Cicero and Pompey: A Friendship, Visualized

This is a final project done for CL406, New Approaches to Cicero, at Boston University during the Spring 2019 semester.

For this project, I looked at the the relationship between Cicero and Pompey through the end of the republic. Specifically, the period of time between 55 B.C., when Pompey and Crassus were joint consuls; and 48 B.C., when Pompey loses the battle of Pharsalus to Caesar and is subsequently killed following his escape. This interval sees the inevitable buildup and ultimate end to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Although the conflict concludes with Cicero in Pompey’s camp, his allegiance was no foregone conclusion. Using what we have of Cicero’s correspondence through these years, I aimed to visualize the path leading Cicero to Pompey’s camp, helping to show how Cicero came to reconcile his desire for the Republic’s restoration and the knowledge that it would necessarily crumble. With this in mind, I built several timelines showing how letters of Cicero’s that reference Pompey reflect the state of their relationship. Each timeline displays a bar for each letter included. Each letter is placed in either a positive row, a neutral row, or a negative row (each row also uses a different color). Hovering over a bar will tell you which letter it represents, who wrote it, and to whom it was addressed. When a bar is clicked, it opens the letter in a new tab. The code, raw data and methodology can be found here. Enjoy!

55 B.C.E.:

In the year 55 B.C.E., Pompey is mentioned in six of Cicero’s letters. This is the year that Pompey and Crassus are joint consuls, and these letters don’t indicate any great concern by Cicero about politics. In fact, Cicero writes very positively about Pompey, mentioning his affection for him and even how he looks forward to meeting with him (Fam. 1.8; Att. 4.10). He feels confident enough to ask favors of Pompey for his brother, Quintus, and writes at length about the games Pompey sponsored for the dedication of his theater (Q. fr. 2.7; Fam. 7.1). Cicero doesn’t associate Pompey with the failing political system in his letters this year, and is mostly happy to be in Pompey’s good graces.

54 B.C.E.:

There are sixteen letters in 54 B.C.E., and they represent a thematic departure from those in the proceeding or even following years: the bulk of Cicero’s letters referencing Pompey are mostly about Caesar—and in 54, Cicero is thrilled to be friends with Caesar. Unlike 54, there are one or two explicit mentions of displeasure regarding Pompey’s behavior (Att. 4.18; Fam. 1.9); however, Cicero is still confident that he holds favor with the triumvir. For example, he is pleased to relate to Quintus that his friends need not worry about any political turbulence in the upcoming years because Cicero is in good graces with both leading men (Q. fr. 2.14). However, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, Julia, dies in 54 which undoubtedly weakened their bond. It’s evident that tensions are rising, because Cicero now begins to show building anxiety about the state of Rome’s political instability (Q. fr. 2.14; Att. 4.15; Q. fr. 3.7). Undeniably, Cicero did his best to court both men who would inevitably force him to choose sides—and these letters reflect that. But, as is evident from his letters in later years, he is likely already thinking about maintaining peace. By maintaining friendships on both fronts, he is trying to position himself where he can exert his efforts most efficiently towards reconciling Caesar’s and Pompey’s differences.

53 and 52 B.C.E.:

The years 53 and 52 B.C.E. only see Pompey referenced in two of Cicero’s letters (one in each year). In 53, Crassus is killed during his campaign in the east, further upsetting the balance of power. The only mention of Pompey that we have from Cicero’s letters is in a letter Cicero wrote to his ex-slave Tiro where he describes hosting a cheerful Pompey in his home (Fam. 16.10). And, while we only have one letter from 52, it is fairly bitter towards Pompey. Cicero writes to his friend, Titus Fadius, consoling him because he has been exiled on Pompey’s behalf (Fam. 5.18). In this same year, Pompey has a hand in exiling Milo, whom Cicero defends in his pro Milone, for murdering Clodius. While Cicero seems to be decently active through these years, perhaps he is hesitant to discuss political matters openly in his correspondence while Pompey is either staying with him, or opposite him in legal battles.

