First Mithridatic War, 89-85 B.C.

The War
89 B.C.
88 B.C.
87 B.C.
86 B.C.
Battles in Boeotia
Asia Minor
Naval Battles
The Peace 


The First Mithridatic War (89-85 B.C.) was the first of three clashes between the Roman Republic and Mithridates VI of Pontus which would last for nearly thirty years, and end with the destruction of the Pontic kingdom. The wars were an inevitable result of the proximity of the ambitious expansionist Mithridates to the Roman province of Asia, which had been established after Attalus III of Pergamum died without an heir in 133 B.C., leaving his kingdom to the Roman people. This gave the Romans a foothold at the western end of Asia Minor, to go with the province of Cilicia, on the southern coast.

The kingdom of Pontus was located at the north-eastern corner of Asia Minor, on the southern shores of the Black Sea. Under Mithridates the kingdom had expanded north, gaining control of the Crimea and of Colchis, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, as well as a few scattered possessions on the western shore. Mithridates's next targets were in the area between Pontus and the Roman province. He was particularly interested in Cappadocia, to the south, and in Paphlagonia and Bithynia to the west. His first move came in 108-108 B.C., when together with Nicomedes III of Bithynia he invaded Paphlagonia. The two kings partitioned the country, and ignored a Roman embassy that ordered them to withdraw.

Nicomedes made the next move, invading Cappadocia in 102 B.C. At the time this kingdom was ruled by Mithridates's sister Laodice, on behalf of her two young sons. After the invasion Nicomedes married Laodice. Mithridates responded by invading in force, restoring his nephew as Ariarathes VII Philometor. This arrangement only lasted for a year, before Mithridates turned against his nephew, in favour of Gordius, the Cappadocian nobleman who had murdered Ariarathes VI (after 116 B.C.). Both sides raised large armies, but during a parley before the battle the young king was assassinated. Mithridates installed one of his sons as king Ariarathes IX, with Gordius as his regent. This regime lasted for four or five years.

Both claimants to Cappadocia took their case to Rome. Mithridates claimed that his son was actually the son of Ariarathes V, while Nicomedes supported the claims of Laodice's second son. The situation became more confused in c.97 B.C., when the Cappadocians rebelled against Mithridates's regime, calling in Nicomedes and his claimant. Mithridates invaded and restored his son's regime in a campaign that also saw the death of Nicomedes's claimant. Nicomedes responded by producing a fake third son. This son and his 'mother' were sent to Rome in an attempt to win the support of the Senate.

The Senate responded by ordered Nicomedes and Mithridates to pull out of Paphlagonia and Cappadocia. The Cappadocians elected a new king, Ariobarzanes, who was installed in power by Lucius Sulla, the Roman governor of Cilicia (c.95 B.C.). He may also have been restored by Sulla in 92 B.C.

This arrangement was very short lived. In 96 or 95 B.C. Tigranes I (The Great) became king of Armenia, and soon allied himself with Mithridates, marrying his daughter Cleopatra. In 94 B.C. Nicomedes died, leaving his kingdom to his son Nicomedes IV. Mithridates had now gained a strong ally and lost a strong opponent, and in 91 B.C Rome appeared to be fully occupied in Italy after the outbreak of the Social War.

In 91 B.C. Tigranes invaded Cappadocia, expelling Ariobarzanes, who fled to Rome. Mithridates attempted to assassinate Nicomedes, and when this failed successfully invaded Bithynia. Despite the situation in Italy, the Senate decided that both deposed kings should be restored, and sent a commission under Manius Aquillius and Manlius Maltinus or Mancinus to carry out their instructions.

Once again Mithridates retreated in the face of Roman pressure, but this time the Romans went too far. Nicomedes had offered to pay a large amount of money in return for his restoration, and Aquillius convinced him to find it by invading Pontus. Mithridates responded to this provocation by sending an envoy, Pelopidas, to the Roman commissioners, asked that they either restrain Nicomedes or allow him to fight back. Unsurprisingly the Romans refused these terms. Mithridates responded by invading Cappadocia, and then sent Pelopidas to the Romans for a second time. This time the envoy was arrested, and sent back to Mithridates with a message that he should withdraw from Cappadocia and not oppose Nicomedes. This was the last straw, and Mithridates now prepared to invade Bithynia.

