Episode 32 – Pompey the Great versus Sulla

Today, we turn to the Military bracket where we have a face-off against two important Roman generals, Pompey the Great who helped defeat the slave revolt led by Spartacus, and Sulla, the Roman General who for a brief time served as a dictator of the Roman Republic after saving it from invasion.

Pompey the Great
Pompey the Great

Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was born on September 29, 106 BCE to a family of equestrian class, one step below the senatorial. His father, Gnaeus Pompeius Strabo, was a supporter of Sulla during the first civil war, but there is some evidence that he jumped back and forth, aligning himself with Marius at times. His death in 87 BCE has been debated as he either was killed during the Marian response to Sulla’s purge or died during an epidemic of the plague. The third possibility, according to the Compendium of Roman History by Velleius Paterculus, he was killed by a bolt of lightning. 

There is some suggestion that Pompeius Strabo was so despised by the people of Rome because of his switching sides that his body was dragged off the bier and desecrated. Senator and historian of the time, Rutilius Rufus called Pompey’s father, “the vilest man alive.” Whatever the reason for his father’s death, Pompey inherited his rather large estate at the age of 20.

Yet another civil war between the supporters of Sulla and Marius broke out in 83 BCE with Pompey siding with his father’s friend. Sulla eventually turned out victorious and was named dictator. Pompey was offered the hand of the newly appointed dictator’s stepdaughter, but she died in childbirth. Still, Sulla viewed Pompey as a strong and capable military leader. He sent the young man, along with a large army to Sicily to crush part of the Marian supporters who were still alive. Pompey defeated them followed by a crushing victory over another group of Marians in Africa. It was this victory that caused Sulla to proclaim his disciple Magnus, or the Great.

As you might imagine, the ego boost that Pompey received by being called the Great as a 30 something-year-old would be pretty big, and you would be right. Pompey also received another, less flattering name, Butcher Boy. When he defeated Carbo in Sicily, he had him put on trial and brutally murdered hence the added nickname.  This was not a popular name for Pompey as he often ordered his soldiers to not ravage the countryside of his defeated enemies under an order of death.

On his return to Rome, he asked Sulla for a triumph for his achievements, but it was rejected as he was not a Roman office holder yet. That and it would be in bad taste to have a parade for a series of victories over fellow Roman citizen. Pompey insisted that he be given a triumph pointing out that his men “looked to the rising rather than the setting sun,” which implied that Sulla’s time was coming to an end.

Pompey was to run afoul of Sulla when he decided to back Marcus Aemilius Lepidus for consulship. The dictator agreed that Lepidus was unfit for the position and wrote Pompey out of his will as a punishment. Sulla was right to be wary of Lepidus as he tried to invade and take over Rome the following year. He was soundly defeated by the other consul Latutius Catulus. 

Pompey was sent out to defeat Lepidus’s ally, Brutus, the father of the man who would famously help to assassinate Julius Caesar, in Gaul. After that victory, he was sent to Spain to dispatch another former Marian leader, Sertorius. Luckily for Pompey, his butt was saved by Metellus Pius just in the nick of time. This is the first time we see a chink in the armor of Pompey the Great as a great military man.

He raced back to Rome to destroy the remnants of the slave army of Spartacus and take the glory of the win away from one of his rivals, Crassus. After much haggling, the two decided to become co-consuls at the same time in 70 BCE.

Being consul was boring to the military leader, so when the problem of piracy reached its apex during this time, he led a large force to handle the brigands. He was given extraordinary powers which superseded those of the provincial governors. This scared members of the Senate, but it was passed with Julius Caesar being one of those in favor. Pompey destroyed the stronghold of the pirates which was held by a reported 20,000 men along with lots of treasures which went into Rome’s coffers. 

Next up was a commission to defeat the Parthians and in particular their king, Mithridates. Pompey boxed in the long-time enemy of Rome to the point that none of his former allies could come to his aid. By 63 BCE, Mithridates own son rebelled, and the king committed suicide. Pompey was to return to Rome once more as a hero. A hero to the people, but not to many fellow senators.

