A History of Rome in Paintings: 12 Civil War

Lionel Royer (1852–1926), Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar (1899), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée Crozatier, Puy-en-Velay, France. Wikimedia Commons.

The period between the death of Gaius Marius in 86 BCE and the end of the Republic of Rome in 31 BCE was one of the most violent in the whole of Rome’s history. This was the result of a succession of individuals wielding power which the Republic had never intended would be vested in individuals. Those who tried to abuse power included Sulla, Pompey, and Julius Caesar.

Sulla had first become consul in 88 BCE as a result of his success in ending the Social War. When he went off in command for the First Mithridatic War, turmoil erupted in Rome as his enemies incited revolt. Sulla took five of his six legions and became the first Roman general to march his army into the city of Rome, claiming that its Senate had been neutered and portraying himself as victim. He returned to Greece to prosecute war there, laying siege to Athens then sacking the city and razing its port of Piraeus to the ground.

After Sulla had negotiated peace in 85 BCE, he crossed the Adriatic and took the heel of Italy with five legions. In Rome, two newly elected consuls prepared their armies to meet Sulla’s force. It was at this stage that Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English simply as Pompey, entered the story. Pompey found himself in the midst of an attempt by Carbo, a tyrant, to take over much of that part of Italy, so put himself in command of the district, cleared the area of Carbo’s supporters, and led the local soldiers against rebel forces of Carinas, Cloelius, Brutus, then those of Scipio the consul.

Pompey’s brilliant successes won him respect from Sulla himself, and the young man was sent to Gaul, where he was repeatedly victorious. For this, Sulla rewarded him with marriage to his step-daughter Aemilia. However, this required Pompey to divorce his first wife Antistia, who had recently lost both her parents, and Aemilia was in late pregnancy by her previous husband.

Pompey was next sent with a large force to tackle problems in Sicily and North Africa. In this he was successful, and captured Carbo alive. Rather than having Carbo summarily executed, Pompey insisted on a formal trial, although the result was merely a short stay in his execution. Pompey went on to defeat the large army of Domitius in very poor weather, then to invade and subdue Numidia.

When the tyrant Sulla ordered Pompey to return to Rome, he and his army distrusted his command, and Sulla heard initially that they were in revolt. When he heard the truth, though, Sulla rewarded Pompey with the name of Magnus ‘The Great’, and sent him to Spain as its pro-consul. However, he refused Pompey’s request for a triumph, telling him that only a consul or praetor was entitled to that, and that Pompey wasn’t even old enough to be a senator. Sulla then relented, letting Pompey celebrate his first triumph.

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin (1724–1780), The Triumph of Pompey (1765), watercolour, 20.8 x 39.2 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. Wikimedia Commons.

Gabriel de Saint-Aubin’s spectacular watercolour of this first Triumph of Pompey (1765) shows this unique event. Pompey had tried to enter Rome with his chariot drawn by four elephants, as shown here, but the gate was actually too narrow and he was forced to switch to horses.

Sulla was annoyed by Pompey’s rapid rise to fame, but was too ashamed to obstruct his career, so he kept quiet. Pompey strongly supported Lepidus in the elections for consul, which helped secure him success. Then Sulla died, and Lepidus tried to assume his powers as tyrant. Pompey was made general of an army to proceed against Lepidus, and took his forces to besiege Brutus in Gaul. Brutus put himself in the hands of Pompey, who had him murdered by Geminius. (This Brutus was the father of the Brutus who was later the friend and co-assassin of Julius Caesar.)

Lepidus was expelled from Italy, and died soon afterwards in exile on the island of Sardinia. Pompey was next sent to Spain as pro-consul, where he was again brilliantly victorious, although he had a close call in battle by the river Sucro, when he was wounded slightly so cut the hand off his opponent. Pompey had funded much of this from his own pocket, so sought the senate’s approval of public money. By the end of this campaign in Spain, Pompey had destroyed the armies of Perpenna, and when he captured his enemy, had him executed too.

Pompey and his army returned to Rome, where the city was in the midst of its Servile War, against rebels led by Spartacus. This was brought to an end by Crassus, but somehow it was Pompey who was given the credit, rewarded with a second triumph, and made consul.

Rome was becoming more troubled by pirates at sea, who not only preyed on its ships, but also attacked its many ports and colonies from the sea. Pompey was given command of a large fleet to tackle this problem, and dispersed it to clear the pirates over less than three months. The most powerful of them had hidden their families in fortified villages in the Taurus Mountains, and themselves taken to the sea to await Pompey’s attack. There the pirates were soundly defeated, and either killed or captured. As a result, Rome gave Pompey what almost amounted to absolute power of command, putting him in a similar position to that attained by Sulla after he had siezed power as tyrant.