The War

89 BC

The Romans only had a single legion of their own troops in Asia Minor, and so were forced to raise large forces of local troops. Three armies were raised and given Roman commanders. M. Aquillius took up a position at the north of the Roman line, on the main route from Pontus to Bithynia. C. Cassius, the governor of Asia, was posted on the border of Bithynia and Galatia. Q. Oppius took up a position in the foothills of Cappadocia. A fourth army was provided by Nicomedes IV, who was to advance from Bithynia into eastern Paphlagonia.

According to Appian each of the Roman-led armies contained 40,000 men, while Nicomedes IV had 50,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry. Mithridates was credited with 250,000 infantry, 40,000 cavalry, 130 scythed chariots and a fleet of 300 decked warships and 100 ships with two banks of oars. All of these figures are probably too high, but they do indicate that the Romans and their allies were badly outnumbered.

The first action of the war took place in Paphlagonia and Bithynia. While Mithridates and his main army moved west to invade Bithynia, Nicomedes and the Bithynian army moved east, into Paphlagonia. The first battle came on the Amnias River, where Nicomedes was defeated by the Pontic generals and brothers Neoptolemus and Archelaus, at the head of a force of light infantry and cavalry, with some scythed chariots.

Mithridates then crossed into Bithynian, where Neoptolemus inflicted a defeat on the army under Manius Aquillius at the battle of Protopachium. Aquillius escaped to Pergamum, and then on to Lesbos, but he was later handed over to Mithridates by the people of Mytilene, and executed by having molten gold poured down his throat.

Cassius retreated to the fortress of Leontoncephalae in Phrygia in the Roman province, but after attempting to drill his army for a period realised that his position was hopeless, and retreated to Rhodes. Oppius reached Laodicea on the Lycus, and prepared for a siege, but when Mithridates arrived he offered the citizens an amnesty if they handed over Oppius. Unlike Aquillius, Oppius was treated well in captivity and survived the war.

Mithridates and his generals soon took control of most of the Roman province of Asia, although resistance continued in some areas throughout the war. Mithridates appointed satraps to rule his new conquests, and in an attempt to increase his popularity remitted taxes for five years.

News of these disasters reached Rome, probably in the autumn of 89 B.C. The command in the east was given to L. Cornelius Sulla, one of the consuls for 88 B.C. It would take eighteen months for the situation in Rome to become stable enough for Sulla to leave for Greece, and he did not arrive there with his five legions until early in 87 B.C. Rome's finances were so badly stretched that the Senate had to sell of part of the "Treasures of Numa" to pay for the legions. 

88 BC

During the first half of 88 B.C. Mithridates revealed his ruthless streak. In an attempt to bind the cities of Asia Minor firmly to his cause, Mithridates ordered them all to kill every Roman and Italian in Asia Minor. Thirteen days after this order was sent out, around 80,000 Romans and Italians were slaughtered in what is now known as the "Asiatic" or "Ephesian Vespers". Mithridates ordered the start of the new dating era, with 88 B.C. as its first year, to mark the liberation of the cities from Rome, and began to use the titles 'Great' and 'King of Kings'.

Mithridates's next target was the island of Rhodes, then an important naval power and the only remaining safe haven for Romans and Italians in the Aegean. In the autumn of 88 B.C. Mithridates reached the island, and despite suffering heavily losses when the Rhodian fleet attacked his transports after a storm, was soon strong enough to risk an attack on the city. After this failed he constructed a giant siege engine, a flying bridge nicknamed the sambuca, but when this collapsed under its own weight Mithridates abandoned the siege and returned to the mainland.

