Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.03.16

Christian Heller, Sic transit gloria mundi : das Bild von Pompeius Magnus im Bürgerkrieg. Verzerrung-Stilisierung-historische Realität. Pharos-Studien zur griechisch-römischen Antike 21.   St. Katharinen:  Scripta mercaturae Verlag, 2006.  Pp. xiii, 306.  ISBN 3-89590-167-9.  €28.70 (pb).  



Reviewed by Yasmina Benferhat, University of Nancy 2 (Yasmina.Benferhat@univ-nancy2.fr)
Word count: 1415 words

How could a man who was smart and lucky enough to have in the 60's a Cicero and a Theophanes of Mytilene to praise him and make of him the Roman Alexander end with such a bad reputation for weakness? Ch. Heller's book, a modified version of his PhD, is an attempt to answer that question, but unfortunately--and despite the real enthusiasm of the author for his subject, which brings him to put in the same basket Alexander, Constantine and Pompey as the greatest men of old in his introduction--it never really manages to be convincing because of too many lacks. Nevertheless it may be useful to students and others who want an overview of all the main books on Pompeius.

The book is divided in two main parts. The first is a review of the ancient sources for Pompey's responsibilities in the civil war, limited to the Latin authors from the late Republic to the Thirties (Caesar, Cicero, Sallust, the Augustan writers and the historians of the Tiberian time). The second part discusses modern historians' assessments of Pompey. One may regret to find after the modern historians but curiously before the conclusion of this doxographical part an "Exkurs" presenting some literary creations based on Pompey's fate (mainly tragedies of the 16th-18th centuries). More than that, one might have expected to find a study of Plutarch's biography because it is mainly through this work that people in the Renaissance and later have known about Pompey.1

The first part starts with Caesar's Bellum ciuile (pp. 5-39), then deals with Cicero (pp. 40-1042 and with Sallust (pp. 105-109). H. presents a kind of linear commentary of the Bellum ciuile, and then of Cicero's correspondance. This choice does not help him to escape two classic difficulties-- how to avoid being one more victim of Caesar's propaganda and how to avoid writing about Cicero when the book is supposed to be about Pompey. For example, there are twelve pages (pp. 75-87) on Cicero's decision to join Pompey in Greece.

The presentation of Sallust suffers from another problem. H. chooses to start with the letters to Caesar, though it might have seemed less polemical to start with what is undoubtedly Sallustan, which remains neglected here. H. does not study the letter which is a fragment of the Histories (Hist., II, 98 M), obviously because it deals with the beginning of Pompey's career and not with the civil war. But one may object that this letter was composed according to Sallust's point of view after Pompey's death, which has certainly influenced him. This absence illustrates a more general problem: H. begins in medias res, with the civil war, and does not present Pompey's previous deeds. Yet, is it possible to understand Caesar's presentation without such background, especially since it aims at destroying what Pompey had previously built--the reputation of an exceptional general (whether against the pirates or against Mithridates) and the reputation of a gentle man behaving with philanthropia, that is, the virtue of Hellenistic rulers? H. mentions here and there (pp. 38 and 69) Caesar's clemency as an answer to the Pompeian propaganda. This lack of distance not only prevents H. from explicating Caesar's accusations (a new Sulla, why?) but means that the Caesarian propaganda is not clearly presented because the letters of his lieutenants Balbus and Oppius are in the part devoted to Cicero (Att. 8, 15A; Att. 9, 8A), because the presentation of Sallust's ideas is not complete, and because the end of the De Bello Gallico is ignored.

The following pages focus on the Augustan writers. The part on Livy is not really convincing because it starts with the Periochae and does not study the echoes of the civil war in what remains of Livy's own writing. The part on Virgil also starts curiously with the Appendix, before H. presents Priam's death as an echo of Pompey's death. (Retrospectively, one wonders why the same kind of approach has not been tried with Livy.) One will find also some pages on Horace (especially carm. 2, 1), on Propertius (the second elegy of the third book) and on Ovid. It's only at the end that H. considers Augustus' propaganda, quite different from Caesar's, which aimed at reconciling the Romans and led writers to present Pompey less negatively. Finally, H. presents three authors of the Tiberian years--Manilius, Velleius and Valerius Maximus (pp. 131-145)--showing that the changes in the presentation of Pompey are confirmed.

