Caesar Defeats The Troops Of Pompey, By Justus van Egmont (1601–1674) and Gerard Peemans (1637/39–1725)

This tapestry, titled Caesar Defeats The Troops Of Pompey, was designed by Justus van Egmont (1601–1674) and woven by the workshop of Gerard Peemans (1637/39–1725) for a series of tapestries called The Story of Caesar and Cleopatra. The series commemorated scenes from the early military career of Julius Caesar, as well as events concerning Queen Cleopatra of Egypt after she became embroiled in the political quagmire of the Roman civil wars. That aside, this tapestry focuses on an event that occurred before Cleopatra and Egypt became entangled in the wars of the Caesars. In particular, the artwork above depicts Julius Caesar’s defeat of his rival, Pompey the Great, and it was only after Pompey was defeated on the battlefield that he and his pursuer would make the fateful decision to sail toward Egypt.

Julius Caesar’s armed conflict with Pompey the Great began in 49 BCE, and although it was a showdown between two military geniuses, the war between those two particular generals was actually relatively brief. Caesar, despite being usually outnumbered in his battles, pursued Pompey relentlessly from one side of the Mediterranean to the other, and by early 48 BCE, the focus of the war had shifted to Greece. As Julius Caesar chased Pompey deeper into the Greek lands, the two forces were drawn into the decisive Battle of Pharsalus (still in 48 BCE), which took place near the Enipeus River of Greece. Pharsalus was the knock-out blow that marked the victory of Julius Caesar over his rival Pompey the Great in the Roman Civil War. Although the tapestry’s title of ‘Caesar Defeats The Troops Of Pompey’ is vague and nonspecific, the artwork likely is meant to depict the Battle of Pharsalus, as it was this defeat that made Pompey no longer relevant in the civil war against Caesar.

Pompey, following Pharsalus, was defeated but not dead. After losing the battle, Pompey 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 (r. 51-47 BCE), but he was in a militant struggle with his older sister (and wife), the aforementioned Queen Cleopatra. If Pompey hoped to find shelter or an alliance in the court of Ptolemy, he was sorely mistaken. King Ptolemy and his advisors knew that the downfallen general was currently losing his war against Julius Caesar, and therefore they ultimately assassinated Pompey, hoping that his death would be applauded or rewarded by Julius Caesar. The plan backfired, however, and Julius Caesar instead sided with Cleopatra in the Egyptian civil war, setting up Caesar’s romance with the Egyptian queen, as well as the later relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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