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King Mithridates of Pontus - Friend and Enemy of the Romans

The Poison King and the Mithridatic Wars

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Photo of Mithridates, from an 1889 edition of

Photo of Mithridates, from an 1889 edition of "Coins of the Ancients", plate #60.

Public Domain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
While still a child, Mithridates, later King Mithridates VI of Pontus, official "friend" of Rome, developed a reputation that included matricide and a paranoid fear of being poisoned.

During the Roman Republic, competing military leaders Sulla and Marius wanted the honor of disposing of the greatest challenge to Roman supremacy since the Punic War general Hannibal Barca. From the end of the second to the middle of the first century B.C, this was the long-lived Mithridates VI of Pontus (132-63 B.C.), a thorn in Rome's side for 40 years. The rivalry between the two Roman generals led to loss of blood at home, but only one of them, Sulla, confronted Mithridates abroad.

Despite the great battlefield competence of Sulla and Marius, and their personal confidence in their ability to check the Eastern despot, it was neither Sulla nor Marius who put an end to the Mithridatic problem. Instead, it was Pompey the Great, who earned his honorific in the process.

Location of Pontus - Home of Mithridates

The mountainous district of Pontus lay on the eastern side of the Black Sea, beyond the province of Asia and Bithynia, north of Galatia and Cappadocia, west of Armenia, and south of Colchis. [See Map of Asia Minor.] It was founded by King Mithridates I Ktistes (301-266 B.C.). In the Third Punic War (149 - 146 B.C.), King Mithridates V Euergetes (r. 150-120) who claimed descent from the Persian King Darius, helped Rome. Rome gave him Phrygia Maior in gratitude. He was the most powerful king in Asia Minor. By the time Rome had annexed Pergamum to create the province of Asia (129 B.C.), the kings of Pontus had moved from their capital in Amasia to rule from the Black Sea port city of Sinope.

Mithridates - Youth and Poison

In 120 B.C., while still a child, Mithridates (Mithradates) Eupator (132-83 B.C.) became king of the area of Asia Minor known as Pontus. His mother may have assassinated her husband, Mithridates V, in order to take power, since she served as regent and ruled in her young sons' stead.

Afraid his mother would try to kill him, Mithridates went into hiding. During this time, Mithridates started ingesting small doses of various poisons in order to develop an immunity. When Mithridates returned (c. 115-111), he took command, imprisoned his mother (and, possibly, ordered her execution), and started to extend his dominion.

After Mithridates acquired Greek towns in Colchis and what's now the Crimea, he developed a strong fleet to hold his territories. But that wasn't all. Since the Greek towns he'd overtaken proved so lucrative, providing resources in the form of revenue, officers, and mercenary soldiers, Mithridates wanted to increase his Greek holdings.

Next page > Mithridates expands his empire >Page 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Print Sources
H. H. Scullard's revised version of F.B. Marsh's Roman World 146-30 B.C.
Cambridge Ancient History Vol. IX, 1994.

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