With his political career on the line, Pompey joined together with Crassus and the up and coming brash fellow general, Julius Caesar.  The First Triumvirate as it is called today was thought to be the “three-headed monster” by contemporaries. Caesar became consul and Pompey, was given the hand of Julius’s daughter, Julia.

This uneasy alliance began to fall apart quickly after the death of Crassus when his army was defeated at Carrhae with the general killed. This led to Pompey being made sole consul in 52 BCE. A couple of years earlier, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife Julia died. The bond that kept the men together was gone, and Pompey began to side with the Roman Senate in opposition to Julius Caesar who was winning battle after battle in Gaul.

Caesar as many of you know decided to cross the Rubicon and march on Rome. It has been speculated that Pompey knew that his rival was a far better general than him. His win against Sertorius was for the most part due to the work of Metellus Pius. The victory over Spartacus was mostly Crassus’s doing, and the defeat of Mithridates was because of all of the work of Lucullus.

Pompey planned to starve Caesar’s troops and to beat them through attrition. His plan was sound and likely would have worked except that Pompey was pressured by the Roman Senate to defeat Caesar in battle. The Battle of Pharsalus, in 48 BCE, something we will discuss in episode 82, was the end of the war for Pompey. Even though he had an army twice the size of Caesar, he showed that he was not the general he was made out to be.

Fleeing to Egypt to ask for asylum, Pompey the Great was assassinated, and his head presented to Caesar who was thoroughly disgusted. Julius was to say of his one-time ally, one-time enemy, Pompey was, “of good character, clean life, and serious principle.” 

I’m going to do the putting it into perspective segment at the end of this episode as both men lived at about the same time.

Next up is someone who I’ve mentioned many times already today, and that is Lucius Cornelius Sulla. 


Born in 138 BCE to a poor patrician family, little real information has passed down to us about his early life. It is said that in his your he hung out with “actresses, musicians, and dancers, drinking with them on couches night and day.” We have to be careful when we read anything about Sulla from early Roman historians as some had a very dim view of him and did what they could to sully his reputation. Others, view him almost as a hero, so they are prejudiced in the opposite direction.

What we do know is that he was likely very well educated, something that was necessary to climb up through the Cursus honorum. This was the sequential order of public offices that men of senatorial rank would move along to gain power and prestige in the time of the Roman Republic. The flagrant ignoring of following the proper procedures during the time of Marius led to what would be known as the Sullan reforms starting in 81 BCE.

The war against Jugurtha, the grandson of the leader of Numidia in Northern Africa, was where Sulla began his military career. Jugurtha had claimed the kingdom as his own against the decrees set forth from Rome. This cause the Roman Republic to declare war. The first legions sent were led by Quintus Caecilius Metellus, but his lack of success led to him being replaced by Gaius Marius. Sulla served under the new leader and quickly captured Jugurtha. This launched Sulla’s career as it became the talk of the town in Rome. Marius though took credit for the feat which likely irked the young Sulla.

In the east, King Mithridates VI decided to attack Roman lands in the Mediterranean. At first, the Senate sent Sulla with his men to fight their enemy, but Marius got a tribune to give him the command. This forced Sulla to return to Rome, but not without a fight. He marched on the city causing Marius and many of his supporters to flee to North Africa.

Sulla then returned to the fight against Mithridates which led to Marius to return to Rome, and along with Lucius Cornelius Cinna, one of that year’s consuls had Sulla’s allies who didn’t flee the city, slaughtered. 

Sulla defeated Mithridates, looting all of his positions along the way back to Rome. Sulla was at the head of a large army, bound and determined to rid the city of all of Marius’s followers. Unfortunately for him, his arch enemy was already dead. The Senate, in fear for its life, declared Sulla dictator. A civil war broke out, but his enemies had little chance. The slaughter in Rome of anyone even remotely allied with Marius was brutal. Proscription lists were posted, and bounty hunters were hired to bring the heads of anyone targeted.

