This artwork, created in the workshop of the Italian artists Apollonio di Giovanni (c. 1415/17-1465) and Marco del Buono Giamberti (c. 1403-1489), attempts to tell the story of the final days of the ancient Roman general, Pompey the Great, albeit with an interesting mix of medieval fashion and architecture. As the title of the artwork states, the artwork was inspired by the Battle of Pharsalus (fought between Pompey and Julius Caesar) and the subsequent death of Pompey after he fled from the battlefield. The story seems to be told from right to left on the painting, with the Battle of Pharsalus apparently being showcased on the right, before transitioning into scenes of Pompey’s escape and death in the center and left of the artwork.
Pompey’s armed conflict with Julius Caesar (which began in 49 BCE) was relatively brief, but quite intense. Caesar, despite being usually outnumbered in his battles, pursued Pompey relentlessly from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. By early 48 BCE, the focus of the war had shifted to Greece as Julius Caesar chased Pompey deeper into the Greek lands. The Battle of Pharsalus, which took place near the Enipeus River of Greece, was the decisive battle in 48 BCE that marked the victory of Julius Caesar over his rival Pompey the Great in the Roman Civil War. It was a day of great significance to both sides of the war—either as the day that Julius Caesar crushed the army of his greatest opponent, or as the day that signaled the end of the Roman Republic as Romans knew it. Pompey, however, was still alive and had hopes of rebuilding his forces and continuing the war.
In the Autumn of 48 BCE, the defeated Roman general, Pompey, arrived in Ptolemaic Egypt—a possible safe haven and potential ally. Pompey was lured into a false sense of security by treacherous old war buddies working in the Egyptian court at Alexandria at that time, 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. When Pompey arrived at Alexandria in a small boat 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. The assassins allegedly claimed that they wanted to make it impossible for the refugee general to convince the Egyptian boy-king, Ptolemy XIII (r. 51-47 BCE), to join Pompey’s losing side in the Roman civil war. Additionally, 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—therefore, they decided to cut off and preserve Pompey’s head. Following the assassination, Julius Caesar reportedly arrived at the Egyptian city of Alexandria in early October, 48 BCE, and he was subsequently shown the head of his slain foe.
Such are the events that are re-created in the medieval artwork above. Pharsalus is depicted on the right, showing the camped armies and clashes of cavalry. In the middle and top-left, Pompey can presumably be seen sailing to Alexandria, where he was assassinated. Finally, on the bottom left section of the painting, a display can be seen that likely depicts Julius Caesar being shown the head of Pompey.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 2014.
- Civil War, by Lucan, translated by Matthew Fox. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.