This painting, clearly hinted at by the title of the artwork, purports to re-create the reaction of the Roman dictator, Julius Caesar, upon his learning of the death of his rival, Pompey. To set the scene, Julius Caesar had just defeated Pompey at the decisive Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BCE. Pompey, after being defeated, fled to the city of Alexandria in Ptolemaic Egypt, an independent (but heavily indebted) kingdom that had a complex relationship with Rome. The political climate of Egypt in 48 BCE would have been familiar to a Roman—like Rome, Egypt was in a civil war. Holding Alexandria at that time was King Ptolemy XIII, but he was in a militant struggle with his older sister (and wife), the famous Queen Cleopatra. Unfortunately for Pompey, when he sailed into Alexandria, King Ptolemy’s court knew that the downfallen general was currently losing his war against Julius Caesar. Therefore, King Ptolemy and his faction devised a plan that they hoped would gain them favor with Caesar, who could be a powerful ally and a terrible enemy. Consequently, when Pompey arrived in Egypt, he did not find sanctuary, but instead was killed by Ptolemy’s agents. After the Roman general’s death, the assassins reportedly took the dead man’s head and preserved it so they could show it to Julius Caesar once he, too, arrived in Egypt.
Julius Caesar wrote carefully-crafted commentaries on his wars, but, curiously, he showed little emotion over the killing of Pompey. He did call it a murder, and made no statements of approval for the assassination, but he hardly allowed into his own writings any of the outrage, disgust and horror that Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée included into his painting of the scene. For such emotions, one must instead go to the Greek-Roman biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), whose Life of Pompey and Life of Caesar, from the larger collection of The Parallel Lives, fit the artist’s scene to a much greater degree. Plutarch, in his Life of Pompey, dramatically narrated Julius Caesar’s discovery of his rival’s fate, writing, “This was the end of Pompey. But not long afterwards Caesar came to Egypt, and found it filled with this great deed of abomination. From the man who brought him Pompey’s head he turned away with loathing, as from an assassin; and on receiving Pompey’s seal-ring, he burst into tears” (Life of Pompey, chapter 80). This was a terrible first impression for King Ptolemy XIII to make on Julius Caesar, who would go on to align himself with Ptolemy’s sister and rival, Cleopatra.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Plutarch’s Lives edited by Charles W. Eliot in the Harvard Classics series. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1909, 1937.