The day the republic died

Pompey's demise marked the cataclysmic transition from republic to empire–the great Roman age was ending, writes Paul Roche

Pompey the Great, who lived from 106 to 48 BCE, met an inglorious end in Egypt. Defeated by Julius Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus, from which the great general had fled, the minions of the pharaoh Ptolemy XIII assassinated him on the beach at Alexandria. His decapitated body was left bobbing in the shallows off Alexandria.

Such is the graphic and tragic scene we meet in one of the most arresting and passionate surviving versions of the end of the Roman republic: Lucan's Civil War, an epic poem written in the 60s CE. Lucan (39-65 CE) looked back on this event–from the court of the emperor Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 CE, and with the hindsight afforded by a century of autocratic emperors–as a key moment in the death of liberty at Rome.

Civil War, published posthumously, was Lucan's masterwork. This 10-book poem framed the war between Caesar and Pompey as an uneven struggle between epic heroes: a destructive, vibrant, and unstoppable Caesar and the all-too human Pompey who was passive, vulnerable, and doomed from the beginning. Civil War meditated on the permanent consequences of this war for Rome. Lucan saw Pompey's demise as a crucial stage in the transition from republic to empire.

Pompey was a colossus. His meteoric, 40-year career as a general and statesman had measured out new possibilities of military success and political power in late-republican Rome. He began in the 80s with notorious and bloody victories over his countrymen in the service of the dictator Sulla. As an arrogant 25-year-old, he took Alexander's sobriquet, Magnus (the Great). There was another name for him at Rome: aduluscentulus carnifex (the young butcher).

After celebrating a triumph in the capital–the culmination of a senator's ambitions and his was the first ever for a non-senator–victories accrued to him in Spain, and he made claims upon the defeat of Spartacus in Italy. A second triumph followed, and the consulship. In 67, he was given three years and unprecedented powers to crush piracy throughout the Mediterranean; he took 90 days. From 66 to 63 he undertook his Eastern campaign in which he defeated King Mithradates VI and brokered Rome's permanent control of the East. Kings were now in his debt. He returned to the capital as its richest and most powerful individual, to triumph for the third time, in 62.

His career now fatefully intersected those of two others: the ex-Sullan Crassus, who had made his fortune in the 80s from a pogrom of his dictator's enemies and was now seeking the glory of a military command; and the ascending Julius Caesar, who at the turn of the decade was looking for powerful allies to finance and facilitate his own ambitions.

Pompey and Crassus had been estranged but Caesar reconciled them to each other and to himself. Later Roman historians marked this covenant as the beginning of the end of the republic. Varro–the greatest scholar of his age and an ex-soldier of Pompey's–knew what he saw: he called it trikaranos (the three-headed monster).

During the 50s, Pompey remained in Rome and administered his province, Spain, through subordinates. In 54, Crassus met his death in Syria in an attempt to emulate the military glory of his partners. Caesar, meanwhile, matched Pompey's own extravagant victories, now in Gaul, where he would remain for 10 years. In 49, frustrated at his enemies' relentless attempts to recall him to Rome and prosecute him, and alienated beyond repair from his former ally, Caesar returned to Italy at the head of an army. Its defence fell to Pompey.

A generation after the death of Pompey, in the national epic of Vergil's Aeneid, published after 19 BCE, the body of the Trojan king Priam is unexpectedly transported at the moment of his assassination from amid the altars within his own palace to the coast of Troy:

This man, once in command of so many countries and peoples,
Ruler of Asia! He's now a huge trunk lying dead on the seashore,
Head torn away from his shoulders, a thing without a name, a cadaver.

Vergil had been clear: the old king had been stabbed in his side, indoors. Both the wound and the setting had changed. Servius, a fourth-century grammarian, knew his Vergil and his history: “He is making an allusion to Pompey”.

In Lucan's Civil War, a sardonic recasting of Vergil's national epic, the brilliant enfant terrible of Nero's court revisits both the mythological gravity of the Vergilian moment and reclaims its historical subtext. In a moment of prophetic frenzy in book one, a Roman matron foresees this very scene:

Where else now are you taking me?
You lead me eastwards,
Where sea is died by Egyptian Nile's flood:
Him I recognise, lying on the river's sands.
An unsightly headless corpse.

The death of Vergil's Priam had symbolised the destruction of a once-great nation. Lucan collects this symbolism in the tragic figure of his Pompey: the quondam conqueror of Asia, the king of kings, the self-styled new Agamemnon, the tired old opponent of unstoppable Caesar, the spurned lover of a good fortune now exhausted by his former exploits. Lucan likens Pompey to a grand old oak tree: sacred and venerated, but with roots now withering and likely to topple at the first breeze. Vergil had earlier described the final catastrophe of Troy's destruction as an ash tree, crashing to the ground, destroyed and destroying as it falls.

When Lucan's Pompey is tragically betrayed and killed at the end of book eight, readers know that this is more than just pathos. This is a cataclysm; an age is at an end. The road to autocracy, the permanent loss of liberty, and the endless cycle of Roman emperors is in view: it leads West, across the desert from Alexandria to Thapsus, and the suicide of Cato.