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Mithridates and the Mithridatic Wars

Death by Gold Ingestion

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Mithridates VI of Pontus

Mithridates VI of Pontus

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Greedy M. Aquilius suggested a course of action that led to the First Mithridatic War and his own ironic execution. Aquilius said that since the Roman proteges in Bithynia and Cappadocia were unable to pay their debt to Rome, they should invade Mithridates' kingdom, instead. To oblige, Nicomedes invaded the territory of Pontus and closed off the Bithynian Black Sea exit for Mithridates' ships.

The First Mithridatic War

Mithridates unsuccessfully turned to Rome for help. When Rome rebuffed him, Mithridates sent his son Ariarathus into Cappadocia to drive its Rome-supported ruler Ariobazares out.

Mithridates then sent an envoy to the Roman commissioners. The Romans accused the envoy of threatening war, and so began the first Mithridatic War. Incidentally, the Senate and the Roman people were supposed to ratify war, but as has also happened in U.S. history, this right/obligation was ignored.

Asiatic Vespers

Mithridates fought back. Since the Roman troops were unprepared, Mithridates knew he could push into the Roman province of Asia. After doing so, Mithridates killed Aquilius (see below), and ordered the massacre of all 80,000+ (according to Plutarch, 150,000) Italians throughout the area. This massacre is known as the Asiatic vespers. It is suggested that this massacre was to insure loyalty, because all those cities who participated in the massacre couldn't switch sides for fear of Roman reprisal.

Mithridates the Merciful and Cruel

Mithridates' reputation for cruelty may not have been deserved. He could also be merciful and generous with the people he conquered. Mithridates rewarded some cities that surrendered with tax relief. He also offered amnesty those who handed over the Roman generals. Aquilius had fled to the island of Lesbos, but its citizens wanted amnesty, so they surrendered him.

Mithridates had treated another Roman general, Oppius, leniently and set him free. Not so Aquilius. Aquilius was forced to endure an ironic death. Since it was his greed that had set the war in motion (persuading the Bithynians and Cappadocians to invade Pontus), Mithridates ordered molten gold poured into Aquilius' mouth. [See Appian reference on Manius Aquillius.]

Mithridates Takes Greece

Mithridates then tried to annex Greece. He encountered little resistance from Greeks tired of the tax-farming Roman equites. By the spring of 87, Mithridates controlled almost all of Asia Minor, Greece, Thrace, part of Macedonia, and dominated the Black Sea and Aegean, with the help of his general, Archelaus.

Sulla

Finally free of pressing business at Rome, Sulla left for Greece and Asia Minor at the beginning of 87. Sulla began a string of successful campaigns. For a while, the Greeks remained loyal to the Pontic king. When it became clear the Romans might be able to restore the old order, the Greeks changed sides, preferring usurious Roman tax-collectors to an Oriental despot.

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