Epic Grail Fail: Pompey the Great

The following is an excerpt (#2 of 20) from:

"Jesus Among the Julio-Claudians"
copyright 2017 Charles N. Pope

Epic Grail Fail: Pompey the Great

The reputation of Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) had been carefully cultivated from an early age. Pompey was allowed to take credit for major military victories and celebrate multiple triumphs in Rome before he had, as yet, held any high public office there. The self-appointed dictator of Rome during that period, Lucius Cornelia Sulla, addressed his young charge Pompey as imperator (“King/Emperor”) and magnus (“The Great”). Sulla, a Great King in his own right (outside Rome), pretended to resent the growing favor of Pompey, but he was nevertheless a leading contributor to it, even if reluctantly. Sulla was dying and did not have a qualified heir of his own. The royal show had to go on.

Cf Dictator Sulla/Syla and the contemporary Eastern despot Zoilos (II).

One of Pompey’s predecessors, Scipio Aemilianus, had conquered Africa and Hispania. Pompey reconquered both of these regions and added a third “continent,” that of “Asia.” Pompey’s crowning achievement was hounding Rome’s perennial bogeyman Mithridates of Pontus to his (presumed) death. Subsequently, it was reported that Pompey publicly and scandalously donned the cloak of Alexander the Great, which was said to have been a gift from Cleopatra herself to Mithridates and among the goods confiscated by Pompey! Mithridates represented the last great kingly hold-out within the Roman sphere. The transitional period was nearly over. The Romans had been sufficiently cowed by the specter of royal domination from without and had consequently succumbed to royal domination from within. A nominal Roman now wore the mantle of Messianic Kingship.

Pompey was royal and couldn’t resist flaunting it. During the transition from Republic to Empire, popular intolerance to royal rule was continually tested, and until all such resistance was effectively overcome. Ironically, it had also been the royal family that once made Rome a royal-free zone and dictated that no king could enter the city as a king. This didn’t prevent royals from dominating Roman politics and society even during the days of the Republic! The royal family prided themselves in their capacity to create any system and also to corrupt it. There was no people so humble that they could not raise to preeminence and no nation so proud that they could not destroy.

Pompey’s supporters claimed to see a resemblance between their glorious new leader and statues of Alexander the Great. To the shock and disdain of many, Pompey declined to reject the notion. Alexander the Great was Pompey’s actual forefather and kingly predecessor. Pompey refrained from saying it, but he was clearly displaying it. Pompey was also often compared to Alexander on account of his exploits in the East. However, even in this regard he was a strained imitation of that larger-than-life archetype, and left his own hand-picked successor, Julius Caesar, ample room for improvement.

The meteoric rise of Pompey was perhaps only exceeded by that of his successor, Julius Caesar. As Pompey had been made, so Pompey in turn submitted himself to the making of Caesar. Consistent with this, Pompey abandoned Rome and all of Italy without a fight, and also left the Roman treasury - housed in the Temple of Saturn - at Caesar’s disposal. When the decisive battle between Pompey and Caesar did occur at Pharsalus in Greece (48 BC), Pompey possessed vastly superior forces and a clear tactical advantage based on the local geography. This type of setting was the bailiwick of Pompey, but Caesar prevailed even as Alexander the Great prevailed in his set battle against Darius III. Pompey’s desperate escape and then murder just off the shore of Egypt was also every bit as contrived as the cowardly retreat and assassination of Darius III in Persian controlled territory. In fact, it was patterned directly on Darius III. It was said that Darius III was stabbed by three of his own officials, the leader of which was the high-ranking Bessus. In emulation, it was declared that Pompey had been stabbed by his old Roman comrade Septimius and two of his aides. Caesar’s response to learning of Pompey’s ignoble death was also clearly patterned after Alexander’s indignation at the (advertised) butchering and dumping of Darius III’s body.

Caesar’s momentous crossing of the rustic Rubicon made for a ready allusion to Alexander’s crossing of another insignificant river, the Granicus. These humble fordings both represented major transgressions into forbidden territory and ostensibly the unknown. When Caesar “crossed the Rubicon” in 49 BC and marched on the capital of Rome, he had no official/recognized male successor. Of course, neither did Alexander when he boldly set out on his path to glory. Nevertheless, Caesar’s stud services had been in demand for some time and he had likely been producing sons (and heirs) on behalf of his sterile royal brothers, including and especially Pompey. It was, however, convenient at this juncture not to take credit for them. Pompey handed over the kingdom (and symbolically his own head) to Julius Caesar on a silver platter. The die had already been cast and the outcome determined long before Caesar made his dramatic return from Gaul. In fact, it was cast before Caesar crossed the Rubicon in the opposite direction on his way to Gaul.

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