Mediterranean peoples: Diodoros, Pliny and Plutarch on Pompey’s subjugation of peoples of the world (mid-first century BCE on)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Diodoros, Pliny and Plutarch on Pompey’s subjugation of peoples of the world (mid-first century BCE on),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 6, 2024,

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 40.4, as preserved in the so-called Constaninian Excerpts 4, pp. 405-406; Pliny the Elder (mid-first century CE), Natural History 7.95-98 (link); Plutarch, Pompey 45 (link).

Comments: The notion that Rome would achieve or had achieved world domination first finds expression in Pompey’s lists of achievements (in the wake 63 BCE and especially in the celebration of triumph in 61 BCE) and comes to fruition in Augustus’ own autobiographical list of Achievements in 14 CE (link; see Nicolet 1991 for full discussion). Crucial within this scenario of total expansion was the enumeration of peoples and “pirates” (also really peoples, such as sub-groups of Cilicians or Cretans – link) that had been subjugated (or protected) in order to establish this supposed world empire. This ethnographic concentration could also take visual form (see Edwards). Pliny elsewhere reports that there were fourteen statues personifying defeated peoples in Pompey’s theatre in Rome (Natural History 36.41-42), and Suetonius reports a rumour about Nero having a dream in which these very personified peoples cornered him in the theatre – a presage to Nero’s end (Suetonius, Nero 46). This Roman personification of peoples would become more common in subsequent periods, on which see the Aphrodisias reliefs (link). The passages below from Diodoros of Sicily, Pliny the Elder and Plutarch of Chaironeia demonstrate this keen attention to peoples in such imperialistic propaganda (even before the principate of Augustus).

Works consulted: C. Edwards, “Incorporating the Alien: The Art of Conquest,” in Rome the Cosmopolis, ed. C. Edwards and G. Woolf (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), 44–70 (link); C. Nicolet, Space, Geography, and Politics in the Early Roman Empire (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1991), pages 29-56 (link).


Diodoros of Sicily, Library of History

(40.4) Pompey had inscribed and set up his own achievements in Asia. Here is a copy of the inscription:

“Pompey the great son of Gnaeus, possessing supreme power, having freed the seacoast of the inhabited world and all islands this side of ocean from the war with the pirates. He likewise was the one who saved the kingdom of Ariobarzanes, Galatia, and the lands and provinces lying beyond it – Asia and Bithynia from attack. He gave protection to Paphlagonia and Pontos, Armenia and Achaia, as well as Iberia, Kolchis, Mesopotamia, Sophene, and Gordyene. He also subjugated Darius king of the Medes, Artoles king of the Iberians, Aristoboulos king of the Judeans, Aretas king of the Nabataean Arabians, Syria bordering on Cilicia, Judea, Arabia, the province of Cyrene, the Achaians [not to be confused with Greek Achaians], the Iozygians, the Soanians, the Heniochians, and the other tribes (phylai) along the seacoast between Kolchis and lake Maiotis [i.e. between the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Azov north of the Caucasus mountain range] along with their nine kings, as well as all the peoples (ethnē) settled between the Pontic sea [Black Sea] and the Erythraian sea [i.e. the Red Sea, Persian Gulf, and Indian Ocean]. He extended the frontiers of empire to the limits of the earth. He protected and, in some cases, increased the income of the Roman people by confiscating statues and images set up for the gods, as well as other valuables taken from the enemy, dedicating to the goddess [likely Minerva, as in Pliny below] twelve thousand and sixty pieces of gold and three hundred and seven talents of silver.”


Pliny the Elder, Natural History 7.95-98 (in the context of a list of exceptional things)

Actually, it concerns honour for the Roman empire and not just for one person to mention in this place all the records of the victories of Pompey the Great and all his triumphs, which equal the brilliance of the achievements not only of Alexander the Great but even almost those of Hercules and Father Liber. After the recovery of Sicily, which inaugurated Pompey’s emergence as a champion of the community in the party of Sulla, and after the conquest of the whole of Africa and its subjugation under our control and the acquisition of the title “the Great” as a trophy from this, Pompey rode back in a triumphal chariot even though he was only of equestrian rank, which was a thing that had never happened before.