In the summer of 88 B.C. the war spread to Greece. Mithridates's successes in Asia had attracted the attention of the anti-Roman faction in Athens, and the philosopher and politician Aristion had been sent to him as an envoy. In the spring of 88 B.C. Aristion returned to Athens, and was elected strategos epi ton hoplon, or magistrate in charge of the arms. Mithridates was invited to send an army to Athens, and responded by sending a force under the command of the general Archelaus.

On his way to Greece Archelaus captured the Cyclades islands, and the sacred treasury at Delos. On his arrival in Greece the Achaeans, Spartans and most of Boeotia rose against the Romans, but the fortress of Demetrias held out, as did parts of Euboea and Magnesia. The Romans only had two legions in the area, both in Macedonia where they were fighting against Thracian tribes. C. Sentius, the governor of Macedonia, was only able to send a small force south, under the command of his legate Bruttius Sura. 

Despite the small size of his army, Bruttius was able to slow down Archelaus's progress, fighting a series of three small battles near Chaeronea, before being forced to retreat after reinforcements arrived from Sparta and Achaea. This gave time for the advance elements of the five legion strong consular army of Lucius Sulla to arrive in Greece.

87 B.C.

Sulla's main force left Italy early in 87 B.C., presumably landing somewhere in Aetolia. After gathering reinforcements in Aetolia and Thessaly, Sulla advanced east through Boeotia towards Athens. Once there he was forced to conduct two parallel but separate sieges, against Aristion in Athens and Archelaus in Piraeus. The Long Walls that had once connected the two places were now in ruins, and so the defenders were isolated from each other. Mithridates had command of the seas, and so Archelaus could receive reinforcements and supplies, but Athens was completely isolated.

In the autumn of 87 B.C. Sulla concentrated his main efforts against Piraeus, first launching a direct assault on the walls, and then settling down for a formal siege. Despite all of his efforts Archelaus was able to hold out until the arrival of winter forced Sulla to pull most of his forces back into his camps at Eleusis. Even then Sulla retained enough forces around Athens to prevent any supplies getting through.

86 B.C.

In the spring of 86 B.C. Sulla was faced with a new problem. A large Pontic army, under the command of Arcathias, son of Mithridates, was advancing through Thrace and Macedonia. If the defenders of Athens and Piraeus held out long enough, Sulla would be forced to abandon the siege to deal with the new threat, but he would then be vulnerable to attack from the rear.

Faced with this problem Sulla decided to concentrate on Athens, where starvation was now becoming a real danger. On 1 March, taking advantage of a weak spot in the defences, the Romans broke into the city. Aristion and his supporters fled to the Acropolis, while the population suffered a brutal sack (although Sulla ordered that the buildings be spared out of respect for Athens's glorious past). This was the only punishment Athens would suffer for its role in the war – once the pro-Roman faction was back in power the pre-war status quo was restored, and the city kept its liberties. By the time Athens fell the threat from the north had been reduced. Arcathias had advanced slowly through Thrace and Macedonia, but just before the city fell he died (at Tisaeum in Magnesia).

The defence of the Acropolis lasted for several more weeks, but Sulla was now free to concentrate on Piraeus. A series of determined assaults on the defences forced Archelaus back onto the Munychia peninsula, protected by the sea on three sides and by strong fortifications on the fourth. He could have held out here for as long as Mithridates kept control of the sea, but with Athens lost and the port of Piraeus no longer useful, Archelaus decided to retreat north. The garrison was loaded onto their ships, and slipped away to Thessaly, joining with the northern army at Thermopylae.

Sulla was now free to march north to deal with this second Pontic Army. His legate C. Curio was left to conduct the siege of the Acropolis, while Sulla advanced into Boeotia. He was later criticised for this move, for Boeotia was seen as better cavalry country than Attica, but supplies were running short in Attica, and there was a real danger that a small Roman detachment under Hortensius would be cut off by the advancing Pontic army.

Battles in Boeotia

Hortensius quickly escaped from the Pontic trap, crossing a mountain pass to join Sulla's main army. The Romans were badly outnumbered in Boeotia. Sulla claimed to have only had 15,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry when the two sides met in battle at Chaeronea, although his force was probably nearer to 40,000 strong. Most sources give Archelaus 120,000 men and Appian states that the Romans were outnumbered three to one.

