MITHRADATES VI Eupator Dionysos (r. 120-63 BCE), last king of Pontus, the Hellenistic kingdom that emerged in northern Asia Minor in the early years of the 3rd century BCE (Figure 1). He is noted primarily for his opposition to Rome. Of the three wars he fought against Rome, the first (89-85 BCE), in which his armies swept through Asia Minor and Greece, eventually only meeting defeat at the hands of Sulla, identified him as Rome’s most determined foreign enemy since Hannibal. His massacre in this war of tens of thousands of Roman and Italian civilians (the ‘Asian Vespers’) helped to establish his legendary notoriety as an exotic and cruel Oriental, a formidable but ultimately unsuccessful challenger to Rome’s Mediterranean supremacy.
Mithradates’ ancestors may well have been an offshoot of the Achaemenid royal family (Bosworth and Wheatley, 1998). They were certainly Iranian nobility who took part in the Persian colonization of Asia Minor, and in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE ran a fiefdom on the shore of the Propontis (the Sea of Marmara) and western end of the south coast of the Black Sea. Shortly before 300 BCE the family became involved in intrigues at the court of Antigonos and they were forced to flee further east into Paphlagonia, where, accompanied by six knights in a manner surely meant to recall the circumstances in which Darius became king of Persia, Mithradates I Ktistes founded what came to be known as the kingdom of Pontus and the line of Pontic kings (Diod. 20.111.4). Greek-style diplomacy, including a consistent policy of intermarriage with the Seleucids, established the kingdom’s Hellenistic credentials, but there was no attempt to hide the family’s Iranian origins: indeed it was precisely the mixture of Greek and Persian background that Mithradates Eupator later publicized, when he claimed (with some justification) to be descended from Cyrus and Darius, and (less convincingly) from Alexander the Great and Seleukos (Justin, Epit. 38.8.1). Stories of his birth and early life—comets, lightning, riding a dangerous horse, retreat to the wilderness for seven years—reflect this mixed Persian and Macedonian lineage (McGing, 1986, pp. 43-46).
Eupator was about 13 years old when his father, Mithradates V Euergetes, was assassinated in 120 BCE. Once in sole control of his kingdom, having murdered his mother and brother (App., Mith. 112), he first turned his attention to conquest on the northern side of the Black Sea (Justin, Epit. 37.3.1, 38.7.4-5), where his grandfather Pharnakes had established diplomatic links in the first half of the 2nd century (IosPE I2 402; IG Bulg. I2 40). An opportunity for military intervention presented itself when the city of Chersonesos, under intense pressure from its barbarian neighbors, invited Mithradates to become its protector (Strabo, 7.4.3 C309). The resulting campaigns of his general Diophantos against the Scythians—recorded in a long inscription (IosPE I 2 352)—ended with the conquest of the Crimea and annexation of the Bosporan kingdom of Paerisades (Strabo, 7.4.4 C310). This was the beginning of a highly successful policy that, by the time of his first clash with Rome, left Mithradates master of a network of subjects, allies, and friends incorporating almost the entire circuit of the Black Sea. While there were material benefits from this Euxine ‘empire’—the annual tribute from the Crimea and adjoining territories was 180,000 measures of corn and 200 talents of silver (Strabo. 7.4.6 C311)—the major significance of the Black Sea for Mithradates was military manpower. Time and again the literary sources emphasize the Euxine composition of his armies (e.g., App., Mith. 15; 69). Without this resource he could not have challenged Rome.
Whether he actually wanted to challenge Rome or was, rather, a compliant Hellenistic king dragged unwillingly into conflict by Bithynian and/or Roman aggression, is a matter of scholarly disagreement (e.g., McGing, 1986; Strobel, 1997). It would be difficult, however, to deny that he had some sort of imperial ambitions in Asia Minor. His first act in the area was to arrange, through his agent Gordios, the murder of his brother-in-law Ariarathes VI of Cappadocia (Justin, Epit. 38.1.1), with the purpose, presumably, of ensuring that his sister Laodice would be able to control the kingdom more easily as regent for her own young son, Ariarathes VII. His next major policy decision was the invasion and seizure of Paphlagonia (ca. 105 BCE), undertaken in cooperation with Nikomedes III of Bithynia (Justin, Epit. 37-38). At least initially, neither paid any attention to Roman demands for their withdrawal: Nikomedes placed his son on the throne, and Mithradates occupied part of Galatia. The alliance with Bithynia collapsed shortly thereafter, when Nikomedes invaded Cappadocia and married Laodike. Mithradates expelled them both, murdered his nephew Ariarathes VII, and installed his own eight-year-old son as Ariarathes IX, with Gordios as regent (Justin, Epit. 38.1). Mithradates’ diplomatic mission to Rome in about 101, just as Marius was winning great victories over the Teutones, Amrones, and Cimbri, may show him in more compliant form.
