Pompey and Circumstance by Isaac Asimov

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  1. Pompey and Circumstance
  2. Isaac Asimov
  4. Rationalists have a hard time of it, because the popular view is that they are committed to "explaining" everything.
  5. This is not so. Rationalists maintain that the proper way of arriving at an explanation is through reason‑but there is no guarantee that some particular phenomenon can be explained in that fashion at some given moment in history or from some given quantity of observation.*
  6. * It is the mystics, really, who are committed to explaining everything, for they need nothing but imagination and words‑any words, chosen at random.
  7. Let's look at it this way. To every single person on Earth, a large number of events, great, small, and insignificant, happen each day. Every one of those events has some probability of occurrence, though we can't always decide the exact probability in each case. On the average, though, we might imagine that one out of every thousand events has an only one‑in‑a‑thousand chance of happening; one out of every million events has an only one‑in‑a‑million chance of happening; and so on.
  8. This means that every one of us is constantly experiencing some pretty low‑probability events. That is the normal result of chance. If any of us went an appreciable length of time with nothing unusual happening, that would be very unusual.
  9. And suppose we don't restrict ourselves to one person, but consider, instead, all the lives that have ever been lived. The number of events then increases by a factor of some sixty billion and we can assume that sometime, to someone, something will happen that is sixty billion times as improbable as anything happening to some other particular man. Even such an event requires no explanation. It is part of our normal universe going along its business in a normal way.
  10. Examples? We've all heard very odd coincidences that have happened to someone's second cousin, odd things that represent such an unusual concatenation of circumstance that surely we must admit the existence of telepathy or flying saucers or Satan or something.
  11. Let me offer something, too. Not something that happened to my second ‑ cousin, but to a notable figure of the past whose life is quite well documented. Something very unusual happened to him, which in all my various and miscellaneous reading of history I have never seen specifically pointed out. I will, therefore, stress it to yo u as something more unusual and amazing than anything I have ever come across, and even so, it still doesn't shake my belief in the supremacy of the rational view of the universe. Here goes --
  13. The man in question was Gnaeus Pompeius, who is better known to English‑speaking individuals as Pompey.
  14. Pompey was born in 106 B.C. and the first forty‑two years of his life were characterized by uniform good fortune. Oh, I dare say he stubbed his toe now and then and got attacks of indigestion at inconvenient times and lost money on the gladiatorial contests‑but in the major aspects of life, he remained always on the winning side.
  15. Pompey was born at a time when Rome was torn by civil war and social turmoil. The Italian allies, who were not Roman citizens, rose in rebellion against a Roman aristocracy who wouldn't extend the franchise. The lower classes, who were feeling the pinch of a tightening economy, now that Rome had completed the looting of most of the Mediterranean area, were struggling against the senators, who had kept most of the loot.
  16. When Pompey was in his teens, his father was trying to walk the tightrope. The elder Pompey had been a general who had served as consul in 89 B.C., and had defeated the Italian non‑citizens and celebrated a triumph. But he was not an aristocrat by birth and he tried to make a deal with the radicals. This might have gotten him in real trouble, for he had worked himself into a spot where neither side trusted him, but in 87 B.C. he died in the course of an epidemic that swept his army.
  17. That left young Pompey as a fatherless nineteen‑year‑old who had inherited enemies on both sides of the civil war.
  18. He had to choose and he had to choose carefully. The radicals were in control of Rome, but off in Asia Minor fighting a war against Rome's enemies, was the reactionary general Lucius Cornelius Sulla.
  19. Pompey, uncertain as to which side would win, lay low and out of sight. When he heard that Sulla was returning, victorious, from Asia Minor, he made his decision. He chose Sulla as probable victor. At once, he scrabbled together an army from among those soldiers who had fought for his father, loudly proclaimed himself on Sulla's side, and took the field against the radicals.
  20. There was his first stroke of fortune. He had backed the right man. Sulla arrived in Italy in 83 B.C. and began winning at once. By 82 B.C. he had wiped out the last opposition in Italy and at once made himself dictator. For three years he was absolute ruler of Rome. He reorganized the government and placed the senatorial aristocrats firmly in control.
  21. Pompey benefited, for Sulla was properly grateful to him Sulla sent Pompey to Sicily, then to Africa, to wipe out the disorganized forces that still clung to the radical side there, and this was done without trouble.
