Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, d.87 BC

Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo (d.87 BC) was a successful but unpopular Roman general of the Social war and Sulla's First Civil War. He was the father of Pompey the Great, one of the greatest of all Roman generals.

His nickname, Strabo, meant someone who squinted or had a cast in their eye. Pliny the Elder says that he gained this name because of his physical resemblance to his cook Menogenes, who also had a squint. Pompeius had gained his own squint by imitating Menogenes.

Pompeius was the son of Sextus Pompeius and Lucilia, a sister of the satirical poet Gaius Lucilius

In 103 BC he served as a quaestor  in Sardinia, serving under the pro-praetor T. Albucius. During their time working together Pompeius gathered evidence to prosecute Albucius for his actions in Sardinia, something that went against the Roman belief that the relationship between the praetor and quaestor was like that between father and son. As a result Pompeius wasn’t allowed to prosecute the case himself, and it must have affected his reputation.

He was probably praetor himself in 94 BC, and governor of Sicily in 93 BC, although this isn't entirely certain.

Pompeius Strabo came to prominence during the Social War (91-88 BC). The war began in 91 BC with a massacre of all of the Romans in Asculum in southern Picenum, after the rebels suspected that their plans had been discovered. In 90 BC Pompeius, who was a major land owner in Picenum, was given the task of raising the siege. This didn’t begin well. Three of the Italian leaders - C. Vidacilius of Asculum, T. Lafrenius, praetor of the Piceni and either P. Ventidus or P. Vattius Scato - united against him and defeated him at Mount Falernus (probably near the later site of Falerio, on the River Tinna, in central Picenum. Pompeius was forced to retreat east to Firmum, where he was besieged by Lafrenius.

We don't know how long this siege lasted. It ended after the news reached Pompeius that another army was on its way, although again we don't know whose side this was on. Pompeius decided to risk an all out attack on Lafrenius's army, suggesting that this was Italian reinforcements on their way (although he might also have made the decision in an attempt to avoid having to share the glory with one of his Roman political rivals). Pompeius launched a frontal assault on Lafrenius's troops, while his legate Sulpicius was sent to attack from the rear. Lafranius was killed in the battle, and his army broke and flee after Sulpicius set fire to their camp. The survivors fled south to Asculum, with Pompeius close behind.

The exact course of the siege of Asculum isn't clear. Pompeius was in command at the start of the siege, but Appian tells us that the proconsul Sextus Caesar died of disease while commanding the siege, and was succeeded by Gaius Baebius. Pompeius stood for election as one of the consuls of 89 BC, which probably would have required him to return to Rome to stand (just as Sulla had to return to Rome in 89 BC to hold the elections). Caesar and Baebius might have taken direct control of the siege while Pompeius was away elsewhere.

Strabo was elected as one of the consuls for 89 BC. One of his first tasks as consul was to intercept an Italian army that was heading across the Apennines from the Adriatic to Etruria to try and spread the revolt. Pompeius intercepted and defeated this army, killing 5,000 of them. Half of the survivors died during the retreat.

Appian next records Pompeius forced the submission of the Marsi, Marrucini and Vestini, possibly late in 89 BC. Livy provides a different version of these events. The Vestinians surrender to Pompey in 89 BC, while his legate Sulpicius took the surrender of the Marrucians, possibly in 88 BC. The Marsi surrendered after suffering defeats against Cinna and Metellus Pius, again possibly in 88 BC. In either case Pompeius and his legates were active away from Asculum.

Asculum itself probably fell to Pompeius late in 89 BC. He had all of the prefects, centurions and leading men of the city beaten and beheaded, sold off all of the slaves and ordered the remaining inhabitants to leave the city. The city must have fallen by 27 December 89, when Pompeius celebrated a triumph.

During his consulship he put forward a law to extend Latin citizenship into Cisalpine Gaul, giving it to the inhabitants of Transpadana, the area north of the Po.

After his triumph Pompeius probably took his army back to Picenum, having failed in an attempt to be elected as consul for two years in a row. He was thus away from Rome at the outbreak of Sulla's First Civil War (88-87 BC). After Sulla seized Rome (battle of the Equiline Forum), he attempted to transfer the command of Pompeius's army to his co-consul, Quintus Pompeius Rufus (a member of an established plebeian family). Pompeius received Quintus, and on the following day withdrew as if he was accepting the change. Once Pompeius was safely out of the way, some of his men murdered Quintus Pompeius. Pompeius waited until the murderers had left, and then returned to his cap, apparently angry with his men for murdering a consul. He then resumed command of the army. 

In 87, after Sulla took his army to the east to fight Mithridates VI of Pontus, his arrangements at Rome unravelled. Sulla had failed to get his candidates for the consulship elected, and power was now split between Gnaeus Octavius, who proved to be a supporter of Sulla, and Lucius Cornelius Cinna. Cinna's first attempts to overturn some of Sulla's reforms failed and he was expelled from the city. Once again a defeated Roman politician turned to violence, and for the second time in two years a Roman army marched on the city. Octavius and the Senate summoned Pompeius to Rome. He camped outside the walls, but for some time it wasn't clear whose side he was on. Cinna soon lost patience, and decided to take advantage of Pompeius's unpopularity. He managed to subvert a sizable part of his army, including Lucius Terentius, the tentmate of Pompeius's son, the young Pompey the Great. Terentius was to kill Pompey, while other men were to set fire to Pompeius's tent. Pompey discovered the plot, but timed his response carefully. He placed a guard around his father's tent, probably placed rolled up bed clothes under his sheets to make it look as if he was in bed, and then waited for Terentius to move. Terentius stabbed the empty bed, and a general uprising broke out amongst the soldiers, who Plutarch tells us hated Pompeius. While Pompeius remained in his camp, the young Pompey managed to win back most of his men. In the end only 800 of Pompeius's men deserted him.

This pushed Pompeius firmly onto the side of Octavius and the Senate. In the meantime Cinna had gained the support of Marius, who returned from exile in Africa. Marius managed to gain entrance into the defences of the Janiculum Hill (west of the Tiber), and left Cinna in. Pompeius and Octavius counterattacked from the city, and expelled the attackers.

Soon after this Pompeius died. According to Appian, Plutarch and Orosius he was killed by lightning. Orosius records that his army was suffered from disease at the time. Velleius Paterculus doesn’t actually say how he died, but says that it comes while the armies were being ravaged by pestilence. This is used by some to suggest that Strabo died of disease, but lighting is the better documented story.

Plutarch records that he had been feared by the Romans because of his talents as a soldier, but also hated because of his greed. After his death his body was dragged from its funeral bier and insulted. Soon afterwards his son Pompey was charged with having benefited from loot that his father had illegally taken from Asculum, further proof of Strabo's greed. In contrast young Pompey was very popular, and on this occasion not only was he acquitted, he also ended up marrying the judge's daughter Antistia!

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (22 June 2018), Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, d.87 BC ,

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