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Sextus Pompeius: Pirate King

After the death of his father, Pompey the Great, and Cato at Utica, Sextus Pompeius and his brother, Gnaeus, led the last remaining resistance to Caesarian power from bases in Spain. When they were defeated in 45 BC, Gnaeus was executed, but Sextus was able to flee to Sicily.

Sicily was a good base to maintain resistance. If he could control the sea lanes, he could raid Italy and Africa, disrupting Caesar’s control. He could also prevent Caesar’s much larger armies from landing. It was also a place which could receive political refugees from Caesar’s Italy.

There is a question as to how serious Pompeius was as opposition to Caesar in 45-44. He was preparing for a war in the East, not to take on Pompeius in Sicily. It seems that the Sicilian war could be left to others. It may even have been that Pompeius was not firmly established in 45/44, his control tenuous.

But with the assassination of Caesar, his military and political position improved. With Italy in turmoil, no-one was going to worry about Pompeius. He was left in control of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. He was temporarily restored to respectability when Cicero was leading the senate against Antony, but was once declared an enemy of the state when the triumvirate formed.

Coin of Sextus Pompeius

Coin of Sextus Pompeius (British Museum)

He received refugees from the proscriptions and operated in support of Brutus and Cassius in the next stage of the civil war. He was able to prevent the easy transport of supplies from Italy to Antony and Octavian, but unable to prevent their forces crossing back and forth the Adriatic.

In 41, he provided support for Antony’s family in their retreat from Italy after the Perusine War and may have supported Antony’s crossing to Brundisium. Antony made it a condition of the settlement that Pompeius be forgiven and once more treated as a legitimate authority in Sicily.

Strangely, this reconciliation may have weakened Sextus. Refugees from the proscriptions returned home under a brief amnesty. Some of the admirals allied to him began to consider their options: it was no secret that Octavian was not pleased with the treaty and if there was a conflict between Pompeius and Octavian, who, in the longer term, would win?

We understand Pompeius from sources which are completely hostile to him. They stress that:

  • he freed slaves to serve in his army.
  • his role as a pirate.

We have almost nothing against which we can judge these claims.

Sicily and southern Italy had long been associated with slave rebellions and disturbances. Sicily was also seen as a grain-producing area, which exported grain to the markets in Rome. Sicily may have seen some investment in estates from Roman elites and they may have brought slaves in to man their farms. Yet, it is perhaps more likely that the slaves of Roman Sicily and, indeed, of Southern Italy, were employed in the rough and hilly ground to guard flocks. These slaves would need to be armed in order to protect those flocks from wolves or other threats. They would also have been relatively unsupervised. If revolt did break out in Sicily, this group of slave shepherds would be better positioned to resist than urban slaves.

But we need to be suspicious. It suited the Romans to treat anyone who revolted as if they had been a slave. It justified ferocity in putting down the rebellion. It made the revolt more than a rebellion, but a revolution against the social order. If free men were revolting, they might have legitimate cause, but for the Romans slaves had no right to resist. To call Pompeius’ forces slaves robbed them of legitimacy.

Similarly, with the accusations of piracy. Pompeius does seem to have raided the coasts of Italy. Such raids would have carried off people and goods. But to call him a pirate robbed his cause of legitimacy. It was to claim that he was doing this just for money.

In fact, some clearly supported Pompeius and saw him as a viable representative of the Republican cause. The triumvirs acknowledged him when it suited them. People had fled to his side. Is it conceivable that he could have returned to normal political life? Certainly, Cicero had thought so. Perhaps Antony envisaged his return to Rome as well in the aftermath of the peace at Brundisium.

But it was not to be. The peace of 40 proved fragile. Octavian sought an opportunity to challenge Pomeius. Octavian was gifted a fleet when Menas, who controlled Sardinia for Pompeius, defected. A cause of war was found . Octavian was defeated at sea (see Sextus’s coin celebrating his victory), but in the winter of 37-36, Agrippa built a fleet and in 36, Octavian and Agrippa invaded from the West and Lepidus from the East.

Pompeius fled to the East with the troops he could extract from Sicily and appealed to Antony. Antony heard his embassies, but instructed his generals to hunt him down. He was ultimately not going to fight a war with Octavian over Pompeius when he had not fought a war over his own brother.

Octavian credited Antony with his share in the victory.

Octavian Rostral Column

Coin celebrating Octavian’s victory over Sextus Pompeius. Octavian (left) wears a laurel wreath. Right is the monument from the Forum (British Museum)

The victory was celebrated lavishly in Rome. A column was erected in the Forum which was decorated by the bronze rams that were looted from Pompeius’ ships. It was, judging from the coin, topped off by a splendid and heroic statue of Octavian. Such statues made Octavian look almost divine, and the image on the coin had an association with Apollo.

Octavian was celebrating having brought peace to Italy and secured the coastline and, indeed, the grain supply. He almost certainly reminded the plebs of the benefits his victories brought them. It was a peace the consolidated the triumviral hold on the Roman world and removed the last armed opposition to the Caesarians.

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