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Mithradates

(c. 132 bc — 163 ad)


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Persian name borne most famously by six of the eight Hellenistic kings of Pontus in Asia Minor.

Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysus

(120–63 bc) was the greatest king of Pontus, and Rome's most dangerous enemy in the 1st cent. bc. After murdering his mother and brother, his next exploit was conquering the Crimea and northern Euxine. Ultimate control of most of the circuit of the Black Sea gave him almost inexhaustible supplies of men and materials for his military campaigns. In Cappadocia he continued to try to exert indirect control through agents. For the more aggressive annexation of Paphlagonia he took as ally his most powerful neighbour, Nicomedes III of Bithynia, but later fell out with him. A famous meeting with Marius in 99/8, and the armed intervention of Sulla in Cappadocia c.95, made it clear that war with Rome was inevitable, and he prepared carefully. While Italy was preoccupied by the Social War, he annexed Bithynia and Cappadocia. Skilful diplomacy, masterly propaganda and Roman overreaction enabled him to cast Rome in the role of aggressor and cause of the First Mithradatic War which followed (89–85). His armies swept all before them in Asia, where he ordered a massacre of resident Romans and Italians (the ‘Asian Vespers’). He failed to capture Rhodes, but was welcomed in Athens and won over most of Greece. The Roman response came in 87, when Sulla arrived in Greece with five legions. He defeated the Pontic armies, besieged and captured Athens, and took the war to Asia. Mithradates surrendered at the Peace of Dardanus, and was allowed to retire to Pontus. The Second Mithradatic War (c.83–81) was no more than a series of skirmishes with Sulla's lieutenant, but when Nicomedes IV of Bithynia died and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, Mithradates again prepared for war. Having allied himself with Sertorius, the Roman rebel in Spain, he invaded Bithynia, thus precipitating the Third Mithradatic War. The advance faltered immediately with a failure to capture Cyzicus, and the Roman forces, ably led by Licinius Lucullus, pushed Eupator out of Pontus into Armenia, where he took refuge with King Tigranes II, his son‐in‐law. He failed to win Parthian support, but was able to return to Pontus in 68. Pompey, newly appointed to the Mithradatic command, easily defeated him, and forced him to retreat to his Crimean kingdom. He was said to be planning to invade Italy by land, when his son led a revolt against him. Inured to poison by years of practice, he had to ask an obliging Gallic bodyguard to run him through with a sword. Mithradates presented himself both as a civilized philhellene—he consciously copied the portraiture and actions of Alexander the Great—and as an oriental monarch, and although in many ways he achieved a remarkably successful fusion of east and west, he failed either to understand or to match the power of Rome.

Subjects: Classical Studies.


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