  22. The victories were cheap and Pompey's troops were so pleased that they acclaimed Pompey as "the Great," so that he became Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus‑the only Roman to bear this utterly un‑Roman cognomen. Later accounts say that he received this name because of a striking physical resemblance between himself and Alexander the Great, but such a resemblance could have existed only in Pompey's own imagination.
  23. Sulla ordered Pompey to disband his army after his African victories but Pompey refused to do so, preferring to stay surrounded by his loyal men. Ordinarily, one did not lightly cross Sulfa, who had no compunctions whatever about ordering a few dozen executions before breakfast. Pompey, however, proceeded to marry Sulla's daughter. Apparently, this won Sulla over to the point of not only accepting the title of "the Great" for the young man, but also to the point of allowing him to celebrate a triumph in 79 B.C. even though he was below the minimum age at which triumphs were permitted.
  24. Almost immediately thereafter, Sulla resigned the dictatorship, feeling his work was done, but Pompey's career never as much as stumbled. He now had a considerable reputation (based on his easy victories). What's more, he was greedy for further easy victories.
  25. For instance, after Sulla's death, a Roman general, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, turned against Sulla's policies. The reactionary Senate at once sent an army against him. The senatorial army was led by Quintus Catulus, with Pompey as second‑in‑command. Until then, Pompey had supported Lepidus, but again he guessed the winning side in time. Catulus easily defeated Lepidus, and Pompey managed to get most of the credit.
  26. There was trouble in Spain at this time, for it was the last stronghold of radicalism. In Spain, a radical general, Quintus Sertorius, maintained himself. Under him, Spain was virtually independent of Rome and was blessed with an enlightened government, for Sertorius was an efficient and liberal administrator. He treated the native Spaniards well, set up a Senate into which they were admitted, and established schools where their young men were trained in Roman style.
  27. Naturally, the Spaniards, who for some centuries had had a reputation as fierce and resolute warriors, fought heart and soul on the side of Sertorius. When Sulla sent Roman armies into Spain, they were defeated.
  28. So, in 77 B.C. Pompey, all in a glow over Catulus' easy victory over Lepidus, offered to go to Spain to take care of Sertorius. The Senate was willing and off to Spain marched Pompey and his army. On his way through Gaul, he found the dispirited remnants of Lepidus' old army. Lepidus himself was dead by now but what was left of his men were under Marcus Brutus (whose son would, one day, be a famous assassin).
  29. There was no trouble in handling the broken army and Pompey offered Brutus his life if he would surrender. Brutus surrendered and Pompey promptly had him executed. One more easy victory, topped by treachery, and Pompey's reputation increased.
  30. On to Spain went Pompey. In Spain, a sturdy old Roman general, Metellus Pius, was unsuccessfully trying to cope with Sertorius. Vaingloriously, Pompey advanced on his own to take over the job‑and Sertorius, who was the first good general Pompey had yet encountered, promptly gave the young man a first‑class drubbing. Pompey's reputation might have withered then and there, but just in time, Metellus approached with reinforcements and Sertorius had to withdraw. At once, Pompey called it a victory, and, of course, got the credit for it. His luck held.
  31. For five years, Pompey remained in Spain, trying to handle Sertorius, and for five years he failed. And then he had a stroke of luck, the luck that never failed Pompey, for Sertorius was assassinated. With Sertorius gone, the resistance movement in Spain collapsed. Pompey could at once win another of his easy victories and could then return to Rome in 71 B.C., claiming to have cleaned up the Spanish mess.
  32. But couldn't Rome have seen it took him five years?
  33. No, Rome couldn't, for all the time Pompey had been in Spain, Italy itself had been going through a terrible time and there had been no chance of keeping an eye on Spain.
  34. A band of gladiators, under Spartacus, had revolted. Many dispossessed flocked to Spartacus' side and for two years, Spartacus (a skillful fighter) destroyed every Roman army sent out against him and struck terror into the heart of every aristocrat. At the height of his power he had 90,000 men under his command and controlled almost all of southern Italy.
  35. In 72 B.C., Spartacus fought his way northward to the Alps, intending to leave Italy and gain permanent freedom in the barbarian regions to the north. His men, however, misled by their initial victories, preferred to remain in Italy in reach of more loot. Spartacus turned south again.
  36. The senators now placed an army under Marcus Licinius Crassus, Rome's richest and most crooked businessman. In two battles, Crassus managed to defeat the gladiatorial army and in the second one, Spartacus was killed. Then, just as Crassus had finished the hard work, Pompey returned with his Spanish army and hastily swept up the demoralized remnants. He immediately represented himself, successfully, as the man who had cleaned up the gladiatorial mess after having taken care of Spain. The result was that Pompey was allowed to celebrate a triumph, but poor Crassus wasn't.
