Third Mithridatic War, 74-63 B.C.

Mithridates Moves West
Lucullus in Pontus
Lucullus in Armenia



The Third Mithridatic War of 74-62 B.C. was the last of three clashes between Mithridates VI of Pontus and the Roman Republic. A war that began in western Asia Minor ended with Roman armies campaigning in Armenia, to the east of the Black Sea and in Syria and saw Roman power extended into completely new regions.

Mithridates's own ambitions in Asia Minor were responsible for the outbreak of the First Mithridatic War (88-85 B.C.). The short Second Mithridatic War (83-82 B.C.) was largely caused by the ambitions of Murena, then the Roman governor of Asia, and it soon became clear that a third war was almost inevitable. The peace that had ended the first war had been negotiated by Sulla, but he died in 78 B.C., removing one of the few voices for peace. Even some of his former allies believed that the peace of Dardanus of 62 B.C. had been too generous, and after Sulla's death the senate refused to ratify the treaty.

The exact date of the early events in the Third Mithridatic War has been a matter of some debate, with many sources allocating the first battles of the war to 74 B.C. More recently the battle of Chalcedon and the siege of Cyzicus have been dated to 73 B.C. The main evidence for this comes from Cicero, who places Lucullus in Rome in November 74 B.C. He must then have reached Asia early in 73 B.C., and was planning an invasion of Pontus when he learnt of Cotta's defeat at Chalcedon.

Appian, who is our main source for the war, indirectly supports this, although he provides no firm dates. Mithridates is said to have spent 'the remainder of the summer and the whole of the winter' before the outbreak of war building ships and raising his army. His attack into Bithynia came in the following spring. The trigger for the war is given as the death of Nicomedes IV of Pontus, which can be dated to late 75 or early 74. Mithridates's preparations were thus made in the summer of 74 and winter of 74-73, and his attack came in the spring of 73 B.C. This would also have given the two consuls for 74 B.C., Cotta and Lucullus, time to reach Bithynia and Asia and begin their own preparations. Mithridates's warlike preparations during 74 B.C. would also have been the missing motive for the reallocation of the consul's provinces during that year.

As well as building ships and raising his army, Mithridates sought aid from the renegade governor of Spain, Sertorius, who agreed to send a group of officers to train his infantry to fight in the Roman style. 

At the time of Nicomedes's death Lucullus had already been allocated Cisalpine Gaul as his province for 74-73 B.C., but early in 74 B.C. soon after reaching his province, the new proconsul of Cilicia died. Lucullus was transferred to Cilicia, and his colleague M. Aurelius Cotta was given Bithynia. Later in the year Lucullus was commissioned to fight a war, on the somewhat dubious grounds that the previous wars against Mithridates had not officially ended.

Mithridates Moves West

If our dates are correct, then early in 73 B.C. Mithridates was ready for his invasion of Bithynia. Cotta, with the Roman fleet (mostly provided by the Republic's allies), would be his immediate opponent. Lucullus, having left Rome at the end of 74 B.C. or early in 73 B.C., was near the Sangarius River in northern Phrygia, preparing for his own invasion of Pontus.

Mithridates raised another vast army. Appian gives him 140,000 infantry and 16,000 cavalry at the start of the war, for a total of 156,000 fighting men. These figures are probably exaggerated, but the Romans acknowledged themselves to be badly outnumbered at the start of the war. An equally large force of 'road-makers, baggage carriers and sutlers' accompanied the army, apparently giving him 300,000 men to feed during the siege of Cyzicus. This army included troops from all around his empire, and from his allies around the Black Sea. Amongst them must have been the force of infantry trained in the Roman style by Marcus Varius. 

Lucullus had five legions. The two Fimbric legions had been in Asia Minor since the First Mithridatic War, having been led there by Flavius Fimbria, a political enemy of Sulla, the victorious general of that war. Their poor discipline would later cause Lucullus some serious problems. Another two legions came from Cilicia, where they had served in the campaigns of Servilius, and the final legion accompanied Lucullus from Rome.

In the spring of 73 B.C. Mithridates invaded Bithynia and defeated Cotta in a combined land and sea battle at Chalcedon, at the southern end of the Asian shore of the Bosporus. Cotta's fleet was destroyed, giving Mithridates's command of the Propontis.

