Mithridates VI Eupator 'the Great', king of Pontus, 132/1-63 B.C.

The Black Sea Empire
Wars with Rome
The First Mithridatic War
The Second Mithridatic War
The Third Mithridatic War


Mithridates VI Eupator 'the Great', king of Pontus, is remembered as one of the Roman Republic's most persistent enemies, despite only winning one major battle against a genuinely Roman army, at Zela in 67 B.C. towards the end of his career. During his reign he was responsible for turning Pontus into the dominant power on the Black Sea, but in the course of three wars against the Romans lost his kingdom, and died after being overthrown one of his own sons. For all the military achievements of his reign, Mithridates was not himself a great general. Most of his victories were won by his generals, most notably Diophantus in the wars around the Black Sea and the brothers Archelaus and Neoptolemus during the First Mithridatic War. Mithridates's main contribution seems to have been as an organiser, capable of producing a series of vast armies, and his ruthless determination, which became most apparent during the third and final war.

Mithridates was born into a family that traced its ancestry back to Darius, and was himself reckoned to be sixteenth in line from the great emperor. The family tree can be traced back as far as the mid fourth century, when one Ariobarzanes (c.362-337) held lands on the Propontis west of Bithynia from Darius III of Persia. Two generations later Mithridates I 'The Founder' moved east, and at some point after 300 B.C. founded the new kingdom of Pontus. The dating era of Pontus began in 297 B.C., although this was probably established retrospectively and Mithridates I did not take the title of king until 281/0 B.C. His father Euergetes was an ally of Rome during the Third Punic War and gained land from that alliance.

Mithridates VI was born in c.132/1 B.C., eleven years before his father was assassinated (c.121/0 B.C.). This left power in the hands of Mithridates's mother Laodice, who was said to have favoured his younger brother Mithridates Chrestus. After surviving a suspicious riding accident Mithridates Eupator is said to have gone into hiding in the mountains of eastern Pontus, beginning the "heroic" period of his life. During this period Eupator is said to have moved every night, building up his poison resistance and his physical strength. This is also the period in which he was said to have learnt most of the between twenty-two and fifty languages he was able to speak. This period in exile ended around 113 B.C., when Eupator returned to Sinope, the capital of Pontus, overthrowing his mother (the date is by no means certain). She was thrown into prison, while his brother Chrestus survived as a junior colleague for a few years, before being put to death.

Mithridates Eupator took control of a kingdom known as Cappadicia 'by the Euxine' or 'by Pontus', located on the eastern half of the southern shores of the Black Sea. The capital, Sinope, is roughly half way along that shore, and was at the western end of Mithridates's kingdom in 113 B.C. The coastal area was dominated by Greek cities, while inland the country had a Persian aristocracy and a Paphlagonian or Cappadocian population.

The Black Sea Empire

The expansion of the Pontic kingdom around the Black Sea almost certainly took place before the First Mithridatic War against Rome, but the exact order of events is unclear. During this period Mithridates gains control over the Crimea, the cities around the Bosporan straits, Colchis on the eastern shore of the Black Sea and a number of Greek cities on the western shores of the sea.

The conquest of the Crimea was undertaken at the invitation of the Greek city of Chersonesus and the kingdom of Bosporus, both of which were under pressure from the Scythians. Mithridates despatched an army under Diophantus son of Asclepiodorus, a citizen of Sinope. In two separate expeditions spread over at least three years the Sythians were defeated, and the Crimea became part of the Pontic kingdom. This gave Mithridates control of one of the most important grain producing areas in the Greek world. This period also probably saw a Pontic army under the general Neoptolemus go to the help of the city of Olbia. A new capital city for the Crimea was built at Panticapaeum, where one of Mithridates's sons was normally posted as regent.

This period also saw Mithridates become ruler of Lesser Armenia, which for some time had been a vassal state, overthrowing Antipater son of Sisis. Lesser Armenia later became Mithridates's treasure house, containing seventy five fortresses in which he kept his treasure. At some point Mithridates also took over the coast around Trapezus and the kingdom of Colchis, on the eastern shores of the Black Sea.

