Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus or Pompey?

When I was in the university studying history, we were told to a point of boredom how flawed the Great Men History was. While methodological discussion is always very important, I couldn’t help asking myself then, what the heck lecturers meant by this attack. I didn’t recognise the phenomenon and I felt they were stucked into past decades discourses, into something that was way before my time. History professors stuck in the past, some irony there.

Now that I’m not attached into the academic world anymore I have come to appreciate their point of view more, and I’m taking a liberty of interpreting their meaning to be against history culture, not history students nor academic circles. History culture, or popular history, or representations of history in popular culture, whichever term is now in vogue, is still full of great men history. It’s not that it’s intentional violence against methodology, but popular productions need simple stories that focus into individual, and that’s all you need to lower yourself into the level of great men history.

The great men history means the quite flawed view of history, where historical events and developments are presented to be a consequence of will and actions of one individual, typically a well-born man. Usual hallmarks of this genre are idealizations of individuals, building saints over mortal men, forgetting their flaws or portraying their adversaries as thoroughly evil. Everyone surely agrees that this is wrong.

However, the question is more complicated than just evil Hollywood history vs. academic purity. History is not only facts, it’s interpretation. History is not a science where only facts exist or where the truth can be verified by numbers. History is part of our identity, so it’s also a psychological and cultural phenomenon – a past event can have very different interpretations depending on individual. Take any war for example: when you move on to make a historical interpretation on it, you’ll take a walk in a minefield.

Also it’s a question of the mission, role and meaning of history. Why do we create interpretations on past? What do we want to achieve by it? The ancient historians had a clear answer for this: to teach. There’s also the root of great men history, it originally meant to teach a moral lesson how to live your life and what to learn from the great leaders of past.

Now, for me as a history buff since something like 5 years old, the pedagogic value of history and great men history especially, has been there always. Like the characters of fictional literature, also the individuals of the past have been a source of contemplation, emulation and inspiration to me. A question that has been there ever since my pre-school years has been: why people do the things they do? As a school age kid I enjoyed immensely to read different presentations of great historical leaders. And I especially enjoyed the moments when I found something so compelling from a source I otherwise despised, that I had to update my own opinions. Without those moments I doubt very much I would have taken a life-long interest in history.

So when I went to the university, the over repeated condamnation of the great men history for me felt like the professors were stuck into the contemplations I had solved already in my pre-teen years: surely we were all adults (or thereabouts) as university students and didn’t need to dwell in the obvious: all men are mortal and have their traits seen as strengths or weaknesses depending on the interpreter. In fact, I felt that condamnation of the great men history was counter-productive. I felt strongly, and still do to a limit, that there is pedagogical value, or moral value, in the great men history. If we remove the moral lesson from history altogether, I think we remove a great deal of its value for humanity too. As humans, we have a great ability for abstract thinking and learning lessons from the past, without the need to necessarily make same mistakes again, and we should not waste that talent.

However, and now I’m finally coming to the point I try to make, the history is not just for moral upbringing, it needs its own ethical code as well. For me the prime ethical rule for making interpretations and representations of past is to make justice for the people of the past. The question I ask myself every time I write or speak about the past is that am I making the justice for the past people. Do I understood their view of the world, do I understand their culture, surroundings, their experience of events, their values? And if I do I think I do, then do I manage to translate this understanding in my own representations for my audience in my time and in my culture? Do I do justice to the past individuals as humans?

As a student of Roman noble families, the bulk of people I write about are very little known generally, and for these individuals fulfilling the ethical requirements of this work is quite easy, I don’t need to care about popular images of these people, as there are no such existing. However, the task is considerably more challenging with well-known figures of Roman history, who also tend to be controversial and loaded with meanings, motivations and interpretations of different kinds, piled up during the 2000+ years on these personae. How to approach individuals like Caesar or Pompeius, when whatever I say about them can be seen as taking a stand of some kind, a leaning into one camp of interpretators or another? With these over-used great men of history, the problem is how loaded their images are in the minds of my temporaries.

One problem I face with writing about Pompeius is then that am I writing about Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus or Pompey the Great? If I’m writing about the Pompey, then I’m writing about an individual, almost like a biographist, trying to find individuality and characterisations of an individual there, or perhaps I’m not writing just life, but life and times, in any case, the focus is on individual and more or less great men history. If I write about Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus, then I’m writing about an individual member of moderately influental late-republican Roman plebeian family.

With Pompeius this problem of great men history vs. making justice to the individual is markedly present: all seems to hint to that Pompeius didn’t want to conform to be just a typical member of gens Pompeia, or a typical member of Roman upper class. So, while typically one would make most justice (considering the historical individual) to a member of Roman upper class by emphasising the meaning of family networks, as the historical individual would have himself been very aware of the limitations of this cultural setting and conforming to it, one struggles to do this with Pompeius. Pompeius did practically almost everything he could to break free from these limitations and cultural traditions, he was a rebel, and did everything he could to build an exceptional image for himself. To make justice for such a person, wouldn’t great men history approach be ideal? It would represent him in a way he would himself like. However, doing so would also mean to make counter-justice to his family, and to other Roman families as well. This problem is very manifest in countless Pompey-biographies one finds everywhere.

