The Greatest Threat to Rome: King Mithridates of Pontus

Sometimes a peripheral state can emerge on the international scene at an opportune moment and suddenly become a major power. The accession of a visionary ruler, or the temporary weakness of a neighbor, may be all that is necessary to bestow a conqueror’s momentum on a heretofore forgotten power. Perhaps this is how the Carthaginians might have seen the Romans themselves; certainly, this is how the Romans saw Mithridates VI, King of Pontus. From a minor kingdom at the fringes of the Hellenistic world, Mithridates came close to conquering Greece from the hands of the Romans. For nearly three decades he was Rome’s greatest nightmare.

Pontus was a kingdom in what is now northeastern Turkey. It had been conquered and Hellenized by Alexander the Great, and after Alexander’s death, it had largely been left to its own devices. The kingdom prospered, and occasionally expanded, without becoming involved in the affairs of great powers until Rome took control of the western portion of Asia Minor, designating it the Province of Asia.

Initially, Pontus was cordial to Rome. Its king only lived for another nine years before his assassination, and after a seven years’ regency, that king’s oldest son secured the throne as Mithridates VI. Mithridates was not hostile to Rome, but he was ambitious, and his program of expansion would inevitably lead to conflict with Rome.

Mithridates began by annexing the northern coast of the Black Sea into his kingdom, including the Crimean peninsula. So strengthened, he turned his attention back to Asia Minor, and added to his ancestors’ conquests in Cappadocia and Paphlagonia. At this phase in his career, he tried to retain good ties with Rome; in particular, he wanted Rome to accept his expansion, including the installation of his son as a child-king in Cappadocia. For its part, Rome warned Mithridates to know his place.

A few years later, Cappadocia rose in revolt, and Rome intervened, commanding Mithridates to withdraw and placing a new king on the Cappadocian throne instead. Unprepared to fight for his prerogatives, Mithridates obeyed, but planned his revenge. During the next five years, everything would change.

First of all, Mithridates’ hand was measurably strengthened by a dynastic connection to the nearby kingdom of Armenia. The outbreak of the Social War in Italy itself focused all of Rome’s attention at home, and so in 90 B.C., Mithridates took advantage of this situation by invading Cappadocia and Bithynia, his neighbor to the west. Rome sent five legions in response, and Mithridates prudently retreated.

The Romans prodded the young king of Bithynia, Nicomedes, into a retaliatory invasion of Pontus. The event miscarried; not only did Mithridates defeat the Bithynians and capture Nicomedes, but over the next year and a half, he overran all of Asia Minor to his west, handily beating even the Roman defenders. To add insult to injury, he received a generally favorable reception from the native population, and in 88 B.C., he provoked a general massacre against the Romans living in Asia.

Such was Mithridates’ reputation by now that some of the rebels in the Social War dared to hope that he might be called in to intervene on their behalf, but it was a vain hope. The rebellion had already largely been defeated, and the Romans could begin to focus their military efforts on stopping the hemorrhage in the east. The losses had spread from Asia Minor into Greece, beginning with Athens, where anti-Roman elements sought, and received, the attention of Mithridates. In 87 B.C., Lucius Cornelius Sulla went east to meet the armies of Pontus in Greece.

Archelaus, Mithridates’ general in Greece, had by far the greater number of men, but Sulla won convincingly, capturing Athens and winning two major battles in the following summer. Sulla was preoccupied with his own position at home, and offered surprisingly generous terms. As Sulla had not yet built a navy, and Mithridates dominated the Aegean, the king refused, only to accept the following year, when it became clear that he could not maintain the war for long.

Both Sulla and Mithridates were pleased with the treaty. Sulla was free to return to Rome in victory, restore his battered position at home, and begin his dominance of the Roman state. Mithridates returned to his borders before the attacks on Cappadocia and Bithynia, still enriched by his holdings on the northern coast of the Black Sea. A few unauthorized skirmishes demonstrated to Mithridates that the Romans would not leave him in peace forever, but he had a few surprises of his own in mind. Most importantly, he modernized his military, refashioning his infantry on a Roman model, both in terms of equipment and of tactics.

Ten years later, the King of Bithynia died, and left his country to Rome. Rome took advantage of this development to fight Mithridates once more, and sent Lucius Licinus Lucullus with five legions. Mithridates did not wait for an invitation. He invaded Bithynia, and laid siege to Cyzicus. The city held out, and when winter fell, logistical concerns forced Mithridates to retreat. For Mithridates, it was the beginning of a pattern.

For several years, Lucullus fought Mithridates’ forces, and consistently drove them back. Driven at last to the extreme east of Asia Minor, Mithridates prevailed upon his son-in-law, King Tigranes of Armenia, to give him sanctuary. Lucullus was not prepared to give up, and though he had no authorization to invade Armenia, he did so in 69 B.C. While his initial efforts were successful, they prompted an armed response by Parthia, and Lucullus’ legions were strained to the limit. In 68, they rebelled against Lucullus, while Mithridates took advantage of this development to return to Pontus.

The following year, Mithridates succeeded in regaining power in Pontus, while Rome replaced Lucullus with Gnaeus Pompey, who had just distinguished himself by defeating the Mediterranean pirates. Pompey proceeded methodically, first by removing the Parthian threat through diplomacy. With his back secure, he hammered at Mithridates until he had driven the king to the far side of the Black Sea. With that accomplished, he left Mithridates alone, and beat Tigranes into submission. Tigranes was allowed to keep his Armenian throne, but had to give up all conquests.

With Mithridates and Tigranes both left with only their territories outside of Asia Minor, Pompey turned his attention to the general pacification of the area. Many in Rome were unhappy with his decision to allow Mithridates to live on unchecked, but Pompey evidently felt, correctly, that the danger was past. Indeed, he felt sufficiently secure that in 64 B.C. he fought in Syria, pressing on the campaign until Jerusalem fell in 63. That same year, Mithridates lost power after his efforts to build up his strength for yet another fight led only to an uprising among his own men. It is unknown whether he killed himself, or others did the deed for him.

Mithridates VI, the most determined and resourceful foe that Rome had faced since Hannibal Barca, was dead. In one respect, he had even surpassed the Carthaginian general: Mithridates had succeeded in conquering land that Rome had annexed to itself, however briefly. The wars to defeat him had advanced the careers of Sulla and Pompey, and so played a role in the steady decline of the Republic.


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