BMCR 2003.11.02

Sextus Pompeius

, , , Sextus Pompeius. London: Classical Press of Wales, 2002. xvii, 285 pages : illustrations, map, plan ; 25 cm. ISBN 0715631276 $59.50.

Pompey’s younger son is to this day one of Rome’s famous unknowns, not unlike his victorious opponent Marcus Agrippa and partly for the same reason: a public standing detrimental to the Myth of Octavianus/ Augustus, too prominent to be kept alive. But while Agrippa’s share in the victories and power of the Princeps has been reasserted over the past decades, Sextus Pompeius is still confined to footnotes that usually treat him with severity: pirate, desperado, at best an outdated champion for family dignitas irretrievably lost. Below handbook level, the tide is turning at last, and various scholars’ efforts to free themselves from the Triumviral perspective make themselves felt. The present collection of papers read at Hay-on-Wye, Wales, is so far the most notable condensation of this view, going a good deal further than the 1930 attempt of Moses Hadas. Chances are that it will be found indispensable from now on. Its contributors tackle a blind spot in the transitional period from Republic to Empire, striving to make the best of the damaging unison of both evidence and modern communis opinio. Especially Sir Ronald Syme’s resounding yet never substantiated condemnation of Sextus casts a long shadow on most parts of this volume, and several allusions to Syme will be found in it, some of them respectful, some exasperated.

The vivid introduction by Anton Powell, one of the volume’s two editors (pp. vii-xv), offers a very convenient sketch of Sextus as a literary phenomenon and makes a good case for the conviction more or less shared by all the contributors: that the negative image of the protagonist is the result of general disinformation, desperately needed by Octavian to cover up the fact that Sextus paraded (and even possessed) many of the virtues which Caesar’s heir claimed in later years, quite apart from the series of defeats inflicted by the Pompeian navy. It should at last be noted that Sextus was very successful against heavy odds over nearly a decade and adapted to guerrilla warfare as readily as to the governance of an island realm and to far-reaching naval operations. This book presents the evidence clearly enough, and Powell has an important share in doing that. Unfortunately he goes a little too far in praise of Sextus’ “morality” (esp. p. xi), both here and in his own paper (see below), making “humanity” his hero’s dominant character trait and possibly the mainspring of his campaigns. This can hardly be proven true unless one would admit a wholesale inversion of every damaging comment into something positive. It was a good thing that Sextus actively rescued many victims of the proscriptions in and after 43, no doubt, but did he do it just to be good? At best his motives will have been mixed, as this measure happened to provide him with grateful followers. Powell’s most eulogistic pages sound more true for AD 1940 Britain than for 40 BC Sicily (Augustan Italy of the early 30s is even compared to Nazi-occupied France on p. 118), and it might be helpful to remember that morality and strategic abilities were greatly assisted by pragmatism and somewhat irrational defiance, at least in the case of Winston Churchill. One would further like to know how an all-out idealistic Sextus ever managed to coexist with the immoral double-dealers Menekrates and Menas/ Menodoros. Regrettably the story of these freedmen’s gradual emancipation as maritime warlords and of their part in Sextus’ decline is not told by any of this volume’s essays. Powell’s spirited opening is nonetheless instructive, and his organising a conference on the long-neglected topic of Sextus deserves every praise.

The series of essays is opened by two papers of Powell’s co-editor Kathryn Welch, a major force in this enterprise, who is preparing a biography on Sextus that will be eagerly welcomed. This fact and her two contributions seem to have brought her into the foremost place, contrary to the chronology of Sextus’ career which has otherwise been the guideline of disposition. In “Both sides of the coin: Sextus Pompeius and the so-called Pompeiani” (1-30) Welch undertakes a valuable enquiry into political catchwords, pointing out that “Pompeiani” would have been a Caesarian term to denounce any Civil War opponents, be they ever so anti-Pompeian, who found themselves in the same camp with Pompey — a term calculated to keep Republicans away from what might be the cause of just another would-be dominus. In that sense, Welch argues, it was reactivated against Sextus and helped bring about his virtual isolation in Roman politics during 44 and part of 43 BC; now it served Antony to influence that part of the Caesarian camp that tended, like Hirtius or Vibius Pansa, to unite forces with the Republic. We are shown Cicero’s gradual transit from all but ignoring Sextus to advertising him without mentioning the name of Pompeius, garnished with observations on Brutus as well as on the difficult financial side of bringing Sextus back into the political affairs of the capital. There are good reasons why this promised to be easier after Antony was outlawed; but still more we would like to know why it did not happen even then. Here Welch brings in the title of praefectus classis et orae maritimae, usually treated as an ephemeral honour (several essays of this volume give evidence that this became the means for Sextus to create his maritime empire, but also a base of legitimacy): it might also have been calculated to keep Sextus far from Rome where he would have been awkward for Cicero and his allies. Notes on Sextus’ own advertisement of the family past around 44-3 round off this paper, maybe the larval state of a chapter in Welch’s announced biography but quite a feat as it stands.

The story is in a way continued by “Sextus Pompeius and the Res Publica in 42-39 BC” (31-63), by far the most important and stimulating essay of this book. Welch’s theses are that in fact there was a struggle for the Republic even after Philippi, and that the number of those still fighting for it included Sextus, dynastic as his self-representation may have been. According to her, the caesura of 42 was not of a nature to be immediately recognized by his contemporaries; it was left to voices like Cassius Dio and maybe Livy to reject any continuators of the war as selfish, irresponsible, and behind the times. This, though, is just the impression that predominates until today, and we may expect an answer to Welch’s challenge of the subconscious historical dogma. She proceeds to a problem more urgent for the survivors, namely how to achieve any form of legitimation that could prove one’s claim to defend the state while barred from state institutions. Welch follows this dearth of offices back to 48 and elucidates the steps to a fairly notional understanding of dignitas that allowed protagonists with next to no office on their record to take the lead. She establishes Sextus’ place in this new line of unconstitutional legitimacy which leads up to her explanation why Appian could choose to call Pompey’s son a sort of anti-Triumvir together with Brutus and Cassius (civ. 4,70).

On the difficult question how and when Sicily or part of it came under Sextus’ control Welch offers convincing suggestions: at least some of the island must have gone over to Sextus before November 43, while the vast majority of the remaining cities will have joined him quite willingly. In spite of her elegant argument that not the least of Sextus’ gifts to refugee nobiles consisted in giving them commands more or less equivalent to their prestige, sources for this policy are next to non-existent, as the interests of both Augustan and later authors narrowed to the handful of freedmen commanders known by name. Welch endeavours to fill part of this gap by establishing a prosopographical panel of prominent refugees and Sextan military leaders, many of them with notable post-Sextan careers. Among the dozen or so names, including some of quality, she focuses on the irritating figure of Staius Murcus, quite unanimously said to have been murdered by Sextus. Here Welch is visibly tempted to explain away the deed; her solution is that Murcus may not have been killed but that his death was credibly called murder and forced Sextus to accept the Misenum peace offer, much against his political instinct, to restore his good name with the war-weary refugees whose speaker Murcus had been. This view of things is open to attack yet will appeal to admirers of Sextus. Instead of his missing his chances, as has often been said, Sextus would have fallen a victim to unhappy circumstances; on the other hand we are left with the impression that Octavian might have considerably shortened the war if he had sooner learned from Sextus how to integrate opponents into his system instead of doing away with them.

