Gnaeus Pompey’s World II

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The Pirates

Spartacus’ negotiation with the pirates is just one among many instances testifying to their ubiquity in the Mediterranean world in the early first century BC. The Romans were not prepared to maintain a fleet in peacetime for mere police operations. In the emergencies of the Punic Wars, they had hastily constructed a navy. Against Mithridates, neither Sulla nor Fimbria had been given a fleet of warships. It had remained for Lucullus to buy or borrow one. In the eastern Mediterranean, Rhodes had been a great bulwark against piracy, but the Romans, dissatisfied with the Rhodian attitude in the last of the Macedonian Wars, spitefully damaged the island’s trading position by conferring on Delos the status of a free port. With Delos as a highly competitive trading centre, Rhodian sea-power had declined. Not only were the Rhodians unable to suppress piracy on the high seas or on the Aegean shores, but Delos, unlike Rhodes, provided the pirates with a market in which their booty could fetch its price and their captives be sold as slaves. The legality of such dealings went unchallenged.

In this connection, it is pertinent to recall some famous incidents in Julius Caesar’s early career. Caesar’s Julian pedigree marked him as the scion of an ancient patrician clan, but his aunt had been wedded to Marius, and while still a mere youth Caesar was on Sulla’s “wanted” list. Flitting between one rural hiding place and another, he was at last arrested by Sulla’s manhunters, but after bribing the officer in charge, escaped overseas to Bithynia, where King Nicomedes received him hospitably. While in the East, the young Caesar fell into the hands of Cilician pirates, who released him for a ransom. Manning some ships at Miletus, he then pursued, arrested and crucified the pirates, as he had often pleasantly threatened to do during his captivity. Caesar, however, was lucky in being able to afford a ransom, let alone organize a punitive expedition. Plutarch describes how Roman citizens, after being treated with ironic deference by their pirate captors, were at length assured that they were free to go and flung overboard in mid-sea.

Roman punitive forces were not always so successful against the pirates as Caesar’s expedition was. The Cilician pirates were not to be despised as a fighting force. They roved the sea not merely in ships but in fleets. They negotiated with civil powers often on equal terms; it was as if they had achieved some kind of citizen status in a cosmopolitan pirate community. Mithridates was anxious to enlist their help, as indeed Sertorius had been. When a pirate ship fell into the hands of Verres, governor of Sicily in 73–71 BC, members of the crew were re-employed by him for the various skills which they possessed and the pirate captain was allowed to ransom himself. Here indeed was a contrast to Caesar’s ruthless action, but Caesar after all had had a private score to settle with his captors.

Later, when Verres was still in office, a whole pirate squadron descended on the Sicilian coast. According to Cicero, the Greek commander in charge of the governor’s fleet was drunk at the time, and was the first to escape in his quadrireme as soon as the pirates had been sighted. The provincial navy was undermanned, its crews unpaid and half-starved, although they might have put up a fight if it had not been for their commander’s example. But the quadrireme, which by reason of its bulk should have been more than adequate to deal with the light pirate craft, outstripped the other vessels in headlong flight to a neighbouring port, where the panic-stricken commander and crew precipitately disembarked to seek refuge inland. The pirates overtook the hindmost ships of the governmental flotilla and in the evening burnt them, together with the quadrireme and other abandoned vessels, on the shore. Next day, they sailed unopposed into the harbour of Syracuse, taking the opportunity of a sightseeing expedition – as Cicero ironically suggests – while Verres was still governor.

The Sicilian débâcle resulted largely from the fact that money levied for the payment of rowers and marines had been diverted into the governor’s privy purse. Though a flagrant example, this was far from being the only case of its kind. Moreover, it in some way reflected at a provincial level the policy of the Republican government as a whole. The maintenance of navies merely for police operations seemed not worth the financial outlay. However, in Verres’ time, pressures were already mounting which were destined to change public attitudes.


