Scholarship both ancient and modern has largely overlooked the significant impacts of the command of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus under the lex Gabinia of 67 BC on the politics, society, and military affairs of Rome in the first century BC. The command, a grant of maius imperium which invested Pompey with extraordinary powers for a total of 3 years, is all the more surprising when one considers that instead of being directed against a legitimate and easily defined enemy, it was directed against piracy. As the Romans perceived it, the formerly trivial irritation of piracy had grown to the point that it was now a very real threat, with the potential to affect the city of Rome itself. The sources describe Pompey’s actions with the greatest of laudations. Having concluded the total eradication of piracy in the Mediterranean in little more than three months, Pompey, with a humanism that was unusual for a conquering Roman general, settled his pirate captives as farmers in the depopulated cities of Cilicia, the piratical heartland. With the campaign complete, the general magnanimously gave up the command granted for three years, just in time to be voted equal powers for the Mithridatic War that would later be seen as his greatest achievement.
As this thesis will demonstrate, however, the command that posterity has viewed as little more than a first step to the Mithridatic campaign in fact entailed unsurpassed benefits for its commander, and the actions and motives of Pompey during 67 BC have been inadequately examined by both the ancient source tradition and modern scholarship. Having demonstrated the dearth of adequate literary material for the campaign known as the bellum piraticum, this thesis will analyse a number of key points. First, it will address the significant moral and polemic filters that were applied to representations of pirates and piracy in the ancient literature. Piracy was an age-old pursuit, and changing perceptions of pirates over time mirror developments in the Mediterranean’s sea-faring cultures. By the time of Pompey, the word ‘pirate’ had developed into one of the most powerful and evocative of slanders that authors could use to damn the morality of their subject. This moral colouring has inevitably affected the literary tradition for 67 BC, most notably in building up Roman paranoia about an organised pirate armada issuing forth from the rocky bays and ambuscades of the region known as Cilicia. Although this thesis does not seek to dismiss the very real threat that piracy posed in the first century BC, to see the entire Mediterranean as being ruled by piratical Cilician admirals is not feasible. Rather than lessening Pompey’s achievement, it is the aim of this thesis to show that this last point actually makes his approach all the more impressive. A war on all fronts was surely far more difficult to coordinate and complete successfully than a command that had a traditional, geographically-bounded enemy.
Within this framework, the command of 67 BC held limitless opportunities for its commander. Foremost amongst these were the political advantages that could be gained through friendship with the many staffers granted by the lex Gabinia. Drawn from all levels of the Roman social strata, Pompey’s legates provided important connections with some of the most influential senatorial families, and simultaneously a chance to install his Picene adherents in positions of prominence. Militarily, it gave Pompey yet another chance for gloria, and the powers that the campaign granted would secure his preeminence as Rome’s greatest general. A victory held the promise of further political and social possibilities. With this in mind, the choice to settle pirates rather than execute them created mercantile possibilities, and ensured military allegiances that would later assist Pompey during the civil war.
Ultimately this thesis is not interested in the necessity of the campaign of 67 BC or its inherent benefits alone, but its successes. Recent scholarship has challenged the image of a beneficent, successful Pompey put forth by Cicero, Plutarch, and Appian, arguing instead that their reportage of the bellum piraticum disguises a command that was little more than a calculated frame-up to gain the more lucrative Mithridatic Command. Such a conclusion ignores the significant evidence that the actions and motives of Pompey under the lex Gabinia of 67 BC represent a very real and dynamic approach to a problem that, at least in the minds of his contemporaries, had grown to be Sisyphean in magnitude.