The following article by Benedict J. Lowe, “Sextus Pompeius and Spain: 46-44 BC” (pp. 65-102), is chronologically anterior (see above). Lowe finds his way through the scattered and biased evidence concerning Sextus’ guerrilla warfare and contends that somebody who managed first to escape the general Pompeian rout and then to lead an ever-increasing insurrection against a series of Caesarian high-quality commanders must be credited with military talent and adaptability. Due attention is given to the circumstance that Asinius Pollio, who is behind much of our remaining information, suffered a crushing defeat and had his reasons to play down Sextus’ role. Howe proceeds to a muster of Sextus’ forces in Spain that duly reduces the importance of (again) ‘slaves and renegades’ in favour of Pompeian veterans, quite a few local Roman citizens, and many Iberian inhabitants of Baetican cities. His thorough survey of numismatic evidence allocates a number of Sextan coins to the years in Spain, strongly emphasizing the aura of Pompey the Great in terms of Iberian leader-worship; still the dates of these issues remain a notorious crux, as Howe himself makes clear enough, and controversy is bound to go on — especially the suggestion that most coins may have been struck in Spain but went in bulk to Sicily with Sextus’ force will not be easy to swallow. Howe does not pretend to know what happened to Sextus’ Spanish stronghold after he went to Sicily (a vexing question) but declares him master of all Baetica and the south-east of Hispania Citerior at the time of this memorable transfer. His unemotional picture of Sextus seems a useful corrective to a near-romantic view predominating in parts of this volume. We would do well to adopt neither the “noble Sextus” nor the insignificant pirate of ages past wholesale but to follow Howe in also granting Sextus “calculating and opportunistic” character traits (p.85).

This especially applies to Anton Powell’s “‘An Island Amid the Flames’: the Strategy and Imagery of Sextus Pompeius, 43-36 BC” (103-133). Powell’s starting-point is a goodbye to Appian’s theory of a Sextus too incapable to invade Italy in time. So far so good. But while searching for sensible reasons, Powell opens the door to amateur psychology and opens it too far. He establishes as the mainspring of Sextus’ character the imitatio of Pompey the Great, even the conscious repetition of his father’s career modified by a few lessons learned from his downfall and by the traumatic view of Pompey murdered at Pelusium: this, he suggests, made Sextus physically unable to enter hostile territory unarmed, witness the remarkable offshore platform for the Misenum treaty. So (contrary to Welch) he never wanted to go to Rome, instead of being kept away. Now Sextus’ life experience would have been enough to give anyone a phobia or two; still all this sounds quite reductionist. Powell himself goes on to show with all due precision that there definitely were circumstances favourable for taking over Sicily and making the most of its situation astride the supply lines of Italy and closer to the potential Republican allies. His recurrent emphasis on the family history of the Pompeii seems therefore out of scale. We know precious little of Sextus’ character. If he was a pensive sort of person he may well have pored over such similarities; on the other hand he could just have brushed them away and tried to live his own life. The Misenum platform, for example, might simply have been a spectacular surrogate for a mid-stream island, that ancient favourite spot for signing treaties on neutral ground.

Such preoccupations flaw Powell’s otherwise stimulating thoughts more than they deserve. A closer look at “Achaia”, for instance, given to Sextus at Misenum but never really defended, will pay indeed; Powell claims that this could mean the Peloponnese, easy to maintain with a small land force guarding the Isthmus. Another definite gain is his remarks on Octavian’s precarious standing in public opinion and his series of awkward defeats up to Naulochus 36 BC; scholars tend to forget this thanks to Marcus Agrippa and the later course of events. Powell’s statement that Sextus on economic grounds could never have maintained his rule by piracy and plundering the Italian coast is highly appropriate, leading scientific fantasy back from Caribbean gold to the glamourless grain ships the Sextan fleet was meant to intercept; still I hesitate to share Powell’s conviction that there were no raids at all. A review of Sextus’ coins includes a striking interpretation of one issue (adorning the volume’s dust jacket) as carrot-and-stick imagery of naval power, a safe haven to friends and crushing force against invaders, arguably dated 38 BC. More problematic is what Powell makes of the representations of the Catanaean brothers; they were undesirable competitors of Aeneas, no doubt, but were they really inseparable from Sextus’ own pietas claim and therefore banned from later literature? This leads us to the second and larger defect in Powell’s account of events, namely the excessive attribution of “morality” to Sextus. It is valuable that he reminds us of the Appian passage stating that many fortune-hunting youngsters after short hesitation joined Sextus because they thought his cause the best (civ. 5,99), yet this still makes them mercenaries and Sextus a commander who must have had his military and financial allure. Likewise I prefer to suppose that he avoided the invasion of Italy because of his obvious inferiority than to believe with Powell that he was too nice to bring war into the ravished home country once again (humanely starving it instead). Assuming that Sextus was a more attractive personality than Octavian and a better general, we finally wonder why he lost nonetheless. Obvious material superiority and Antony’s volte-face are certainly part of the explanation; but how about better control of leading personalities on Octavian’s side? The defections of Sextus’ admirals are more than just an ornament of Augustan concordia myths. Getting the people he needed and keeping them together, often enough against their nature, was Octavian’s one outstanding ability.