  37. The Senate, though, was growing nervous. They were not sure they trusted Pompey. He had won too many victories and was becoming entirely too popular.
  38. Nor did they like Crassus (no one did). For all his wealth, Crassus was not a member of the aristocratic families and he grew angry at being snubbed by the socially superior Senate. Crassus began to court favor with the people with well‑placed philanthropies. He also began to court Pompey.
  39. Pompey always responded to courting and, besides, had an unfailing nose for the winning side. He and Crassus ran for the consulate in 70 B.C. (two consuls were elected each year), and they won. Once consul, Crassus began to undo Sulla's reforms of a decade earlier in order to weaken the hold of the senatorial aristocracy on the government. Pompey, who had been heart and soul with Sulla when that had been the politic thing to do, turned about and went along with Crassus, though not always happily.
  40. But Rome was still in trouble. The West had been entirely pacified, but there was mischief at sea. Roman conquests had broken down the older stable governments in the East without having, as yet, established anything quite as stable in their place. The result was that piracy was rife throughout the eastern Mediterranean. It was a rare ship that could get through safely and, in particular, the grain supply to Rome itself had become so precarious that the price of food skyrocketed.
  41. Roman attempts to clear out the pirates failed, partly because the generals sent to do the job were never given enough power. In 67 B.C. Pompey maneuvered to have himself appointed to the task‑but under favorable conditions. The Senate, in a panic over the food supply, leaped at the bait.
  42. Pompey was given dictatorial powers over the entire Mediterranean coast to a distance of fifty miles inland for three years and was told to use that time and the entire Roman fleet to destroy the pirates. So great was Roman confidence in Pompey that food prices fell as soon as news of his appointment was made public.
  43. Pompey was lucky enough to have what no previous Roman had‑adequate forces and adequate power. Nevertheless one must admit that he did well. In three months, not three years, he scoured the Mediterranean clear of piracy.
  44. If he had been popular before, he was Rome's hero now.
  45. The only place where Rome still faced trouble was in eastern Asia Minor, where the kingdom of Pontus had been fighting Rome with varying success for over twenty years. It had been against Pontus that Sulla had won victories in the East, yet Pontus kept fighting on. Now a Roman general, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, had almost finished the job, but he was a hard‑driving martinet, hated by his soldiers.
  46. When Lucullus' army began to mutiny in 66 B.C., just when one more drive would finish Pontus, he was recalled and good old Pompey was sent eastward to replace him. Pompey's reputation preceded him; Locullus' men cheered him madly and for him did what they wouldn't do for Lucullus. They marched against Pontus and beat it. Pompey supplied the one last push and, as always, demanded and accepted credit for the whole thing.
  47. All of Asia Minor was now either Roman outright or was under the control of Roman puppet governments. Pompey therefore decided to clean up the East altogether. He marched southward and around Antioch found the last
  48. remnant of the Seleucid Empire, established after the death of Alexander the Great two and a half centuries before. It was now ruled by a nonentity called Antiochus XIII. Pompey deposed him, and annexed the empire to Rome as the province of Syria.
  49. Still further south was the kingdom of Judea. It had been independent for less than a century, under the rule of a line of kings of the Maccabean family. Two of the Maccabeans were now fighting over the throne and one appealed to Pompey.
  50. Pompey at once marched into Judea and laid siege to Jerusalem. Ordinarily, Jerusalem was a hard nut to crack, for it was built on a rocky prominence with a reliable water supply; it had good walls; and it was usually defended with fanatic vigor.
  51. Pompey, however, noticed that every seven days things were quiet. Someone explained to him that on the Sabbath, the Jews wouldn't fight unless attacked and even then fought without real conviction. It must have taken quite a while to convince Pompey of such a ridiculous thing but, once convinced, be used a few Sabbaths to bring up his siege machinery without interference, and finally attacked on another Sabbath. No problem.
  52. Pompey ended the Maccabean kingdom and annexed Judea to Rome while allowing the Jews to keep their religious freedom, their Temple, their high‑priests, and their peculiar, but useful, Sabbath.
  53. Pompey was forty‑two years old at this time, and success had smiled at him without interruption. I now skip a single small event in Pompey's life and represent it by a line of asterisks: one apparently unimportant circumstance.
