Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dating Pompey's Death.

Each year at this time (the tail end of September) the internet buzzes (when I say buzz, I'm no doubt exaggerating) with debate regarding the exact date for the death of Pompey the Great in 48 B.C.E. (We can be sure about the year owing to a myriad of evidence for the general time line of the Civil War in this year, and when exactly Pompey was defeated at Pharsalus).

The dating of ancient events is always a difficult exercise. Without the vast record keeping abilities that we have today, there was considerable room for error when the ancients wrote their histories. Years, when it comes to the major events, are usually secure enough, but precise dates remain difficult to pin down. Pompey's death is a prime example of this.

The ancient sources tend to reference his death in relation to his birthday (they happened around the same date), but for this to be useful one must first confirm the date of his birth. There is no considerable debate regarding the year of his birth because we know the Consuls of that year (106 B.C.E), and there is general collusion that his 3rd triumph (in 61 B.C.E) happened on his birthday, and since the triumph can be reasonably dated to the 29th of September then that his the most reliable date for his birthday.

Now, with that a reasonably firm foundation to build on, the question now arises - when exactly did he die? The ancient writers don't quite agree. Appian and Dio are rather imprecise (Dio - Book 42.5 - says he was in his 58th year when he died, which generally puts his death prior to the 29th of September, when he would have been 59, which Appian -Book 2.86 - does also).

Valleius Paterculus is "more" helpful and and says - Book 2.53 - that Pompey died on the eve of his birthday in his 58th year, making the date of his death September 28th. Plutarch, rather unhelpfully, gives us two possibilities, saying in his life of Pompey - 79 - that he died on the day after his birthday, which gives a date of September 30th, and in his life of Camillus, says that Pompey died on his birthday, putting the date back to September 29th.

The question, then, is who do we believe? Valleius Paterculus was alive much closer to the time of Pompey, and it's possible he had sources that were alive when during that batch of Civil Wars, which adds a certain weight to his date of the day before Pompey's birthday - September 28th. Plutarch, besides giving us two dates, was alive much, much later, when no one alive during Pompey's lifetime would be still living. The same goes for Appian, and even more so for Cassius Dio, who wrote much later.

Valleius Paterculus also chastises those who misdate Pompey's age (Plutarch, in his life - Book 46 - says Pompey was almost 40 at the time of his 3rd triumph in 61 B.C.E, when in fact it was his 45th birthday). Given VP's attitude here, it's probably worth giving him the benefit of the doubt that he also was quite sure about his dating of Pompey's death, and so I'm willing to plunge for the date September 28th - the day before Pompey's 59th birthday (modern historians generally take this date too, so I'm in good company).

The problem of precise dating aside, Mary Beard in her work "The Roman Triumph" makes the wonderful observation that:

"[Pompey's] whole life - his death no less than his birth - was tied to his moment of triumph" (pg.36).

Despite the dates being in question, the possibilities only cover several days, and a result of this is that, as Beard points out, Roman cultural memory, as is evident in the ancient writers mentioned above, inevitably associates Pompey's birth and his death with his triumph. In many ways that illustrates the fall of Pompey, and it's role in later Roman culture, to such a degree that any problems of exact dating are relegated somewhat from prominence (although it's still immense fun trying to work it out).

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