Mithradates VI Eupator

Mithradates VI Eupator
known as Mithradates the Great
(Latin; Born of a Noble Father)

died 63 BC, Panticapaeum

King of Pontus (120–63 BC) and enemy of Rome.

As a boy he was coruler with his mother from с 120, then overthrew her to become sole ruler in 115. He gradually conquered areas along the western and southern regions of the Black Sea. He waged three wars against Rome, called the Mithradatic Wars (88–85, 83–82, 74–63). Though he originally seemed a champion to Greeks seeking relief from the Roman threat, his defeat by Sulla (86) destroyed that hope. When it became necessary, he extorted money and supplies from his Greek territories in Asia Minor. Greek revolts led to cruel reprisals. Greece turned to Rome after 86 but suffered under the harsh demands of both until Mithradates was conclusively defeated by Pompey. He was one of the few leaders to successfully challenge Roman expansion in Asia.

Mithradates VI, bust in the Louvre, Paris

Cliche Musees Nationaux, Paris

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▪ king of Pontus
in full  Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysus , byname  Mithradates the Great , Mithradates also spelled  Mithridates  
died 63 BC, Panticapaeum [now in Ukraine]
 king of Pontus in northern Anatolia (120–63 BC). Under his energetic leadership, Pontus expanded to absorb several of its small neighbours and, briefly, contested Rome (ancient Rome)'s hegemony in Asia Minor.

      Mithradates the Great was the sixth—and last—Pontic ruler by that name. Mithradates (meaning “gift of [the god] Mithra”) was a common name among Anatolian rulers of the age. When Mithradates VI succeeded his father, Mithradates Euergetes, in 120 BC, he was then only a boy, and for a few years his mother ruled in his place. About 115 BC, she was deposed and thrown into prison by her son, who thereafter ruled alone. Mithradates began his long career of conquest by dispatching successful expeditions to the Crimea and to Colchis (on the eastern shore of the Black Sea). Both districts were added to the Pontic kingdom. To the Greeks of the Tauric Chersonese (Chersonese, Tauric) and the Cimmerian Bosporus (Bosporus, Kingdom of the) (Crimea and Straits of Kerch), Mithradates was a deliverer from their Scythian enemies, and they gladly surrendered their independence in return for the protection given to them by his armies. In Anatolia, however, the royal dominions had been considerably diminished after the death of Mithradates V: Paphlagonia had freed itself, and Phrygia (c. 116 BC) had been linked to the Roman province of Asia. Mithradates' first move there was to partition Paphlagonia and Galatia between himself and Nicomedes III of Bithynia, but next he quarreled with Nicomedes over Cappadocia. On two occasions he was successful at first but then deprived of his advantage by Roman intervention (c. 95 and 92). While appearing to acquiesce, he resolved to expel the Romans from Asia. A first attempt to depose Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, who was completely subservient to the Romans, was frustrated (c. 90). Then Nicomedes, instigated by Rome, attacked Pontic territory, and Mithradates, after protesting in vain to the Romans, finally declared war (88).

      Nicomedes and the Roman armies were defeated and flung back to the coasts of the Propontis and the Aegean. The Roman province of Asia was occupied, and most of the Greek cities in western Asia Minor allied themselves with Mithradates, though a few held out against him, such as Rhodes, which he besieged unsuccessfully. He also sent large armies into Greece, where Athens and other cities took his side. But the Roman generals, Sulla (Sulla, Lucius Cornelius) in Greece and Fimbria in Asia, defeated his forces in several battles during 86 and 85. In 88 he had arranged a general massacre of the Roman and Italian residents in Asia (80,000 are said to have perished), in order that the Greek (ancient Greek civilization) cities, as his accessories in the crime, should feel irrevocably committed to the struggle against Rome. As the war turned against him, his former leniency toward the Greeks changed to severity; every kind of intimidation was resorted to—deportations, murders, freeing of slaves. But this reign of terror could not prevent the cities from deserting to the victorious side. In 85, when the war was clearly lost, he made peace with Sulla in the Treaty of Dardanus, abandoning his conquests, surrendering his fleet, and paying a large fine.

      In what is called the Second Mithradatic War, the Roman general Lucius Licinius Murena invaded Pontus without provocation in 83 but was defeated in 82. Hostilities were suspended, but disputes constantly occurred, and in 74 a general war broke out. Mithradates defeated Marius Aurelius Cotta, the Roman consul, at Chalcedon, but Lucullus (Lucullus, Lucius Licinius) worsted him outside Cyzicus (73) and drove him, in 72, to take refuge in Armenia with his son-in-law Tigranes (Tigranes II The Great). After scoring two great victories at Tigranocerta (69) and Artaxata (68), Lucullus was disconcerted by the defeat of his lieutenants and by mutiny among his troops. In 66 Lucullus was superseded by Pompey (Pompey the Great), who completely defeated both Mithradates and Tigranes.

      Mithradates then established himself in 64 at Panticapaeum (Kerch) on the Cimmerian Bosporus and was planning an invasion of Italy by way of the Danube when his own troops, led by his son Pharnaces II, revolted against him. After failing in an attempt to poison himself, Mithradates ordered a Gallic mercenary to kill him. His body was sent to Pompey, who buried it in the royal sepulchre at Sinope, the Pontic capital.

      Mithradates was a man of great stature and physical strength, a brave fighter, and a keen hunter. He was also ruthless and cruel. But it cannot be denied that Mithradates was a ruler of astonishing energy and determination, or that he possessed political skill of a high order. That he was one of the few men to offer a serious challenge to the Roman Republic is sufficient testimony to his ability. He organized the forces at his disposal very effectively, and he had a good grasp of strategy. He was unlucky in having to face three exceptionally brilliant Roman generals; unlucky, too, in coming to power at a time when the Hellenistic (Hellenistic Age) world was in the final stage of its collapse. It is quite conceivable that had he been born a century earlier he could have constructed an enduring Greco-Asiatic empire. A cunning, brutal tyrant, he concerned himself solely with maintaining and strengthening his own power. He posed as the champion of Hellenism, but this was mainly to further his political ambitions; it is no proof that he was deeply imbued with Greek culture or that he felt a mission to promote its extension within his domains. Hellenism made advances in Pontus during his reign, as it had under his predecessors, but this was a natural process. He treated all alike; Greek, Roman, and Asian were welcome at his court provided that they could be of use to him (his military subordinates were mostly Greeks, though in later years he employed several Roman renegades), but he trusted no one. Just as it is impossible to speak of his favouring one religion or culture above another, so it is impossible to believe that he had any notion of bringing Greeks and Asians closer together in a new kind of political and social system. His posing as a liberator of the Greeks from Roman oppression and, later, his encouragement of social revolution in the Greek cities of the province of Asia can only be interpreted, in both cases, as the actions of an opportunist seeking immediate political advantages.

Roger Henry Simpson

Additional Reading
Important modern works include B.C. McGing, The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontos (1986); John G.F. Hind, “Mithridates,” chapter 5 in The Cambridge Ancient History, 2nd ed., vol. 9, The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146–43 B.C. (1994), ed. by J.A. Crook, Andrew Lintott, and Elizabeth Rawson, pp. 129–164. Alfred Duggan, He Died Old: Mithradates Eupator, King of Pontos (1958, reissued 1974; also published as King of Pontus: The Life of Mithradates Eupator, 1959), is popular and lively. Ed.

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Universalium. 2010.

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