Review of Pompey the Great: A Political Biography, by Robin Seager

Eras Journal – Martino, J.: Review of “Pompey the Great: A Political Biography”, Seager, Robin

Robin Seager, Pompey the Great: A Political Biography,
Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2002
Isbn 0 631 22721 0

Robin Seager’s amended second printing of his monograph on Pompey is something of an oddity. While there would seem little reason not to re-publish this work to keep English-language secondary accounts on Pompey in circulation (there are surprisingly few), it is the author himself who suggests that this new edition may well lack a raison d’etre. Seager tells us in a section new to the 2002 printing that, “In the time that has elapsed since the publication of the first edition of this book there have been no dramatic new discoveries, no fundamental changes of perception or approach in the political history of the late republic” (p. 173). This refreshingly honest, though rather bald, admission seems even more remarkable in light of Seager’s next burst of truth: “Opinions are still divided on the question of the validity or usefulness of historical biography as a genre” (p. 173). Having, I admit, read these remarks in the ‘Afterword’ before properly commencing my study of the monograph, I was quite keen to find Seager adopting some sort of novel scholarly tactic to obviate these problems. A little disappointingly, it must be said, Seager’s 2002 account of Pompey’s political career contains no such interpretive or methodological breakthroughs; Seager, in fact, almost entirely avoids addressing fundamental concerns that he himself has chosen to go into print raising. What we find instead is merely a solid, if rather unspectacular, treatment of the chequered public career of one of the ancient world’s great egotists.

And therein lies the real problem with this work. The remarkable ego of Pompeius Magnus, a man who had assumed his vainglorious sobriquet long before he achieved anything like the heights attained by the Macedonian prodigy he clearly styled himself after, may have fueled that peculiar megalomania useful to becoming a great military commander[1] though even the kindliest Pompeian would be hard-pressed to call the man anything more than an inept politician. Though immensely popular at the peak of his public career (like Marius before him, almost entirely because of his military prowess), in political terms Pompey entirely fails to rate alongside true cynosures of the system like Augustus. In actuality, Pompey’s diplomatic rigidity, if not his outright governing incompetence, could easily be blamed for that series of death-blows which turned the res publica into a political corpse. Seager, naturally enough, can ill-afford to pay too much attention to the man’s ineffectualness in this realm. Though he does make reference to Pompey’s intense narcissism and neurotic fears of assassination (pp. 179/182), and even his ‘cardboard hero’ status as a martyr of the Republic (p.172), there remains a disproportionate emphasis placed upon the various ‘political’ maneuverings and posturings employed to carve out this entirely unconventional public career. They could well be characterised as clumsily-disguised strong-arm tactics, adopted by an enfant terrible who sought only to flout the cursus honorum, though Seager largely refrains from any such assessment. Of course, in what is referred to as a political biography, we would also probably be surprised to find too much attention paid to that little historical clue which may not only expose the driving force behind Pompey’s ‘political’ machinations, but also reveals this inflated novice for what he truly was. As Bruce Campbell pointed out quite humorously in his article ‘Teach Yourself How to be a General’, Pompey was so insecure when he first entered the Senate that he not only had an “A-Z” handbook drafted by Varro to better follow proceedings, but would actually discretely refer to it when called upon to participate.[2] Seager does, very briefly, mention Varro’s handbook for Pompey, and, quite amazingly, even declares on the same page that,

So Pompeius will have known better than to exaggerate his influence in Roman politics. The meteoric and military nature of his rise had deprived him of all experience of senatorial practice, and he lacked the web of connections, painstakingly spun, that would enable him to influence senatorial debates and manipulate popular assemblies. (p. 30)

So where does this sort of evaluation leave the reader in a work apparently devoted to Pompey’s political life? Do we need to retain an image of Pompey the politician, master of the Senate, whose life (like Seager’s book) was structured around political attainments, or should we instead insist upon more accurate – or at least revealing – characterisations of this historical actor? Is it not enough to think of him as the ancient biographer Plutarch painted him: the novus homo son of a much-hated provincial war-lord who sought redemptive public acclaim, no matter how undignified his attempts, in any sphere of public life he could make his mark?

