28 September 48 BC: Pompey is knifed to death

Aged leader’s murder makes Julius Caesar master of Rome


By the autumn of 48 BC, Pompey the Great’s ambitions were in ruins. He had been the most powerful man in Rome; but now, almost 60, he had seen it all slip away. His army smashed by rival Julius Caesar at the battle of Pharsalus, he was on the run across the Mediterranean. There was just one hope left: if he could win Egyptian support, Pompey thought, he might yet turn the war around.

On 28 September, Pompey sailed into view of the Egyptian coast. His companions, including his wife, Cornelia, were terrified that he might be betrayed, and their fears only increased when they were greeted by a small group of men in a battered fishing boat. The sea, the men explained, was not deep enough for a royal trireme. Pompey must come across to their little boat, and they would ferry him to meet the pharaoh.

At that, Pompey’s friends became even more agitated. What if the Egyptians had done a deal with Caesar? But the old general merely shrugged. He had no choice, he said, and with his wife watching nervously from their deck, he stepped onto the little boat.

The men cast off. According to the historian Plutarch, nothing was said; as they headed for the land, there was only silence. It was Pompey who broke the tension. “Aren’t you an old comrade of mine?” he asked one of the welcoming party, a former Roman soldier called

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Lucius Septimius. The latter “merely nodded, without saying anything to him or showing any friendliness”. So “the profound silence continued”.

And then the moment came. Pompey was getting to his feet, clutching one of his servant’s hands, when Septimius stabbed him from behind. More blows rained down so, Plutarch wrote: “Pompey, drawing his toga down over his face with both hands, without an act or a word that was unworthy of himself, but with a groan merely, submitted to their blows.”

The story goes that when Julius Caesar was shown his rival’s head, he wept. But historian Cassius Dio thought this was rank hypocrisy. Caesar, he wrote, “had always hated Pompey as his antagonist and rival” and “had brought on this war with no other purpose than to secure this rival’s ruin and his own supremacy”. But now Pompey was gone. Caesar was master of Rome. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

28 September 1781

In the final act of the American anti-tax rebellion, American and French forces under George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette move to surround the army of Lord Cornwallis in Yorktown, Virginia. Despite holding out heroically for days, Cornwallis eventually surrenders, and Britain reluctantly agrees to negotiate with the local insurgents.

28 September 1841

Birth at Mouilleronen-Pareds of French statesman Georges Clemenceau. Nicknamed le tigre (the tiger), Clemenceau twice served as prime minister of France, notably from 1917 to 1920.

28 September 1912

A quarter of a million men signed the Ulster Covenant and a similar number of women signed the Ulster Declaration to pledge their opposition to Irish home rule. Unionist politician Sir Edward Carson was the first man to sign up.

28 September 1928

Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin

28 September 1975: A Spaghetti House hostage crisis grips the nation

The press and police descend on a London restaurant “like a besieging army” after an armed robbery goes wrong

Late on 28 September 1975, the nine staff members at the Spaghetti House restaurant in Knightsbridge were counting up the week’s takings. The total came to around £13,000 – not a bad haul, by the standards of the time. It was then that the gunmen struck.

Three armed men burst into the restaurant, jabbing guns into the faces of the terrified restaurant employees. As the invaders led their captives down towards the basement, one staff member managed to get away. But the others – all Italians – were shoved into a tiny storeroom, crammed with tins of food. There, for the next five days, most of them remained – hostages.

At first, the police and the press assumed that the raid must be some sort of political stunt. The gunmen – a Nigerian student and two West Indian friends – claimed to be representing the Black Liberation Army, and demanded to be flown out of the country to Jamaica. In reality, however, it was simply an ordinary armed robbery, which had gone dangerously wrong.

For the next five days, the Spaghetti House was the centre of national press attention, with the police camped outside like a besieging army. Careful not to do anything that would inflame the kidnappers, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Robert Mark, allowed them a radio, some coffee and cigarettes in return for two hostages. His approach paid off: at last, on 3 October, the kidnappers cracked.


“The hostages are coming out,” their leader radioed the police just before four that morning, as the exhausted captives staggered out of the building. Needless to say, the would-be robbers were all sentenced to long stretches in prison. | Written by Dominic Sandbrook

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