From Chalcedon he moved west to besiege Cyzicus, then a major port on the Asian shore of the Propontis. The city was built at the southern tip of the island of Arctonnesus, which at the time of the siege was connected to the mainland by a single causeway. Mithridates needed to capture Cyzicus to use as a supply base for his massive army, but despite having suffered heavy losses at Chalcedon the citizens held out until Lucullus arrived in the area, having abandoned his invasion of Pontus.

Lucullus realised that Mithridates was in a vulnerable position. Most of the Pontic army was on the island, engaged in the siege, and Lucullus was able to take up a strong position on the mainland, from where he cut off Mithridates's supply lines. Despite a series of desperate attempts to capture the city, Cyzicus held out, and as winter approached Mithridates was forced to begin to send his troops away.

This was when Lucullus struck. His first success came when Mithridates attempted to send his cavalry and wounded infantry east into Bithynia. Lucullus caught them at the Rhyndacis River, and is said to have captured 15,000 men and 6,000 horses. Mithridates then decided to completely abandon the siege. While he escaped by sea, his infantry was sent west along the coast in an attempt to reach the harbour at Lampsacus, from where they could be evacuated by the fleet. Lucullus gave chase, attacking them while they were crossing the swollen river Aesepus (Appian), and again further west at the Granicus (Plutarch). According to Plutarch the Pontic army lost 20,000 dead at the Granicus, and close to 300,000 people during the entire campaign. While the overall figures are probably too high, Mithridates does appear to have lost most of his army in the fighting around Cyzicus.

Mithridates did not immediately abandon his campaign in Bithynia. Part of his army did reach Lampsacus, where it came under the command of the Roman renegade Marcus Varius. Mithridates sent 50 ships and 10,000 men under Varius into the Aegean, while he took the rest of his army to attack Perinthus, on the European side of the Propontis. When this attack failed he sailed east to Nicomedia, at the eastern tip of the Propontis.

Lucullus also split his forces. He took command of a fleet that followed Varius into the Aegean, defeating and killing him at Lemnos. C. Valerius Triarius and Barba remained in the Propontis, with orders to eliminate the last Pontic outposts in western Bithynia. Apamea, Prusa and Nicaea soon fell to Triarus and Barba, forcing Mithridates to abandon his position at Nicomedia. He escaped through the Bosporus, and leaving a garrison behind in the free city of Heraclea, made his way back to Pontus. Lucullus and Cotta met at Nicomedia, where  Lucullus decided to launch an immediate invasion of Pontus.

Lucullus in Pontus

The exact chronology of Lucullus's campaign in Pontus is just as uncertain as that of the fighting around the Propontis, but its outline is not. Once he discovered that Mithridates had left Nicomedia, Lucullus invaded Pontus and besieged a number of cities, amongst them Heraclea, Amisus, Themiscyra, Sinope and the new Royal city of Eupatoria. Most of these sieges were conducted at a leisurely pace, in an attempt to force Mithridates to fight in the heart of Pontus and not retreat into the mountainous interior of his empire or to join his son-in-law Tigranes in Armenia.

Mithridates gathered together a new army around Cabira (or Cabeira), in the valley of Lycus river, which runs from east to west, parallel to the Black Sea coast, flowing past Cabira to Eupatoria. The general assumption is that Lucullus must have captured Eupatoria before advancing towards Cabira, although Memnon places its fall after the fighting around Cabira. At least one alternative route into the Lycus valley does exist, through the mountains to the south, and Appian describes Lucullus as crossing mountains to reach Cabira.

In the summer of 72 or 71 B.C. Lucullus advanced into the Lycus valley. According to Appian and Plutarch Mithridates had raised an army of 40,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. Lucullus began his campaign by advancing into the plains around the river, where he suffered a defeat in a cavalry battle. The Romans then took up a position in the hills, receiving their supplies from Cappadocia to the south. The decisive fighting came during an attack on one of these grain convoys. Mithridates's men caught and attacked the Romans in a narrow defile, where their cavalry was useless. The resulting fight ended with the destruction of most of the Pontic force.

