His Rise to Power
In the lands of Pontus and Armenia Minor (northern Anatolia- present day Turkey) a king would arise from a long line of rulers that had stood diametrically opposed to the emerging power of Rome. In the year 120 B.C., Mithridates VI would rise to be king of an empire that would once again challenge the supremacy of the known world from the ever tightening grasp of Roman influence. In time, Mithridates would take the title, “the Great” or Megas and would also be known as Eupator Dionysius. The title, “Eupator” means, “born of a noble father” and his connection to the god of wine and revelry, Dionysius (Bacchus-Roman), is evident.
To understand the opposition Mithridates VI felt towards Rome we must explore his early roots, ancestry, and his rise to power as a influential king. Mithridates was a prince of Persian and Greek Macedonian ancestry. He claimed descent from the Persian King Darius I, and was descended from the generals and kings of Alexander the Great: Antigonus I Monophthalmus, Seleucus I Nicator, and Regent, Antipater (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mithridates_VI_of_Pontus). Mithridates was raised in the Kingdom of Pontus and had direct ties with the Seleucid Kingdom. As royalty, he would grow up in the courts of Pontus, learn how to dictate and rule an empire, but most importantly to hold onto power and resist all influence of the perceived threat and enemy of Rome.
The previous ruler and king, Mithridates V, would be assassinated by poison at a banquet in 120 B.C. in the city of Sinope, the same place where Mithridates VI was born, and the kingdom would pass to Mithridates VI and his brother Mithridates Chrestus. However, they were both too young to rule and the throne would be temporarily led by their mother, Laodice VI as regent. She would rule as regent from 120-116 B.C. (perhaps to 113 B.C.) and it became known that she favoured Mithridates Chrestus over his brother Mithridates, and so Mithridates escaped his mother, (whom he felt desired to kill him) and went into hiding.
Between the years 116-113 B.C. history shows us that Mithridates returned to Pontus, and in a series of events was hailed as “King” by the people which was a challenge to his mother and brother who had been ruling as co-regent. Through this grab for power, Mithridates was able to usurp the throne, and threw both his mother and brother into prison and both were shown clemency. Later, Mithridates mother Laodice VI would die of natural causes in prison and his brother (Mithridates Chrestus) would also die, however it is not clear if this was a natural death or an execution. Thus, Mithridates VI would finally stand alone as the sole ruler and king of Pontus. He gave both his mother and brother a royal funeral, and following this took his older sister (of 16 years), also named Laodice, as his wife to preserve the royal bloodlines and to insure the succession of legitimate children which was a common practice among Persian rulers and found among the dynasties of the Seleucid and Ptolemies. His ideals soon became clear, Mithridates VI, now king of Pontus and a vast kingdom, desired to make his empire the dominant force to reckon with in the Black Sea region and the Anatolia. Time would soon tell.
His Obsession with Poison
Perhaps because of the common use of poison as a tool for assassination, and because the King Mithridates V was murdered by poison, Mithridates VI soon developed a paranoia that he to might one day succumb to such a fate. The understanding that a king of much power and influence has enemies, is always a clear notion. With the fact that in those times, slipping poison into food or drink was a reality that had been one of the choice methods of assassination for thousands of years, Mithridates began a rigid program to educate himself on every form of poison. It was common for him to mix different herbs together, develop lethal poisons and then take small, self-administered, non-lethal doses in order to ensure that his immune system would be able to survive. He studied everything he could get his hands on, and consulted some of his most trusted advisers. Such was his desire to avoid death by poison, that it became a serious fear of his in an attempt to make sure he was immune to every type and consistency of poison. In our present day, this practice has become known as, Mithridatism which is a system that is practiced in parts of the world and in unique fields, such as snake handlers or people who work with poisons of a special nature.
His War with Rome
With a desire to expand his kingdom, Mithridates set out on a series of conquests that would eventually land him in the very lap of fighting Rome. Mithridates subjugated the people of Colchis and then clashed with the Scythian King Palacus in the Pontic steppe. Other kingdoms surrendered to Mithridates, such as the Crimea and Bosporan kingdoms in return for Mithridates to protect them against the Scythian power. Within time, and after a number of engagements where the Scythian’s lost numerous battles with heavy losses, they submitted to Mithridates and accepted him as their overlord. The next step, however would be crucial and lead directly to confrontation with Rome.
After great success in the Crimea, the young Mithridates turned his attention to deeper in the Anatolia region and the rise of the Roman Republic which was nearing him. Close to the borders of Mithridates VI’s kingdom, reigned King Nicomedes III of Bithynia who was steering his kingdom to an anti-Pontic alliance with Rome which Mithridates clearly did not approve of. In past years, Nicomedes III and Mithridates VI had coexisted with a shaky agreement, but now there was a fall out between the two kings over the area of Cappadocia, and Nicomedes III lost a number of hard fought battles. Reeling from the defeats and feeling the pressure from Mithridates VI’s ever encroaching threat, King Nicomedes III of Bithynia had no choice but to call on the assistance of his fostering alliance with Rome. For Mithridates VI, this left him no choice but to engage head on with Rome, if he ever desired to continue expansion.