The ensuing essay “Sextus Pompeius, Octavianus and Sicily” by Shelley C. Stone III (135-165) is in essence a reprint of a 1983 article with an addendum and revised notes. Suffice it to say that Stone’s archaeological evidence comes in handy. It tends to corroborate other contributors’ conception of a largely peaceful takeover of Sicily by Sextus, followed by a sharp social and economic decline after 36. But there are voices who deny just that and rather think of a long-term decrease of prosperity — as Stone makes out in the addendum — or even of Sextus himself doing the damage. That there has been destruction done is a fact (Stone’s impressive list of ravaged sites shows this well enough), but the hitch is the exact chronology. This reconstruction depends on coins, as so often, and given the uncertainties of Sextus’ coinage it is a surprising decision to ban an alternative chronology of the crucial issues to a sesquipedalian footnote on pp. 156-57. Surely a competing view with the potential to take away the foundations of one’s own standpoint should be given due space in the main text itself. Moreover, if Stone is right in dating the occurrence of halved Sextus asses before 36, this calls for comment as it strongly implies a shortage of small nominals in the shrinking Sextan sphere of influence — maybe a sign of isolation just like in many besieged cities afterwards. Finally I distrust the recurrent petitio principii that, since we have no signs that Sextus acquired Sicily by force, all the evidence of violent destruction “should relate” ipso facto to the Triumvirs (p. 138 cf. 148-9). It might, for example, partly be a result of Sextus’ dire straits during the final years when the financial strain on Sicilian cities must have grown enormous. Did they all give willingly or did even Sextus resort to violence in the end?

Hugh Lindsay (“Pompeian and Scribonian descendants in the Early Empire”, 167-186) uses a commendably short and succinct apparatus of footnotes for his study of exposed nobiles up to the reign of Claudius. We are given a helpful conspectus of prosopography, enhanced by a preliminary reassessment of the Scribonii mausoleum — but carefully drawn as the picture is, it is scarcely a progress in itself. Witness the stemma on p. 181, for instance; simply add to one of the “earlier attempts” quoted, namely Stemma XIV from Syme’s The Augustan Aristocracy, an additional Licinia from PIR_ P 630 and you get Lindsay’s own stemma, which should consequently have been called a combination of those two. In the discussion of the downfall of Scribonius Libo Drusus in AD 16 and the interdiction for any future Scribonii to call themselves Drusus, a comparison with the near-contemporary SC de Pisone patre containing the exclusion of a praenomen would have been useful.1 I must confess that I cannot see the specific Pompeian aspect — why is Libo, for all his arrogance, “a Pompeian voice” (p. 172) unless this implies just having Pompey as an ancestor? We find the same difficulty with the enigmatic Scribonius Proculus (Suet. Cal. 28); any link of his with Pompey can have been at best tenuous and is not even hinted at by Lindsay. A better specimen is Pompeius Magnus under Gaius Caligula, duly equipped with family background. As careful a collection of dispersed material as Lindsay’s study is, it does not fit in too well with the rest of the volume (since his focus is of necessity on the continuing social relevance of Sextus’ father, not on Sextus himself) and lacks coherence. It is founded on the tacit assumption that any descendant of Pompey could exploit this side of his genealogy and therefore possibly had a black mark to his name in the imperial files, but it avoids discussion of this very premise. Worse, it stops far too early, for no evident reason except printing space. At least there ought to have been a short look at the numerous post-Claudian bearers of Pompeian heritage, going down to C. Calpurnius Crassus Frugi Licinianus, killed about AD 117 — a convicted conspirator against Trajan but not known to have made use of his great forefather.

