Children's Plutarch: Tales of the Romans - F. J. Gould

The Conqueror of Pirates

"I am a Roman!"

"A Roman, sir? We beg your pardon, sir. O, kind Roman, forgive us for making you prisoner!"

With this cry the pirates fell on their knees, and smote their thighs with the palms of their hands. Some ran to tie his shoe-buckle; others brought him the toga, or gown, that had been dragged off his shoulders.

It was only done in mockery. These wild sea-robbers were at war with Rome and all the world. They had no fear of Romans.

Presently the prisoner was led to a ladder at the side of the big galley.

"Go in peace," said the pirates, with a sneer.

The Roman shrank from stepping down into the water. He was pushed forward, and fell into the sea and was drowned.

These pirates came from Cilicia, a province of Asia Minor, where they had whole villages and towns in their possession, as well as castles on the hilltops. Large numbers of persons who were discontented with Roman rule joined the roving warriors of the sea, and their galleys swarmed all over the Mediterranean. They made sudden attacks on cities on the coast, and at one place seized and carried off two officers (prętors) and their servants. And they plundered the holy temples of Apollo and other gods. Their ships were shaded by purple awnings, the back parts were gilded, the oars were plated with silver, and bands of musicians played while the pirates drank and danced. So much damage was done by this navy of robbers, who swept the sea from Syria to the Pillars of Hercules (Strait of Gibraltar), that the senate of Rome discussed means of putting an end to the pirate power. They resolved to send Pompey to do this dangerous work. Great was the joy of the citizens when they heard that Pompey was to take command. They had faith in his skill and courage.

In three months he had cleared the sea of these troublesome folk. He had five hundred galleys. He divided the whole Mediterranean Sea into thirteen parts, and placed a lieutenant over each, with a portion of the fleet. Then, sailing and rowing from the west, Pompey advanced, driving the pirates before him—eastward, eastward—fighting and capturing as he went, till the last of the robber ships surrendered. Pompey landed troops in Cilicia, and engaged in battle with the last of the pirate tribes. After his victory the villages, towns, and forts yielded. He had taken ninety ships with beaks of brass. There were twenty thousand prisoners, but instead of slaying them Pompey showed a merciful spirit, and placed them as colonists in various cities in Asia Minor and Greece. This was in 67 B.C.

Great were the wars of Pompey in Asia. He and his valiant Romans carried the eagles of the republic over rocky hills, over rivers, marshes, deserts, through forests, among wild tribes, among the Armenians, the Syrians, the Jews, the Arabs. They took a thousand castles and nine hundred cities.

Perhaps he would think to himself sometimes: "Some day I may be master of all the Roman world, from Spain in the west to the palm-trees of Arabia in the east."

Two other men, Crassus the Rich and Julius Cęsar, were also men of power. There was a senate of noblemen who still sat and talked in the forum at Rome, but they could not manage to govern so large a domain of land and sea, and many of them only thought how to make themselves and their families wealthy. The three generals, Cęsar, Crassus, and Pompey, divided the lordship among them—Cęsar commanded the army in Gaul; Pompey had Spain and Africa; Crassus went to the east, where he was slain, as I have already told you.

Pompey gave the people of Rome a grand theatre, and provided splendid shows. Five hundred lions were let out of cages, and fought in the arena, or open space, amid the shouts of the citizens; and eighteen elephants waged battle with armed men. The people cheered Pompey when he passed through the streets. One year he acted as consul. The rich people—the patricians—were on his side. He lifted his head in pride, and dreamed that he would be the highest man in Rome. Some of his friends said to him:

"Beware of Cęsar! He will return from Gaul, and try to make himself master of Rome."

Pompey smiled.

"If," he replied, "I only stamp my foot in Italy an army will appear."

Cęsar felt that Rome needed one strong will to put the State in order, and to give just rule to the far-off provinces—Spain, Africa, Asia, Greece, and the rest. He was ready to take up the task. By rapid marches he brought his army to Rome. Thousands of Pompey's soldiers left him, and went over to Cęsar's side.

The senators ran to Pompey. One of them cried out:

"O Pompey, you have deceived us!"

Another bade him stamp on the ground to make an army appear, as he had once boasted he was able to do.

