Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.07.43 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.07.43

Kathryn Welch, Magnus Pius: Sextus Pompeius and the Transformation of the Roman Republic. Roman culture in an age of civil war.   Swansea:  Classical Press of Wales, 2012.  Pp. xxv, 364.  ISBN 9781905125449.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Fred K. Drogula, Providence College (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Many of us who teach Roman history have struggled with the problem of whether and how to include Sextus Pompeius in our courses. He is obviously important as the youngest son of Pompey the Great and as a sort of ‘pirate king’ who caused a lot trouble for Octavian, but he does not seem to have been a major player in any of the decisive events of this period. Too young to have played a leading role in the battles against Julius Caesar, he fled to Sicily after the Battle of Thapsus (45 BC), where he built up a power base that successfully threatened Roman shipping for years. Although he scored some significant successes against Octavian, he was defeated by Agrippa at the Battle of Naulochos in 36 BC, after which he fled to the East where Antony’s men executed him in 35 BC. Seen from this résumé, Sextus appears to be a mere afterthought in the great conflicts that dominated this period. At best, he was a lingering ‘Pompeian’ who carried on a small war of limited importance against the triumvirs, but more often Sextus is relegated to a secondary (or even tertiary) figure in this period, a ‘pirate’ or ‘adventurer’ whose activities had little to do with the fall of the Republic.

Kathryn Welch has challenged this dismissal of Sextus in her new book, and argues that he was a full partner with Brutus and Cassius in the leadership of the Republican opposition to the triumvirs, and therefore the Republican cause and its war against the triumvirs did not end with the Battle of Philippi, but rather carried on for another six years under Sextus’ leadership. She argues that Sextus’ role as a leader in the Republican movement has not been given proper attention in previous work, and as a consequence the Battle of Philippi has been given much greater significance as a turning point in Roman history than it properly deserves. Although the deaths of Brutus and Cassius were devastating losses, the Republican opposition to the triumvirs continued until 36 BC—a suggestion that, if accepted, would significantly change our understanding of this period. By incorporating Sextus more centrally into the events of 49 to 36 BC, Welch’s book provides new insight for our understanding of the civil war that dominated this period.

The main challenge with this subject is the poverty of the evidence on Sextus, who is barely mentioned in surviving accounts until his appearance after the Battle of Philippi, and whose actions during and after that battle were deliberately downplayed by ancient authors (p. 15-23). To support and strengthen her argument, therefore, Welch has researched Sextus’ coinage, his naval tactics, and his connections to other Republican leaders such as Statius Murcus and Scribonius Libo to demonstrate his extensive interactions with the Republicans and his leadership role in their opposition to the triumvirs.

Chapter One (‘The Lost Republic’) establishes the central point that undue emphasis has traditionally been given to the Battle of Philippi as the final conclusion of the Republican movement, which has led historians to view Sextus and his supporters as ‘Pompeians’ rather than true Republicans. She believes this view has clouded the image of Sextus and reduced his ‘respectability’ to that of a pirate or adventurer. Instead, she suggests (p. 9) replacing the identity ‘Pompeian’ with ‘anti-Triumviral’, which places Sextus within a larger political movement. Sextus’ identification with Republican values is introduced through a brief examination of his identification with the values of pietas and iustitia. The second chapter (‘Sons of Neptune’) surveys Sextus’ activities between 49 and 46 BC to demonstrate that “rather than a bit player, a revised narrative of the clash between the Republicans and Caesar can demonstrate that Sextus Pompeius inherited a cause and used an established strategy to fight for it” (p. 43). Welch agrees with von Fritz that Pompey had developed a naval strategy before 49 BC to counter Caesar’s anticipated invasion of Italy: his superior naval resources would control all the sea lanes around Italy, thereby trapping Caesar in Italy where he could be starved into submission without need for bloody battles between citizen armies (pp. 55-6). 1 This plan fell apart when some of Pompey’s aristocratic allies refused the abandon Italy, but it would have a powerful influence on Pompey’s son Sextus. The chapter ends with a survey of Cato’s role in the Republican leadership following the Battle of Pharsalus, which reinforced in Sextus’ mind the value of his father’s strategy to win bloodless victories in Italy through naval superiority, a strategy that would become a cornerstone of Republican thinking.

In the next two chapters (‘The Pompeian Inheritance’ and ‘Refashioning Republicanism after the Ides of March’) Welch combs through the surviving evidence to trace Sextus’ Republican thinking. Chapter Three looks at the Spanish War, and argues (pp. 102-3) that the Republicans—now under the leadership of Sextus’ elder brother Gnaeus—shifted the justification for their war from public policy to personal emotion. Making pietas his battle cry, Gnaeus shifted the Republican value system from legal justice to personal piety. After Gnaeus’ death at the Battle of Munda, Sextus adopted his brother’s emphasis on pietas, even taking the cognomen Pius for himself (p. 108). Welch sums up (p. 115) the chapter thus: “[Sextus’] role as ‘the son of Neptune’ was a direct result of the strategic choices made by his father and his father’s allies in the first five years of the war.” Chapter Four transitions the reader to Roman politics following the assassination of Caesar, and examines how the major players sought to present themselves as champions of the Republic and Republican ideals. Welch uses Cicero’s letters to reconstruct Sextus’ activities during this period, and she concludes that he was actively involved in politics in Rome, and that he “was willing to negotiate as part of the broader Republican faction and also that Marcus Brutus and Cicero were provisionally prepared to welcome him into it” (p. 133). She studies Cicero’s Philippics to explore Cicero’s alliance with Octavian and the ideological differences and interpretations of Republicanism that separated Caesar’s heir from Pompey’s son. These differences are used to illustrate the growing affinity between Sextus and Caesar’s assassins, who were united in their opposition to the triumvirs.

