Famous Men of Rome - John Haaren

Pompey the Great


Not long after the death of Sulla, a new enemy to Rome appeared upon the Mediterranean Sea. A large number of people who lived on the coasts of Asia Minor built and armed fleets of ships, sailed along the shores of Italy, and attacked and plundered Roman vessels.

The sea-rovers, or pirates, as the Romans called them, had more than a thousand well-built, fast-sailing ships. Many of them were adorned with richly gilded bows and sterns, purple sails, and silver-mounted oars. They seized trading-vessels, robbed them, and killed every person on board.

Often, too, the pirates committed robberies on land. A boat's crew from a pirate ship would go ashore, put to death all the farmers in the neighborhood, and lay waste their farms. So in a short time the pirates made themselves masters of the Italian coasts, and kept the people in constant excitement and terror.

But at last the Romans resolved to make war upon the robbers, and selected a very popular young man named Cneius Pompey to be the general. The people had great confidence in Pompey. They said that he was the only one who could put down the Mediterranean pirates, and demanded that he should be sent to do the work.

Pompey was a fine-looking man, with very pleasant manners. He had made himself famous as a soldier by brave deeds in wars in Spain and Africa, and was generally called Pompey the Great. His father had been a great commander, and the boy had lived in camps and taken part in wars almost from childhood. He had had many adventures during his army life and had always shown the qualities of a hero. He fought on the side of Sulla in many battles against the Marians, and he was thought to be one of Sulla's greatest generals.

The Roman Senate, therefore, yielded to the demand of the people and appointed Pompey to go forth against the pirates. He accepted the command and promptly set to work to carry out the important undertaking.

He gathered fourteen powerful fleets. He kept one of them for himself and put the others under the command of good officers. Then he divided the Mediterranean into thirteen districts, and sent a fleet to each district to hunt the pirates.

Roman Seaport


With his own fleet he sailed as far as the Strait of Gibraltar and then turned back towards Italy. On the way he chased the pirate vessels before him as he met them, until they were stopped and seized by some of the thirteen fleets stationed here and there all over the Mediterranean. The pirates were thus caught in a trap. Thousands of them were killed in battles with the different fleets, and their vessels were burned. The remainder soon surrendered to the Romans, and in three months the sea was cleared of pirates.

Pompey was much praised for this great work, and the people said he was just the man to take charge of the war against Mithridates. This king had again attacked a Roman province in Asia, and the Romans resolved to punish him. But Mithridates was a very powerful man. He had great armies; he was a skillful general, and he defeated the Romans in many battles. The Roman people, therefore, resolved to send Pompey against him. Pompey was much pleased to be placed in command of a great army, and he proudly started off with his soldiers for the eastern lands.


Pompey remained in Asia several years and won many great victories. He conquered a number of countries and put Roman governors over them. Then he came back to Rome, bringing kings and princes as prisoners, and an enormous amount of gold and silver and other valuable things to enrich the Republic and himself. He was welcomed in a magnificent manner and he had a Triumph such as was given to great and victorious generals.

But Pompey now began to think of making himself master of Rome during his life-time. He had greatly pleased the people by his victories in war, and they were praising him on every side. How to keep their favor, and by it to get power was what now occupied his mind. He had been consul before, but he was now elected again, and then he set about providing various sorts of amusements for the people. He believed that if the people were amused they would be less likely to object to his taking the powers of the government entirely into his own hands.

He built a theatre large enough to seat forty thousand persons. This was the first great theatre erected in Rome. It was of stone and very strongly made. It had no roof, and the rows of seats rose one above another in a half circle. At one end there was an immense stage on which all the performances took place.

In this grand theatre Pompey gave some very wonderful exhibitions from time to time. He had lions, elephants, and other wild animals brought from Asia and Africa at a great expense. These animals were let loose upon the stage and gladiators fought them in full view of the people in the theatre.

There were also thrilling combats in the theatres between the gladiators themselves. They fought each other savagely until one was wounded and fell upon the stage. Then the victor would turn towards the audience to find whether they wished him to kill the wounded man. If the people wanted this they would stretch out their hands with the thumbs down; if they did not want him killed they would hold their thumbs upward. If he had shown skill and courage and fought well they would give the sign to let him live, but if he had not made a brave fight they would turn down their thumbs and the unfortunate man would be instantly killed.

Slaves and prisoners taken in war were taught to be gladiators in schools established for the purpose. There were hundreds of these trained fighters always ready for the combats. The Romans were very fond of such amusements, and great crowds of men, and women too, attended the theatre whenever there was a fight of gladiators.

By giving the people a great deal of amusement of this kind on a grand scale, Pompey became the great popular favorite in Rome, and while the people were entertained at his theatre he managed the government to suit himself.


At this time the Romans ruled a vast territory, which included not only all Italy, but Greece, Spain, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Switzerland, and parts of France and Germany. Country after country had been conquered during a long series of years, and millions of people of different races and languages were subjects of Rome.

Rome itself was a city with a population of about half a million. It covered a very large area, including the famous seven hills. Its streets were narrow and crooked, but well-paved and clean. In the centre of the city were a number of large squares in which there were handsome buildings. There were magnificent temples and baths, and the houses of the nobles and wealthy plebeians were very large and splendid. Many of the fine houses were built of marble, with great pillars in front. Elegant furniture and handsome carpets and rugs filled the rooms.

There were many rich men in Rome at this time. Most of them had obtained the greater part of their wealth by plundering the conquered countries. They lived in a very magnificent manner, gave splendid dinners and entertainments, and had hundreds of slaves to attend upon them.

The slaves were a large class who were brought to Rome from many nations conquered in war. Many of them belonged to high families in their own country, and were well educated. Some of them were physicians, and others were good scholars and could read and write for their masters. The best cooks, builders, tailors, and farmers were slaves. In fact it was by slaves that nearly all the skilled work in Rome was done.

Slave market


The inscription on the picture is the business sign, mango  being Latin for slave-dealer.

There were markets in Rome where slaves were sold. The slaves to be sold were placed on a platform. Labels hung from their necks, showing their age and what they were able to do.

The Roman children were taught to read and write Latin, which was their own language. They were also taught arithmetic and history. Most of the teachers were well-educated slaves.

Rome, then, was very rich and very powerful in the time of Pompey, and for many years Pompey was very popular. At one time he became dangerously ill while visiting Naples. Then the people showed their great love for him in many ways, and when he recovered there were public thanksgivings throughout Italy. On his journey home great crowds came out to greet him as he passed through the towns, and when he arrived at Rome he was received with unbounded joy.

Pompey had now a very strong hold on the affections of the people, so he cared little for the efforts made by a very ambitious Roman named Julius Cæsar to win public favor. But Cæsar was a man of strong will and great energy. He had resolved to be the ruler of Rome, and he spared no labor to accomplish his purpose. Pompey at last became alarmed at Cæsar's efforts, but it was then too late. He was defeated by Cæsar in a great battle and soon after lost his life. How these things came about we shall learn in the next story.