This follows on from Cicero’s announcement at the end of the previous paragraph that Pompey’s ‘soft qualities’ stand out with particular clarity when compared to the behaviour of others in similar positions of power. Without naming names (ego autem nomino neminem), he goes on to imply that corruption is rife among Rome’s military leaders, who use public resources for despicable private ends: personal advancement or enrichment. Such illegal activities violate public trust and have their roots, so Cicero suggests, in an unwholesome character. Ambition and greed, he implies, run rampant in Rome’s ruling elite. The consequences are not just felt at Rome, with the embezzlement of public funds, but also in the provinces – wherever Roman armies go, they descend upon the local population (regardless whether it consists of Roman citizens or allies) like a swarm of locusts. The argument here feeds into Cicero’s promotion of Pompey: he has the qualities needed to win the hearts and minds of provincials, which is a key asset in Rome’s war against Mithridates.
In a sense, Cicero here continues the theme that was at the centre of his prosecution of Gaius Verres in 70 BC for misconduct in provincial administration, as recorded (with a considerable dose of artistic license) in his Verrine Orations. And it is tempting to read the de imperio as part of the story of Cicero, Scourge of Bad Provincial Governance or General Corruption. The problem with this is that after securing Verres’ exile, he went on to defend several people accused of provincial exploitation (Marcus Fonteius in 69, for example). The response might be that those people (unlike Verres) were innocent, but it seems more likely that Cicero was playing by the rules of the game, whereby you defend whoever asks for your help (especially if they are politically/socially prominent people), whatever you think of their personal innocence.
Still, the alleged corruption of Rome’s provincial government and the ruthless exploitation of the allies remain leitmotifs of Cicero’s argument right to the very end of the speech. He even uses the vices of his contemporaries to put Pompey’s greatness into perspective, most explicitly in § 67: quasi vero Cn. Pompeium non cum suis virtutibus, tum etiam alienis vitiis magnum esse videamus (‘as though indeed it were not obvious that Pompeius owes his greatness not to his own merits alone but also to the demerits of other men’). This ‘comparative levelling’ of Pompey’s ‘absolute’ excellence also informs the section here, and comes out most notably in § 40 when Cicero revisits the reasons for Pompey’s seemingly extraordinary speed – he implies there that the speed wasn’t extraordinary at all: Pompey simply refuses to let himself get sidetracked by the temptations that routinely slow down all the others.