Pompey statue

The Roman statesman and general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was given the title "the Great" by his troops in Africa in 81 b.c.e. and later by the Roman authorities. Initially an ally of Julius Caesar, Pompey opposed Caesar’s march on Rome in 49 b.c.e., resulting in the civil war that ultimately saw Pompey dead and Caesar in control of Rome and its empire.

Pompey was born on September 29, 106 b.c.e., into an important Roman family. His father was a Roman general. Pompey’s family initially supported Marius against Sulla in a struggle for control of the Roman Republic. After the death of his father he joined Sulla, taking part in the defection against Marius.

The dictator Sulla gave the young general command of an army that was sent out against supporters of Marius in Sicily and Africa. In two quick campaigns in 82–81 b.c.e., Pompey destroyed the Marians. When Marcus Lepidus became consul and tried to get rid of Sulla, Pompey crushed Lepidus’s troops.

He then went to Spain to fight supporters of Marius and scored a military triumph in his reconquest of Spain. With control over Spain, Transalpine Gaul (modern-day southern France), and Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) he returned to a triumphal procession through Rome and was elected consul in 70 b.c.e.

Pompey joined forces with Marcus Licinius Crassus, his main rival, and the two became joint consuls. Pompey then made an alliance with Julius Caesar, forming the First Triumvirate with Caesar and Crassus. It was a strong political partnership, with Pompey further cementing the union by marrying Caesar’s daughter Julia.

Yet, Pompey and Caesar began to have political differences. When Crassus was killed in battle in 53 b.c.e., the triumvirate ended, leading to rioting and the burning of the senate house. The Senate called on Pompey to take over and restore law and order, and he became sole consul.

Pompey reformed the legal system, particularly as the law concerned Caesar, including an attempt to have Caesar turn over control of his armies. The increasing rift between the two led to Caesar and his troops marching on Rome. Pompey retreated south, leaving Caesar to chase after him. Caesar engaged Pompey in battle at Dyrrhachium (DurrĂ«s in modern-day Albania) where Pompey’s forces triumphed.

However, at a battle in Pharsalus, in modern-day Greece, Pompey was decisively defeated. Pompey again fled and, finding no options to submission to Caesar, sought refuge with Ptolemy XIII in Egypt, whose father Pompey had helped restore to the throne. Ptolemy thought that aiding the defeated Pompey would drag Egypt into war and believed it a better option to have Pompey murdered.

As he approached the Egyptian shore by boat on September 28, 48 b.c.e., Pompey was killed by an officer who had formerly served under him, allied with Ptolemy. Pompey’s head and ring were presented to Caesar soon afterward. Caesar was said to have been disgusted by this action and later deposed Ptolemy.

Pompey’s sons and supporters continued fighting Caesar for several more years but only delayed Julius Caesar’s inevitable control of the incipient Roman Empire.