Story of the Roman People - E. M. Tappan

The Rise of Pompey

Sulla had declared that the government would soon "go as it ought," but it began to seem as if all things were going as they ought not, for there was trouble in every corner of the republic and in Rome itself. Sulla had brought the senate and the nobles into power again, but no one respected them or their rule. Before he had been dead many months, there was a revolt in Etruria, and the two consuls were sent to settle it. But what would Cincinnatus and Coriolanus and Caius Mucius Scaevola and the other old patriots have said to this, that the consuls were not allowed to set out until they had most solemnly sworn not to permit their armies to fight each other! One of the laws recently passed was that no one should be made consul for two years in succession, but Lepidus, one of the consuls, demanded a second term. This was refused, and then Lepidus and his army made ready to attack Rome; but they were defeated by the other consul and his army.

The trouble in the West arose because the people of Lusitania, which was nearly the Portugal of to-day, revolted against Rome. They wanted a leader, and they invited a Roman general, Quintus Sertorius, to be that leader. He had been on the side of Marius and Cinna, though he did all that he could to prevent their cruelty. When Sulla came into power, Sertorius took refuge in Spain. The natives admired him because he was brave, and they liked him because he was kind and thoughtful. If any of them brought him a gift, however small, he never forgot to show his gratitude. One day a countryman captured a snow-white fawn, so pretty that he carried it at once to the general. This fawn became so fond of him that it followed him wherever he went. The deer was sacred to the goddess Diana, and Sertorius persuaded the people who were very willing to be persuaded that this fawn was a gift from her to her favorite. They were glad to obey a favorite of the gods, and Sertorius set to work to form a good government in Spain and teach the people what the Romans had learned. He trained them as the Roman soldiers were trained; and he even opened schools for their children where they could be taught as children were taught in Rome. He often visited these schools and gave rewards to the pupils that had done well.

Many Romans joined him who had fled from the rule of Sulla; he made friends with the Gauls, the Mediterranean pirates, and even with Mithridates; and some people in Rome began to think he was trying to found a rival city. They sent troops against him, but for several years he was more than a match for them. He could always think of some new way of accomplishing what he wished. He once overcame a tribe of savages who lived in caves on a hillside by building up a great mound of dry and crumbly clay. The barbarians laughed and scoffed at him; but when the strong wind began to blow toward the hill, the soldiers galloped up and down on the mound and stirred up a thick cloud of dust. This blew straight into the caves, and after two days the barbarians surrendered.

Sertorius was so strong that at one time the Romans were afraid they had lost Spain. To overcome him they sent the young general, Cnaeus Pompeius, now called Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey the Great, because of his victories over the followers of Marius in Africa and Sicily. Whether Pompey would have succeeded is not known, for some of the Romans in Spain became jealous of Sertorius and murdered him at a banquet. Now that the leader was dead, Pompey soon succeeded in making the Roman rule in Spain as strong as ever.

These were the difficulties of Rome in the West; but there were two matters fully as serious as the troubles in Spain and in the East, and they were much nearer home. One was the War with the Gladiators, and the other was the piracy of the Mediterranean Sea.

The War with the Gladiators began at Capua, where there was a gladiatorial school for Gallic prisoners who had been forced to become gladiators. They escaped from the town with only some weapons of the arena which they had seized; but soon they captured some weapons of war from a party sent out from Capua against them. They now numbered forty thousand, for slaves and other gladiators had joined them, and they routed the troops sent against them from Rome. Spartacus had been chosen as their leader. He very sensibly planned to get away from Italy as soon as possible, so his men could make their way to their homes in Gaul and Thrace.

The others, however, had quite different ideas. They had been successful in several engagements, and they had wild hopes of staying in Italy and conquering Rome.

At first the proud senators had felt annoyed and disgraced that a band of barbarians should overpower Roman troops; but now they began to feel alarmed, and they sent both consuls against them. The consuls met with no success. Then they put the war into the hands of the praetor Marcus Crassus. Spartacus marched toward Sicily and paid some pirates to take him and his army, now consisting of a hundred and fifty thousand men, to the island. The pirates took the money and sailed away without the army. Then Spartacus made himself as strong as he could in Rhegium. Crassus dug a trench and built a wall across the peninsula upon which Rhegium stands; but one stormy night, Spartacus filled up the trench with earth and wood and passed it with part of his army. He defeated some Roman troops; but this victory was his ruin, for now his men insisted upon meeting the army of Crassus in open combat. They had their way, but were defeated and Spartacus was slain.