This quickly brought Pompey into conflict with Lucullus: Pompey accused Lucullus of having love of money, and Lucullus accused Pompey of having love of power. Lucullus withdrew from Galatia, leaving Pompey to march against Mithridates, whose massive army deterred any plans of direct attack. Pompey finally closed on the enemy forces near the River Euphrates, where his most experienced officers urged him to press home immediately, while it was still dark. This paid off for the Romans, as the moonlight confused the enemy’s infantry, who misjudged the flight of their javelins. Mithridates was soundly defeated, although he managed to escape to Colchis.

Master of the Geneva Boccaccio (fl 1448-1475), Pompey Holds Council with his Lieutenants Servilius and Glaucia (c 1470), illumination on parchment in The Book of Stratagems, 29 x 19 cm, Bibliothèque Royale/Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Brussels, Belgium. Wikimedia Commons.

This illumination by the ‘Master of the Geneva Boccaccio’ from the Book of Stratagems shows Pompey Holds Council with his Lieutenants Servilius and Glaucia (c 1470). It is the more fascinating for its archaic approach to perspective: in the background are other soldiers attacking the fortified town, although there’s a marked disparity in their size.

Pompey moved on to capture Armenia, then into Georgia, where there’s still a Roman bridge to mark his passing. Eventually, he gave up his pursuit of Mithridates, and turned south into Syria, where he heard of that king’s death.

Jean Fouquet (c 1420–1480), Pompey Enters the Temple of Jerusalem (c 1470), media and dimensions not known, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Plutarch doesn’t describe Pompey and his army entering the city of Jerusalem, but that is shown in Jean Fouquet’s painting of Pompey Enters the Temple of Jerusalem from about 1470.

Pompey returned to Rome, but was forbidden from entering the city before his triumph. When he did enter for that event, the procession and celebrations were so grand that they took two days to complete. That was his third such triumph, which isn’t a record, although a great achievement for a man who was still under forty. After that, Lucullus returned, as did Julius Caesar, who declared himself a candidate for his first consulship.

Caesar and Pompey allied themselves when, to great surprise, Pompey married Julia, Caesar’s daughter, who had been engaged to Sulla’s son. The political situation became both complex and intense, ending with Pompey being made responsible for the administration and management of Rome’s vital grain supplies. While he was occupied securing a record surplus of grain, Caesar was elevated to greatness by his Gallic Wars.

These successes against such great dangers were celebrated by the senate ordering a fifteen day festival, which increased goodwill of the ordinary people towards Caesar. He spent the winter at Luca on the River Po, where he was visited by Pompey, Crassus, and other politicians. Pompey and Crassus were to be elected the next consuls, and together they ensured that Caesar’s campaign in Gaul would continue to be funded well.

When Caesar returned to his army in Gaul, he discovered that two large German tribes had just crossed the River Rhine and were making war. They deceived him by attacking when under a truce, so the Romans spared them little in combat, killing about four hundred thousand in all. Caesar then wanted to be the first Roman to cross the Rhine with an army. His engineers built a bridge within ten days, and the Romans crossed unopposed. After eighteen days giving support to those who were friendly to Rome, and ravaging the lands of those who were not, Caesar and his army returned to Gaul.

Caesar next took his army by ship to Britain twice, where the Romans damaged the Britanni but sailed away when they discovered that “there was nothing worth taking from men who lived in poverty and wretchedness”.

Taddeo di Bartolo (1362–1422), Caesar and Pompey (1414), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Pubblico, Siena, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Taddeo di Bartolo’s double portrait in fresco of Caesar and Pompey (1414) shows what was often an uneasy relationship between the two great leaders. Pompey is on the right.

Back in Gaul, Caesar heard the tragic news that his daughter Julia had died in childbirth at Pompey’s house. He then prepared for winter, and started his move south towards his winter quarters nearer Italy. As he did so, there was a major rebellion, which put Cicero and his legion under siege. Caesar led a small army of seven thousand to bring relief, avoiding direct confrontation with the rebels until he was ready. When they attacked the Romans, Caesar’s force put them to flight.

During that winter, tribes started to unite under the command of Vergentorix to attempt a more co-ordinated rebellion against the Romans, in the hope that they would rouse the whole of Gaul, and exploit growing opposition to Caesar back in Rome. Caesar once again returned to tackle this rebellion. This culminated in the rebels congregating in the city of Alesia, where Caesar put them under siege. The Romans crushed the rebels outside the city, and finally forced Vergentorix to surrender. The latter donned his best armour and decorated his horse, then rode out through the gates and made a circuit around Caesar.