These conquests gave Mithridates command of three quarters of the Black Sea coast. Only Bythnia and Thrace in the south west, parts of the western shore and the mountainous north-eastern shore were outside his command. These conquests had been watched in Rome, but they did not yet impinge on any areas of direct interest to the Republic, which in any case was engaged in wars against Jugurthi and the Cimbri and the Teutones. Although Mithridates had not led these conquests in person, court flatterers now began to compare him to Alexander and Dionysus.

Expansion in Asia Minor

Mithridates's expansion around the Black Sea didn't pass unnoticed in Rome, but they didn't directly threaten Roman interests. In contrast his ambitions in Asia Minor brought him into direct contact with the Republic. Rome had gained an Asian empire unexpectedly in 133 B.C., when Attalus III of Pergamum died without an heir, leaving his kingdom to the Republic. Pergamum became the Roman province of Asia, on the western shores of Asia Minor. Further east, Cilicia on the southern coast was also a Roman province. The two powers thus had a number of neighbours in common. In the east was Cappadocia, between Cilicia and Pontus. To the west of Pontus was Paphlagonia, and then at the north western corner of Asia Minor was Bithynia, which shared a common border with the Roman province. In the middle of all these states were the Celts of Galatia. Any attempt by Mithridates to expand into these areas was certain to attract the attention of the Roman Senate.

Mithridates's first move came in 108-107 B.C. In the previous year he had travelled incognito through Bithynia and may have entered Roman Asia. In 108-107, together with Nicomedes III of Bithynia, Mithridates invaded Paphlagonia. The two kings partitioned the area, and then defied a Roman embassy that ordered them to leave.

Cappadocia was next. Mithridates had a personal interest in events in that kingdom, for his sister Laodice had been married to King Ariarathes VI (king from 130-c.116 B.C.). Ariarathes VI was then murdered by Gordius, a Cappadocian nobleman, and his sons inherited the throne, with Laodice as regent.

This arrangement lasted until 102 B.C., when Nicomedes III invaded Cappadocia and married Laodice. Mithridates responded by sending in his army, expelling Nicomedes and restoring one of his nephews as Ariarathes VII Philometor. Laodice appears to have supported Nicomedes in this clash.

In the following year Mithridates turned against his nephew, and attempted to incite Gordius to murder a second king. This failed, and Ariarathes VII raised a large army. Mithridates invaded again, but at a pre-battle meeting the young king of Cappadocia was murdered and fighting was averted.

Mithridates next placed one of his sons on the throne, as Ariarathes IX, with Gordius as regent to the eight year old monarch. This arrangement lasted for about five years.   

Nicomedes and Mithridates were both aware that they would eventually have to deal with the Romans, and both sent embassies to Rome. Nicomedes attempted to gain Roman recognition for his claim to part of Cappadocia, while Mithridates sent a embassy in about 101 B.C., in an attempt to gain recognition of his conquests in Paphlagonia (and a smaller expansion into Galatia). Although the Romans began to take more interest in Mithridates at about this period (the great general C. Marius visited the area soon afterwards), they were not yet ready to intervene.

The Senate was finally forced to intervene after a Cappadocian revolt on c.97 B.C. The rebels summoned the brother of Ariarathes VII to be their new king, but he was quickly defeated and expelled by Mithridates. Soon after this the young man died. Nicomedes and Mithridates now both sent embassies to Rome to argue their case. With the support of Laodice Nicomedes invented a third brother, and sent both Laodice and the pretender to Rome. Mithridates now claimed that his son Ariarathes IX was actually a son of the former king Ariarathes V, who had been an ally of Rome.

This feeble web of lies clearly annoyed the Senate, for they responded by ordering Mithridates and Nicomedes to pull out of all of their possessions in Cappadocia and Paphlagonia. Both areas were to be free and autonomous. The Cappadocians responded by elected Ariobarzanes, a local nobleman, as their new king, the previous dynasty having now died out. Mithridates withdrew as ordered, and the new king was installed in Cappadocia by Licius Sulla, then Roman governor of Cilicia.