Pompey against the Pirates

The Illyrian and Macedonian Wars had for a time forced the pirates of the Ionian Sea northwards into the Adriatic. At the beginning of the first century BC, the main piratical menace came from Cilicia, where the wild coastline and hinterland provided the pirates with remote bases and obscure hiding places. Rome had created a Cilician province, which was in effect a base for anti-piratical operations. The official thinking was characteristically military rather than naval, and the main strategy relied upon the time-honoured expedient of winning a naval war on land by depriving the enemy of his harbours. In other parts of the Mediterranean, however, especially Crete, the problem was more intractable.

In 67 BC, a corn shortage in Italy, linked to supply problems over seas that were increasingly unsafe, brought the question of piracy to a head. Pompey, as a result of a popular proposal by a minor politician, was given far-reaching powers to deal with the menace. By this time, thanks in part to encouragement from Mithridates, piratical enterprise had reached a high degree of cohesion and organization. The rovers had become to some extent a land power as well as a sea power. They exacted tribute from maritime cities, built beacons and watch-towers on the coasts where their arsenals and harbours were situated, employed skilful pilots, and were led by men who in earlier days had been used to administrative business and executive command. Their conduct, so far from being furtive, was marked by conspicuous bravado. Plutarch refers to silver-plated oars, gilded spars and purple-woven sails, not to mention leisure hours of music, dancing and feasting on the coasts which they controlled. Many of them were devotees of the popular eastern religion of Mithras, but this did not prevent them from plundering the temples of the more traditional gods and goddesses. Nor was the coast of Italy free from their attentions. On one occasion, they seized two Roman praetors, along with their official staff and entourage. In another raid they kidnapped and held to ransom the daughter of a distinguished Roman general. Plutarch says that at the time of Pompey’s appointment they possessed 1,000 ships and dominated 400 cities.

The terms of Pompey’s command gave him authority over all seas within the Pillars of Hercules (i.e., east of Gibraltar) and over the whole coastline to a distance of 50 miles (80km) inland. He was authorized to appoint 24 senior officers to serve directly under his orders, each one of whom would rank as praetor. He had power to raise up to 125,000 men and 500 warships, and the vast resources of money voted for the enterprise were wholly adequate to support such a force. In the event, Pompey did not use all the money placed at his disposal, and so, far from occupying the three years to which special legislation entitled him, he was able to report the successful completion of his task in a matter of months.

His work was carried out very methodically. The western Mediterranean was first combed of pirates, each of 13 naval squadrons having been assigned its separate operational zone. Pompey then proceeded eastward with 60 of his best ships to attack the main enemy strongholds. The western sea had been cleared in a mere 40 days. Within three months, the pirate bases of the east had also been stormed and occupied. The bulk of the enemy fleet had been destroyed in a major naval engagement, and those pirates who had sought refuge in inland fortresses with their families were besieged amid the mountains and captured. Prisoners numbered 20,000. Among many vessels captured were 90 warships complete with equipment.

If Pompey ever deserved the title of Magnus (“the Great”) it was now. So, far from simply crucifying all his captives – which would have been the normal reaction to the situation – he realized that the pirate menace had been the product of a social situation, not merely a military and naval challenge. The pirates had been desperate men with nothing to lose, whom ruthless wars and bloodstained politics had rendered homeless and destitute. In the circumstances, death in battle was preferable to starvation, and crucifixion well worth risking. Showing clemency to his prisoners, Pompey offered an amnesty to those who were still at large and as a result received massive surrenders. The ex-corsairs and their families were successfully settled in agricultural colonies at well-chosen points throughout the eastern Mediterranean lands.

Pompey’s great victory was unfortunately marred by an administrative clash. It must have been obvious from the start that in warfare against an elusive and highly mobile enemy, his authority over littoral zones was likely to conflict with that of previously appointed Roman governors, responsible for the interior. Metellus, the governor of Crete, was bent on merciless extermination of the pirates, many of whom hoped to take advantage of Pompey’s amnesty. One of Pompey’s officers, sent with a contingent to Crete, finished by fighting in league with the pirates against Metellus. Pompey was made to look foolish and Metellus got his way in the end.

