In 79 BCE, Pompey the Great—Republican Rome’s home-grown answer to the Greek Alexander—was upstaged by some elephants. He was celebrating his military victories in Africa with a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. This was the nearest thing to heaven for a Roman general. Almost literally; for the triumph involved not only a shameless parade of spoils, captured weapons, looted artworks, and exotic prisoners, it also allowed the general to dress up for the day in the costume of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (“Best and Greatest”), patron god of the city.
This particular triumph was irregular in a number of ways. First of all, Pompey was far too young for any such honor, being at most twenty-six years old. “He got a triumph before he grew a beard,” as one ancient commentator later summed up the precocious celebration—vividly, if not wholly accurately. “Murderous teenager” was how an elderly adversary described Pompey nearer the time, though admittedly this had been provoked by an insult about age from the young man himself. Pompey had inquired whether his gray-beard opponent was just visiting town on a short break from the underworld.
Second, it was said to be only by barefaced chutzpah that he had squeezed permission to hold the ceremony out of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, warlord, conservative ideologue, and (at that time) dictator of Rome. When Sulla, who was then in his late fifties, seemed set to refuse, Pompey again displayed that combination of youthful arrogance and canny prescience: “You should bear in mind that more people worship the rising sun than the setting sun.” Sulla gave in.
Third, instead of the usual team of four horses, Pompey chose to ride in a triumphal chariot drawn by elephants. These animals had been rounded up during the African campaigns and the big-game hunting trip which Pompey apparently enjoyed on his vacation before sailing home. But they did more than remind spectators of the far-flung foreign territories over which the boy-general had been victorious. They cast an even stronger divine light over the whole show. For it was in a chariot drawn by elephants that the god Bacchus (or Dionysos) was believed to have returned to the West after his conquest of India. Pompey was, in other words, going beyond the traditional identification of the general as “Jupiter for the day”; he was presenting himself as the new Bacchus.
But as so often happens when mortals choose to imitate the gods, the elephants did not turn out to be so easy to handle for Pompey as they had for Bacchus. When the triumphal procession came to pass through a gateway on its route up to the Capitoline hill, the lumbering animals proved too big to fit and promptly became stuck. Pompey went into reverse, drew them back, and attempted the maneuver a second time—but still without success. He had no choice but to give up, unhitch them, and hang around while the standard four horses were put in their place.
Most modern historians have taken this as a classic case of an ambitious Roman getting above himself. And they have interpreted the gleeful recounting of Pompey’s discomfiture by a number of ancient writers as typically Roman moralizing rhetoric. The message is: look at the red-faced humiliation that may result from such self-promotion and from claiming the attributes of the gods. Yet a few historians, recently, have seen a rather more sophisticated public relations exercise at work. The whole scene was, they have suggested, carefully stage-managed, to demonstrate to the assembled spectators that Pompey had literally outgrown the traditional constraints imposed by the city and the norms of Roman political life. Pompey was now bigger than Rome.
I remain unconvinced that any such clever scheme by Pompey’s spin doctors is to be detected here. But whichever interpretation we choose, the story calls to mind a side of Pompey and a stage in his career which, from HBO’s Rome to more sober works of history, is often forgotten. Pompey’s image in the modern world tends to be defined by his later years. Politically sidelined by the 50s BCE and overshadowed by the even more dramatic rise of Julius Caesar, he was eventually drawn out of semiretirement to uphold Republican liberty in the face of Caesar’s looming autocracy. Vain and vacillating, he made a poor job of it and was himself crushed by the new “rising sun.” There are few more ignominious deaths in the history of Rome than Pompey’s in 48 BCE. Routed by Caesar’s forces at the Battle of Pharsalus, a pathetic fugitive, he was decapitated on the shores of Egypt by the eunuch henchman of a princeling (in fact the brother of the famous Cleopatra) who was keen to ingratiate himself with the victorious Caesar. In fact, on Caesar’s arrival in Egypt he was presented with Pompey’s head and wept—but according to the poet Lucan, they were crocodile tears.
This sad and seedy final scene of a generally disappointing last act now overshadows Pompey’s biography. His power and glamour in the 70s and 60s BCE are hard to take seriously; his pretensions seem faintly ridiculous. His famous portrait bust from Rome (now in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, in Copenhagen) raises more laughs than it does admiration: a fat, middle-aged Roman, with piggy eyes and flabby cheeks, topped incongruously with a head of hair imitating the distinctive style of the dashing young Alexander the Great. Only a century after Pompey’s death, that obsessive polymath (and moralizing bore) Pliny the Elder could play for laughs this mismatch between Pompey’s early glory and his later fall. Describing one of the most exquisitely expensive (or grossly vulgar) objects displayed in one of Pompey’s later triumphal celebrations—a large portrait head of the general made entirely out of pearls—Pliny cannot resist pointing to the obvious irony: how horribly appropriate that a man who would suffer Pompey’s eventual fate should have put this head on show like this; what an omen for the future.