When this news reached Mithridates he decided to withdraw from his position at Cabira. According to Appian and Plutarch after Mithridates told his servants of his plans, they attempted to send their own baggage away. The army had not yet been told of the move, and panicked. In the resulting chaos the Pontic camp was destroyed, and all discipline was lost. Mithridates himself was swept away in the chaos, and only escaped from the Romans when the nearest troops were distracted by a mule carrying part of the Royal treasure. While the Romans were looting his camp, Mithridates escaped across the border into Armenia to seek refuge with Tigranes.

Lucullus sent Appius Claudius into Armenia, to ask Tigranes to hand over Mithridates, and then concentrated on finishing the various sieges still going on in Pontus. This process, and the organisation of Pontus into a new province, took him to the end of 70 B.C., by which time Appius had returned, having botched his mission to Armenia. After conspiring with some of Tigranes's vassals, he ordered Tigranes to hand over his father-in-law, or face war with Rome. Hardly surprisingly Tigranes refused to give in to this threat, and at about this time finally agreed to meet Tigranes, who had been kept isolated in a remote fortress for a year and a half.

Very little firm evidence exists for the dates of these events. By pure chance a section from the Collection of Chronicles and Lists of Olympian Victors of Phlegon of Tralles survives in the Bibliotheca of Photius, a series of short reviews of works of ancient authors. Photius read as far as the 177th Olympiad (72-69 B.C.), which happens to include part of Lucullus's campaign. From this source we learn that in the first year of the Olympiad Lucullus was besieging Amisus, but left Murena with two legions to continue the siege, while he advanced into the territory of the Cabiri, where he went into winter quarters. He also ordered Hardian to make war against Mithridates, who was defeated. We also learn of a battle between Lucullus on one side and Mithridates and Tigranes on the other, in the fourth year of the Olympiad (69 B.C.), probably the battle of Tigranocerta. However it is also possible that this refers to the battle on the river Arsania, in the following year, at which Mithridates was actually present.

Even this fragment has been interpreted in a number of different ways. It can be used to date the start of the siege of Amisus to 73 or 72 B.C., and the fighting at Cabira to 72 or 71 B.C., depending on whether Lucullus went into winter quarters before or after defeating Mithridates. 

Appian and Plutarch both suggest that Lucullus moved into Pontus soon after the end of the campaign around the Propontis, which would place the start of the sieges in Pontus early in 72 B.C. The campaign around Cabira would then take place in the following summer (72 B.C.), as to place it in 71 B.C. would suggest eighteen months of inaction by both sides. If Lucullus then went into winter quarters at Cabira, then most of the sieges in Pontus would have ended in 71 B.C., during the next campaigning season. Lucullus then spent some time reorganising the Roman province of Asia, possibly during 70 B.C., before turning back to invade Armenia in 69 B.C. Mithridates's twenty months of isolation in Armenia would last from late in 72 B.C., after his defeat at Cabira, to the middle of 70 B.C., after Appius Claudius's visit to Tigranes's court.

Lucullus in Armenia

There is a general consensus that Lucullus's invasion of Armenia took place in 69 B.C. It almost certainly lacked any legal authority from the Senate, and brought the Roman Republic into contact with Armenia and Parthia for the first time. In 68 B.C. he was accused of 'making one war out of another', while Cicero in 66 B.C. described the invasion as affecting tribes that 'the Roman People had never thought to provoke or try out in war'. Lucullus's justification for the invasion was that the war in Pontus would not truly be over until Mithridates was either dead or in Roman hands.

Lucullus invaded Armenia with what he believed were his best troops, probably 12,000 legionaries and 4,000 cavalry and light troops, the equivalent of three legions. His first target was Tigranocerta, Tigranes's new capital city, built somewhere on the borders of southern Armenia (the exact location is still unknown) and his recent conquests in Mesopotamia, and populated by several hundred thousand people taken from their original homes.

Lucullus was able to get quite some way into Armenia before anyone plucked up the courage to tell Tigranes about the invasion. Tigranes responded by throwing a small garrison into the city, and then pulling back to assemble his main army. Although Lucullus didn't have enough men to properly siege Tigranocerta, he began a blockade and waited for Tigranes to return. Mithridates, who had been on the verge of invading Pontus, urged Tigranes to avoid a set-piece battle, but seeing the small size of the Roman army ('too small for an army, too large for an embassy), Tigranes turned down this advice. The battle of Tigranocerta was the only formal set-piece land battle during Lucullus's career, and ended in a crushing Roman victory. Tigranes, with the remnants of his army, was forced to retreat north to join Mithridates.

