Pompey: the Roman Alexander (Vol. 1)
Wynne Williams reviews a book on Pompey.
Pompey: the Roman Alexander (Vol. 1)
Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980; xix + 267pp.
It is surprising that until 1978 there was no biography in English of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, the defeated enemy of Julius Caesar, although his conquests were as important an extension of the Roman empire as Caesar's, and his contribution to undermining the Roman Republic perhaps as great. Caesar, of course, not only won the civil war but also wrote his own classic accounts of his campaigns, while Pompey was no author and the history he commissioned from the Greek, Theophanes, is lost. Now, on the heels of two shorter biographies, by J. Leach and R. Seager, comes the first of two volumes of a full-scale life, which traces Pompey's career down to 59 BC (this fact is not revealed on the title-page).
In his preface Dr. Greenhalgh writes that he has 'tried not to write for the academic at the expense of the general reader or for the general reader at the expense of the academic'. There is in fact comparatively little discussion of conflicting hypotheses in the main text, and the narrative is both clear and very readable, being enlivened by the striking anecdotes collected by Plutarch and by descriptions of great spectacles such as Sulla's funeral and Pompey's triumphs. (Indeed the purely academic reader might prefer more discussion and fewer anecdotes.) Dr. Greenhalgh's earlier books were on early Greek warfare and the Roman civil wars of AD 69, and, since most of Pompey's career down to 59 BC was devoted to war, he has an opportunity to write lucid and exciting military narrative: he skilfully reconstructs Pompey's strategy and tactics from sources which are often muddled. He is also a skilful guide for the general reader through the complicated political intrigues in which Pompey became involved after his return from Asia in 62 BC.
The importance of Pompey's achievements in western Asia in 66-62 BC, both as general and as organiser, might have been brought home more sharply to the general reader by emphasising their long-term consequences, which entitle him to be called 'the Roman Alexander'. He brought into the Empire (either under direct Roman rule or that of satellite kings whom Pompey appointed or confirmed) a wealthy and civilised region stretching from the Black Sea to Judaea. This was the part of Alexander's old Empire which had been most deeply influenced by Greek culture, and so half the Roman empire (and the more 'developed' half) was to be dominated by 'Greek' culture. Pompey himself took over from Alexander and the successor-kings the role of patron of Greek culture and of founder of Greek cities. The inclusion of Judaea (where Pompey captured the Temple and entered the Holy of Holies) had the result that the first Christians were subjects of Rome.
A rather fuller picture of the constitution and political conventions of the Roman Republic might also have helped to bring home to the general reader just how unconventional Pompey's career down to 62 BC must have appeared to traditionalist senators; also how unprecedented, and even, in the light of that career, dangerous, must have seemed Pompey's wish to have the vast number of administrative decisions he had taken unilaterally in the East ratified en bloc. There was more substance to his critics' opposition than Greenhalgh will allow, and Pompey's republicanism, on which he insists, was qualified by the assumption that an exception to the rules must always be made for Pompey himself.
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