Filled with information which does create a new view is Alain M. Gowing’s “Pirates, Witches and Slaves: The Imperial Afterlife of Sextus Pompeius” (187-211). Gowing’s task list, both of standard prejudices and of authors worth comment, is awesome, but he copes admirably, giving good reasons for conspicuous absences of Sextus from Virgil, Horace, and (of course) the Res gestae divi Augusti, pointing out yet another subversive streak of Ovid and exposing Valerius Maximus’ dilemma how to distance Sextus Pompeius, his patron, from Sextus Pompeius, the honorary murderer of Caesar as per lex Pedia. Holding that Lucan who apparently gave Sextus some extra-bad press really appears “at least sympathetic” (194) brings Gowing in marked opposition to this volume’s two last contributors, and a fruitful one: it does pay to listen to some undertones of Lucan’s (nevertheless harsh) verdict that indicate the poet’s respect for young Pompey’s family loyalty, and it does seem more accurate to call Lucan disappointed in Sextus’ falling behind the future that his beginnings and birth promised. Gowing likewise extracts the odd half-positive remark on Sextus from Velleius (always receipted and filed as hostile without exception), illuminates his fleeting but two-faced appearance in Tacitus and goes on to discover this persistent ambiguity in the backbone of our evidence, the accounts of Appian and Cassius Dio. The Bithynian consular — no surprise there — cuts down his material to a portrait of a nasty stumbling-block on the preordained way to world monarchy but Appian gives way to the contradictory voices, quite against his literary aims. The summary of Gowing’s chronological tour tries to give reasons why Sextus was historically important but was not felt to be so in antiquity, and his propositions — that Sextus never embraced a cause beyond doubt, was unable to fulfil Pompey’s legacy (whatever we take this to have been), and was “too mercurial and unpredictable” (203) — also apply, as Gowing will not have failed to notice himself, to many a page of literature written in more recent years.

It is a little unfair to go on from Gowing’s comprehensive study to Lindsay Watson’s “Horace and the Pirates” (213-228), an inquiry into Epode 4, the semi-official poet’s way of using the prescribed anti-Sextan stock phrases with some independence. No doubt Watson is right to dismiss theories of “silent stridency” on Horace’s side (223) in favour of a less complimentary model: namely, that Horace expresses affirmation by uttering mild criticism aimed at some unsavoury fellow travellers of Octavianus and thereby demonstrates how perfectly free one is to enjoy freedom of speech under Caesar’s heir. Watson gives a solid and valuable piece of close reading in a deliberately limited scope; a pity that it is outshone by its two neighbours.

Watson’s pupil Charles Tesoriero does great credit to his academic teacher with ” Magno proles indigno parente : The Role of Sextus Pompeius in Lucan’s Bellum Civile” (229-247). Tesoriero’s concentrated argument resembles Watson’s but he has the advantages of working with a large bulk of material and having business with a poet committed to comparatively doctrinaire and systematic thinking. Like the following Lucan essay, Tesoriero inevitably concentrates on the extended necromancy scene in Pharsalia 6; contrary to Gowing he argues that the poet chose Sextus for this traditional nekyia motif because Pompey’s son exemplifies a generation gone to rot, namely the heirs of the Civil War opposition. Still, as I said above, one might well reconcile both positions. At any rate, the condemnation from Lucan’s Stoic point of view is not alleviated by possible excuses for Sextus: Tesoriero demonstrates how the pirate-to-be is shown as governed by fear, even as impius (for he resorts to criminal forms of prophecy and gives up his belief in the gods), and Lucan makes us nearly forget that this is mainly fear for Pompey, not for Sextus’ own life, and may well be called pietas (see Gowing). It is Sextus’ fault to be no Cato and to fight on after libertas has died at Pharsalus, so that he can only fight to become just another Caesar. (Compare the persistent dogma of Philippi as a Republican deadline.) A beautiful observation — that the anti-Aeneas Sextus takes the foul anti-Sibyl Erichtho to Pompey’s camp so that her hideous seed of thought will now seep into the outer world — rounds off this attractive enquiry.

