Anon. (1581)

Historical Records

Court Records

Accounts of the Office of the Revels

The children of Pawles }
A storie of Pompey enacted in the hall on twelf nighte wheron was ymploied newe one great citty, A senate howse and eight ells of dobble sarcenet for curtens and .xviij. paire of gloves.

(Feuillerat 336)

mercers parcells
* The duble Sarcenett maid
into Curtyns and Implowid
aboute Storie of pompay plaid
by the Childring of powles/
*Thomas Skiner
Orendge taffeta sarcenet at the xs the ell
viij. ells
} iiijli.

(Feuillerat 338)

Theatrical Provenance

Performed at Whitehall Palace by the Children of Paul's on Friday 6 January 1581. Wiggins (entry 692) reports that

The audience included Queen Elizabeth I. The performance took place in the evening. Three small lights supplied by the Revels Office were stolen on the day of the performance. Sebastian Wescott was later paid £10 (comprising £6.13s.4d fee and £3.6s.8d reward), by a Privy Council warrant dated Wednesday 18 January.

Probable Genre(s)

Classical history (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The play must have depicted some portion of the life of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, usually known in English as Pompey or Pompey the Great. His life and exploits were handed down to the Renaissance by a variety of sources, especially Plutarch, Appian and Dio Cassius.

Pompey (106—48 BCE) was a military and political leader of the late Roman republic. Still in his early twenties, he obtained a number of resounding military successes in Sicily and Africa during the civil war between Sulla and Gaius Marius the younger. Because of those victories, Sulla was forced to allow him to enter Rome with the army and celebrate a triumph. He also officially granted him the title magnus (“great”). After Sulla’s abdication (79 BCE) and death (78 BCE), Pompey was sent to Spain by the Senate to defeat the army led by Quintus Sertorius, who had reorganised the Marian movement. Pompey subdued Spain and returned to Italy (71 BCE), where he joined the very last phase of the war against Spartacus and managed to share the honour of victory with Marcus Licinius Crassus. Consequentently, he celebrated his second triumph. The relentless series of his military successes, together with the menacing presence of his troops outside the city, enabled Pompey to advance directly to his first consulship in 70 BCE without having to follow the proper cursus honorum (he had not even been quaestor when he became consul for the first time).

In order to gain further popular support, Pompey proceeded to dismantle Sulla’s constitution. Subsequently, he seized another opportunity to increase his power, namely the fight against the pirates, whose raids were arousing concerns for maritime communications and Rome’s grain supply. Through the lex Gabinia of 67 BCE, Pompey gained control over the Mediterranean Sea and its coasts for 50 miles inland. With 500 ships, 20 legions and 5,000 cavalry, he defeated the pirates in a mere forty days; this umpteenth success enabled him to be entrusted with the command of the war against Mithridates VI of Pontus, whom he brilliantly defeated, thereby annexing as many as four new provinces to the republic: Bithynia et Pontus, Syria, Cilicia and Crete. He returned to Italy in 62 BCE, celebrated his third and last triumph and dismissed his armies.

However, as he was not satisfied with the Senate’s hesitations to meet some of his requests, he decided to form an unofficial political alliance with Crassus and Julius Caesar, later known as the First Triumvirate. Caesar secured the consulship for 59 BCE and the proconsulship in Gaul for the ensuing five years, while Pompey obtained the ratification of the measures he had taken in Asia and the distribution of public lands to his veterans. He also married Caesar’s daughter, Julia. Caesar’s appointment in Gaul was renewed for five more years in 55 BCE, when Pompey and Crassus became consuls; one year later, Crassus secured the governorship of Syria and Pompey that of Spain, which he ruled through legates while remaining in Rome. Crassus’s untimely death in Parthia in 53 BCE upset the political balance, leaving Pompey alone against Caesar, who was now very popular and powerful in the wake of his conquest of Gaul. Meanwhile, Julia had died in childbirth along with her baby in 54 BCE, which had broken Pompey and Caesar's family bond. Caesar later offered Pompey his grandniece Octavia as a new wife in order to strike another matrimonial alliance with his rival, but Pompey refused and in 52 BCE he married Cornelia Metella, the widow of Crassus's son and daughter of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica, one of Caesar’s sworn enemies.

