Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church


At an age when Cæsar was still idling away his time, Pompey had achieved honours such as the veteran generals of Rome were accustomed to regard as the highest to which they could aspire. He had only just left, if indeed he had left, school, when his father took him to serve under him in the war against the Italian allies of Rome. He was not more than nineteen when he distinguished himself by behaving in circumstances of great difficulty and danger with extraordinary prudence and courage. The elder Pompey, Strabo "the squint-eyed," as his contemporaries called him, after their strange fashion of giving nicknames from personal defects, and as he was content to call himself, was an able general, but hated for his cruelty and avarice. The leaders of the opposite faction saw an opportunity of getting rid of a dangerous enemy and of bringing over to their own side the forces which he commanded. Their plan was to assassinate the son as he slept, to burn the father in his tent, and at the same time to stir up a mutiny among the troops. The secret, however, was not kept. A letter describing the plot was brought to the young Pompey as he sat at dinner with the ringleader. The lad showed no sign of disturbance, but drank more freely than usual, and pledged his false friend with especial heartiness. He then rose, and after putting an extra guard on his father's tent, composed himself to sleep, but not in his bed. The assassins stabbed the coverlet with repeated blows, and then ran to rouse the soldiers to revolt. The camp was immediately in an uproar, and the elder Pompey, though he had been preserved by his son's precautions, dared not attempt to quell it. The younger man was equal to the occasion. Throwing himself on his face in front of the gate of the camp, he declared that if his comrades were determined to desert to the enemy, they must pass over his dead body. His entreaties prevailed, and a reconciliation was effected between the general and his troops.



Not many weeks after this incident the father died, struck, it was said, by lightning, and Pompey became his own master. It was not long before he found an opportunity of gaining still higher distinction. The civil war still continued to rage, and few did better service to the party of the aristocrats than Pompey. Others were content to seek their personal safety in Sulla's camp; Pompey was resolved himself to do something for the cause. He made his way to Picenum, where his family estates were situated and where his own influence was great, and raised three legions (nearly twenty thousand men), with all their commissariat and transport complete, and hurried to the assistance of Sulla. Three of the hostile generals sought to intercept him. He fell with his whole force on one of them, and crushed him, carrying off, besides his victory, the personal distinction of having slain in single combat the champion of the opposing force. The towns by which he passed eagerly hailed him as their deliverer. A second commander who ventured to encounter him found himself deserted by his army and was barely able to escape; a third was totally routed. Sulla received his young partisan, who was not more than twenty-three years of age, with distinguished honours, even rising from his seat and uncovering at his approach.

During the next two years his reputation continued to increase. He won victories in Gaul, in Sicily, and in Africa. As he was returning to Rome after the last of these campaigns, the great Dictator himself headed the crowd that went forth to meet him, and saluted him as Pompey the Great, a title which he continued to use as his family name. But there was a further honour which the young general was anxious to obtain, but Sulla was unwilling to grant, the supreme glory of a triumph. "No one," he said, "who was not or had not been consul, or at least prætor, could triumph. The first of the Scipios, who had won Spain from the Carthaginians, had not asked for this honour because he wanted this qualification. Was it to be given to a beardless youth, too young even to sit in the Senate?" But the beardless youth insisted. He even had the audacity to hint that the future belonged not to Sulla but to himself. "More men," he said, "worship the rising than the setting sun." Sulla did not happen to catch the words, but he saw the emotion they aroused in the assembly, and asked that they should be repeated to him. His astonishment permitted him to say nothing more than "Let him triumph! Let him triumph." And triumph he did, to the disgust of his older rivals, whom he intended, but that the streets were not broad enough to allow of the display, still further to affront by harnessing elephants instead of horses to his chariot.

Two years afterwards he met an antagonist more formidable than any he had yet encountered. Sertorius, the champion at once of the party of the people and of the native tribes of Spain, was holding out against the government of Rome. The veteran leader professed a great contempt for his young adversary, "I should whip the boy," he said, "if I were not afraid of the old woman" (meaning Pompey's colleague). But he took good care not to underrate him in practice, and put forth all his skill in dealing with him. Pompey's first campaign against him was disastrous; the successes of the second were chequered by some serious defeats. For five years the struggle continued, and seemed little likely to come to an end, when Sertorius was assassinated by his second in command, Perpenna. Perpenna was unable to wield the power which he had thus acquired, and was defeated and taken prisoner by Pompey. He endeavoured to save his life by producing the correspondence of Sertorius. This implicated some of the most distinguished men in Rome, who had held secret communications with the rebel leader, and had even invited him over into Italy. With admirable wisdom Pompey, while he ordered the instant execution of the traitor, burnt the letters unread.