The 90s BCE, a period of chronological difficulty (de Callataÿ, 1997, pp. 186-214), are witness to firmer Roman action in Asia. In 99 or 98 Rome’s leading general Gaius Marius led an embassy to the east and issued a stern warning to Mithradates: “be stronger than the Romans or obey their commands in silence” (Plut., Mar. 31.2-3). He seems to have heeded Marius’s warning for a time. He reacted with diplomacy alone when Nikomedes, determined on causing trouble, put forward a false pretender to the Cappadocian throne. This forced a counterclaim, through Gordios, as to the legitimacy of Ariarathes IX (Justin, Epit. 38.2.5). When the Senate ordered the complete evacuation of Pontic and Bithynian forces from these lands, Mithradates complied, and had to stomach the loss of all Pontic influence in Cappadocia, when the ineffective Ariobarzanes was declared king. It was at this moment in 95 BCE that Eupator began to mint coins in earnest, with the first issues of his dated royal tetradrachms. If this was a hint of future defiance, it was soon followed by clearer recalcitrance: when Tigranes came to the throne of Armenia in the same year, Mithradates married his daughter Kleopatra to him and got him to invade Cappadocia and expel Ariobarzanes (or possibly, prevent him from taking his throne). The Senatorial response, in the past a mostly desultory diplomacy when it came to the intrigues of the Anatolian kings, was uncharacteristically forceful: the praetorian governor of Cilicia, C. Cornelius Sulla, was ordered to restore, or install, Ariobarzanes; and he did so at the head of an army which met opposition from Cappadocians, Armenians, Gordios, and even Mithradates’ own general, Arkhelaos (Plut., Sulla 5; App., Mith. 57; Front., Strat. 1.5.18). While this may have stopped short of direct military defiance by Mithradates, it was something very close. The message from Rome must have been clear: Mithradates could have been under no illusions that, if at a future date he attempted to use military force in Asia Minor, he would encounter Roman military opposition. So when, probably in 91, he again sent armies to annex both Bithynia and Cappadocia, no doubt taking advantage of the Social War in Italy, his ambitious aggression and readiness to defy Rome, are revealed. The Senate despatched Manius Aquillius at the head of an allied army to restore the kings, but he overstepped his orders and forced Nikomedes IV of Bithynia to invade Pontus, wishing, Appian says (Mith. 11), to stir up a war. Aquillius’s ineptitude in the negotiations that followed enabled Mithradates to present himself as the innocent victim of Roman and Bithynian aggression. In 89 BCE Aquillius got his war, but could hardly have foreseen the consequences. Mithradates crushed and scattered the allied and Roman forces facing him; he then occupied Bithynia, and his armies fanned out across Asia Minor; once master of Asia, he invaded and overran much of Greece too (Sherwin-White, 1984, pp. 121-48). These do not look like the actions of a king taken by surprise and forced reluctantly into a military struggle.
At the beginning of this first war with Rome, Mithradates had two years to advance his cause almost unchecked, while the Senate sorted out its problems with the Italian allies. In this time the limited resistance he encountered was local, and most of it easily overcome; his only substantial rebuff was his failure to capture Rhodes (App., Mith. 24-25). However, there was more to his success than the absence of a Roman army (although that must have been a powerful incentive for waverers to take his side): he seems to have been welcomed at such places as Kos, Magnesia, Ephesus, and Mytilene; and when he ordered the famous massacre of Romans and Italians in 88, the Greeks of Asia were on the whole obligingly enthusiastic (App., Mith. 22-23). Mithradates undoubtedly exploited the widespread dislike of Rome in Asia (Kallet-Marx, 1995, pp. 138-48), but was in himself an attractive and convincing champion. On one side, his royal Persian background gave him great prestige amongst an Anatolian population heavily influenced by Iranian culture; and he was not slow to behave like his Achaemenid forbears. He gave all his sons Persian names; he kept a harem and appointed eunuchs to positions of power and responsibility; he offered sacrifices on mountaintops in the grand manner of the Persian kings at Pasargadae (App., Mith. 66, 70); he organized his empire into satrapies (App., Mith. 21-22). He also came with a leading reputation as a civilized benefactor of the Greek world (McGing, 1986, pp. 88-108). Dedications on Delos demonstrate the high regard in which he was held there and at Athens; he competed in equestrian games at Chios and Rhodes; he cultivated Greek learning, and his court, which in most respects was structured on standard Hellenistic lines and in its senior levels was manned largely by Greeks, became a center for philosophers, poets, historians, doctors; his coins depicted a new Alexander; and militarily he had already won great victories for the protection of the Black Sea Greeks. When faced with a choice between this proven winner and a very distant Rome, many of the cities of Asia Minor must have found the king of Pontus a good option. So too did many Greeks of the mainland, where, as in Asia, any opposition was fairly swiftly overcome. Astonishingly, given their consistent policy of loyalty to Rome for many generations, the Athenians went over willingly to Mithradates’ side: he was mint magistrate at Athens in 87/86 and may well have been Eponymous Archon the year before (Habicht, 1997, pp. 303-21).