The two armies came face to face at Philoboeotus, at the southern edge of the plain of Elatea. This was good cavalry country, and so Sulla refused battle. Archelaus then attempted to cut off his lines of communication to the south east by occupying Chaeronea, on the River Cephisus. Sulla managed to get a legion into the city in time to prevent this, and then advanced down the river valley with his main army. The resulting battle of Chaeronea was fought in a cramped river valley, and on rocky ground that was not well suited for cavalry, and Sulla won a crushing victory. After the battle Archelaus escaped to the coast with only 10,000 men.

Despite this victory Sulla was not secure. Mithridates still had command of the sea, and so Archelaus soon received 80,000 reinforcements. From his base at Chalcis he was able to launch naval raids around the coast of Greece, even reaching into the Adriatic.

Roman politics now increased Sulla's problems. A new Roman army, under the command of the consul Flaccus, landed in Greece, officially to fight Mithridates, but actually to deal with Sulla. Sulla was forced to take up a position which would all him to move against whichever threat developed first. That threat came from Archelaus, who having received reinforcements landed on the mainland with 80,000 men and began to ravage Boeotia. Sulla was forced to turn south to deal with the new threat.

The battle of Orchomenus took place on a large open plain that should have been ideally suited for Archelaus's army. Sulla recognised this, and after posting much of his infantry in his centre began to dig 10ft wide trenches to protect his flanks. Archelaus attempted to rush the trenches, bringing on a general engagement in which he lost 15,000 men. On the following day the Romans began to dig trenches around the Pontic camp. Archelaus attempts to prevent this, but instead the Pontic attack gave the Romans a chance to storm their camp. The Pontic army was forced to scatter into the swamps behind the camp. Archelaus eventually reached safety, but his army was destroyed. Once this news reached Mithridates, he instructed Archelaus to open peace negotiations with Sulla.

After the battle Sulla had moved north to deal with Flaccus, but that clash would be delayed. As the advance guard of his two legions began to approach Sulla's positions, an increasingly large number of men began to desert. Flaccus was greedy, incompetent and unpopular with his troops, and only the efforts of his legate Fimbria prevents further mass desertions. Flaccus realised that there was no point attacking Sulla, and instead decided to march directly to the Bosporus to invade Asia Minor.

Asia Minor

After the battle of Chaeronea Mithridates's hold on Asia Minor began to unravel. Early in the war he had taken sixty Galatian noblemen as hostages to Pergamum, and after the news of the battle reached him, he had them slaughtered, most at a banquet.  Only three survivors escaped, but they were able to raise a revolt in Galatia.

The citizens of Chios were next to suffer. Mithridates had suspected them of disloyalty ever since one of their ships had accidentally collided with his flagship during the siege of Rhodes. He now decided to confiscate the property of any Chiot who had fled to Sulla. This was followed by a military occupation of the city, and the removal of the children of prominent citizens as hostages. A fine of 2,000 talents was imposed. The citizens collected temple treasures and women's jewellery in an attempt to pay the fine, but Mithridates accused them of underpaying, and decided to deport the entire population to Colchis, on the Black Sea. The Chiots reached as far as Heraclea Pontica, where they were rescued by the locals.

Mithridates's increasing tyranny and paranoia triggered a series of revolts across Asia Minor. Colophon, Ephesus, Hypaepa, Smyrna and Tralles were amongst the rebels, and although some of these cities were captured and punished others held out.

The situation was made worse by the arrival of a new Roman army in Asia Minor. This army reached Byzantium under the command of Flaccus, but once there he was deposed and killed by his legate Fimbria. Fimbria proved to be a competent but brutal commander, conducting a successful campaign in Bithynia and along the coast of Asia Minor. Any city that resisted was sacked, amongst them Nicomedia and Cyzicus, while Ilium was sacked despite having welcomed Fimbria as a friend.

Mithridates raised a large army to oppose Fimbria, under the command of his son, another Mithridates. This army attempted to block the Romans on the Rhyndacus River in Bithynia, but was defeated close to Miletopolis. The younger Mithridates managed to escape to join his father, but both were then chased to the coast at Pitane. Here Fimbria had a chance to end the war in a single stroke, for the fleet under Lucullus was close by, but Lucullus refused to cooperate with Sulla's political enemies, and Mithridates was able to escape by sea.

Fimbria continued his campaign, this time in Phrygia, where he would later be caught and defeated by Sulla. His campaign in Asia Minor helped to convince Mithridates that he had to accept Sulla's terms, offered after the battle of Orchomenus.

Naval Battles

A second factor in changing Mithridates's mind was his loss of control of the seas. In the winter of 87-86 B.C. Sulla had sent Lucius Licinius Lucullus to raise a fleet from Rome's allies around the eastern Mediterranean. With only six ships Lucullus managed to reach Crete and Cyrene, but he lost most of his ships to pirates on the way to Alexandria. He was received warmly at the Egyptian court, but no practical aid was forthcoming. All the Egyptians would do was ensure that Lucullus reached Cyprus in safety.

Lucullus had more luck at Cyprus, and in Phoenicia and Pamphylia. A year after he had been sent east by Sulla, Lucullus finally had a fleet, which in the spring of 85 B.C. combined with the fleet of Rhodes to pose a major threat to Mithridates's position. The allied fleet drove the Pontic forces out of Cos, Cnidos, Colophon and Chios. Lucullus then refused to help Fimbria at Pitane (see above), before heading to the Hellespont. Two naval victories followed – one over a Pontic squadron off Lectum in the Troad, and the second, more important victory at Tenedos. Lucullus was then finally able to make contact with Sulla, and sailed to Abydos, ready to transport Sulla's army into Asia Minor. 

The Peace  

After the defeat at Orchomenus Mithridates had asked Archelaus to attempt to come to terms with Sulla. The two men met at Aulis late in 86 B.C. Sulla's terms were uncompromising. Mithridates must give up all of his conquests, including Bithynia and Cappadocia, surrender seventy or eighty warships to Sulla, and pay a war indemnity of either 2,000 or 3,000 talents. Archelaus agreed to put these terms to his king, but preferred not to do it in person, so while messengers went to the Pontic king, Archelaus remained with Sulla.

At this stage Mithridates was not willing to surrender Cappadocia or his fleet, but Fimbria's campaign in Asia Minor and Lucullus's naval victories soon changed his mind. In the autumn of 85 B.C. Sulla and Mithridates met at Dardanus in the Troad, where Mithridates finally agreed to Sulla's terms. Although Mithridates eventually came to see these terms as too severe, he had actually emerged from a war with Rome with his original kingdom intact, a very rare achievement, and one that owed much to Sulla's desire not to leave problems behind him on his return to Rome.

Sulla still had to reorganise the Roman province of Asia. His first target was Fimbria, who he caught up with at Thyatira. Fimbria attempted to assassinate Sulla, and then fled to Pergamum where he committed suicide. His two legions sided with Sulla, and would be left behind to form the garrison of Asia.

Those cities that had sided with Mithridates suffered most heavily. Sulla billeted his legions in them, and then imposed a massive fine of 20,000 talents, partly a war indemnity and partly five years of unpaid taxes.  Those cities that resisted were brutally treated – some suffered massacres, others had their populations sold into slavery. Lucullus, who had the difficult job of collecting this fine, gained a reputation for scrupulous honesty, but even he was unable to prevent a rebellion from breaking out in Mytilene in 81/80 B.C. Sulla eventually left Asia in 84 B.C., leaving Murena in charge in the province. Murena would trigger the short Second Mithridatic War, in 83-83 B.C., after which the peace would last until 74 B.C., and the outbreak of the Third Mithridatic War.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 December 2008), First Mithridatic War, 89-85 B.C. ,

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