1st Century B.C. Rome Timeline > Sulla and the Social War > The Mithridatic Wars
In 129 B.C., Rome annexed the Kingdom of Pergamum, on the western end of Asia Minor. Rome turned Pergamum into the province of Asia. In 103, Rome acquired portions of Cilicia [see Map #2] so it could suppress piracy along the southern coast of Asia Minor. Sulla was sent there in 92 to govern as propraetor. While in the area, he settled a dispute between the rulers of Pontus and Bithynia over Cappadocia. The leader of Pontus promised to comply, but he wasn't forced to keep his word because of events in Rome and the death of his Bithynian opponent. Rome couldn't worry too much about this region, though, because of its problems closer to home.
Mithradates, of Persian and Macedonian ancestry, inherited Pontus, a wealthy, mountainous kingdom in the northeast of modern Turkey, on the Black Sea, in about 120 B.C. Mithradates was ambitious and allied himself with other local kingdoms in the area, creating an empire that may have offered greater opportunities for wealth for its residents than that offered people conquered and taxed by Rome. Greek cities asked for Mithradates' help against their foes. Even Scythian nomads became allies and mercenary soldiers, as did pirates. As his empire spread, one of his challenges was to defend his people and allies against Rome. Fortunately, Mithradates was strong in mercenaries led by capable Greeks.
Meanwhile, a Roman envoy named Manius Aquilius had been sent to Asia to settle the Cappadocia/Bithynia problem, which he did, but he also created new ones by urging the rightful king of Bithynia to attack areas long controlled by Pontus.
1st Mithridatic War 88-84 B.C.
On a spring day in 88 B.C., in a plot Mithradates masterminded, all Romans and Italians living in certain Anatolian cities were killed. Perhaps as many as 150,000 were massacred; even those who had sought sanctuary in temples. Then Mithradates army liberated mainland Greece from Roman control and exploitation.
Rome was embroiled in its own problems, but now clearly had to do something about the Mithridatic problem.
In 87, Sulla returned to the east, landing in the Greek city of Epirus. Greeks in the area switched alliances from Mithradates to Rome. Sulla went to the area near Athens known as Boeotia where he defeated two of Mithradates' generals. He then invaded Athens, but his lack of a fleet made it difficult. Sulla sent L. Licinius Lucullus, brother-in-law of Clodius Pulcher of Cicero and Catullus-fame, to acquire ships. Meanwhile Sulla succeeded in cutting off Athens from its harbor and defeat the city. Many were slaughtered, but the city was saved. He then defeated the Greek-Pontic forces at Chaeronea, causing serious loss to Mithradates' forces, in March 86.
After Sulla defeated Mithradates in Boeotia at Orchomenus in 85, the Pontic king left Europe.
Following the death of Marius while in office, the Roman replacement or suffect consul of 86 B.C. was Valerius Flaccus. He led an army to Asia to replace the forces of Sulla, who didn't want to be relieved and didn't know Flaccus was coming. After arriving in Thessaly Flaccus chose to head to the Hellespont, preferring to confront Mithradates than Sulla.
Flaccus' troops mutinied and killed him, replacing him with his legate C. Flavius Fimbria, who captured Pergamum, which had become Mithradates' capital. By this time, Sulla had a fleet and could cross the Hellespont (the strait between Greece and Asia Minor joining the Aegean Sea and Propontis), but he wanted to return to Rome to deal with Cinna.
Before Sulla returned to the West, Mithradates was ready to deal with him. According to the treaty they agreed to, Mithradates kept Pontus, but Sulla forced him to give up the section of Paphlagonia he had earlier promised to withdraw from, give up prisoners and deserters, and give Sulla what he had needed so badly, war ships and lots of money. Sulla then stationed Fimbria's men in an Asian garrison, restored the vassals and organization of the Roman province of Asia, and collected what became crippling fines.
2nd Mithridatic War 83-81 B.C.
Sulla's legate Murena was left in charge of Fimbria's legions. When Mithridates began making preparations to fight local peoples, the Romans read the movements as a threat to them, and so Murena marched into Cappadocia where he faced Mithradates's forces at Comana, a country Mithradates ruled. Murena plundered this and other territories owned by Mithradates according to treaty. The king wrote to Sulla for help since Murena was violating treaty terms.
