The war between Julius Caesar and Pompey engulfed the Roman world between 49 and 48 B.C. Historians, seeking concision and brevity at the expense of accuracy, call it a “civil war”; and in one sense it is. But to those who lived through it, or fell under the long shadow of its aftershocks, it was more than a civil war. It was with good reason that the poet Lucan, in the first line of his Pharsalia, described the conflict as something “worse than civil”:
Bella per Emathios plus quam civilia campos.
That is, “war worse than civil over the plains of Emathia [a literary term for Pharsalia].” And he was accurate in this description. For the savage contest between these two ambitious colossi was in reality a “world war” fought all over the Mediterranean; it was a conflict that pulled in all the great kingdoms and states on the periphery of this august sea. What was the cause of this calamity? How could things have reached a point where the Roman state burst into flames? The historian Lucius Annaeus Florus, writing much later during the reign of Trajan, found the roots of the war in Rome’s own institutions. Rome was too powerful to be overcome by foreign actors; but it contained within it the seeds of its own destruction. Its worst enemy was itself. He says:
Since nearly the entire world had now been subdued, the Roman empire was too powerful to be brought down by any foreign powers. Thus Fortune, jealous of a people that held sway over the world’s nations, armed it to its own ruin. [Epitome II.13]
Florus reminds us that the war between Caesar and Pompey was far more than a civil war. Neither can it be called a war between allies or a foreign war; for him, it was a war “that had all of these features, but was something worse than a war [Sed potius commune quoddam ex omnibus et plus quam bellum].” Here he echoes the poet Lucan. Nearly the entire manhood of Italy was involved in the fight; there were eleven legions on one side, and at least eighteen on the other. To this were added recruitments from Gaul, Germany, Thrace, Cappadocia, Macedonia, Cilicia, Greece, and the nations of the East. The geographic extent of the war was also incredible. It started in Italy, and from there spread to Gaul and Spain; it next poisoned Epirus and Thessaly, and from there Egypt, Asia, and Africa. This is how it is in war; once the fires are lit, no man can predict what course the conflagration may take. Thucydides spoke very wisely when he noted,
As for war, they will know that its course is governed by the total chances in operation, and can never be restricted to the conditions that one or other of the two sides would like to see permanently fixed. [IV.18]
But of course, the insatiably ambitious do not take these counsels. They plunge ahead recklessly, thinking themselves the masters of events, when in fact Fortune is only waiting for the right moment to disabuse them of this notion. It is not our purpose here to trace the political and economic causes of Caesar’s civil war; we are concerned with moral elements, and what may be learned from this terrible episode in history. The belligerents laid waste to cities and towns, ravaged countrysides, depleted treasuries, and trampled heedlessly on the rights of any third-parties who came across their paths.
Both Caesar and Pompey wished to be sovereigns, or ultimate authorities in some form. The vast expanse of Rome’s possessions was not big enough to accommodate their aggregate egos. Neither man could go on living with the knowledge that his rival also breathed. No sense of restraint or accommodation seems to have moved either man; each had absolute confidence in his own ability to bring victory. And so the contest continued until the decisive battle at Pharsalus in 48 B.C. Before the battle, Pompey dreamed that he was in a vast theater, surrounded by clapping hands; in the morning, he came to his headquarters wearing a dark cloak, which Florus (II.13) identifies as an “impious act” or a “violation of divine law” (nefas). Pompey lost and fled to Egypt, all of his ambitions vanishing in wisps of smoke from smoldering embers.
But it could not have been otherwise, as his vanity and ambition would never have permitted him to dismount the tiger he had chosen to ride. It was a terribly precipitous fall. When he reached Egypt, he was murdered and decapitated on a beach by locals seeking to ingratiate themselves with Caesar. The Greek historian Appian (Civil Wars, II.12) says that Pompey’s headless body was buried in the sand along this dismal Egyptian shore, and that someone erected a small marker over it inscribed with the following words:
How pitiful a tomb for one so rich in temples.
Temples in those days were frequently repositories of wealth. So this epitaph can be interpreted as nothing other than a mockery of Pompey’s vain ambitions. For the temples he built, for all the wealth he had collected, for all the superior generalship he had displayed—for all these worldly accomplishments, he was now a decapitated corpse buried in a shallow grave that time itself soon obliterated. Hail, Pompey! You finally achieved that crown you longed for! He had succeeded in being a king—a king of nothing.
Caesar lasted a bit longer. He chased his remaining enemies here and there, and succeeded in removing all competitors to the throne. He basked in his glories, and celebrated his triumphs; he issued his calls for clemency and reconciliation, and believed that these grand gestures would consolidate and secure his powers. And in fact, for a time, his fellow-citizens were grateful that he had at last brought an end to Rome’s long years of factional wars. Statues were erected to him; honors were set before his feet; he was called the father of his country and made permanent dictator; he had a raised chair in the Curia; he began to wear a crown ornamented with rays (distincta radiis corona); and he believed no one would dare challenge his primacy.
Yet it was all an illusion. Despite all the honors, all the flatteries, all the riches, all the offices, all the ribbons and awards, Florus sees no way for Caesar to avoid what is coming:
All of these things were equivalent to ornaments piled on a victim destined for death. [II.13]
In the end, none of Caesar’s honors or crowns could save him from the situation he had constructed for himself. He did not understand that the pursuit of absolute power, by its very nature, is a corrupting goal; and that his exercise of that power would generate extreme resentment among men who did not see him as he saw himself. Like his former rival Pompey, he could not remove himself from the tiger he was riding. With him there was this sense of self-satisfied contentedness that assumed all good things would endure forever. “True wisdom,” says Thucydides, “is shown by those who make careful use of their advantages in the knowledge that things will change [IV.18].” But in Caesar’s mind, the times were good, and would last forever. And one day in the senate, as he sat complacently in his curule chair, he was attacked by men with daggers and stabbed twenty-three times. As Florus so devastatingly says,
Thus, the man who had filled the world with the blood of his fellow citizens finally filled the Curia with his own blood.
So end the vain ambitions of all rulers who seek to possess everything, and who fail to exercise good judgment, restraint, and prudence. He finally achieved that kingdom he so ardently pursued, even if, as he lay motionless on the floor of the Curia, it had revealed itself to be an kingdom of dust. He was king—a king of nothing.
Read more on these themes and similar ones in the new translation of Sallust: