on neglected commanders of the roman world: mithridates VI

Sources Appian, Mithridatic Wars (46-50); Plutarch, Life of Sulla; Cassius Dio (30-37)

His time Mithridates’ world was a time of war, when the Roman Republic was rapidly expanding its power through military conquest and economic strong-arming. The old Greek-speaking kingdoms established by Alexander the Great’s generals, which till now had dominated the known world, were on the wane, fighting a losing battle against Rome. Mithridates ruled the kingdom of Pontus on the southern shore of the Black Sea, yet another Greek-speaking kingdom among many in the region. Though relatively small it was rich, and a perfect target of Rome’s depredations.

Background Born in 134BC. His father the King was poisoned when Mithridates was in his early teens, and after a period of hiding and exile Mithridates returned to reclaim his throne around 116BC. He was a large and powerful man, and though he spoke Greek his name was a Persian one, and he claimed descent from the old Persian kings. Learning from his father’s fate, he also developed a strong immunity to various poisons by regularly ingesting small doses.

His fight The so-called Mithridatic Wars, three of them in total, fought from 88 to 65BC. All three were concerned with regional land politics – sordid, destructive affairs with few heroes to root for. The opening events of the First Mithridatic War very much set the tone for all three: in 89BC King Nicomedes of neighbouring Bithynia, a puppet under the Romans, invaded Pontus (with Roman assistance), and though Mithridates repulsed the invasion he took revenge by orchestrating in 88BC the murder of some 80,000 Italian men, women and children in his kingdom. The lynchings were carried out all at once for maximum effect. This prompted the Romans to send in their legions, beginning a series of see-saw campaigns, with the Romans generally getting the upper hand as they advanced, then being taken by surprise as they let their guard down or withdrew. Throughout the wars Mithridates refused to let defeat grind him down, but by fleeing and raising armies again and again after his defeats he succeeded only in feeding thousands of his countrymen into the jaws of the Roman war machine. By 65BC however Mithridates had run out of luck; the Romans had defeated him yet again but this time there was nowhere to run, even his son refused to grant him refuge. When Mithridates murdered his son and tried to raise another army the people rose against him; he died shortly after.

Death and aftermath Killed in 63BC. There are two differing accounts on his death: both agree that having been surrounded he poisoned his family before attempting to poison himself, but no amount could kill him. At this point the accounts differ: either Mithridates invited a bodyguard to kill him, or he was murdered by mutinous soldiers. His kingdom was swallowed by Rome within the year.

In a word Shrewd, brave and cruel king whose resourcefulness and constant refusals to give in brought untold misery to his people.

See also Surena of the Parthians.

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