In the Autumn of 48 BCE, the defeated Roman general, Pompey, arrived in Ptolemaic Egypt—a possible safe haven and potential ally—after being decisively beaten at the Battle of Pharsalus (or Pharsalia) by Julius Caesar. Pompey was lured into a false sense of security by treacherous old war buddies working in the Egyptian court at Alexandria, such as Lucius Septimius, who had reportedly served as an officer under Pompey during his 67 BCE campaign against Cilician pirates. Lucius Septimius was said to have been present on the shoreline, along with a man named Achillas (the captain of the Egyptian king’s guard), and they served as the leaders of the reception party awaiting Pompey’s arrival. These men, however, had no intention of helping Pompey against Julius Caesar.
Pompey, following misplaced trust, sailed to Alexandria in a small boat and made contact with Septimius and Achillas. Yet, unfortunately for the Roman general, events in Alexandria soon took a hellish turn. Septimius, Achillas, and the armed welcome party did not take long to show their true intentions—assassination. When Pompey finally came ashore and submitted himself to the mercy of the reception party, the greeters drew their blades and pounced on their guest. As the story goes, Septimius and Achillas led the charge and were actively involved in the frenzy of stabbing the famous Roman general to death.
Motive, the conspirators later were said to have claimed, was to make it impossible for Pompey to convince the Egyptian boy-king, Ptolemy XIII (r. 51-47 BCE), to join Pompey’s losing side in the Roman civil war. Yet, far from neutrality, the conspirators likely hoped that the assassination of Pompey would be an act that Julius Caesar would applaud or reward. In this line of thought, it was important for the Egyptians to have definitive proof that Pompey was truly dead, and to preserve an identifying feature of the slain general that Julius Caesar would recognize. In the end, they decided to cut off Pompey’s head and preserve it for whenever Caesar was bound to arrive. Yet, it was not a guarantee that Caesar would reach Alexandria in quick fashion.
Julius Caesar, at that time, was seeing to affairs in cities around the Aegean Sea, sailing back and forth from places such as Thessaly, Ephesus and Cnidus. His intelligence network eventually sent reports that Pompey had been seen near Cyprus and was likely heading to Egypt. This news finally pulled Caesar away from the coastal cities of the Aegean and he began sailing for Alexandria. Julius Caesar reportedly arrived at the Egyptian city in early October, 48 BCE, but the ancient sources are vague on how many days had passed between Pompey’s assassination and Caesar’s eventual appearance at Alexandria. Regardless of the timeline, King Ptolemy’s court still had Pompey’s head in their possession and it was still intact enough for it to be recognizable to people who had known Pompey.
One wonders if the Egyptians—who still practiced embalming in the Ptolemaic and Roman period—used their craft on Ptolemy’s head to minimize its decay before Caesar had a chance to see it. Most ancient sources, unfortunately, were unclear on this point. Julius Caesar, in his Civil War Commentaries, stated only that he learned of Pompey’s death upon reaching Alexandria and did not record details about his slain foe’s head. The prolific biographer, Plutarch (c. 46-119 CE), wrote that the head of Pompey was presented to Caesar, but he did not elaborate on if it had been preserved by any means. The question of embalming, however, was addressed by a Roman poet named Lucan (c. 39-65 CE), who claimed in his epic poem, Civil War, that the head had indeed been embalmed. Lucan wrote:
“He wants some proof of the crime, so they drain
the head of decay by their forbidden art,
take out the brain and desiccate the skin,
wash out rotting fluid from deep inside,
and firmly set the face with drugs infused.”
(Lucan, Civil War, book 8, approximately between lines 669-698)
Ancient scholars, it must be warned, loved to dabble in embellishment and creative license, and poets were often known to do this more than the average historian. Nevertheless, it is not implausible that the Egyptians might have taken steps to preserve Pompey’s head, especially as they did not know how long it would be until Caesar arrived. In the end, like the exact timespan between Pompey’s assassination and the appearance of Julius Caesar in Alexandria, the answer to the question on whether or not Pompey’s head was embalmed remains vague.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Julius Caesar’s Dismay Upon Seeing The Head Of Pompey By Louis-Jean-François Lagrenée (c. 1725–1805), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Warsaw).
- Lucan’s Civil War, translated by Matthew Fox (Penguin Classics, 2012).
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn in the 19th century, and reprinted in 2014.