The second main part deals with modern history from the 19th to the 20th century, though it starts with two early biographies written in 1665 and 1777. Before presenting his own views, H. outlines the 23 modern historians' interpretations of Pompey: W. Drumann, Th. Mommsen, Th. Birt, E. Meyer, Sir R. Syme, Th. Gelzer, F. Miltner (RE-notice), J. van Ooteghem, A. Heuss, Ch. Meier, H. Bentgtson, E. Gruen, J. Leach, K. Christ, R. Seager, P. Greenhalgh, G. Antonelli, W. Dahlheim, W. Will, P. Southern, K. Bringmann, E. Baltrusch. According to H., the presentation of Pompey is always negative, except for P. Greenhalgh, and Caesar's prestige largely accounts for this result.

This second part seems a bit problematic, in the first place because of the mixture of historical research and historical novels. Is G. Antonelli's book the best neighbour for Mommsen? Then, one can question H.'s emphasis--for example Syme's magisterial Roman Revolution is presented in only two pages. The truth is that some books are biographies of Pompey while some are a general presentation of the Late Republic, and it is slightly incongruous to place them all on a same level. Finally, this doxographicaly study would have been more valuable if H. had tried to look into the reasons why Caesar was praised so much in German research before the end of the Second World War, but he does not seem to go deeply under the surface, though he does show that Mommsen was influenced by the figure of the Junkers in his presentation of the Roman nobles.

In the "Exkurs" H. gives a presentation of the following works: Juan Luis Vives' tragedy Pompeius fugiens (1519, pp. 226-227), an anonymous tragedy Pompée (1579 in Lausanne, pp. 227-28), Garnier's Pompey the Great (1585, pp. 228-229), the anonymous Tragedie of Caesar and Pompey or Caesar's revenge (around 1607, pp. 230-231), Mousson's Pompeius Magnus (1621, pp. 231-233), Ludovico Aureli's tragedy Pompejus (1628, p. 233) Chapman's Caesar and Pompey. A Roman Tragedie declaring their wars (1631, pp. 234-235), Corneille's La mort de Pompée (1644, pp. 235-237), Fabio Chigi's tragedy Pompeius (1645, pp. 237-238), Leopardi's Pompeo in Egitto (1812, pp. 238-239), John Masefield's play The Tragedy of Pompey the Great (1910, pp. 240-242), and finally Claude Simon's novel La bataille de Pharsale (1969, p. 242). The list raises the question about the criteria followed by H. for this selection. Has he chosen those works because they reveal some evolutions and a change in the presentation of Pompey? It is not clear. A strong focus on the 16th-17th centuries seems to emerge, but it is broken with the last three items.

H's book ends with three points. First he sums up the differences among the 23 historians or writers already quoted (pp. 244-249 "Tendenzen der Forschung"). Then he presents his own Pompey (pp. 251-261 "Wie es eigentlich gewesen"): according to H. the importance of Julia's death in the political evolution was not very great, and Pompey was not as weak as our sources portray him. In the main conclusion (pp. 263-265), H. proposes some ways to rehabilitate Pompey. First Pompey was on the right side because he fought for the Republic. One objection to this is that there was no good side in this civil war and Pompey was not exactly a Republican. Another is that his military reputation was overrated--Pompey did not eradicate piracy and Mithridates had already been weakened considerably by Lucullus' campaigns. The second way, according to H., to improve Pompey's reputation is to place less reliance on our sources, especially Cicero, who was certainly biased against Pompey after his exile. But Cicero had good reasons for that, and it is better to see Pompey as an important step in the return of monarchy to Rome.

This book has both the qualities and the shortcomings one often finds in publications deriving from doctoral theses: the main argument appears naive, but some more specific points are well presented and useful. The book includes a select bibliography, an index nominum and an index locorum. The presentation is generally accurate, but there are numerous typos.3


Notes:


1.   H. himself hints at this influence on several tragedies. See p. 227 Vives' Pompeius fugiens, p. 233 Mousson's Pompeius Magnus, p. 235 Corneille's La mort de Pompée, p. 238 Chigi's Pompeius.
2.   Beryl Rawson's book could have been very useful but does not seem to be known: Beryl Rawson, The Politics of Friendship: Pompey and Cicero (Sydney University Press: 1978, reprinted 1981).
3.   See first in Corneille's quotation at the beginning, for example, then p. 66 perseqi, p. 92 inquissimam (and the reference is also wrong : it is Fam. 6, 6, 5 and not 6, 5, 6), p. 100 legitimert, p. 133 Perönlichkeit, p. 137 immanen exercitum, p. 140 degegen, p. 153 Untersuchng, p. 154 Leuitenant, p. 186 Caesars with an accent (generally speaking, there are many mistakes in the pages about Ooteghem on accents), p. 188 einen einen, p. 224 vesagt.

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