51 B.C.E.:

In 51 B.C.E., the year of Cicero’s proconsulship in Cilicia, there are twenty-one mentions of Pompey through Cicero’s correspondence; nearly half of them are positive. After conferring again with Pompey in person in May, Cicero’s confidence in the man is reinforced (Att. 5.7). Yet, as the year goes on, Cicero more frequently worries about the potential conflict between Pompey and Caesar. He writes often about the senate’s desire to take a stance about either renewing Caesar’s governorship or allowing him to be elected consul, but Pompey delays them (Att. 5.12; Fam. 8.9; Att. 5.18; Fam. 8.8). Cicero is worried that Pompey will leave Rome—perhaps for a lucrative stint in Spain—without relieving this tension (Fam. 3.8). At the same time, Cicero grows heavily anxious because he is absent from Rome and can only learn about developments through his friends like Atticus or Caelius and only as fast as letters are delivered (Att. 5.18).

50 B.C.E.:

Although Cicero feels tensions rising, there are many letters in 50 B.C.E. in which Pompey is mentioned with high praise. Some mentions are generally positive, whereas others come off more strongly. He describes how he grows fonder of Pompey every day; how he, as a man, is wholly Pompey’s; and even how he is willing to die for Pompey (Fam. 2.13; Att. 6.2; Fam. 2.15). But, the question of Caesar’s return still looms over the republic. Cicero worries that war is imminent when Pompey proclaims that Caesar cannot come home without giving up his army and province (Fam. 8.14). When Caesar refuses to lay down his arms, Cicero becomes worried that Pompey will leave the city (Att. 6.8). Although he has tried to be friendly with both aggressors, he resolves to side with Pompey; however, he sees merit in giving Caesar what he wants if it means peace (Att. 7.1; Att. 7.6). Towards the end of the year, Cicero throws himself into seeking reconciliation and grows mad that Pompey is no longer considering peace (Att. 7.8). Fearing for the state of the republic, Cicero projects an image of somebody resolutely behind Pompey at the end of 50, but the struggle of losing the republic will keep him wavering even through 49.

49 B.C.E.:

In 49 B.C.E. there are an outstanding seventy-nine mentions of Pompey throughout Cicero’s letters—over half of the material scrutinized for this project. This is the year in which Caesar and Pompey finally come into real conflict. As Caesar returns to Italy, Pompey prepares to flee; Cicero is highly critical of Pompey’s desire to take flight and constantly worries that Pompey has no tangible plan (Att. 7.10-13). Through February and March—just two months—Cicero sends nearly fifty letters where he alternates between being angry with Pompey for leaving, optimistic that Caesar and Pompey may try and reach an agreement, certain that he should be devoted to Pompey and his cause, or sure that he needs to keep his head down lest he get further involved. His fluctuations in mood are only exacerbated by the fact that he spends all of his days waiting for news out of Brundisium, where Caesar and Pompey are likely to meet if Pompey doesn’t escape Italy in time. While Cicero thinks about whether or not to join up with Pompey, he remains very careful not to offend Caesar. Through all of his letters, Cicero often comes back to a debt he perceives he owes to Pompey for helping him out of exile in 57 and is ultimately unable to let that go. Although he lacks confidence in Pompey’s ability to win, Cicero eventually resolves to seek him out and join up with his forces. Once he departs, his letters about Pompey become much less frequent.

48 B.C.E.:

Cicero does not write many letters about Pompey in 48 B.C.E., the year Pompey loses to Caesar and dies. The few at the beginning of the year are sent to Cicero by Caesar’s men urging him not to join Pompey (Fam. 8.17; Fam. 9.9). After Caesar wins the battle of Pharsalus in August, Pompey flees and is ultimately killed. Cicero praises Pompey for his virtue and for being a man of principle, but he inevitably just wants to go home and ensure the safety of his family (Att. 11.6; Att. 11.7). Some of Pompey’s remaining supporters urged him to regroup with them in Africa, but he was no longer interested.


Cicero, as a historical figure, is often judged harshly for his apparent inability to choose sides or to stand up for what he believed in. Having read through so many of his letters from such a critical period at the end of the republic, I think that such an assessment is unfair. These letters that we view Cicero through are effectively an abundance of his personal thoughts which were often meant only to be shared with his best friend: Atticus. Cicero was ultimately concerned with preserving the republic; his frantic and often anxiety-riddled letters reflect that. On paper, he was with Pompey to the end—even if he often felt unhappy about it. He certainly tried to play nice with both Pompey and Caesar, but his letters show he did this because he was interested in putting himself in a position where he could work towards peace, not because he sought political capital. He was undoubtedly and rightfully terrified of the imminent civil war: both sides were trying to pull him in, and he did not want either man to win if it meant the end of Rome as he knew it. Nevertheless, he made what he imagined were his best choices—whether they were, or not.