Lucullus was now faced with a real problem. The victory at Tigranocerta had destroyed much of Tigranes's power in the south of his kingdom, but had not helped end the war. After spending the winter of 69-68 B.C. in the south of Armenia, Lucullus attempted to capture the Armenian capital of Artaxata, to the north east of Mt. Ararat. This campaign would end in failure. Lucullus was a strict disciplinarian, and he was beginning to lose the support of his troops. He was also on the verge of losing command of the war, for Marcius Rex, the consul of 68 B.C., was given Cilicia as his proconsular province, meaning that he would take up his authority there in 67 B.C. He had already lost the province of Asia, which was now some way distant from his area of operation, but for the moment still retained command of the war in the east.

The advance on Artaxata was intended to provoke a final major battle. Plutarch describes one major battle, on the River Arsania, in which Lucullus defeated an Armenian army that had been raised by Mithridates and organised in the Roman style, but in the aftermath of this battle the weather broke, and Lucullus's troops refused to advance any further into the mountains. Lucullus was forced to turn south, where he besieged and captured the city of Nisibis, and went into winter quarters.
The war now turned dramatically against Lucullus. While he was moving south to Nisibis, Mithridates moved west into Lesser Armenia at the head of a force of 4,000 Armenians and 4,000 Pontic troops. The legate Fabius, who had been left with two weak legions to defend Pontus, was defeated in two battles, the second of which only ended with Mithridates was wounded. Fabius was then besieged in Cabira, before reinforcements under Triarius temporarily restored the situation.

The news of this setback also temporarily restored the discipline in Lucullus's army, which had been refusing to obey orders. They now agreed to return to Pontus. Mithridates, who realised that he had to defeat Triarius and Fabius before Lucullus arrived, managed to provoke a battle at Zela (67 B.C.). This ended in his most impressive victory over a genuinely Roman army, but it only won him one more year in power in Pontus.

Before news of the defeat at Zela had reached Rome, the consul for 67 B.C. Acilius Glabro had been appointed to replace Lucullus in the east. Both he and Marcius Rex, the new governor of Cilicia, had now reached Asia, and Lucullus's army refused to obey his commands. Lucullus was forced to retreat into Galatia, where the army waited in vain for Glabrio, who when he discovered the true state of affairs refused to advance any further east than Bithynia. In the absence of any military opposition, Mithridates was able to recover control of all of Pontus.


By a lucky coincidence the Romans had another successful general at large in the eastern Mediterranean as the crisis developed. At the start of 67 B.C. Pompey had been given proconsular powers to operate against piracy throughout the Mediterranean, with authority equal to that of a proconsul anywhere within 50 Roman miles of the coast. With impressive efficiency Pompey swept the organised pirates from the seas in a three month long campaign during the summer of 67 B.C. By the end of 67 B.C. he was at something of a lose end, and was on the verge of going to war with a Roman rival on Crete.

This was avoided early in 66 B.C. when the tribune C. Manilius passed a law that gave Pompey command of the war in the east. He was given substantially the same powers as Lucullus had enjoyed, but was also given the authority to make peace and war and form alliances without consulting the senate.

Pompey was able to call on the three legions under Marcius Rex in Cilicia, and a similar number of men in Lucullus's army. By the end of his period of command in 62 B.C. his army had probably grown from six legions to a maximum size of nine or ten.

Lucullus did not leave his army quietly, but Pompey quickly overcame his objections. His first moves were diplomatic. King Phraates of Parthia agreed to ally with the Romans and invaded Armenia, carrying out an unsuccessful siege of Artaxata which at least prevented Tigranes from helping Mithridates. Pompey then opened peace negotiations with Mithridates. His terms included a formal submission to Pompey's authority and the surrender of a large number of Roman deserters who were now fighting on the Pontic side. Mithridates turned down these terms, and prepared to fight.