There is a tendency to describe Mithridates as having been very circumspect in his dealings with Rome, avoiding a major confrontation for the first twenty years of his reign. In fact he could easily have avoided ever clashing with Rome by focusing his expansionist tendencies to the east or north, as he had at the start of his reign. Instead he remained determined to conquer Cappadocia, and soon added Bithynia to his list of targets.

Mithridates's position was strengthened by two dynastic changes. In c.96-95 Tigranes I 'the Great' became king of Armenia. He allied himself with Mithridates, and married his daughter Cleopatra. In 94 B.C. Nicomedes III of Bithynia died, leaving his kingdom to his son Nicomedes IV (older publications give these kings as Nicomedes II and III, but the original Nicomedes II is now considered to have been two kings).

In 91 B.C. Rome was distracted by a growing clash with her Italian allies, which would soon develop into the Social War. Possibly believing that Rome would be too distracted to intervene in the east, Mithridates decided to make his move. Gordius was sent to Tigranes, to convince him to invade Cappadocia. Mithridates then attempted to assassinate Nicomedes IV, before invading Bithynia, officially to support the claim of Socrates Chrestus, the half brother of Nicomedes.

Mithridates had misjudged the Romans. Ariobarzanes fled to Rome, and the Senate ruled that both he and Nicomedes should be restored. A commission, led by Manius Aquillius, consul for 101 B.C. and the son of the Manius Aquillius who had first established the province of Asia, was sent east to carry out the Senate's orders.

Despite the apparent strength of his position, Mithridates pulled back from an immediate clash with Rome. He withdrew from Bithynia, and even executed the luckless Socrates. Aquillius then sent a small army towards Cappadocia, and Tigranes also pulled back. Ariobarzanes was restored to his throne, although only for a very short period.

Wars with Rome

First Mithridatic War

The Roman commissioners now made a very costly mistake. Believing that Mithridates would never stand up to Rome, they convinced Nicomedes IV to invade western Pontus. He reached as far as Amastris, and at the same time closed the exit from the Black Sea to Pontic ships. Mithridates responded by sending his general Pelopidas as an envoy to the Romans, asking them to restrain Nicomedes. When the Romans refused this request, Mithridates sent his son Arcathias (or Ariarathes) (now aged about 19 or 20) to invade Cappadocia. He then sent Pelopidas to the Romans for a second time. This time Pelopidas boasted of the power of Mithridates, and suggested that Rome's provinces of Asia, Achaea (southern Greece) and Africa might in at risk. This was effectively the declaration of war.

Both sides now gathered armies. According to Appian, Mithridates had 250,000 infantry and 40,000 cavalry, while the Romans and their allies raised a force of 176,000 men. Although all of these figures are probably too high, they do indicate that the Romans were badly outnumbered. To make their situation even worse, there was only one Roman legion in Asia, and the bulk of their forces were made up of local levies.

The Romans were also forced to spread their armies out along Mithridates's western border. Two armies were posted at the northern end of the line – 40,000 men under Manius Aquillius on the main route from Paphlagonia to Bithynia while Nicomedes IV, with 50,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry, was to advance into eastern Paphlagonia.

Mithridates's first move was to invade Bithynia, at the head of an army said by Memnon to have been 150,000 strong. Although Mithridates accompanied this army in person, it would be his generals Archelaus and Neoptolemus who would win the first victories of the war. Acting together, in command of the Pontic light forces and cavalry, they defeated Nicomedes on the River Amnias. Neoptolemus then moved on to defeat Aquillius at Protopachium, in eastern Bithynia. Two of the four Roman armies had been destroyed.

At this early stage in the war Mithridates posed as the magnanimous conqueror. Non-Roman prisoners taken at the two battles were released. Later taxes were remitted, debts were cancelled and a great deal of money was spent in an attempt to win popularity. Roman control of the Province dissolved. The two remaining Roman-led armies soon collapsed. Aquillius was captured, and in a sign of Mithridates's less benign side was executed by having molten gold poured down his throat. Of the remaining Roman commanders Cassius escaped to Rhodes, and Oppius was captured but treated well and survived the war. 