Thus, Roman legions would intervene, on behalf of Nicomedes III twice during the conflicts of 95-92 B.C., forcing Mithridates VI to a standstill and bolstering up defenses so the Pontic king could not expand. The next ruler of Bithynia was Nicomedes VI and Mithridates planned and conspired to overthrow the new ruler, but he failed and the Bithynia ruler, at the behest of his Roman advisers, declared war against Pontus. At this time, however, Rome was entangled in the mess of the Social War, and the Italian countryside was a slew of inner fighting, murder, and pillage for dominance and control. During this time only two Roman legions remained in Macedonia and with a coordinated invasion alongside an army from Bithynia, they attacked the Kingdom of Pontus in 89 B.C.
However, things would quickly swing in Mithdirates’ favour as he would trounce and defeat the Roman-allied army and drive them out swiftly. In the wake of defeat, the victorious armies of Mithridates were welcomed into Anatolia where they conquered it in full in the year 88 B.C.. Mithridates then set out upon orchestrating a massacre of all Roman and Italian settlers who remained in Anatolian cities wiping out the entire Roman presence, 80,000 in all. This incident would forever be known as the “Asiatic Vespers” and the Romans would respond by raising a large invasion force.
Mithridates set himself up as the champion of Hellenism and having absorbed Greeks and Ionian Greeks into much of his newly expanded kingdom, made himself appear as the saviour of Greek ideals and life. Thus, Mithridates would be accepted by Athens who would defect to his side and welcome him into mainland Greece. During this time, Mithridates also sped up his vicious war against Rome, even bringing it to the island of Rhodes where he besieged the colony with a war fleet. With this, the neighbouring kingdom of Armenia, King Tigranes the Great, established an alliance with Mithridates by marrying one of his daughters, and would later become instrumental in the coming war with Rome.
The First Mithridatic War would see the Roman General Lucius Cornelius Sulla win a number of decisive victories over Mithridates VI and force the Pontic king out of Greece altogether. However, after receiving troubling news about anarchy in Rome from his political enemy Gaius Marius, Sulla would make a hasty treaty with Mithridates and leave for Italy. The Roman forces which remained, would be commanded by a man named, Lucius Licinius Murena who would by the year 83 B.C. pursue the war with Mithridates (out of account that Mithridates rallied his forces and posed another threat) since the Senate had never ratified Sulla’s treaty to begin with. This would usher in the Second Mithridatic War which would see the seasoned forces of Mithridates destroy the “green” legions of Murena before a shaky peace was reached in the year 81 B.C..
When Necomedes VI died nearly a decade later, he left in his will his desire to bequest his kingdom over to Rome. For Mithridates VI this would be the worse situation the Pontic king could ever conceive of as he raised a large army and attacked again prompting the Third Mithridatic War which would last from 73-63 B.C.. Yet, for Mithridates and his long arduous record with fighting Rome, this would be his last war.
First Rome responded with sending armies under General Lucullus and then finally under Pompey who would drive deeply into the Pontic Kingdom and destroy all resistance by 63 B.C., thus ending the war on a large scale. Mithridates VI, however, would survive for a little while longer as he fled with a small army to Colchis (modern Georgia) to the lands of the Crimea. There, with his eldest son, Mithridates VI made plans to assemble a great and vast army to once again march against Pompey and the Romans and take back his captured kingdom. Yet, soon his eldest son rejected the plan and refused to march to war, Mithridates had his son killed and seized control of the Bosporan kingdom. He sought to raise forces but would struggle as inner civil war among his family and Roman exiles within his army would rage. Finally, Mithridates would withdraw in shame to the citadel in Panticapaeum where he was surrounded by his enemies who sought to overthrow him. With no way out, and the great king and enemy of Rome sensing his end, he decided on his terms to take the noble way out…suicide. However, his years of strengthening his immune system against the use of poison would prove to be his greatest enemy in his final moments as the despondent and furious king attempted to take his life by poison but found it was to no avail. Thus, ordering a mercenary to run him through with his sword, Mithridates committed suicide and brought to an end the great Pontic Kingdom and its ruler who hated Rome. In the end, ironically, it would be a representative of Rome, the champion Pompey Magnus, who would take the body of Mithridates VI, and bury him in the rock-cut tombs of his ancestors in Amasya, which had been the old capital of the kingdom of Pontus, and the heart of Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysius’ kingdom.
By: Peter J. Fast