When Sulla landed in Greece with five legions in the summer of 87, all Mithradates’ successes proved illusory. His support rapidly deserted him, and he found himself besieged in Athens, which fell to Sulla’s forces on 1 March 86. The three main Pontic army groups then came together for the decisive battle of the war: at Chaironeia Sulla triumphed, and a little later at Orchomenos he destroyed another Pontic army dispatched from Asia. This was the end of the war in Greece. In Asia Minor Mithradates’ supporters, willing and forced, all now realized that they were backing the loser, and Pontic control began to disintegrate. Mithradates’ brutal treatment of the individuals and cities that deserted his cause merely hastened the end. After further defeat at the hands of the Roman general Fimbria, he accepted the lenient terms offered by Sulla, which amounted to little worse than a return to the pre-war status quo. Having devastated Asia and Greece, and murdered thousands of Romans and Italians, he was lucky, as Sulla’s troops complained, to get off so lightly. Terms may have been agreed at the Peace of Dardanos in 85, but many Romans must have suspected there was unfinished business with the king of Pontus.
In 83 and 82, L. Licinius Murena, whom Sulla had left in charge of Asia with two legions, launched a series of raids into Pontus that have come to be called the Second Mithradatic War (App., Mith. 64-66). When Mithradates finally responded by inflicting a heavy defeat on Murena, the stage was set for another major conflagration in Asia. However, Mithradates declined the opportunity: clearly he was not ready to challenge Rome again, and Sulla called off Murena, thus bringing an end in 81 to this particular round of hostilities. Eupator’s subsequent determination to set down in writing what had been agreed verbally at Dardanos (App., Mith. 67) may signify a genuine attempt to regularize his relations with Rome. At any rate, with one of his armies suffering a heavy defeat against the Achaian tribes in the northeast corner of the Black Sea, and with Cilicia designated as the province of P. Servilius Vatia, consul for 79, Mithradates was ready to agree to all Sulla’s conditions. When his second embassy to Rome arrived, however, in 78, they found Sulla had just died and the Senate was too busy to receive them. The royal anger is clear: Eupator immediately persuaded his son-in-law Tigranes of Armenia to invade Cappadocia. Tigranes did on this occasion withdraw, but the Senate realized who was behind the operation, and it is hardly surprising to find prominent Romans admitting that another war with Mithradates was looming ahead (Sallust, Hist. 1.77.8; 2.47.7 Maur.).
The immediate causes of the Third Mithradatic War (73-63 BCE) are disputed, but Appian (Mith. 70) and Sallust (Hist. 4.69 Maur.) both admit that Mithradates made no attempt to deny his responsibility for what he regarded as merely a resumption of hostilities started by the Romans. Probably in 76 or 75 he entered negotiations with the Roman rebel in Spain, Sertorius. He could not have thought that the Senate would see his treaty with Sertorius, concluded in 74, as anything other than a declaration of war. An explosion of activity in the Pontic royal mint from February 75 also points to his martial intentions (de Callataÿ, 1997, p. 46). The immediate impetus for war was probably provided by the Roman annexation of Bithynia: according to Eutropius (6.6) it was in 74 that Nikomedes IV died and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. Whether it was the realization that Mithradates would not accept Roman control of Bithynia, or that they had just got news of the Pontic-Sertorian alliance, by late 74 even the Senate knew that war was imminent: the consular provinces of Lucullus and Cotta were changed, and both consuls were dispatched to the east. In the spring of 73 Mithradates overran Bithynia and invaded the Roman province of Asia. The whole region had suffered terribly in the aftermath of the First Mithradatic War (Plut., Luc. 20) and there was widespread disaffection with Rome, but this time, in contrast to what happened in 89, two Roman proconsuls and an army awaited Mithradates’ onslaught. He made his main objective the capture of Cyzicus on the Propontis, but was outwitted by the superior strategy of Lucullus and forced to withdraw in disorder (App., Mith. 72-76). This was the last serious threat Mithradates could muster. Lucullus pursued him slowly across Asia Minor into Armenia, where Tigranes reluctantly received him. In 68 and 67 political conditions in Rome caused the Roman advance to stall, allowing Mithradates to slip back into Pontus and defeat the occupation forces. In 66, however, Pompey succeeded to the Mithradatic command and drove him out of Asia to his last remaining stronghold in the Crimea. Here in 63 BCE he succumbed to the treachery of his son, Pharnakes, who in negotiating with the Romans was no doubt trying to salvage something from the wreckage of his father’s empire. Rather than face the humiliation of capture, Mithradates, having failed to do away with himself by poison, asked an obliging Celtic bodyguard to run him through with a sword (App., Mith. 111).
Mithradates Eupator presented himself as heir to the empires of Darius and Alexander the Great. Imperial conquest was central to this identity. Many of the ancient sources assume that the king’s ambitions included plans from an early stage for war with Rome. While this looks very much like hindsight, it is also probable that by the mid 90s, it was clear to Mithradates that even limited aggression in Asia Minor would be thwarted by Rome; and he spent the remaining thirty years of his life trying to balance the realities that an independent king must face when confronted by a superior power. Although he failed to be stronger than Rome, his failure was a grand one, and he was long remembered as a symbol of uncompromising defiance. On hearing of his death, Pompey ordered a full royal burial at Sinope, “because he admired his great deeds and considered him the best of the kings of his time” (App., Mith. 113).
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July 15, 2009
Originally Published: July 15, 2009
Last Updated: July 15, 2009