  54. ***********************
  55. Pompey returned to Italy in 61 B.C. absolutely on top of the world, boasting (with considerable exaggeration) that what he had found as the eastern border of the realm be had left at its center. He received the most magnificent triumph Rome had ever seen up to that time.
  56. The Senate was in terror lest Pompey make himself a dictator and turn to the radicals. This Pompey did not do. Once, twenty years before, when he had an army, he kept that army even at the risk of Sulla's displeasure. Now, something impelled him to give up his army, disband it, and assume a role as a private citizen. Perhaps he was convinced that he had reached‑ a point where the sheer magic of his name would allow him to dominate the republic.
  57. At last, though, his nose for the right action failed him. And once having failed him, it failed him forever after.
  58. To begin with, Pompey asked the Senate to approve everything he had done in the East, his victories, his treaties, his depositions of kings, his establishment of provinces. He also asked the Senate to distribute land to his soldiers, for he himself had promised them land. He was sure that he had but to ask and he would be given.
  59. Not at all. Pompey was now a man without an army and the Senate insisted on considering each individual act separately and nit‑pickingly. As for land grants, that was rejected.
  60. What's more, Pompey found that he had no one on his side within the government. All his vast popularity suddenly seemed to count for nothing as all parties turned against him for no discernible reason. What's more, Pompey could do nothing about it. Something had happened, and he was no longer the clever, golden‑boy Pompey he had been before 64 B.C. Now he was uncertain, vacillating, and weak.
  61. Even Crassus was no longer his friend. Crassus had found someone else: a handsome, charming individual with a silver tongue and a genius for intrigue‑a man named Julius Caesar. Caesar was a playboy aristocrat but Crassus paid off the young man's enormous debts and Caesar served him well in return.
  62. While Pompey was struggling with the Senate, Caesar was off in Spain, winning some small victories against rebellious tribes and gathering enough ill‑gotten wealth (as Roman generals usually did) to pay off Crassus and make himself independent. When, he returned to Italy and found Pompey furious with the Senate, he arranged a kind of treaty of alliance between himself, Crassus, and Pompey ‑the "First Triumvirate."
  63. But it was Caesar and not Pompey who profited from this. It was Caesar who used the alliance to get himself elected consul in 59 B.C. Once consul, Caesar controlled the Senate with almost contemptuous ease, driving the other consul, a reactionary, into house arrest.
  64. One thing Caesar did was to force the aristocrats of the Senate to grant all of Pompey's demands. Pompey got the ratification of all of his acts and he got the land for his soldiers‑and yet he did not profit from this. Indeed, he suffered humiliation, for it was quite clear that he was standing, hat in hand, while Caesar graciously bestowed largesse on him.
  65. Yet Pompey could do nothing, for he had married Julia, Caesar's daughter. She was beautiful and winning and Pompey was crazy about her. While he had her, he could do nothing to cross Caesar.
  66. Caesar was running everything now. In 58 B.C.  he sug­gested that he' 'Pompey, and Crassus each have a province in which they could win military victories. Pompey was to have Spain; Crassus was to have Syria; and Caesar was to have southern Gaul, which was then in Roman hands.
  67. Each was to be in charge for five years.
  68. Pompey was delighted. In Syria, Crassus would have to face the redoubtable Parthian kingdom, and in Gaul, Caesar would have to face the fierce‑fighting barbarians of the North. With luck, both would end in disaster, since neither was a trained military man. As for Pompey, since Spain was quiet, he could stay in Italy and control the government. Who could ask for more?
  69. It might almost seem that if Pompey reasoned this way, his old nose for victory had returned. By 53 B.C., Crassus' army was destroyed by the Parthians east of Syria and Crassus himself was killed.
  70. But Caesar? No, Pompey's luck had not returned. To the astonishment of everyone in Rome, Caesar, who, until then, had seemed to be nothing but a playboy and intriguer, turned out, in middle age (he was forty‑four when he went to Gaul), to be a first‑class military genius. He spent five years fighting the Gauls, annexing the vast territory they inhabited, conducting successful forays into Germany and Britain. He wrote up his adventures in his Commentaries for the Roman reading public, and suddenly Rome had a new military hero. And Pompey, sitting in Italy, doing nothing, was nearly dead of frustration and envy.
  71. In 54 B.C., though, Julia died, and Pompey was no longer held back in his animus against Caesar. The senatorial aristocrats, now far more afraid of Caesar than of Pompey, flattered the latter, who promptly joined them and married a new wife, the daughter of one of the leading senators.
