The Pact of Misenum - 39 BC
The Pact of Misenum – 39 BC – Legend: Orange – remaining under the Senate – Yellow and Ochre: Client states – Purple: Octavian – Brown: Lepidus – Green: Mark Anthony – Blue: Sextus Pompeius – Pink: Cleopatra

Video: Octavian


Video: Octavian vs. Antony


It is barely known that, for practical reasons, one might as well attribute the end of the Roman Republic to the summer of the year 39 BC, when the triumvirs Gaius Octavius (Augustus), Mark Antony and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus negotiated a treaty with Sextus Pompey, the youngest son of the great Pompey and pirate scourge of the western Mediterranean Sea to the effect of a partitioning the Roman lands amongst themselves.

It is known as the Pact of Misenum, and its obscurity is illuminated by the fact that Wikipedia in English solely offers a stub on it, which is the reason why I link it here to the German edition.

The Place:

Capo Miseno today

Misenum was the imperial naval base for the Tyrrhenian Sea and Western Mediterranean, developed by Agrippa. Pliny the Elder was prefect of the fleet during the eruption of Mons Vesuvius in AD 79. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, apparently described the event watching from his uncle’s villa. His uncle died on this day on a rescue mission, probably due to a heart attack.

Eruption of Mons Vesuvius in AD 79

Gaius Marius had a famous villa there, which was, after his proscription, cheaply bought by Cornelia, the daughter of Sulla, who then sold it to Lucullus. [Link to source] Emperor Tiberius is said to have died there, en route to Rome.

The Background:

The Second Triumvirate had been established – distinctly from the first – by a legal act, the Lex Titia of November 43 BC, which invested its members with dictatorial powers for five years (and was duly renewed in 38 BC). They utilized the very convenient method of proscription – introduced by Sulla – to get rid of their political enemies, of which there were many. The prospective victims naturally fled – most to the camp of Brutus and Cassius but many also to Sicily to find refuge with Sextus Pompey, who provided shelter.

The triumvirs first and foremost aim was the destruction of their main opposition, led by the two most prominent assassins of Caesar, Marcus Junius Brutus and his brother-in-law Gaius Cassius Longinus, who had, after the end of the Civil War, fled to Illyria and concentrated their forces in Asia. This being the triumvirate’s priority at the moment, they chose to ignore – for the moment – Sextus Pompey, who ruled Sicily and its neighbouring islands, and concentrated on the creation of a strong navy being the most useful instrument of his power he could imagine – and he was right. With his fleet, he was able to block the all-important grain shipments from Africa Provincia to Italy and thus had the triumvirs by the throat.

Mosaic of a Roman warship

After the assassins had been beaten at Philippi and forced to commit suicide, the triumvirate’s attention turned on Sextus and Sicily, but early skirmishes not only came to no conclusive result, but they also lost Sardinia to Sextus in 40 BC. 

Meanwhile, Antony, as the possessor of the eastern provinces, was hatching the egg of a decisive campaign against the Parthian Empire, the perennial scourge on the eastern border. For this, however, he would have to raise money in the form of new taxes, a plan that drove the already starving population of the capital to revolt. Octavian was forced to give in.

An armistice and a treaty with Pompey would free a few legions from guard duty against Sicily and ensure the unimpeded grain supply to Italy. Hence, in the early summer of 39 BC, a conference near Cape Misenum in the bay of Neapolis was agreed on.

Negotiations proved tough. Sextus apparently had the idea to replace Lepidus as the third partner of the triumvirate, and complicated things by his demand to reinstate the victims of the proscriptions and allow him to keep all the slaves who had fled with their owners to Sicily.

Yet finally a consensus was reached and a pact was signed with a period of five years’ validity.

Pompey was given the possession of Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica as well as the surrounding islands. He was promised a province in Greece – historians argue whether it was the Peloponnese or Achaia, i.e. the whole Grecia Provincia, and a near future consulship together with Octavian.

Perhaps even more important for him – quite a family trait – were matters of personal possessions. He wrested from the triumvirs not only the restitution of his father’s possession – which had been confiscated – rewards for his soldiers after their eventual release – the manumission of all his slaves and the end of proscriptions and restitution of the refugees’ possessions.

The quid pro quo was the evacuation of all Italian grounds he had conquered or held occupied, restore unhindered trade to Italy, in particular, secure an unimpeded grain supply and stop his practise of providing shelter to runaway slaves.

The treaty was duly signed and stored with the Vestal Virgins but never came truly into force. It is true that during initial festivities in Rome – under the applause of the relieved burghers of the capital – Pompey plighted his three-year-old daughter Pompeia to Octavian’s nephew Marcus Claudius Marcellus, but nothing further came of it. Many refugees subsequently returned to Rome but indeed, that was pretty much all that happened – the benefits to Sextus never really materialized.

By the following year the conflict flared up again and after several years of low-level warfare, the fleet of Pompey was destroyed by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa in the Battle of Naulochus. Sextus fled to Asia Minor, was caught in Miletus, and executed without trial on the orders of Antony

The Battle of Naulochus must have looked quite like the one at Actium pictured here
The Battle of Naulochus must have looked quite like the one at Actium pictured here

This was the end of the first division of  Rome …

(© John Vincent Palatine 2019)

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