Pompey, meanwhile, was just returning from Spain. He met five thousand of the rebels and cut them down. They had learned too late that it would have been wiser to seek the North. The credit of the war belonged to Crassus, but Pompey wrote to the senate, "Crassus has beaten the gladiators in a pitched battle, but I have cut up the war by the roots." When the two generals returned to Rome, both were made consuls; but Pompey was honored with a triumph because of his victories in Spain. According to law, neither Crassus nor Pompey should have been chosen consul; but Crassus was enormously rich and Pompey was a favorite among the people. Moreover, Pompey had promised them that if he was elected, he would have a law passed giving back to the tribunes the power which Sulla had taken away.

Sulla had passed another most important law, namely, that a man accused of crime must be tried before a jury of senators. Soon an event occurred which made it possible to repeal this law also. This was the trial of Verres, governor of the province of Sicily.

When Rome began to make some of her conquered countries into provinces, she ruled them fairly and kindly; but little by little the rule of the governors had become almost unbelievably cruel and shameless. Verres had taken the greater part of the grain raised by the farmers, sometimes the whole of it. He stole gems, statues, paintings, tapestry, gold and silver vessels, even columns from the temples. No one in Sicily could hold an office or win a cause without making extravagant presents to this infamous governor. The farming lands of Sicily began to look like deserts, for the farmers would not cultivate the ground to have their crops taken away from them. The temples and the finest houses were as bare of their former handsome furnishings as if they had been stripped by a band of robbers. Far worse than this were his terrible cruelties, shown not only to the helpless Sicilians, but to Romans. He dared to imprison Romans without a trial, to scourge them, to put them to death, even by the slave's death of crucifixion. The Roman's great protection, "I am a Roman citizen," counted for nothing with him.

Verres knew that at the end of his three years of office he would probably be brought before the courts; but that did not alarm him, for he thought he could easily buy up his judges. Indeed, he boasted that there was no reason for him to be troubled; one third of his gains would give him an immense fortune, and the rest he was perfectly willing to use to buy his acquittal. Unfortunately for his schemes, the Sicilians engaged a young lawyer, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had once held an important office in their island, to prosecute him. Cicero drew a vivid picture of the sufferings of the Sicilians, the cruelty and wickedness of Verres. Then he began to call out witnesses. Long before they had all testified, Verres saw that his case was hopeless. He took as much of his wealth as possible and fled to Massilia (Marseilles). The corruption of the senate jury was shown so plainly that few could venture to oppose the law providing that one third of a jury should be composed of senators, but the other two thirds should always be of merchants and other men of standing.

All this time a third war with Mithridates was going on, but with little success to the Romans. There was another trouble, however, nearer home, and that was the piracy in the Mediterranean Sea. It had become a real business. The pirates were masters of four hundred cities. They owned a thousand galleys, many of them gorgeous in purple canopies and gilded sterns. They went about boldly with music and feasting, and not only captured ships, but robbed the most sacred temples. They had no respect for the title of Roman citizen, but made raids upon the land and carried away even officials in their robes of office. The Romans had been so occupied by the wars on land that they had paid little attention to the water, and the pirates had grown so bold that no vessel would venture to sail on the Tuscan Sea.

Then the Romans began to arouse themselves. Italy had come to depend upon Sicily and Africa for much of her grain; and there was danger of famine. What should be done? It was decided to put the whole matter into the hands of Pompey, and to give him for three years the power of a dictator over the Mediterranean Sea and for fifty miles inland. He was to have as much money as he wished, to fit out five hundred galleys, and he was to raise an army of a hundred and twenty-five thousand men. The people were so sure that he would be successful that the price of provisions fell that very day.