Returning to Italy he was followed by his usual good fortune. That country had been suffering cruelly from a revolt of the slaves, which the Roman generals had been strangely slow in suppressing. Roused to activity by the tidings of Pompey's approach, Crassus, who was in supreme command, attacked and defeated the insurgent army. A considerable body, however, contrived to escape, and it was this with which Pompey happened to fall in, and which he completely destroyed. "Crassus defeated the enemy," he was thus enabled to boast, "but I pulled up the war by the roots." No honours were too great for a man at once so skilful and so fortunate (for the Romans had always a great belief in a general's good fortune). On the 31st of December, B.C. 71, being still a simple gentleman—that is, having held no civil office in the State—he triumphed for the second time, and on the following day, being then some years below the legal age, and having held none of the offices by which it was usual to mount to the highest dignity in the commonwealth, he entered on his first consulship, Crassus being his colleague.

Still he had not yet reached the height of his glory. During the years that followed his consulship, the pirates who infested the Mediterranean had become intolerable. Issuing, not as was the case in after times, from the harbours of Northern Africa, but from fastnesses in the southern coast of Asia Minor, they plundered the more civilized regions of the West, and made it highly dangerous to traverse the seas either for pleasure or for gain. It was impossible to transport the armies of Rome to the provinces except in the winter, when the pirates had retired to their strongholds. Even Italy itself was not safe. The harbour of Caieta, with its shipping, was burnt under the very eye of the prætor. From Misenum the pirates carried off the children of the admiral who had the year before led an expedition against them. They even ventured not only to blockade Ostia, the harbour of Rome, and almost within sight of the city, but to capture the fleet that was stationed there. They were especially insulting to Roman citizens. If a prisoner claimed to be such—and the claim generally ensured protection—they would pretend the greatest penitence and alarm, falling on their knees before him, and entreating his pardon. Then they would put shoes on his feet, and robe him in a citizen's garb. Such a mistake, they would say, must not happen again. The end of their jest was to make him "walk the plank," and with the sarcastic permission to depart unharmed, they let down a ladder into the sea, and compelled him to descend, under penalty of being still more summarily thrown overboard. Men's eyes began to be turned on Pompey, as the leader who had been prosperous in all his undertakings. In 67 B.C. a law was proposed appointing a commander (who, however, was not named), who should have absolute power for three years over the sea as far as the Pillars of Hercules (the Straits of Gibraltar), and the coast for fifty miles inland, and who should be furnished with two hundred ships, as many soldiers and sailors as he wanted, and more than a million pounds in money. The nobles were furious in their opposition, and prepared to prevent by force the passing of this law. The proposer narrowly escaped with his life, and Pompey himself was threatened. "If you will be another Romulus, like Romulus you shall die " (one form of the legend of Rome's first king represented him as having been torn to pieces by the senators). But all resistance was unavailing. The new command was created, and of course bestowed upon Pompey. The price of corn, which had risen to a famine height in Rome, fell immediately the appointment was made. The result, indeed, amply justified the choice. The new general made short work of the task that had been set him. Not satisfied with the force put under his command, he collected five hundred ships and one hundred and twenty thousand men. With these he swept the pirates from the seas and stormed their strongholds, and all in less than three months. Twenty thousand prisoners fell into his hands. With unusual humanity he spared their lives, and thinking that man was the creature of circumstances, determined to change their manner of life. They were to be removed from the sea, should cease to be sailors, and become farmers. It is possible that the old man of Corycus, whose skill in gardening Virgil celebrates in one of his Georgics, was one of the pirates whom the judicious mercy of Pompey changed into a useful citizen.