In the fifth chapter (‘A Republican Triumvirate?’) Welch suggests that Sextus joined with Brutus and Cassius to form a united front against the triumvirs: “the power of the phrase ‘Brutus and Cassius’ must be set aside and a very different triumvirate allowed to take its place…” (p. 164). In this view, Sextus’ naval superiority in the western Mediterranean was strategically linked to Brutus’ and Cassius’ control of the eastern Mediterranean, including their control of the sea: “even though our texts and commentators, ancient and contemporary, attempt to hide the fact, the res publica had positioned its defender in the West as well as in the East” (p. 169). The chapter explores how Brutus, Cassius, and Sextus resurrected the elder Pompey’s strategy of controlling the seas in their effort to contain the triumvirs in Italy. Welch supports this argument well with a study of the striking similarities in the coinage and imagery used by the Republican leaders at the time, which suggests a unified message and purpose. The chapter ends with a brief description of the Battle of Philippi, and argues that the deaths of Brutus and Cassius left Sextus “an obvious contender for the leadership of the Republican forces, and the Roman world was well aware of it” (p. 197).

Chapters Six (‘Pompeianum Tempus’) and Seven (‘Bellum Siculum’) present Sextus’ naval activities against the triumvirs from 41 to 36 BC as part of the same Republican mission that Brutus and Cassius had championed at Philippi. This is the best-documented period of Sextus’ life, so these chapters are rich with detail. Welch argues that Sextus cooperated with other Republican commanders to employ his father’s strategy by laying naval siege to Italy in order to starve his enemy (Octavian) into submission without launching a bloody and unpopular land invasion (“the pincer movement that Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus had originally wanted in 49 was finally in place” [p. 215]). At the same time, Sextus worked to break the triumvirate apart by seeking an alliance with Antony’s brother Lucius and ultimately with Antony himself. The chapter follows the dynamic and shifting relationships between Antony, Octavian, and Sextus down to the treaty of Misenum (39 BC). Chapter Seven covers the last seven years of Sextus’ life, including a detailed study of his victories against Octavian during the Sicilian War, and his ultimate defeat by Agrippa at Naulochus in 36 BC. Welch emphasizes that the outcome of this war was not a foregone conclusion at the time, since Octavian suffered considerable damage to his reputation in Rome for pursuing it, while popular esteem for Sextus gradually increased because of his successful promotion of his Republican values and his avoidance of battles in Italy. The chapter ends with Sextus’ flight to the East, where he was captured and executed by Antony’s agents. The last chapter (‘Pietas at the Dawn of the Principate’) looks at Sextus’ immediate legacy, including Octavian’s co-option of the ideas of res publica and pietas in the construction of his Principate. An appendix on the difficulties of dating certain numismatic inscriptions, a bibliography, and an index comprise the end matter.

Welch’s book makes several important contributions. First, she redeems Sextus from the shadowy status of ‘pirate’ and gives him a leading role in the most important events of his day. In doing so, she has given us more information and greater insight into the civil war between the Caesarians and Republicans, and her reconsideration of the period is excellent and thought-provoking. Second, she argues persuasively that the singular importance of the Battle of Philippi as the end of the civil war between Caesarians and Republicans must be reconsidered, and that greater attention should be given to the Battle of Naulochos as being a critical turning point for Antony and (in particular) Octavian. Third, her arguments about the use of naval warfare during this period are superb and deserve close attention, since they expand our thinking about the Romans’ understanding and use of naval strategy. Fourth, her later chapters demonstrate the frequent tenuousness of Octavian’s position in the years following Caesar’s assassination, giving us greater insight into the challenges confronting his rise to power, and in particular how his struggles against Sextus helped shape his later policies.

Welch has built a strong argument and she uses her evidence well. As with so many aspects of ancient Rome, the surviving information on Sextus is limited and Welch’s conclusions will generate discussion and debate among historians, but her use of numismatic evidence and her analysis of the Republicans’ naval tactics are very persuasive contributions to the literary material. The book is well written and illustrated, and Welch writes in a lively style that engages the reader easily. Her reconstruction of the events between 44 and 35 BC provides new insights and challenges older models, and students of the late Republic and the early Augustan Principate will certainly want to read this book for the important new perspectives it brings to these periods. Welch’s text is a welcome reassessment of the final decades of the Republic, and it may lead more than one professor to rethink how he or she presents Sextus Pompeius in lectures.

Table of Contents

1. The lost Republic
2. Sons of Neptune
3. The Pompeian inheritance
4. Refashioning Republicanism after the Ides of March
5. A Republican Triumvirate?
6. Pompeianum tempus
7. Bellum Siculum
8. Pietas at the dawn of the Principate
Appendix: Imp. and Imp. iterum: an unreliable guide to dating


1.   Von Fritz, K. (1942), “Pompey’s policy before and after the outbreak of the civil war of 49 BC,” TAPA 73, 145-80.

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