The Foucaldean protégé cum classicist Paul Veyne argues, in his work on the effect of social spectacles like munera, that, “The history of such phenomena explains the real preoccupations of mankind; and it is politics, and not this sort of history, which is trivial and ephemeral.”[3] Though he may have over-stated the case, could the time have finally arrived when serious questions really do need to be asked about the enduring value of political biographies like Seager’s Pompey the Great? Certainly Seager himself, as we read quite freely in his ‘Afterword’, is aware of these by no means new – but clearly mounting – criticisms.[4] Would not the scholarly world and even the general reading public – which the 2002 update aims to reach (p. vii) – be better served by an examination of those timeless qualities which Pompey was clearly such a master of (his undoubted tactical ability) or the ways in which he learnt how to attract and mobilise mass public support (whether the fickle populous of Rome or his own provincial and acquiredclientelae )? Of course if such truly defining aspects of Pompey’s career were to be taken up there is the danger that such thematically-dominated approaches would shift such studies into the realms of military history or even sociology: something that more orthodox-minded classicists might prefer to avoid. So where, yet again, does this leave the reader? Is it more fruitful to concentrate upon, as Latinists certainly encourage, just the primary sources and the ancient life depicted therein, or do we go on trying to find worth in what scholars like Seager proffer by way of guidebooks to so-called political animals who themselves needed handbooks to understand the system they were trying to dominate?

The solution to such a quandary may well involve a compromise. Where the world of scholarship which received the original printing of this work in 1979 may have been comfortable with a conventional political biography on an absolute political misfit like Pompey, it needs to be acknowledged that readership expectations have now changed quite considerably.[5] While his scholarship on Pompey does remains first-rate,[6] Seager’s outdated operating premise that the best axis of interpretation of this ancient life runs along political lines really does belong to an earlier generation of scholarly approaches. Could we not instead hope for the same standards of scholarly rigor – which Seager so clearly demonstrates – mated to a more imaginative approach to the subject? While we do have another English language biography on Pompey which plays upon his ‘Alexander- complex’,[7] could not an equally fruitful line of analysis be found exploring his reputation as the adulescentulus carnifex (‘kid butcher’) or even as the uxorious husband who worshipped Caesar’s daughter and ended his days decapitated at the feet of another of his beloved wives? Or what about a more focused concentration upon the complex personality behind the corrupt, though bumbling, ‘politician’? If Seager were to be asked today to rewrite entirely one of the first English-language monographs on Pompey, rather than merely append a work of scholarship nearly a quarter of a century old, it might even be hoped that the title of such a work would simply read ‘Pompey the Man’.

John Martino

School of F.A.C.S.A., University of Melbourne

[1] N. Dixon, On the Psychology of Military Incompetence, Pimlico, London, 1976, cf., in particular, pp. 166-168; 360.Back

[2] B. Campbell, ‘Teach Yourself How to be a General’, J.R.S., 77, (1987), pp. 13-29: p. 17. Back

[3] P. Veyne, Bread and Circuses, Penguin, London, 1990, p. xvii. Back

[4] Coming from a notable ‘family of biographers’, Arnoldo Momigliano (The Development of Greek Biography, Harvard Uni. Press, 1993 reprint, cf. pp. 1-22) provides us with a wonderfully erudite if just slightly – though most colourfully – slanted view of the evolution of biography as a genre and its flowering in the twentieth century as more than just a bastard son of history. Critical regard for biography as something other than mere ‘sub-history’ remains divided, though, especially when such analyses are further problematised by a mating to only political trajectories (see pp. 5 ff below). Back

[5] Cf. R. J. Evans, In Defence of History, Granta Books, London, 1997, ch. 6 on the significant movement away from conventional political history (or history as only politics) during the post-WWII period in favour of the more expansive notion of social histories. While the new crop of ‘social historians’ seem to have, over time, demonstrated many of the same universalising pretensions as their conservative predecessors -an ‘Achilles heel’ much kicked by postmodern critics- this debate between heterodoxy and orthodoxy has not been altogether unfruitful; while the modern (and ancient?) historian or biographer may now be taken to sit somewhat less comfortably at the centre of a matrix of solely political verities to the ‘great players’ of history, one fortunate -if peripatetic- result of this postmodern onslaught upon historiography has been a massive broadening of the field of historical enquiry to include “…the human element in history at every level” (Evans, p. 190). It is incumbent, of course, upon the individual writer-scholar to engage with this refreshing trend according to their own predilections, though Seager has clearly revealed in his works on Tiberius (1972), Ammianus Marcellinus (1986) and now two printings on Pompey, little real engagement with such developments. Back

[6] Though the new overview of Late Republican political currents housed in the revised introduction inexplicably lacks referencing, only referring the reader to some rather generalised sources at the chapter’s end. Similarly, while the calibre of written expression is quite consistently high, ‘aberrant’ (or hackneyed?) phrasing like “Yet at the end of the day…even if by accident rather than by design” (pp. 177) does tend to detract from the otherwise fine scholarly application. Back

[7] P. Greenhalgh, Pompey: The Roman Alexander, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1980. Greenhalgh also had published Pompey: The Republican Prince a year later; while the other -and more conventional- major works devoted to Pompey belong to J. Leach (1978/1986: English), J. van Ooteghem (1954: Belgian) and M. Gelzer (1959/1984: German). Back