Lionel Royer (1852–1926), Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar (1899), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée Crozatier, Puy-en-Velay, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Lionel Royer’s painting of Vercingetorix Throwing down His Weapons at the feet of Julius Caesar from 1899 shows the moment of surrender. Vergentorix is about to dismount, strip off his armour, and kneel at Caesar’s feet.

Caesar and Pompey were now on a collision course. Cato persuaded the senate in Rome to appoint Pompey sole consul rather than outright tyrant. Caesar, though, started his campaign for a consulship, which Pompey didn’t oppose. With a constant stream of wealth returning to Rome from Caesar’s successes in Gaul, Rome was in a difficult situation. Pompey’s vanity was fed by reports that Caesar’s soldiers wanted Pompey to lead them, and he was lured into the situation where he had no army himself.

Caesar demanded that, if he were to give up his army and become a private individual again, then so should Pompey. Antony demanded that both should give up their commands, but Scipio (Pompey’s father-in-law) insisted that Caesar should be given an ultimatum, or be made a public enemy of Rome.

While a compromise was being sought, Caesar ordered the small force with him at the time to occupy Ariminum. From there he went to the River Rubicon as he decided what to do. He eventually said “Let the die be cast”, crossed the river, and made haste to Rome. Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, a phrase which lives on in English and other modern languages.

With Caesar and Pompey preparing to fight, much of Rome was put into panic. The consuls and most of the senators fled, abandoning the city to its fate.

In early January, Caesar took a small force of handpicked horsemen and five legions to cross the Ionian Gulf and take Oricum and Apollonia. However, Caesar himself put to sea before they reached him, in an effort to cross to Brundisium. He disguised himself as a slave and boarded a boat to make the crossing. Where the river met the sea, violent waves put the boat into danger; its master therefore decided to turn back.

Jules-Élie Delaunay (1828-1891), Caesar and His Fortune (Caesar in the Boat) (1855), oil on canvas, 114 x 146.5 cm, Musée des Beaux-Arts de Nantes, Nantes, France. Image by VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

Caesar and His Fortune, also known as Caesar in the Boat was Jules-Élie Delaunay’s unsuccessful entry for the Prix de Rome in 1855, in which he shows Caesar revealing his true identity to the master of the vessel. Despite trying again to make their way out to sea, Caesar reluctantly accepted defeat from the elements, and they turned back.

Caesar challenged Pompey to battle, and there were many skirmishes in which Caesar generally came off the better, although in one he narrowly escaped being killed. Pompey didn’t really want to fight, but both armies went onto the plain of Pharsalus, where Caesar’s army put Pompey’s to flight. Pompey himself fled to the coast, where he escaped by sea. Caesar gave immunity to many of those who had fought for him, and incorporated them into his own Roman army.

Jean Fouquet (c 1420–1480), The Flight of Pompey after the Defeat of Parsale (c 1470-75), media and dimensions not known, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia Commons.

Jean Fouquet depicted this in his exquisite miniature showing The Flight of Pompey after the Defeat of Pharsalia, from abut 1470-75.

At dawn the following day, Pompey boarded a boat, from which he was rescued by a larger ship. This sailed to Mytilene, where he was met by his wife Cornelia and son with whom he sailed on, finally reaching Egypt. As Pompey was drawing close to the shore, three of his companions killed him with their swords and daggers. He was then beheaded, and his body thrown into the sea.

Artist not known, The Beheading of Pompey (c 1413-15), tempera colours, gold leaf, gold paint, and ink on parchment, 42 x 29.6 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

This anonymous miniature from about 1413-15 shows The Beheading of Pompey, with his headless corpse behind cast overboard, and the crowned head displayed on a pike.

Caesar reached Egypt later. He turned away from the man who brought him Pompey’s head, wept when he was given Pompey’s seal-ring, and had his friend’s killers put to death.

This final scene in the career of Pompey seems to have been a favourite with Stanislaus Augustus, the king of Poland. He commissioned at least two paintings telling this story, which today can be seen in Warsaw’s Royal Palace.

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1725–1805), Caesar’s Remorse at the Death of Pompey (1767), oil on canvas, 41.5 x 33.5 cm, Zamek Królewski w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

The first by Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée, titled Caesar’s Remorse at the Death of Pompey (1767), shows Caesar averting his gaze when he is shown the head of his friend and former son-in-law.

Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (1725–1805), Caesar’s Remorse at the Death of Pompey (1767), oil on canvas, 29.6 x 15.7 cm, Zamek Królewski w Warszawie, Warsaw, Poland. Wikimedia Commons.

Lagrenée’s second version of the motif is a different composition using the same basic figures and elements. This was exhibited at the Salon in Paris in 1767.

Julius Caesar was appointed dictator late in 48 BCE. For the next four years, he was in sole control of Rome.