They had put their trust in the right man. Pompey divided the Mediterranean Sea into thirteen parts and sent a squadron to each. Within three months the pirates and their strongholds had been captured. Mercy to prisoners was not common in those days, but instead of putting his twenty thousand captives to death, Pompey scattered them among the small towns of Cilicia. They were made welcome by the inhabitants because he was wise enough to give each town a large addition of land.

The Romans were overjoyed at this victory, and many of them began to say, "Pompey would bring the war with Mithridates to an end. Let us put him in command." The tribune Caius Manilius formally proposed to do this. Julius Caesar supported him, and Cicero made a brilliant speech in favor of the Manilian Law, as this proposal was called. Some of the Romans shook their heads. "No general has ever held so much power," they said; but the law was passed, and while Pompey was still in the east, he was made commander of all the forces outside of Italy. He had the authority to make peace or war with any nation.

This war with Mithridates had begun more than twenty years earlier. Peace had been made twice; but Mithridates had taken up arms again, for he had brought together an excellent army and he believed that he could become ruler of Asia. He certainly had good reason to think that the Asiatic peoples would welcome him, for under the Roman rule they were most miserable. Sulla had inflicted upon them so enormous a fine that to pay it they had been forced to borrow of the Roman money-lenders. The collectors had added interest upon interest, and although the poor people had paid the amount twice over, these collectors claimed that they owed six times as much as the original fine. They had been obliged to strip their temples of the ornaments sacred to the gods, to sell their children into slavery, and even to make themselves slaves to these merciless creditors.

The Romans had sent Lucius Licinius Lucullius to this country to wage war with Mithridates. Lucullus made just laws for interest and taxes and forbade creditors to take more than one fourth of a debtor's income. The money-lenders and collectors were indignant and sent angry protests to Rome. The soldiers of Lucullus did not like him,. and when they heard of these protests they mutinied. The Romans did not send him reinforcements, and Lucullus lost the reward of his years of toil. This was the condition of affairs when Pompey was sent to take his place.

Pompey allowed the money-lenders and tax-gatherers to resume their former ill treatment of the natives. Then he set to work to harass the allies of Mithridates. The king was forced to stand alone. His army was destroyed by the Roman leader and he himself barely escaped. Pompey pursued, and Mithridates was driven beyond the Caucasus Mountains. Pompey made Pontus into a Roman province and subdued Syria and Phoenicia and Judaea. He besieged Jerusalem, and finally took it by surprising the Jews on the Sabbath, when they thought it wrong to fight. In the temple of Jerusalem he pushed into the Holy of Holies and was much surprised to find no images of the gods there.

While Pompey was in these countries, Mithridates was trying to raise an army and follow Hannibal's plan of invading Italy from the north. One day, however, some messengers galloped up to Pompey's camp with a packet. On the points of their spears were crowns of laurel, and the soldiers cried, "Open it, open it!" for the laurel meant good news. They would not wait to build up a mound of turf for a platform, but heaped together a number of pack saddles. Pompey mounted this pile and read aloud, "Mithridates is dead. He killed himself on the revolt of his son Pharnaces." Then the soldiers shouted with joy. They offered sacrifices to the gods, and were as happy, says the old historian Plutarch, "as if ten thousand of their enemies had been slain."

While Pompey had been subduing the East, Rome had been in a most turbulent condition. The tribunes and the senators were at swords' points; the people hardly knew what they wanted, except that they were bent upon opposing the senate. Law and order had almost vanished, and everything was in confusion. In the midst of this turmoil a conspiracy was formed which nearly destroyed what little government there was left. Lucius Sergius Catilina, or Catiline, made a plot to overthrow the state. He was a reckless young noble, and it was easy for him to find many others who were as deeply in debt as he, and were equally ready to seize upon any means, no matter how dishonorable, to get wealth into their hands. He tried first to have himself elected consul, in order to get possession of some of the revenues of the state; and when he failed, he determined to murder the consuls and other leading men and to burn the city, that in the confusion he might seize whatever he chose. It was not many years before this that the Romans had felt disgraced at having to meet the gladiators in battle, but Catiline planned to invite them to join his army.

