Syme disliked Pompeius “the Great,” and his father, Cn. Pompeius Strabo:
“Brutal, corrupt and perfidious, Strabo was believed to have procured the assassination of a consul. When he died of a natural but providential death the populace broke up his funeral. Strabo was a sinister character, ‘hated by heaven and by the nobility’ [hominem dis ac nobilitati pennvisum.], for good reasons. There were no words to describe Cn. Pompeius the son.”
The third chapter of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution describes the rise of Pompeius who for Syme anticipated the rise of Augustus and the end of the Roman Republic. Pompey’s efforts to secure the loyalty of the military, to secure the authority of the tribunate, and to move himself or his pandering allies into the consulate established his power at Rome whether he managed to endear himself to the nobiles or not. At first, the process did not go smoothly when Pompeius victoriously returned from the East and sough to secure land for his troops and Senate approval for his treaties. Syme’s description was brilliant (and eerily contemporary):
“By scandalous bribery he secured the election of the military man L. Afranius. The other place was won by Metellus Celer, who, to get support from Pompeius, stifled for the moment an insult to the honour of his family. [Pompeius had divorced Celer’s half-sister to marry Cato’s niece.]
Everything went wrong. The consul Celer turned against Pompeius, and Afranius was a catastrophe, his only talent for civil life being the art of dancing.”
And: “The triumphal robe of Magnus seemed chill comfort in political defeat.”
Despite these setbacks and the efforts of his enemies, Pomeius’s managed to seize power and, when the Republic and the Senate was confronted by a cornered Caesar, he revealed to his enemies their dependency on his standing and his troops. This victory, however, came at great cost to both himself and the entire Republic. There’s a lot to chew on in this description:
“They might have known better Cato’s stubborn refusal to agree to the land bill for Pompeius’ veterans only led to worse evils and a subverting of the constitution. After long strife against the domination of Pompeius, Cato resolved to support a dictatorship, though anxiously shunning the name. Cato’s confidence in his own rectitude and insight derived secret strength from the antipathy which he felt for the person and character of Caesar.
The influence and example of Cato spurred on the nobiles and accelerated war. Helped by the power, the prestige, and the illicit armies of Pompeius Magnus (stationed already on Italian soil or now being recruited for the government and on the plea of legitimacy), a faction in the Senate worked the constitution
against Caesar. The proconsul refused to yield.”
The end result is well known:
“To the bloodless but violent usurpations of 70 and 59 B.C. the logical end was armed conflict and despotism. As the soldiers were the proletariat of Italy, the revolution became social as well as political. The remedy was simple and drastic. For the health of the Roman People the dynasts had to go. Augustus completed the purge and created the New State.”
The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here.