The core of the problem is that Pompeius wished to be, and to be seen, as exception, but in reality he was as deeply tied into the surrounding time and culture as every other Roman was. His own family was as little exceptional as every other family. I’m not saying we should see gens Pompeia as without individual characteristics, but what I’m saying is that we should see Pompey in the setting where Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus was, as a member of Roman family and its networks, and that we should understand Pompey in the setting of gens Pompeia provided him, not as an idealised or exceptional individual. In this way, we will have both much more deeper understanding of the individual as well as do most justice to the people of the past.

pompeii

Looking at the family tree of Pompeii during the republican period, one notices two things immediately: there are two main branches of the family, whose common ancestor, should one exist, cannot be traced and that the family on the whole has been active in forming alliances through marriages. The latter note shouldn’t come as surprise as it seems to be tendency of the lesser families to align themselves with more established families through marriages.

The strong alignment to the party of Sulla is also very evident through the marriage connections. Mucii, Licinii Crassi and Caecilii Metelli are abundantly also present. Also one notices some cumbersome (for us, but probably pretty straightforward for Romans themselves) multi-generational family relationship arrangements.

For example: Pompeius Magnus (cos 70, 55, 52) had a daughter with his wife Mucia tertia. This daughter Pompeia married first Faustus Cornelius Sulla and then L. Cornelius Cinna (cos 32). Cornelia and Cinna had a daughter Cornelia Pompeia Magna, who married L. Scribonius Libo (pr 80), and they had a son L. Scribonius Libo (cos 34). This younger Libo had a daughter Scribonia, who became the wife of Sex. Pompeius Magnus Pius (cos 33). This Pompeius Magnus Pius was of course brother of Pompeia Magna, who married cos 32 Cinna – so we jump some three generations and come back again almost to the starting point.

When we add here the fact that sister of cos 32 Cinna married C. Julius Caesar (the Caesar), who also married a Pompeia from the other branch of the Pompeii, we also get a sense of broader Pompeian family coordination. That makes one presume common ancestor for all Pompeii.

The image of the gens Pompeia starts to emerge where we can find very strong marriage connections to many of the leading families of their era: Cornelii Sullae, Marii, Julii Caesari, Licinii Crassi, Caecilii Metelli, Aemilii Scauri and Claudii Pulchri, within a relative short span of time few decades. While this speaks obviously about the importance of marriage connections, it also raises an observation about the importance of the Pompeii family. If they would have been an irrelevant family, they wouldn’t have managed to build such connections. Shear number of consulships before the Caesar’s civil war is not exceptional, but of course the achievement of three consulships for Pompeius Magnus is exceptional, while added to them there’s only his father consulship and consulships of father-son pair from the other branch of the Pompeii. The Pompeii must have had something valuable to offer for other more established families.

One hint can be found from the life of Pompeius Magnus’ father, consul of 89, Pompeius Strabo. He had won important victories during the civil war and after his consulship (cos 89) ended, he was ordered to disband his armies. However, he was reluctant to do so, and Pompeius Rufus (cos 88) was given order to get the troops of Pompeius Strabo under his command. Strabo refused and eventually was murdered. His son, the future triumvir Pompeius Magnus was also given order of give up his wife and marry according to the command of Sulla. Pompeius Magnus did so as he wad told. The fact was that the Pompeii were useful henchmen of much more important families and got their payment in the form of marital connections and thus growing influence of the family. However, this meant also great sacrifices and loss of freedom of action. I think this is the background one needs to understand about the character of Pompeius Magnus and why he wanted to break free from traditional limits of Roman statesman. One can only guess the pressure he must have felt in conforming the role the family had.

In fact, one perhaps finds same kind of pressure of family position in Pompeius Magnus as one finds in the younger Scipio. Both were obviously very talented, but also very troubled individuals, who were rebels, if not reformers in their setting. Against this background of very strong, if still quite different kind of, family pressure on them, one can find ideas and insights for their exceptional careers and exceptional deeds.

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Servilii – just another patrician family (so not)

There are Roman noble families that have high profile and which are very visible through one or couple of extremely famous members. Licinii Luculli might be an example, or Domitii Ahenobarbi. Theirs are relatively small families of few representatives, but who seem to dominate the Roman history as we know it. Then there are families that one bumps into seemingly every turn: Caecilii Metelli or perhaps Cornelii Lentuli might be such. Of those one is hard pressed to mention any particular member, even while the families had great many consulships and complex marital ties to everywhere. Then there are cryptical families, which sound important ones and had fair number of consulships, but of which we know next to nothing, Calpurnii Pisones or Aurelii Cottae, for example.