In fact Pompey’s early career was anything but ridiculous. And despite his eventual role as the well-meaning if ineffectual defender of traditional Republican liberty against the threat of one-man rule, there is a good case for seeing him, rather than Caesar, as the first Roman emperor—in all but name, at least. He dominated the political process at Rome for two decades, he conquered more territory than any Roman general before him and most after (the comparison with Alexander the Great was not purely self-serving), and on several occasions he was granted by a desperate, or grateful, Roman people more or less autocratic power. In 67 BCE, for example, when piracy was rampant throughout the Roman world (Julius Caesar was only one of many young nobles to be kidnapped on the lawless seas and ransomed for a fat sum), Pompey was given an extraordinary military command which made him effectively master of the whole Mediterranean. It was not long before—in the East, even if never in Rome itself—you could find his head on the coinage, cities named after him, religious cults in his honor.
Pompey’s problem was that he lived too long. Like many Romans, he has had the bad luck to enter the popular imagination already old, and the successes of his youth have been capped by the pompous follies of his later years.
Another victim of this treatment is his exact contemporary (they were both born in 106 BCE) Marcus Tullius Cicero. Cicero rose determinedly to the consulship, the highest elected office in the Roman state, without any advantages of aristocratic birth, hereditary political connections, or even the military expertise that gave Pompey a fast track to power. He was one of the “newest” of all the so-called “new men” at Rome, talking his way to the top through a series of high-profile legal cases, which brought with them a wealth of influential political friends. His consulship in 63 BCE was to be his finest hour: he uncovered (or, to follow the suspicions of some skeptical modern historians, invented) a terrorist plot, hatched under the leadership of a bankrupt aristocrat, Lucius Sergius Catilina—and so, as he was ever after to boast, saved the city of Rome from internal destruction, much as Pompey had saved it from the pirates.
But from that point on it was, for him too, downhill all the way. Not only was he likewise eclipsed by the emergence of Julius Caesar, but the success of his consulship quickly turned sour. In quashing the terrorists, Cicero had sheltered behind an “Emergency Powers Act” of dubious legality, and before long he was (briefly) sent into exile on the charge of putting Roman citizens to death without a proper trial. On his return he found himself marginal to the power politics of a looming civil war, an uncomfortably irrelevant figure, forever looking back to his great moment of glory and mouthing political slogans that were as outdated as they were honorable. An “alliance of all decent men,” fine as it sounded, was hardly a realistic solution to the troubles of a city torn between anarchy and autocracy.
In the end, the rhetorical skill that had underpinned his rise to power brought about his downfall and murder. For after the assassination of Caesar, Cicero delivered a series of blistering tirades, some of the cleverest exercises in invective in the history of the West, against Mark Antony, Caesar’s principal lieutenant. It was a brave and simultaneously self-destructive gesture. As soon as Antony had a chance, in 43 BCE, he had Cicero put to death; his tongue and hands were pinned to the rostra in Rome. The story goes that Fulvia, Antony’s wife, took the final vengeance, stabbing the tongue repeatedly with her long gold hairpins.
If Cicero’s later years have fared even worse than Pompey’s in the judgment of history, that is partly because of his voluminous writings, dating mostly to that period, which still survive. Literary giant he may have been, the greatest Roman rhetorician ever, and one of the most influential voices in the introduction of Greek philosophy and theory to the Latin West. But his day-to-day private correspondence (published shortly after his death) and his essays and speeches cruelly document the pretensions and pomposities of a man who has not fully grasped how far his own influence has been eroded.
This is never clearer than in the run-up to the civil war between Caesar and the “senatorial” forces under Pompey in 49 BCE. Cicero, always uncomfortable if forced to move too far outside Italy, had been unwillingly sent off to govern the province of Cilicia, in modern Turkey. While he was there, he had, however, scored some kind of military victory in a skirmish against a posse of troublesome natives and had stormed the (otherwise unheard of) town of Pindenissum. This was not far from where Alexander the Great had passed in his victorious march eastward almost three hundred years earlier—and Cicero, with a degree of self-irony (one hopes), compared his own achievements to Alexander’s.