In the summer of 88 B.C. the focus of the war shifted west to Greece, where a Pontic army under Archelaus found allies at Athens. Mithridates remained in Asia, focusing on raising new armies. He took personal command of the siege of Rhodes in 88 B.C., but this ended in failure.

The war in Greece soon turned sour. A Roman army under Sulla reached Greece in 87 B.C., and Archelaus was besieged at Piraeus. Mithridates responded by sending a second army, under the command of his son Arcathias (probably the earlier Ariarathes), to invade Greece through Thrace and Macedonia. This army made slow but steady progress, but early in 86 B.C. Arcathias died. At about the same time the siege of Athens ended. Archelaus abandoned Piraeus and sailed north to join the army in Thessaly. He then suffered two major defeats, at Chaeronea and Orchomenus, which ended the Pontic invasion of Greece.

The defeat at Orchomenus convinced Mithridates that it was time to seek peace. Archelaus was ordered to meet with Sulla and come to terms. Sulla demanded that Mithridates abandon all of his conquests in Asia Minor, surrender 70 or 80 warships and pay a war indemnity of 2000 or 3000 talents. Mithridates was unwilling to give up Cappadocia or the ships, and so the war continued for another year.

Mithridates was finally forced to agreed to Sulla's terms by the activities of a second Roman army, under the command of C. Flavius Fimbria. This army had been sent to Greece by Sulla's enemies in Rome, but rather than risk a clash with Sulla's five loyal legions, its commanders had decided to march directly to the Hellespont to invade Asia. Fimbria had taken command at the Hellespont, after killing his predecessor. He then carried out a brutal but successful campaign in Asia, winning a victory over a larger Pontic army under the command of another of Mithridates's sons on the river Rhyndacus. In the aftermath of this defeat Mithridates was almost captured, for Fimbria had him trapped on the coast, but a passing Roman fleet under the command of Lucullus, a loyal supporter of Sulla, refused to help, and Mithridates escaped by sea.

After this near disaster Mithridates arranged a meeting with Sulla. This meeting took place at Dardanus, in the Troad, in the autumn of 85 B.C. Mithridates agreed to the terms that had been offered to Archelaus, escaping from an unsuccessful war against Rome with his original kingdom completely intact.

Second Mithridatic War

Although the Romans had left Mithridates's original kingdom intact, his defeat had encouraged revolts in the Cimmerian Bosporus and in Colchis. This second revolt ended when Mithridates appointed his son Mithridates Philopator Philadelphus as regent. Mithridates seems to have been prone to paranoia, and his son was soon recalled and executed, in the belief that he was plotting to replace his father. The revolt in the Cimmerian Bosporus was rather more serious, and so Mithridates was forced to prepare for a major military expedition across the Black Sea.

These preparations alarmed Murena, the Roman governor of Asia after Sulla's return to Italy. Murena had other reasons to be concerned. One of the conditions of the peace of Dardanus had been that Mithridates would withdraw from Cappadocia, but in 83 B.C. he was still occupying part of the country. The next victim of Mithridates's paranoia was his general Archelaus, who was now blamed for the terms of the peace with Rome. Archelaus fled to Murena, and helped convince him to open hostilities.

The Second Mithridatic War was fought entirely without authority from Rome. Murena launched a series of raids into Mithridatic territory, the first through Cappadocia and the second and third into Pontus. Mithridates responded with remarkable restraint. After the first raid he sent envoys to Murena, and after the second raid to Rome. The Senate responded by sending an envoy to Murena, officially to order him to stop the attacks. Murena either ignored this order, or received different orders in private, and launched his third raid.

Only now did Mithridates react. An army under his general Gordius pushed Murena out of Pontus. When Mithridates arrived with the main Pontic army Murena suffered a humiliating defeat on the River Halys (82 B.C.), and was forced to retreat into Galatia. Mithridates was apparently on the verge of occupying all of Mithridates when an envoy arrived from Sulla and ended the war. Murena was ordered to stop the fighting, and to arrange for a reconciliation between Mithridates and Ariobarzanes. Mithridates gained another strip of Cappadocia, and another short period of peace. 