Pompey then disputed Caesar’s right to hold Gaul until the end of 49 and to stand for the consulship in absentia for 48 BCE. More importantly, he would not allow Caesar to run for consul unless he relinquished his armies. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome with his troops in 49 BCE, Pompey fled to Macedonia, followed by the Senate. There, he levied a considerable army and obtained some successes against Caesar’s troops after their landing in Dyrrachium. Yet, by failing to pursue at such a critical moment for Caesar’s much smaller army, Pompey threw away the opportunity to crush them. Eventually, he let himself be led into a pitched battle at Pharsalus, where he was defeated (48 BCE). He then sought refuge in Egypt, whose independence he had always championed, but was killed by Achillas, Septimius and Salvius by order of King Ptolemy XIII, who hoped to gain favour with Caesar by murdering his rival.

References to the Play

None known.

Critical Commentary

Gair (81) suggests that the "orange double silk curtains, costing over £4 and 10 yards long, may conceivably have been used either to enclose the Senate house or perhaps the tents of Caesar and Pompey before the battle of Pharsal[us], which is likely to have figured largely in any account of Pompeius Magnus."

Cox Jensen (134) deems it "inconceivable that this drama, now lost, did not include Caesar, although it is remarkable for the focus of its title."

For What It's Worth

Pompey was a very well-known historical personality in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England, and appeared in several dramatic writings of the period, such as the anonymous Caesar's Revenge (c. 1595) and George Chapman's Caesar and Pompey (c. 1604), as well as the lost "Caesar and Pompey", "Caesar and Pompey, Parts 1 and 2". His severed head is also presented to Caesar by the Egyptians in John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's The False One (c. 1620), and he may have even figured in the lost "Ptolemy".

However, with very few exceptions, in the culture of "the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Pompey represented little more than an anti-Caesar, a figure who served as a paragon on occasions when Caesar was a model of iniquity, and a providentially necessary antagonist in the conflict which brought the republic to an end" (Cox Jensen, 94).

To be sure, in all the extant early modern English plays featuring him as a character, Pompey mainly serves as a foil for Caesar, and whenever his name appears in the title of a play, Caesar's also does.

This particular play may have therefore constituted an intriguingly unique exception to the dominant trend in making Pompey the focal point of attention, or even granting him individual treatment, although it seems highly improbable that Caesar did not make any kind of appearance.

That there was no other play in early modern England after this one to focus primarily on Pompey may even be interpreted as a sign of the fact that this performance might have been not particularly successful, and that at this point it might have become ultimately clear that Caesar was the more effective of the two heroes on stage.

It is also tantalising to wonder what kind of Pompey the audience may have encountered here, whether the glorious leader the republicans lamentably miss in Thomas Kyd's Cornelia (1594) – whose alternative title on the 1595 reprint interestingly was Pompey the Great His Fair Cornelia's Tragedy, a further demonstration of Pompey's popularity in the period – or the much more vacillating, resigned and weaker figure appearing in both Caesar's Revenge (Lovascio, 63—64) and Chapman's Caesar and Pompey (Lovascio, 92—95). Given that he is, unusually, the titular character here, he may even have been portrayed more positively, perhaps against a hostile depiction of his nemesis Caesar, especially if the play encompassed Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus and his subsequent murder.

Works Cited

Cox Jensen, Freyja. Reading the Roman Republic in Early Modern England. Leiden: Brill, 2012.
Gair, W. Reavley. The Children of Paul's: The Story of a Theatre Company, 1553—1608. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982.
Lovascio, Domenico. Un nome, mille volti. Giulio Cesare nel teatro inglese della prima età moderna. Roma: Carocci, 2015.

Site created and maintained by Domenico Lovascio, University of Genoa; updated 15 April 2017.