A special treat is Daniel Ogden’s closing article “Lucan’s Sextus Pompeius Episode: Its Necromantic, Political and Literary Backgrounds” (249-271). In marked contrast to Tesoriero who calls the Eric(h)tho episode “pivotal” for the epos as a whole, Ogden feels it to be quite detachable; his theory is that Lucan chose Sextus to make most of some anecdotes loosely connected with this person, like suspicions of necromancy against Libo Drusus (see Lindsay) or Agrippa’s works at Lake Avernus, not to forget the puzzling tale of Sextus and the soldier Gabienus (another nut that several contributors try to crack in their respective ways). The best part of Ogden’s paper is dedicated to the ‘state of the art’ in necromancy that Lucan could use as material for his own special version of a hero’s encounter with the dead. These pages will be gladly used as a reference by anyone who must or wants to deal with the arcane and all too savoury bits of ancient beliefs — and additionally they are good entertainment. Whoever once despaired of getting a corpse into an upright position in order to extract prophecies will be glad to hear that — according to ancient self-help books — a severed head will meet all requirements and is far easier to carry, too. (Cut throat before use.) Ogden gives and compares lists of ingredients for necromantic rites; unfortunately he does not comment on the probable motives why just these items were included; some are simply exotic and difficult to obtain, some valuable, but quite a number look as if they were supposed to contain concentrated life — apart from the diverse poisons, of course.

The editors and publisher have decided on a very attractive typography that never strains the eye. Misprints are nearly non-existent, a fine compliment in itself. Some errors have managed to intrude, nevertheless. Thus Seneca is credited with writing a book “de brevitate sua” on p. 68, and on p. 178 the A in “PIR_ A 1147” is missing. Disaster struck several times at German titles: Wolfgang Kunkel called his book “Herkunft und soziale Stellung der römischen Juristen”, not “Sozialstellung” (185), for Ilona Opelt’s “Die lateinische Schimpfwörter” read “”lateinischen” (228), and poor Furtwängler’s “Die antiken Gemmen” became “Furtwaingler” and lost their article on p. 268. “Weinrib 1967” in Lindsay’s bibliography (186) and elsewhere is correct but became “Weinrib 1968” on p. 181; my best guess is that this mistake has crept in from Syme’s The Augustan Aristocracy where Weinrib’s essay is quoted that way in Stemma XIV. One last peculiarity sums up this volume’s tendency so well that it seems almost deliberate: in Watson’s rendition of Horace’s Epode 4 (p. 213) verse 11 reads Sectus flagellis hic, alibus, because the ominous term triumvir has been cut out from the adjective triumviralibus in a word processor’s half-hearted attempt at damnatio memoriae.

Editors and contributors alike deserve praise for transparency of style and for presenting their themes in a way that will secure the attention of many a scholar who does not specialize on the period concerned (for which the book is of prime relevance). Student beginners and non-native speakers of English (like myself) will be grateful, the former also finding some fine examples of good scholarship to imitate in method. The single essays will be found useful, quite a number of them being at the same time strikingly innovative in subject matter. We can only hope that the corrections of an outdated image of Sextus Pompeius achieved in this volume — revisions which mostly keep clear of the danger of growing revisionist and in their turn dogmatic — will soon pass into textbook knowledge.


1. W. Eck/ A. Caballos/ F. Fernández, Das senatus consultum de Cn. Pisone patr. (Vestigia 48.) Munich: C. H. Beck 1996.