  72. When Caesar returned from Gaul in 50 B.C., the Senate ordered him to disband his armies and enter Italy alone. It was clear that if Caesar did so he would be arrested and probably executed. What, then, if he defied the Senate and brought his army with him?
  73. "Fear not," said Pompey, confidently, "I have but to stamp my foot upon the ground and legions will rise up to support US."
  74. In 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, which represented the boundary of Italy, and did so with his army. Pompey promptly stamped his foot‑and nothing happened. Indeed, those soldiers stationed in Italy began to flock to Caesar's standards. Pompey and his senatorial allies were forced to flee, in humiliation, to Greece.
  75. Grimly, Caesar and his army followed them.
  76. In Greece, Pompey managed to collect a sizable army. Caesar, on the other hand, could only bring so many men across the sea and so Pompey now had the edge. He might have taken advantage of his superior numbers to cut Caesar off from his base and then stalk him carefully, without risking battle, and slowly wear him down and starve him out.
  77. Against this was the fact that the humiliated Pompey, still dreaming of the old days, was dying to defeat Caesar in open battle and show him the worth of a real general. Worse yet, the senatorial party insisted on a battle. So Pompey let himself be talked into one; after all, he outnumbered Caesar two to one.
  78. The battle was fought at Pharsalus in Thessaly on June 29, 48 B.C.
  79. Pompey was counting on his cavalry in particular, a cavalry consisting of gallant young Roman aristocrats. Sure enough, at the start of the battle, Pompey's cavalry charged round the flank of Caesar's army and might well have wreaked havoc from the rear and cost Caesar the battle. Caesar, however, had foreseen this and had placed some picked men to meet the cavalry, with instructions not to throw their lances but to use them to poke directly at the faces of the horsemen. He felt that the aristocrats would not stand up to the danger of being disfigured and he was right. The cavalry broke.
  80. With Pompey's cavalry out, Caesar's hardened infantry broke through the more numerous but much softer Pompeian line and Pompey, unused to handling armies in trouble, fled. In one blow, his entire military reputation was destroyed and it was quite clear that it was Caesar, not Pompey, who was the real general.
  81. Pompey fled to the one Mediterranean land that was not yet entirely under Roman control‑Egypt. But Egypt was in the midst of a civil war at the time. The boy‑king, thirteenyear‑old Ptolemy XII, was fighting against his older sister, Cleopatra, and the approach of Pompey created a problem. The politicians supporting young Ptolemy dared not turn Pompey away and earn the undying enmity of a Roman general who might yet win out. On the other hand, they dared not give him refuge and risk having Caesar support Cleopatra in revenge.
  82. So they let Pompey land‑and assassinated him.
  83. And that was the end of Pompey, at the age of fifty‑six.
  84. Up to the age of forty‑two he had been uniformly successful; nothing he tried to do failed. After the age of fortytwo he had been uniformly unsuccessful; nothing he tried to do succeeded.
  85. What happened at the age of forty‑two? What circumstance took place in the interval represented earlier in the article by the line of asterisks that might "explain" this. Well, let's go back and fill in that line of asterisks.
  87. ***********************
  88. We are back in 64 BC.
  89. Pompey is in Jerusalem, curious about the queer religion of the Jews. What odd things do they do besides celebrate a Sabbath? He began collecting information.
  90. There was the Temple, for instance. It was rather small and unimpressive by Roman standards but was venerated without limit by the Jews and differed from all other temples in the world by having no statue of a god or goddess inside. It seemed the Jews worshiped an invisible god.         I
  91. "Really?" said the amused Pompey.
  92. Actually, he was told, there was an innermost chamber in the Temple, the Holy of Holies, behind a veil. No one could ever go beyond the veil but the high priest, and he could only do so on the Day of Atonement. Some people said that the Jews secretly worshiped an ass's head there, but of course, the Jews themselves maintained that only the invisible presence of God was in that chamber.
  93. Pompey, unimpressed by superstition, decided there was only one way of finding out. He would look inside this secret chamber.
  94. The high priest was shocked, the Jews broke into agonized cries of dismay, but Pompey was adamant. He was curious and he had his army all around him. Who could stop him? So he entered the Holy of Holies.
  95. The Jews were undoubtedly certain that he would be struck by lightning or otherwise destroyed by an offended God, but he wasn't.
  96. He came out again in perfect health. He had found nothing, apparently, and nothing had happened to him, apparently.
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