It happened, however, that the orator Cicero was consul that year. He learned of Catiline's plots, and called the senate together at once in the temple of Jupiter. But when he looked about him, behold, there was Catiline quietly taking his seat among the senators! Then Cicero thundered at him, "In the name of the gods, Catiline, how long will you abuse our patience? Is there no limit to your audacity?" He went on to tell every detail of the infamous plot. When he paused, Catiline tried to clear himself, but there were cries of "Enemy! Murderer!" and he was forced to be silent. Still, the senate was half afraid to seize him, and he went out of the city to his camp in Etruria. He was afterward slain in a battle with the Romans.

[Illustration] from Story of the Roman People by E. M. Tappan


Meanwhile, the conspirators who remained in the city were taken prisoners. Cicero now asked the senate to name their punishment. Julius Caesar thought that their property should be seized and they themselves sent to different Italian cities as prisoners for life. This was a mild punishment for traitors; and when Marcus Porcius Cato, a descendant of Cato the Censor, came to speak, he demanded that they should be put to death. The sentence was executed. The people rejoiced, and when Cicero passed through the forum on his way home, they shouted, "Cicero! Cicero! The Savior of Rome! The Second Founder of the City!" Rome was illuminated; burning torches were placed by the doors of the houses, and women on the roofs held out lamps so that the city should be a blaze of light in honor of the man who had put down so great a conspiracy.

Unfortunately for Cicero, he was never tired of talking and writing about his own deeds. It was the custom that, at the end of a consul's term of office, he should swear that he had obeyed the laws. Instead of following the usual form, Cicero said, "I swear that I have saved my country and preserved the state." The people shouted their applause; but Caesar and the tribunes were not at all pleased at Cicero's becoming so popular. They proposed a law calling back Pompey and his army to suppress him; but Cato spoke against it so eloquently that instead of wishing to suppress him, the people gave him the title of "Father of his Country." Nevertheless, there were many who did not forget that during his consulship Roman citizens had been put to death without a trial.

At the close of the war with Mithridates, Pompey and his army returned to Rome; and such a triumph as he had! In the procession were people from various countries of the East. There were wagons loaded with gold and silver coin, and others without number carrying arms and the beaks of ships. There was the couch of one king, and the throne and sceptre of Mithridates himself. There were great tablets on which were written the names of the kings whom Pompey had conquered and the number of ships that he had taken. There were multitudes of pirates and other prisoners. There were images of those enemies that had been slain, representing them in different battle scenes. The image of Mithridates was nearly twelve feet high and made of solid gold. These came first; then followed the long lines of captives with scores of conquered generals among them. Last came Pompey himself, escorted by his officers. He rode in a chariot blazing with jewels. He wore the cloak of Alexander the Great, "if any one can believe that," the historian Appian says cautiously. There had never been such a triumph before. For two whole days it lasted, and the people of Rome thronged the streets and gazed and gazed. When the procession reached the Capitoline Hill, they expected the captives to be slain according to custom, but Pompey forbade this. With the exception of two kings who were finally put to death, he sent them back to their own countries.

But when the triumph was over, the Romans began to wonder what would come next, for though the people were increasing in power, they had no leader; and the tribunes and the senate were determined opponents.


There was revolt against the Roman rule in Etruria and in Lusitania. Sertorius became very strong in Spain. Pompeius was sent against him. Sertorius was murdered. The Roman power in Spain became as great as ever.

The War of the Gladiators was put down by Crassus, but the glory of the victory was taken by Pompey.

The outrages of Verres in Sicily were exposed by Cicero, and Verres fled. A third war with Mithridates was going on. Piracy in the Mediterranean was suppressed by Pompey; and to him was given the command of all forces outside of Italy. Lucullus became unpopular, and Pompey was sent to take his place in Asia and carry on the war with Mithridates. He routed Mithridates and captured Jerusalem. Mithridates committed suicide.

The plots of Catiline against Rome were exposed by Cicero. Catiline was slain in battle; other conspirators were put to death. Cicero was hailed as "Father of his Country."

Pompey was honored with a great triumph for having brought the war with Mithridates to an end.

Suggestions for Written Work

  • A speech of Spartacus to the gladiators.
  • How Pompey captured Jerusalem.
  • A boy describes Pompey's triumph to another boy living in the country.