Lucullus against Mithridates

Pompey’s suppression of the pirates was the finest achievement of his career, and one which he owed almost entirely to his own ability. The news of his victories swiftly arrived in Rome, and before he could himself return to Italy, new and sweeping powers of command were assigned to him. He was to take charge of the war against Mithridates. Here, however, as on other occasions in his life, he owed much to the work of a predecessor.

Taking full advantage of Roman preoccupations in Italy and Spain, allying himself with the pirates and accepting a military mission from Sertorius, Mithridates had gone far to re-establishing the military potential of which Sulla had temporarily deprived him. Sulla’s deputy in the province of Asia (i.e., west Asia Minor), suspicious of the king’s designs, had renewed military operations against Pontus without authorization from Rome. When he was worsted in battle, Roman prestige suffered.

Full-scale war had again broken out when Mithridates invaded Bithynia, a province which Rome had acquired by the bequest of its late monarch in 75 BC. Nobody was better qualified than Lucullus to undertake operations in this theatre, but in order to secure command of Cilicia and Asia during his consulate (74 BC), he had found it necessary to intrigue deviously with the mistress of a political adversary. He was immediately obliged to rescue his colleague in Bithynia who, anxious to take sole credit for a quick victory, had been defeated by Pontic forces both on land and in sea battles.

Mithridates, learning perhaps equally from his own past experience and from Sertorius’ military mission, had remodelled his army and navy. It is true that his large Oriental host still included such lumber as scythe-wheel chariots, which were usually ineffective because they needed an excessively long run in order to gather impetus. He had, nevertheless, equipped his infantry with short swords and long shields on the Roman pattern, and had adopted Roman tactical formations. In general, his forces were now equipped more obviously for war than for ceremonial occasions as they previously had been.

Mithridates besieged the Romans in Chalcedon (opposite Byzantium) and pressed farther westward along the south shores of the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) to attack Cyzicus. Lucullus, however, after successful actions by land and sea, relieved both these cities and, dispersing Mithridates’ invading armies, launched a counter-offensive into Pontus, where he soon penetrated the chain of fortress towns that defended the western territories of the kingdom. Mithridates, once more defeated in a pitched battle, fled eastward to take refuge with his son-in-law Tigranes, king of Armenia. Lucullus sent an embassy to demand the fugitive’s extradition and, while waiting for an answer, did much to restore the economy of the Asiatic cities, still crippled by Sulla’s impost. When the Armenian king refused to surrender Mithridates, Lucullus marched his legions into Armenia and, in a battle which showed him an astute tactician, defeated Tigranes’ multitudinous host. He then captured the newly built capital of Tigranocerta and inflicted a further defeat on Tigranes and Mithridates farther east. But the war threatened to extend itself interminably eastward, and it now seemed likely that Lucullus would involve himself against the Parthians, south of the Caspian sea. His troops mutinied and it was impossible for him to carry his conquests any farther.

Indeed, not only was a halt called to Lucullus’ victorious advance, but the Roman army in Armenia was paralysed by indiscipline, and the prolongation of Lucullus’ command was already in question. In these circumstances, Mithridates, who was nothing if not resilient, mustered new forces and reoccupied Pontus. At the same time, Tigranes resumed the offensive and entered Cappadocia in eastern Asia Minor. Shocked by news of Roman defeats in Pontus, the mutinous troops at last followed their general back westward to rescue the legions which had been left to garrison that territory. But such was their mood that it was not possible to restore the situation, and this unhappy state of affairs still persisted when Pompey arrived to assume command of the war.

Lucullus was a man of very independent mind, always determined to rely on his own ability and integrity in a world where sycophancy and demagogy were prerequisites of success. Consequently, he lost the support not only of the legionaries under his command but of his own staff, at the same time giving opportunities to his political enemies in Rome. He was a firm disciplinarian, but that was not enough. Perhaps the greatest grievance of his soldiers was that he prevented them from plundering the cities of friendly and subject peoples – in a way that Sulla would certainly have allowed.

