Pompey was one of the main Roman leaders during the exciting final decades of the Roman Republic. He made a political alliance with Julius Caesar, married his daughter, and then fought against him. A capable military leader, Pompey earned the title of "the Great."
The Start of Pompey's Career
Unlike Caesar whose Roman heritage was long and illustrious, Pompey came from a non-Latin family in Picenum (in northern Italy), with money. At 23, following in his father's footsteps, he entered the political scene by raising troops to help Sulla liberate Rome from the Marians.
[Background: Marius and Sulla had been at odds since Marius took credit for victory in Africa that his subordinate Sulla had engineered. Their struggles led to many Roman deaths and unthinkable violations of Roman law, such as bringing an army into the city itself. Pompey was a Sullan and supporter of the Optimates. A novus homo 'new man', Marius was Julius Caesar's uncle and a supporter of the Populares.]Pompey fought Marius' men in Sicily and Africa. Sulla labeled him "Magnus" (the Great) for this, perhaps, or by the soldiers in Africa.
Here is what Plutarch's Life of Pompey has to say about the label magnus:
"Nevertheless, the first tidings brought to Sulla were, that Pompey was up in rebellion; on which he remarked to some of his friends, "I see, then, it is my destiny to contend with children in my old age;" alluding at the same time to Marius, who, being but a mere youth, had given him great trouble, and brought him into extreme danger. But being undeceived afterwards by better intelligence, and finding the whole city prepared to meet Pompey, and receive him with every display of kindness and honor, he resolved to exceed them all. And, therefore, going out foremost to meet him, and embracing him with great cordiality, he gave him his welcome aloud in the title of 'Magnus,' or the Great, and bade all that were present call him by that name. Others say that he had this title first given him by a general acclamation of all the army in Africa, but that it was fixed upon him by this ratification of Sulla. It is certain that he himself was the last that owned the title; for it was a long time after, when he was sent proconsul into Spain against Sertorius, that he began to write himself in his letters and commissions by the name of Pompeius Magnus; common and familiar use having then worn off the invidiousness of the title."
Pompey was primarily a Roman military leader, although he also dealt with a grain shortage. He managed to end the uprising in Spain under Sertorius, took credit for defeating the forces of Spartacus, and rid Rome of the pirate menace within three months. When he invaded the country of Pontus, in Asia Minor, in 66 B.C., Mithridates, who had long been a thorn in Rome's side, fled to the Crimea where he arranged for his own death. This meant the Mithridatic wars were finally over, Pompey could take credit. On behalf of Rome, Pompey also took control of Syria in 64 B.C., and captured Jerusalem. When he returned to Rome in 61, he held a triumph.
The First Triumvirate
Along with Crassus and Julius Caesar, Pompey formed what is known as the first triumvirate, which became the dominating force in Roman politics. The liaisons between the men were personal, tenuous, and short-lived. Crassus was not happy that Pompey had taken credit for overcoming the Spartacans, but with Caesar mediating, he agreed to the arrangement for political ends. When Pompey's wife (Caesar's daughter) died, one of the main links broke. Crassus, a less capable military leader than the other two, was killed in military action in Parthia.
Eventually, Pompey and Caesar faced each other as enemy commanders after Caesar, defying orders from Rome, crossed the Rubicon. Caesar was the victor of their battle at Pharsalus. Later, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was killed and his head cut off so it could be sent to Caesar.
See Ronald Syme The Roman Revolution
One of Pompey's wives was the daughter of his fellow triumvir Julius Caesar.
Don't mistake Pompey for the city of Pompeii.