Book Review: Pompey, Rising Sun by Robert Allen Johnson

“Oh you hard hearts, you cruel men of Rome. Knew you not Pompey? Many a time and oft have you climbed up to the walls and battlements, to towers and windows, yea, to chimney-tops, your infants in your arms, and there have sat the live-long day, with patient expectation, to see great Pompey pass the streets of Rome. And when you saw his chariot but appear, have you not made an universal shout. That Tiber trembled underneath her banks to hear the replication of your sounds made in her concave shores?”
This was my first perception of the name of Pompey Magnus, not from a history book or course, but from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, which I read in high school. As in history, the Pompey mentioned in these verses is vastly eclipsed by the mighty Julius Caesar, which is understandable since Caesar clearly defeated Pompey when the time came for their final confrontation at Pharsalus. Robert Allen Johnson, however, has set out to give Pompey Magnus his due, and he succeeds admirably in this first novel of a series of three, Magnus, Rising Sun.
The novel is told from the point of view of Pompey’s only surviving son, Sextus, now a fugitive and a pirate, outlawed and expelled from Rome after the triumph of Caesar and his faction. The action starts with Pompey’s service as a duplicarius at age 16 under the command of his father Pompey Strabo. Pompey Stabo was a brilliant general but violent and cruel and hated by his troops. Pompey seeks to learn from his father’s genius, but also vows not to repeat his mistakes. By his own personal popularity among his father’s troops he manages to quell a mutiny instigated by agents of Pompey Strabo’s enemy, Cornelius Cinna, which threatens to destroy both his father and himself.
At this time, Rome was bitterly divided into two factions, one following seven-time Consul Gaius Marius, and the other supporting his arch rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla, having been elected Consul, is away fighting Mithradates, Rome’s enemy in Pontus. The factions correspond roughly to Populares and Optimates, representing the people and the aristocracy respectively, although it’s really not that simple. Marius, demented in his old age, is elected Consul for the 7th time and precedes to wreak havoc in Rome. Pompey, at first, joins the Marian cause under Cinna, but, perceiving that he is not trusted and that Cinna wants him assassinated, he flees to his native Picenum, and raises a legion of his own, with the intention of offering his services to Sulla when the Consul returns from Pontus. He is successful in battle against the Roman Consul Papirius Carbo, and one of the legions of the other Consul, Scipio, banish their general and join Pompey, giving him two of his own legions.
Pompey’s support is warmly welcomed by Sulla, but Sulla’s support comes with a heavy price-he is forced to divorce his beloved wife Antistia and marry Sulla’s step-daughter, Aemilia, seven months pregnant with her first husband’s child. Sulla institutes a reign of terror in Rome that rivals or exceeds that of the late Marius.
Sulla then appoints Pompey governor of Sicily, a remarkable responsibility for a 24 year old man. He rapidly clears Sicily of the corrupt Marian forces, and wins their loyalty. Then he proceeds to capture the fugitive Consul Papirius Carbo, whom he personally escorts to Rome in chains. A show trial is arranged that would have made Stalin smile. Carbo is induced to co-operate upon Sulla’s promise that he would be banished rather than executed, but upon completion of the trial he is put to death. Pompey realizes that Sulla is using him and that he would be a fool to trust him. Sulla then assigns Pompey to Africa to deal with the forces of Ahenobarbus. Pompey succeeds in annihilating Ahenobarbus’ forces and returns to Rome insisting on a triumph, which Sulla grudgingly allows.
Johnson’s book is a gem, completely absorbing from beginning to end. Only two minor nitpicks-when writing fiction of the Roman republic I would never use dates like 84. The Romans of the time had no notion of B.C. or A.D. (If anyone ever offers to sell you a Roman denarius marked 54 B.C. don’t buy it, it’s a fraud!) Also, Johnson mentions Carthage several times. Carthage did not exist at the time, it was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C. and not re-established until the reign of Augustus. He should have said “the ruins of Carthage.”


  1. Thanks so much for the review, Robin! I’m glad you enjoyed the first book in the series and I even appreciate the nitpicks. It shows how much of a Roman history lover you truly are! Enjoy Triumphator and stayed tuned for what’s next. By the way, I can’t wait to read Death of Carthage!

  2. Thank You Robert. I have finished Pompey Triumphator and plan to write a review of it. I hope you enjoy the Death of Carthage.


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