The final campaign between Mithridates and the Romans took place in the upper Lycus valley in Lesser Armenia. Mithridates took up a position at the fortress of Dasteira, possibly at the site of the city of Nicopolis, founded by Pompey after the fighting. After forty-five days of fighting around Dasteira Mithridates attempted to escape to the east, this time with a little more success than he had enjoyed against Lucullus. That success ended on the third night of the march, when Pompey attacked the Pontic camp, and destroyed Mithridates's last Pontic army, in what is normally referred to as the battle of Nicopolis. 

Mithridates was even less welcome in Armenia in 66 B.C. than on his first appearance in 72 B.C., and must have been surprised when Tigranes put a price on his head. Tigranes' hostility was caused by his rebellious son, another Tigranes, who had been conducting the siege of Artaxata on behalf of the Parthians, having fled from his father's court in fear of his life. After that siege ended in failure, the younger Tigranes considered fleeing to Mithridates, before instead going to Pompey. Tigranes learnt of his son's plans, and assumed that Mithridates was about to turn on him.

Mithridates was forced to flee north, finding a safe haven at the port of Dioscurias in Colchis, one part of his kingdom that had not yet fallen to the Romans. He then made his way to the Crimea. Two stories survive of Mithridates's plans once he reached the Crimea. The most realistic was that he planned to restore his power in the Crimea, and attempt to fight off the Romans. His base was at Phanagorea, on the mainland east of the Crimea, and he also garrisoned the ports of Chersonesus, Theodosia and Nymphaion on the Crimea. This plan fell apart when his son Pharnaces overthrew him in 63 B.C. Mithridates was killed by a Celtic warrior, probably at his own demand. The second story, which developed later and was used by Pompey's enemies, was that Mithridates was planning to invade Italy via the Danube and the Alpine passes, with the help of an anonymous mass of Celts.  

Pompey was later criticised in Rome for not pursuing Mithridates. Leaving a naval force to blockade those Black Sea ports where he might find support, Pompey instead invaded Armenia. This time Tigranes was not willing to resist, and as Pompey approached Artaxata the Armenian king surrendered. In the aftermath of this bloodless victory Pompey dismembered Tigranes's empire. Tigranes was left with the lands he had originally inherited, but all of his conquests were taken from him. Tigranes was later officially recognised as a 'friend and ally of the Roman people'. 

After dealing with Tigranes, Pompey turned north, entering the area between the Armenian mountains and the Caucasus ranges (modern Georgia), occupied by the Iberian and Albanian tribes. This was one of the areas taken from Tigranes, and now Pompey was determined to impose his authority on them (he may also have been attempting to follow Mithridates, but this seems unlikely).

The Albanians were defeated in a battle on their borders during the winter of 66/5 B.C., then in the spring of 65 B.C. Pompey defeated the Iberians, before marching down the Phasis valley to the Black Sea coast. He then returned to Armenia, before invading the Albanian heartland, winning another battle and reaching within three days march of the Caspian Sea. This effectively ended Pompey's military career in the east. He spent most of 64 B.C. organising Pontus, including a long period counting Mithridates's famous treasure (36,000 talents of gold and silver), then towards the end of the year entered Syria, where he remained until news of Mithridates's death reached him in 63 B.C. Pompey was free to return to Rome, where in 61 B.C. he celebrated his triumph.


The Third Mithridatic War ended with one of the largest expansion of the territory of the Roman republic. Pompey's brief intervention in Armenia gained the Republic northern Syria and a coastal strip of former Seleucid territory. Lucullus and Pompey between them had gained Pontus as a province, and Bithynia was now secure.

The last remnants of the Seleucid Empire had now been absorbed, leaving Egypt as the only survivor of the great Hellenistic successor states to Alexander the Great. The Roman Empire had almost reached its greatest extent in the east.

Lucullus – The Life and Campaigns of a Roman Conqueror, Lee Fratantuono. Looks at the public career of Lucius Lucullus, one of the less familiar Roman military and political figures in the dying days of the Roman Republic, a generally successful general who was unable to end the wars he had almost won, and who was overshadowed by his patron Sulla and his rival and replacement Pompey. Aimed at the general reader, so provides a concise narrative of the life of this important figure (Read Full Review)
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 December 2008), Third Mithridatic War, 74-63 B.C. ,

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