One of the men that happened to be listed was Julius Caesar. Luckily for him, he was saved by pleas to Sulla from friends and the Vestal Virgins. At this point, the dictator, according to Suetonius said of the young man, “In this Caesar, there are many Mariuses.”

I’d like to head back to the many military victories that Sulla had as this is how he will be judged in this battle. He was able to stop the rebellion of Italian states against Rome in the Social Wars, Sulla under Marius, crushed the Cimbri and the Teutones, a Gaulic/Germanic alliance of invaders, as well as the previously mentioned Mithridatic War. 

There is some evidence, although somewhat in the field of conjecture, that Sulla wasn’t really a great general but a lucky one. I have to dismiss some of these criticisms as every military leader I’ve read about has some luck come their way at some point. Sulla was a fantastic leader as well as being incredibly ruthless and savage to his enemies. 

In 78 BCE, Sulla resigned his dictatorship, but not before he completely revamped the Roman political scene. With many senator’s dead, he repopulated them with men allied to him and his ideals. Instead of leaving the number of senators to 300, he doubled it to 600. Just two months after he retired, Lucius Cornelius Sulla died. Julius Caesar was to say that the death of Sulla after leaving office just proved that he didn’t know what he was doing. 

Now for our joint putting it into perspective segment. In the years between the time of Sulla and Pompey, about 130 BCE and 50, Emperor Wu of Han send envoy’s to Bactria and Parthia, the Silk Road opens, the Great Wall of China is extended into the Gobi Desert, Julius Caesar is kidnapped by pirates and Cleopatra VII, the last of the Ptolemy’s to rule Egypt, was born.

Time for the scoring.

First up we have the fifteen points for the length of time in service to their country. With Sulla, we begin when he assumed the position of Quaestor in 107 BCE and ended with his death in 78 for a total of 29 years. Pompey begins his service to Rome around 87 BCE and ends with his death in 48 for a total of 39 years. Pompey gets 15, Sulla 12.

Next up is the twenty points for how they affected the rest of the world in their time. Both men fought in numerous places within and outside the Roman sphere of influence, but I’ve got to give a slight edge to Sulla here due to his wins over Mithridates in those wars. Sulla gets twenty, Pompey 18.

The third category is for the 25 points for the lasting effect on world history. This is a big win for Sulla. His dictatorial powers set the stage for the fall of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire under autocratic rule. The catchphrase, “Sulla did it, why can’t I” became the rallying cry for many future Roman leaders. Pompey really didn’t leave much in his wake unless you count his loss to Caesar as a legacy. For these reasons, Sulla 25, Pompey 15.

The last and the biggest prize is the forty points for the effect they had on their country for the better. This one is an argument not on what Pompey did, but on whether Sulla had a positive impact on Rome. His Marian opponents would argue that he was the destroyer of the Republic while others would claim that he brought stability. The fact that the Roman Empire would almost double under those who would take Sullan dictatorial powers as a means of controlling their vast holdings is something to say for the man. The problem I have is it put into place a system that would leave Rome susceptible to the power of the army over the power of the people. Still, I have to award the points to someone, and I decided to give the 40 to Sulla, with Pompey receiving 25.  

In the end, Lucius Cornelius Sulla received 97 points while Pompey gets 63. The older Roman dictator and General moves on to the 2nd round to face off against the winner of the battle between the undefeated Russian General, Alexander Suvorov against the man who stopped to Moorish advance into Europe, Charles the Hammer Martel. 

Please support our sponsor by visiting their website, Knowledge Through Solutions. They have the most complete and balanced electrolytes on the market today, Synerplex® Reviveand Sports.  They also have a unique amino acid complex (Synerplex®Enchance) with probiotics and prebiotics and the only Euterpe precatoria species of Acai in a capsule, Synerplex® Acai.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.


Mark Schauss has been podcasting for over 8 years. His Russian Rulers History was a top history podcast for 7 1/2 years. Discover his new entry into the podcast world.



Scroll to Top