Third Mithridatic War

This second period of peace with Rome was always fragile. The main voice in favour of peace at Rome was Sulla, but after his death in 78 B.C. the pressure for war began to increase. Mithridates was well aware of this, and began his own preparations for war. He gained the support of the Cilician pirates, on the southern shores of Asia Minor. He may also have been responsible for convincing the tribes around the Danube to launch a series of attacks on the Roman forces in Macedonia.

Mithridates also attempted to gain an alliance with the rebel Roman governor of Spain, Sertorius. Sertorius was almost certainly willing to recognise Mithridates's claims in Bithynia and Cappadocia, but probably not to Asia Minor. He also provided Mithridates with a number of Roman officers to help reform his army, the best known of whom was Marcus Varius (or Marius).

Late in 75 B.C. or early in 74 B.C. Nicomedia IV of Bithynia died without an heir, and left his kingdom to the Romans. This would have given the Romans a position from where they could attack the heart of Pontus, and was naturally unacceptable to Mithridates. He found a pretender to the Bithynia throne, and probably in the spring of 73 B.C. invaded Bithynia.

His immediate opponents were the consuls for 74 B.C., L. Licinius Lucullus and M. Aurelius Cotta. A speech of Cicero's placed Lucullus in Rome in November 74 B.C., while Appian places the start of the war in the spring, but doesn't give a year. This suggests that the first battles of the war took place in the spring and summer of 73 B.C.

Mithridates's first opponent was Cotta, who had been given command of the Roman naval forces in Bithynia. Mithridates advanced across Bithynia at the head of a vast army, and defeated Cotta in a joint naval and land battle at Chalcedon. Leaving Cotta blockaded in Chalcedon, he then moved west to besiege Cyzicus, an important port on the Asian shore of the Propontis.

The siege of Cyzicus soon turned into a disaster of the first order. Lucullus, at the head of the main Roman army of five legions, took up a strong position on high ground close to Cyzicus, and cut off most of Mithridates's food supplies. Despite repeated assaults Cyzicus held out, and eventually Mithridates was forced to abandon the siege. This was when disaster struck. Lucullus struck at the retreating Pontic army as it attempted to cross a series of rivers, and inflicting massive casualties on Mithridates's force.

Mithridates still had his fleet, and he took advantage of it to launch an unsuccessful attack on Perinthus, in an attempt to get into contact with his allies on the European shore. After this he retreated to Nicomedeia, after sending a small fleet under the Roman Varius into the Aegean. This fleet was destroyed at Lemnos (73 B.C.), while another Roman fleet under C. Valerius Triarius captured a series of Bithynian cities. Mithridates was forced to retreat back into the Black Sea, escaping to Pontus where he began to raise a new army.

In the summer of 72 B.C. Lucullus invaded Pontus, and began sieges of a series of the main cities, amongst them the capital Sinope and Amisus. The garrisons received support from the fleet, but Mithridates avoided conflict on the ground until 71 B.C., instead concentrating on raising an army said to have contained 40,000 infantry and 4,000 cavalry. With this army he took up a position close to Cabira (or Cabeira).

Lucullus advanced into the Lycus valley in 71 B.C., taking up a strong position close to Cabira. A period of skirmishing followed, with three main engagements. The first ended with a Pontic success, the second was a draw but the third saw half of the Pontic cavalry destroyed. After this third engagement Mithridates decided to retreat east into the mountains of Lesser Armenia, but the retreat quickly turned into a rout, and most of Mithridates's army was destroyed. The lure of his famous treasure slowed the Roman advance down enough for him to escape into Greater Armenia, the kingdom of his son-in-law Tigranes the Great.

Mithridates was not welcome in Armenia. He was kept a virtual prisoner in an isolated fortress for eighteen or twenty months, from late 71 B.C. to the end of the following year. Lucullus sent the young Appius Claudius into Armenia, to ask Tigranes to hand over Mithridates. Appius was dispatched in 71 B.C., and did not return to Lucullus until the following year, after a disastrous mission in which he intrigued with Tigranes's vassals and threatened to declare war if Mithridates was not handed over.