In 63 BC, Lucullus managed at last to celebrate a well-deserved triumph, after which he retired from war and politics to live a life of refined luxury. Unfortunately, he became insane in his old age. His supersession by Pompey must have been extremely galling to him. The two men had been rivals ever since the days when they both served under Sulla. But Sulla, always unaccountable, had consistently favoured Pompey, though he had more confidence in Lucullus.

The End of Mithridates

By their dogged resistance to Lucullus, Mithridates and Tigranes had ultimately exhausted not only the Roman forces but their own. The mutiny among Lucullus’ troops had found its counterpart in palace intrigues and family dissensions in the despotic establishments of Pontus and Armenia. One of Mithridates’ sons had already set up a separatist government in South Russia and had been recognized by Lucullus. Tigranes’ son was soon to adopt a similarly independent line. The mere prospect of Pompey’s vast resources thrown into the scale against the Asiatic kingdoms was enough to increase already existing strains to breaking point.

Lucullus had overcome enemy armies many times larger than his own. Plutarch, quoting Livy, says that in the great battle which preceded the capture of Tigranocerta the Romans were outnumbered by more than twenty to one, and Livy must be presumed more accurate on history near to his own times than on semi-legendary antiquity or even the Hannibalic Wars. The situation, however, was now very much altered. Pompey possessed huge financial resources still untapped, increased by plunder taken from the pirates, not to mention the ships which he had captured. The Asiatic despots had lost heavily in men and Pompey had added the army of Lucullus to the massive forces which he had deployed against the pirates. Making full use of his naval strength, Pompey set his ships to guard the Asiatic coast from Syria to the Bosphorus, a precaution against any attack by the Pontic navy in his rear. He then left his Cilician base to confront Mithridates in the north. His striking force was not unduly large. Certainly, it was not unwieldy, and it was as much as he needed, for he had already by adroit diplomacy managed to involve Tigranes against the Parthians, and the king of Pontus was conveniently isolated.

Mithridates and his staff seem not always to have been alert to their opportunities. The Pontic army encamped at first in a strong mountain fastness, but retreated to worse positions as a result of water shortage. Pompey occupied the stronghold thus vacated, deduced from the vegetation that water existed at no great depth, and successfully dug wells. Subsequently, however, despite Pompey’s trenching operations, designed to cut him off, Mithridates slipped away eastward with a still substantial army. Pompey followed him as far as the Euphrates and a great battle was fought there by moonlight. The low moon, behind the Romans’ backs, threw long shadows ahead of them and confused the enemy marksmen. Mithridates’ army was routed, but he himself broke through the Roman ranks with a body of 800 cavalry. He at last escaped with only a few faithful followers, including a hardy young concubine who was dressed and armed like a Persian horseman. Pompey had been dubious about the wisdom of night operations, but had yielded to pressure from his officers – as he did with less fortunate results 18 years later against Caesar at Pharsalus.

Tigranes would no longer grant asylum to his father-in-law, and Mithridates made his way via the head-waters of the Euphrates into the Black Sea region. He still hoped to repair his fortunes and even contemplated the invasion of Italy by an overland route, but the rebellion of another son, who probably represented public opinion, made all such schemes futile. For the first time in his life, Mithridates, now 68 years old, gave way to despair. Suspicious of assassination attempts, he is said to have rendered himself immune to poison by the continuous administration of small doses. Now that he had decided to end his own life, his immunity proved a disadvantage, but in obedience to his orders one of his bodyguards despatched him.

Pompey had meanwhile made peace on sufficiently generous terms with Tigranes. He did not attempt to follow Mithridates northwards, but found himself involved in gruelling warfare with the Caucasian tribes. Later, operations southward, in Syria, Judaea and Arabia, claimed his attention and exposed him to criticism as neglecting the Pontic threat. He was in this area when news of Mithridates’ death reached him by letters. Apparently, the camp contained no platform of turfs such as a Roman general on campaign usually mounted when addressing his men, but Pompey climbed up on a pile of pack-saddles, and his announcement was the signal for sacrifices and feasting, as if in victory celebration.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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