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Pompey the Great's Greatest Faux Pas

A Most Merry and Illustrated Soundbyte of a Not So Merry Erratum.


Most people learn of Pompey the Great in middle school when they have to read Julius Caesar (not too bad a play if you ignore the last two acts). In the first scene, the tribunes Flavius and Murellus (as Shakespeare spelled it) come on stage, bandy words with a wiseacre cobbler (who makes puns which only an Elizabethan audience could appreciate), and gripe at the people because they now support Caesar when they used to champion Pompey. Then everyone forgets about him because the play is, after all, titled Julius Caesar.

Actually, Gnaius Pompeius Magnus was not only a contemporary, colleague, and competitor of Caesar, but he was Julius's son-in-law as well. Julius, in an effort to patch up previous disagreements between him and Pompey, arranged for Pompey to marry his daugther, Julia. Today an arranged marriage with such blatantly political overtones strikes us about as cynical and cold-blooded as you can get, and it was. But virtually all marriages of upper crust Romans' were machinated for one political purpose or another and most people - even the women - accepted it as part of being a Roman.

That doesn't mean that Roman marriages couldn't be happy ones, and Pompey and Julia found themselves a perfect match. After they got married, Pompey lost interest in fighting and politics, and he and Julia (who was more than twenty years his junior) spent most of the next five years traveling around and enjoying themselves. But then Julia died in childbirth, and Pompey found himself once again back in the political arena and going head to head with Caesar.

Now at that time Roman officials were elected by a vote of the male citizens, and although the voting system was a wee bit tilted in favor of the wealthier classes, politicians were nonetheless expected to provide the general populace with certain benefits - called the "conveniences" or the commoda. The commoda were intended to show the people that 1) it was worthwhile being a Roman and 2) it was even more worthwhile to support the sponsor of the conveniences in whatever political ambitions he had.

Then as now your top politicians were multimillionaires but unlike today the people didn't foot the bill for the their salaries and benefits. Au contraire as they say in Rome, the politicians received no pay at all but managed to get money by what can be called business arrangements associated with their jobs. That last part isn't so much different than today and historically it's been common for politicians to have side businesses to supplement their pay.

But completely contrary to today - where the people pay for the conveniences of the politicians - the politicians had to pay for the convenience of the people - and pay out of their own pocket. And we're not just talking about having free barbeque at a political rally, either. Imagine, instead, your congressman, senator, or MP paying for your health club membership for an entire year - and not only your fees, but the fees for your whole town. Or how about him giving you mid-field box season tickets for your local professional football team. Needless to say this type of stuff would rake in the votes. Now Romans did have the equivalent of health clubs - the baths - and if they didn't have the NFL, they did have the ludi - that is the spectacular entertainments of the arena.

Despite what you see in movies, the throwing of Christians to the lions were not what the majority of Romans wanted to see. Executions were mostly pretty boring for one thing, and so they took place at noon when most of the spectators left the stadium for lunch. Instead, the biggest draw of the games were the gladiatorial combats, and these were scheduled in the afternoon.

And the mornings? These were reserved for the venatio - or the animal hunts. The hunts were not conducted by gladiators simply warming up before they took on human adversaries later. Instead the hunters were themselves trained specialists called bestiari who specialized in fighting animals. Although the animal hunts were not quite as popular as the gladiators, enough people liked them enough so the sponsors of the games kept trying to outdo their previous competitor by bringing more and more unusual and exotic animals in. By Pompey's time the games had gotten so extravagant that species had been cleared from whole regions where they had been living for millions of years.

Now an important object of the arena entertainment was to show the superiority of the Roman power over its enemies. So Pompey hit on what he thought was a great idea. Everyone remembered Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who waged war against Rome in 218 B. C. E. and had actually spent 15 years fighting on the Italian mainland. Hannibal had brought over 37 (or 38) war elephants across the alps, and the image of his army mounted on elephants - incorrect as it was since most of the elephants didn't survive - was part of the Roman historical consciousness. So with who knows how much trouble and Zeus knows at what expense, Pompey managed to get some elephants shipped to Rome, thinking a venatio of pachyderms would be a spectacle that no one would ever forget.

Well, Pompey was right but for the wrong reasons. Although elephants, particularly the African breed, are among the most dangerous and cantankerous of animals, they do not look all that ferocious. In fact, they come off as the most thoughtful and dignified residents of the animal kingdom, and most people see elephants as gentle giants that just wander through the land eating 400 or so pounds of forage a day.

At Pompey's games and once the elephants were released into the arena, the hunters, armed with javelins, came in. But rather than fight back, as would a lion, bear, or tiger, the elephants tried to run away. Worse, when wounded they began trumpeting in a manner that sounded almost human.

So instead of the people praising Pompey's generosity, they began shouting at him and cursing his name. At that point it was too late to stop the slaughter, and by the time the - quote - "games" - unquote - were over, Pompey was one of the most reviled men in Rome. Although this political faux pax was not necessarily the main cause of Caesar's ascendency over Pompey, it certainly didn't help. After the Civil War and when Pompey had been murdered in Egypt, Caesar emerged as the hero of Rome, few regretted Pompey's demise - as Shakespeare tell us.

Cicero, who was a contemporary of Pompey and Caesar, mentioned the elephant fiasco in one of his letters. But a more detailed account was written about a hundred years later by Pliny the Elder in his Natural Histories. It also gives us a hint of how Romans saw animals as having human characteristics, thoughts, and emotions.

Pliny wrote:

"But Pompey's elephants, when they had lost all hope of escape, tried to gain the compassion of the crowd by indescribable gestures of entreaty, deploring their fate with a sort of wailing, so much to the distress of the public that they forgot the general and his munificence carefully devised for their honor, and bursting into tears rose in a body and invoked curses on the head of Pompey for which he soon afterwards paid the penalty."

Well, Magnus, that's what you get for going into politics.


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