In the summer of 69 B.C. Lucullus invaded Armenia at the head of an army described by Tigranes as too small for an army, too large for an embassy. Mithridates was suddenly of use to his son-in-law. In the aftermath of Appius's botched embassy Mithridates was released from his virtual imprisonment and given a force of 10,000 men for an invasion of Pontus. This plan had to be suspended after Lucullus's invasion of Armenia.

In two battles around Tigranes's capital Tigranocerta Lucullus crushed the Armenian army. Tigranocerta was captured and so thoroughly destroyed that its location is no longer known, while its people were allowed to return to their original homes. 

Lucullus was less successful in 68 B.C. Mithridates had now trained the Armenian army, and Tigranes avoided any direct confrontations with the Romans. By the end of the year Lucullus had been forced to abandon an advance towards the Armenian capital at Artaxata, and had gone into winter quarters at Nisibis. The discipline of his army now began to cause him problems.

Lucullus's problems allowed Mithridates to make an unexpected return to Pontus. Late in 68 B.C. he invaded his former kingdom at the head of a force of 4,000 of his own troops and 4,000 Armenians.

Pontus was weakly defended by two under-strength legions under the command of Fabius Hadrianus. In 68 B.C. Mithridates won two battles and forced Fabius to retreat into Cabira, where he was besieged. The news of this setback restored the discipline of Lucullus's army, which agreed to march back into Pontus. At the same time some reinforcements, who were on their way from Roman Asia under the command of Triarius to join Lucullus, turned north and joined Fabius.

Early in 67 B.C., before Lucullus could return to Pontus, Mithridates won his greatest victory over the Romans, at Zela. Triarius lost 7,000 men, amongst them 150 centurions and 24 military tribunes. Lucullus arrived on the scene in time to rescue the survivors, but his efforts to restore the situation militarily came to nothing. Political pressure in Rome meant that he had now been replaced as commander in the east, by Acilius Glabrio, the consul for 67 B.C., partly in the belief that the war was effectively over. Lucullus's own army refused to act, and Glabrio came no further east than Bithynia. Lucullus was forced to retreat into Galatia, and Mithridates was able to regain control of his entire kingdom.

This comeback would only last for a single year. Realising that Glabrio was incapable of restoring the situation, at the start of 66 B.C. the Romans replaced him with Pompey, then at the end of his successful campaign against the Mediterranean pirates. Pompey reached Lucullus's camp in Galatia and took command of the army. He then opened negotiations with Mithridates. Pompey's terms were unacceptable to Mithridates, who was asked formally submit to Pompey, and to hand over all of his Roman deserters.   

Once again Mithridates had managed to raise a large army, this time given as containing 30,000 infantry, although most of them were bowmen, and he was thus lacking in heavy infantry. He also had 2,000-3,000 cavalry, once again making him stronger than the Romans in this arm. The two armies clashed in the valley of the Lycus. The events of 66 B.C. unfolded in a similar way to those of 71 B.C. Pompey and Mithridates fought a series of minor engagements around the heights of Dasteira. After some weeks of this Mithridates attempted to retreat to the east, and just as in 71 B.C. his retreat ended in a disastrous rout. Once again Mithridates was forced to flee into Armenia.

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 around the coast of the Black Sea to the Crimea, where his son Machares held power, having come to terms with Lucullus in 70 B.C. Mithridates managed to overthrow this son after cornering him at Panticapaeum, and appears to have been preparing to resist any Roman naval assault on his last stronghold. This plan came to nothing when another son, Pharnaces, launched a more successful rebellion. Early in 64 B.C. Mithridates was trapped in the citadel at Panticapaeum, and after negotiations failed attempted to kill himself. When poison failed, he ordered one of his own Celtic bodyguards to kill him.

A second version of Mithridates's last plan soon developed at Rome. In this version he was going to raise a Roman-style army 36,000 strong and then march up the Danube, through the Carnic Alps and invade Italy with the help of a force of unspecified Celts. This story is generally considered to have been invented by Pompey's enemies, although still has some defenders.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 December 2008), Mithridates VI Eupator 'the Great', king of Pontus, 132/1-63 B.C.,

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