And finally there are Servilii, a family like no other. They had few family lines and some consulships, but that is about everything normal in them. First of all, they are probably the only noble Roman family of late republic of which most well-known member is a woman: Servilia. Of her I have already written earlier here.

When one lists the consulships of Servilii, one also immediately notices a queer fact:

253, Cn. Servilius Caepio
252, P. Servilius Geminus (I)
248, P. Servilius Geminus (II)
217, Cn. Servilius Geminus
203, Cn. Servilius Caepio
203, C. Servilius Geminus
202, M. Servilius Pulex Geminus
169, Cn. Servilius Caepio
142, Q. Fabius Maximus Servilianus
141, Cn. Servilius Caepio
140, Q. Servilius Caepio
106, Q. Servilius Caepio
79, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus
48, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus (I)
41, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus (II)

Of 15 consulships of the family, 8 were on consecutive years, and in fact we have three Servilii as consules at 203-202 and at 142-140! It’s not unique to have brother fixing consulships to each other, e.g. Caecilii Metelli had one pair of brothers following each other at 143-142, but it is very exceptional to have this continuum of office holding as a clear family strategy. I think we must assume that Servilii for some reason preferred this arrangement. It doesn’t seem to bring them any particular benefit, however. Much more common thing to do was to get an ally from other family to run with you for consulship, e.g. Mucius Scaevola and Licinius Crassus at 95. So one very much open question is, why Servilii wanted to have consuls from the family on consecutive years?

Were Servilii isolated and shy away from forming alliances? No, that could not be farther from the truth. Servilii had very complex and varied ties to other leading families through marriages: Caecilii Metelli, Claudii Pulchri, Junii Silani, Junii Bruti, Aemilii Lepidi, Julii Caesari, Livii Drusi, Licinii Luculli and Lutatii Catulli were all connected through marriages. Along with Claudii Pulchri and Caecilii Metelli the Servilii were the most ambitious family in forming marital ties.

Family Servilius

The family tree of Servilii with connections to the most important noble families of late Roman republican era.

There seems to have been two different kind of political marriages in Rome: those that were one-directional and those that were bi-directional. One-directional marriage arrangement is unbalanced in way that either husband or wife is clearly of weaker position in the society. For example M. Tullius Cicero was below his wife Terentia both in liniage as well as in money. This kind of one-directional marriage arrangement between the families is usally unique, e.g. the sister of the husband did not marry the brother of the wife. Bi-directional marriage arrangements were much more balanced, and cemented family ties to close alliances. If Servilii would have been isolated, their marriage ties to other families would have been pretty much one-off arrangements with different families, and probably include a fair number of marriages with families of remarkably lower social status. Servilii were a patrician family (though it also contained a plebeian branch) and their marriages with other patrician families were notably close. They also had bi-directional arrangements with some of the leading plebeian families. So the marriage arrangements were serious political alliances for the Servilii.

Also a notable characteristic of the Servilii was that while the family had some successful generals and some influental politicians, there seems to be no single or defining trait in the family. With Scipiones one expects culture and military glory, with Scaevolae juristical expertise etc. but with Servilii there seems to be none. In this they represent the Cornelii Lentuli: a highly important, but mostly unnotable family. There is nothing to suggest below than average talents, but certainly there seems to be lacking also the brilliance. While popular enough to attain several consulships, the family also seems to have been lacking a genuine support from the people of Rome. Perhaps the only really popular was the reasonably late consul of 79, P. Servilius Vatia Isauricus, who also lived to remarkable 90 years of age.

Old Isauricus was still in one way a typical Servilius. During his old age he turned against Clodius, son of his consular colleague Claudius Pulcher. While that was not unheard of, it was usually a custom that consular colleagues kept their pact during the coming years also. What is interesting, is that we don’t know any compelling reason for Isauricus to turn against his former ally’s son like this. All we know he could have kept silent and probably would not be condamned for doing so by his peers. Perhaps this gives some clue about the Servilii way? Consul of 106 Caepio and his son, praetor of 91, both were not shy of doing unpopular things. It also seems that the Servilii in general didn’t have any clear goals how to shape the Roman state to suit their vision. Indeed it seems pretty much to be the case that didn’t have any big vision.

Perhaps the secret of the Servilii is that they were so influental, that their status was pretty much guranteed, and all they cared about was to maintain that status. They did not concern themselves on anything else. They ensured their influence, but did not use it actively on anything but to keep things as they are for their family status, and did not seek any lasting position in the history books. Strangely enough this has made them to stand out as many ways exceptional family.

I have already written about Servilii and families and individuals connected to them at here, here and here.