Immediately afterwards Pompey crossed over to the west and, after erecting trophies in the Pyrenees mountains, he added to the record of his victorious career the subjugation of eight hundred and seventy-six towns from the Alps to the frontiers of farther Spain. With greater generosity, Pompey refrained from mentioning Sertorius. After crushing that civil war [with Sertorius, ending 71 BCE] which threatened to stir up our foreign relations, a second time Pompey led into Rome a procession of triumphal chariots as an equestrian, having twice been supreme commander (imperator) before ever having served in the ranks.

Subsequently he was sent out to all the seas and then to the east, and he brought back countless titles for his country in a way that is similar to those who conquer in the sacred contests, because these victors are not themselves crowned with wreaths but rather their native land is crowned [i.e. honoured]. Consequently he brought these honours on the city [of Rome] in the shrine of Minerva that he was dedicating out of the proceeds of the spoils from war:

“Gnaeus Pompey the Great, supreme commander, having completed a thirty year long war, defeated, scattered, killed, or received the surrender of 12,183,000 people, sunk or took 846 ships, received the capitulation of 1,538 towns and forts, subdued the lands from the Maiotians [on the Sea of Azov] to the Red Sea [i.e. modern Red Sea plus Indian Ocean generally], duly dedicates this offering in fulfilment of a vow to Minerva.”

This is his own summary of his exploits in the east. But the announcement of the triumphal procession that he led on September 28 in the consulship of Marcus Piso and Marcus Messala [62 BCE] was as follows:

“After having saved the seacoast from pirates and restored to the Roman people the command of the sea, he celebrated a triumph over Asia, Pontus, Armenia, Paphlagonia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Syria, the Scythians, Judeans, Albanians, Iberia, the island of Crete, the Bastarnians, and, in addition to these, over king Mithridates [VI of Pontos] and king Tigranes [II of Armenia].”

The crowning pinnacle of this glorious record was what he himself declared in assembly when speaking about his achievements: to have acquired Asia [in the broad sense], the remotest of the provinces, and then to have granted Asia as a central dominion for his fatherland. If anybody on the other side desires to review in a similar way the achievements of [Julius] Caesar, who showed himself greater than Pompey [i.e. going north into Gaul, as in the Gallic Wars at this link], he must certainly list off the entire world, which, it will be agreed, is an impossible task.


Plutarch, Pompey

(45) Although it took place over two days, Pompey’s triumph [ca. 61 BCE] was so large that the two days were still not enough time, and much that had been planned could not be included in the spectacle. Even what was left out was enough for another honourable and dignified triumphal procession. Inscriptions that were carried in advance of the procession indicated the descent groups (genē) over which he triumphed, including Pontos, Armenia, Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, Media, Kolchis, Iberia, Albania, Syria, Cilicia, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia and Palestine, Judea, Arabia, and all the pirates by land and sea. According to the inscriptions, no less than a thousand strongholds and just under nine hundred cities among these had been captured, as well as eight hundred pirate ships. As well, thirty-nine cities had been founded. In addition to all this the inscriptions described how the public revenues from taxes had been fifty million drachmas, but that the city’s power was receiving an additional eighty-five million from Pompey. He was bringing into the public treasury in coined money and vessels of gold and silver twenty thousand talents. This was apart from the money which had been given to his soldiers, with the smallest payment to a soldier being fifteen hundred drachmas.

The captives led in triumph, besides the chief pirates, were: the son of Tigranes the Armenian with his wife and daughter; Zosime, a wife of king Tigranes himself; Aristoboulos, king of the Judeans; a sister and five children of Mithridates; Scythian women; and, hostages given by the Iberians, by the Albanians, and by the king of Commagene. There were also very many trophies that were equal in number to all the battles in which Pompey had been victorious either in person or through his generals. But what enhanced his glory the most and had never happened to any Roman before was that he celebrated his third triumph over the third continent [Asia]. For others before him had celebrated three triumphs. But he celebrated his first over Libya, his second over Europe, and this his last over Asia, so that he seemed in a way to have included the whole world in his three triumphs.


Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well); B. Perrin, Plutarch’s Lives, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1914-1923), public domain, adapted by Harland.

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