Before long Pompey had fled from Italy, his troops crossing the sea in five hundred ships to the hill-country north of Greece. He had seven thousand horsemen, all men of rich and noble families, and masses of foot-soldiers.

Among others who joined Pompey was Tidius Sextius, a lame old man, who came limping into the camp. Many of the soldiers laughed at this crippled warrior. They thought he could be of little use in the war.

But Pompey had a generous spirit. He rose up and ran to meet him, and showed Sextius much courtesy. He considered that a man who would give up the comfort of his home, and come to the wars for the sake of a friend, deserved honor and respect.

Early one August morning, in the year 48 B.C., the red cloak—the signal of battle—was hoisted over Cęsar's tent on the plain of Pharsalia (Far-say'-lia). Pompey's tents were adorned with myrtle leaves; the soldiers' beds were strewn with flowers; wine-cups were set ready on the tables for a feast. The patrician knights made sure of victory over Cęsar's common bowmen and swordsmen. The haughty spirit of Pompey's men was soon to be broken.

Cęsar said to his foot-soldiers:

"Keep your javelins in your hands till Pompey's horsemen are close upon you. Then aim your short spears at their faces. These young gentlemen will not care to let the steel touch their fair cheeks."

Pompey and Sextus

And that happened. Pompey's cavalry recoiled from the shower of javelins, and they fled in panic. Before the day was out the army of Cęsar was rushing, like a mighty tide, upon the scattered troops of the man who had been called Pompey the Great.

Hurrying from the dreadful place of defeat, Pompey rode to a far valley, where he was glad to kneel by a brook and quench his thirst. Then he rode on—Cęsar and death were in pursuit. The blue sea came in view. On the shore, in a poor fisherman's cabin, the beaten general slept at night. At gray dawn he set off in a small river-boat, and was rowed along the coast till a friendly galley took him on board.

Cornelia, his wife, heard of his ruin. She lay a long time on the ground, without saying one word. His ship—he had but this one—lay in the harbor. At length she rose and went down to the sea. Pompey hastened to meet her on the beach. She hung upon his neck, exclaiming:

"Alas, my dear husband, that I should see you reduced to one poor galley. There was a time when you commanded five hundred vessels."

"Cornelia," he answered, "we have fallen from great things to this wretched condition; but we may also rise again to great things."

A number of his ships now sailed to his aid, and some of his followers had rejoined him. They resolved to cross over to Egypt. After a safe voyage, Pompey's small fleet lay at anchor off the Egyptian coast. Messengers were sent ashore to ask the young King of Egypt to grant shelter to Pompey.

One of the king's advisers said:

"If you receive Pompey, you will have Cęsar for your enemy. If you send him away, he may one day have revenge. The best plan is to invite him on shore and kill him. Dead men do not bite."

A small fishing-boat approached Pompey's galley. It contained only four or five men. They asked the general to go with them, and he did so.

They rowed in silence. Cornelia and her friends watched from the deck of the galley. Pompey sat reading a paper which he had written. He presently noticed that one of the rowers was a man who had served with him in the wars.

"I think you were once a fellow-soldier?"

The man only nodded in reply.

The boat touched the shore. Pompey placed his hand on the shoulder of Philip, his slave, and was about to step out. A stab from behind caused him to fall. Other blows followed. Pompey wrapped his cloak over his head, and lay on the sand and died. He was just fifty-nine years old.

A shriek was heard from the galley. Cornelia had seen the murder. A wind was springing up; the fleet set sail. Only a few slaves kept guard over the general's body.

Philip began to make a heap of wood for a funeral pile on which to burn the body of his master. An old Roman soldier, who had fought under Pompey many years before, happened to pass.

"Let me," he said, "assist you to do the last honors to the greatest general Rome has produced."

The next day the people who sailed along that coast saw the flames and smoke of the pile. Philip, the faithful servant, was standing by.

The head was not burned. It was kept till Julius Cęsar arrived. A man brought it to him as soon as he landed, thinking he would be pleased.

But no such thing. He turned his face away in horror.

Another person gave him Pompey's seal, with which the dead general used to stamp his letters and other papers. On the seal was engraved a lion holding a sword in its paws.

As Cęsar took the seal the tears came into his eyes. And in those tears you see the noble spirit of a Roman.