A still greater success remained to be won. For more than twenty years war, occasionally intercepted by periods of doubtful peace, had been carried on between Rome and Mithridates, king of Pontus. This prince, though reduced more than once to the greatest extremities, had contrived with extraordinary skill and courage to retrieve his fortunes, and now in 67 B.C. was in possession of the greater part of his original dominion. Lucullus, a general of the greatest ability, was in command of the forces of Rome, but he had lost the confidence of his troops, and affairs were at a standstill. Pompey's friends proposed that the supreme command should be transferred to him, and the law, which Cicero supported in what is perhaps the most perfect of his political speeches, was passed. Pompey at once proceeded to the East. For four years Mithridates held out, but with little hope of ultimate success or even of escape. In 64, after vainly attempting to poison himself, such was the power of the antidotes by which he had fortified himself against domestic treachery (for so the story runs), he perished, by the sword of one of his mercenaries. For two years more Pompey was busied in settling the affairs of the East. At last, in 61, he returned to Rome to enjoy a third triumph, and that the most splendid which the city had ever witnessed. It lasted for two days, but still the time was too short for the display of the spoils of victory. The names of no less than fifteen conquered nations were carried in procession. A thousand forts, nine hundred cities, had been taken, and the chief of them were presented by means of pictures to the eyes of the people. The revenue of the State had been almost doubled by these conquests. Ninety thousand talents in gold and silver coin were paid into the treasury, nor was this at the expense of the soldiers, whose prize money was so large that the smallest share amounted to fifty pounds. Never before was such a sight seen in the world, and if Pompey had died when it was finished, he would have been proclaimed the most fortunate of mankind.

Certainly he was never so great again as he was that day. When with Cæsar and Crassus he divided all the power of the State, he was only the second, and by far the second, of the three. His influence, his prestige, his popularity declined year by year. The good fortune which had followed him without ceasing from his earliest years now seemed to desert him. Even the shows, the most magnificent ever seen in the city, with which he entertained the people at the dedication of his theatre (built at his own expense for the public benefit) were not wholly a success. Here is a letter of Cicero about them to his friend Marius; interesting as giving both a description of the scene and as an account of the writer's own feelings about it. "If it was some bodily pain or weakness of health that kept you from coming to the games, I must attribute your absence to fortune rather than to a judicious choice. But if you thought the things which most men admire contemptible, and so, though health permitted, would not come, then I am doubly glad; glad both that you were free from illness and that you were so vigorous in mind as to despise the sights which others so unreasonably admire. . . . Generally the shows were most splendid, but not to your taste, if I may judge of yours by my own. First, the veteran actors who for their own honour had retired from the stage, returned to it to do honour to Pompey. Your favourite, my dear friend Æsopus, acquitted himself so poorly as to make us all feel that he had best retire. When he came to the oath—

'And if of purpose set I break my faith,'

his voice failed him. What need to tell you more? You know all about the other shows; they had not even the charm which moderate shows commonly have. The ostentation with which they were furnished forth took away all their gaiety. What charm is there in having six hundred mules in the Clytemnestra, or three thousand supernumeraries in the Trojan Horse, or cavalry and infantry in foreign equipment in some battle-piece. The populace admired all this; but it would have given you no kind of pleasure. After this came a sort of wild-beast fights, lasting for five days. They were splendid: no man denies it. But what man of culture can feel any pleasure when some poor fellow is torn in pieces by some powerful animal, or when some noble animal is run through with a hunting spear. If these things are worth seeing, you have seen them before. And I, who was actually present, saw nothing new. The last day was given up to the elephants. Great was the astonishment of the crowd at the sight; but of pleasure there was nothing. Nay, there was some feeling of compassion, some sense that this animal has a certain kinship with man." The elder Pliny tells us that two hundred lions were killed on this occasion, and that the pity felt for the elephants rose to the height of absolute rage. So lamentable was the spectacle of their despair, so pitifully did they implore the mercy of the audience, "that the whole multitude rose in tears and called down upon Pompey the curses which soon descended on him."

And then Pompey's young wife, Julia, Cæsar's daughter, died. She had been a bond of union between the two men, and the hope of peace was sensibly lessened by her loss. Perhaps the first rupture would have come anyhow; when it did come it found Pompey quite unprepared for the conflict. He seemed indeed to be a match for his rival, but his strength collapsed almost at a touch. "I have but to stamp with my foot," he said on one occasion, "and soldiers will spring up;" yet when Cæsar declared war by crossing the Rubicon, he fled without a struggle. In little more than a year and a half all was over. The battle of Pharsalia was fought on the 9th of August, and on September the 29th the man who had triumphed over three continents lay a naked, headless corpse on the shore of Egypt.