, Paris: Fayard 2000, 989-995.

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