Although Rome sent Quintus Calidius to tell Murena to stop, Murena refused. Appian says Murena refused because there wasn't the proper official paperwork and that Mithradates took Murena's continued aggression as implying Rome's approval. The king prepared for battle and won a victory over Murena. The desist message to Murena was repeated, and this time, obeyed. Treaty terms were shortly revised and the second Mithridatic War ended.
After Sulla had returned to Rome to deal with Cinna's regime he was made dictator with absolute power in Rome. He was responsible for bloody proscriptions and controversial constitutional reforms. The proscriptions meant death and confiscation of property. It was at this time, 81, that Sulla abolished the grain distribution. (In 73, this was restored.) Sulla removed the equites (equestrian, merchant class) from public juries -- returning the power of the courts to the Senate, and prevented tribunes from introducing legislation and running for further magistracies. Pompey and Crassus would later promise restoration of these powers to further their political careers.
By 77, Marius' old ally Sertorius held Spain like a rebel kingdom opposing illegal affairs in Sullan Rome. Sertorius was considered a threat and so Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius was sent to replace him as governor of Further Spain following his consulship in 80. Sertorius wouldn't give up his post. He was popular and had allied himself with both Celtiberian leaders and pirates. In perhaps 76/75 B.C., Sertorius negotiated a treaty with Mithradates, recognizing his claims in Bithynia and Cappadocia in exchange for military help. In 76, Sullan supporter Pompey the Great was sent to Spain to deal with Sertorius.
Pompey's forces and those of Metellus fought against Sertorius near Saguntum in 75. The legitimate Roman forces withdrew, but by the next year, Sertorius' power had diminished. In 73, Sertorius was killed by Perperna (another Roman rebel and former ally of Sertorius in Spain), whom Pompey defeated and killed, ending the Spanish war, in 71. Pompey returned to Rome in time to provide Rome with more of his mopping up services in connection with the Spartacans.
3rd Mithridatic War 75-63 B.C.
A new war with Mithradates broke out after the king of Bithynia bequeathed his kingdom to Rome in 75 or 74 B.C. Mithradates invaded Bithynia and sent his forces around Asia. Rome sent Lucullus to Asia. Cotta, Lucullus' consular colleague, was sent to Bithynia with a fleet; Lucullus was assigned land issues and the province of Asia and Cilicia. He had to discipline the men left by Sulla at the garrison in Asia. While so engaged, Mithradates beat Cotta at Chalcedon and then went on to put Czyicus under siege. Lucullus was able to help Cotta cut off Mithrdates, who withdrew, but in his retreat, lost a large part of his army. In 73, the Roman fleet, cleaned the Aegean of Mithridatic ships. Lucullus invaded Pontus and defeated Mithradates in battle at Cabira.
Crassus had been left as general in Italy, where he soon had to deal with the uprising of the slaves led by Spartacus starting in 73.
Mithradates fled to Armenia to get help from his ally Tigranes. Meanwhile, Lucullus captured most of Pontus by the middle of the year 70. He moderated the taxing situation of a bankrupt Asia at the expense of equestrian bankers back home.
Mithradates was still a threat, so Lucullus told Tigranes to give up Mithradates. Tigranes refused, so Lucullus attacked territories Tigranes had recently annexed (in 69). Tigranes met Lucullus in battle and was defeated. Syria had been in Tigranes' hands. Now it was in Roman ones, but the Roman troops were unhappy with Lucullus' leadership. When Lucullus advanced into Armenia, his men, incited by Clodius Pulcher, refused to fight, so Lucullus had to withdraw to Mesopotamia, where he captured Nisibis and made it his winter headquarters. Tigranes recovered many of his losses and Mithradates defeated Romans in Pontus.
Meanwhile piracy was plaguing Rome. At first its base had been in Cilicia, and then in Crete. Finally Pompey was given powers to dispense of the pirate menace, which he did, and was then given control of all of Asia Minor by means of the Manilian Law.
In the spring of 66. Pompey invaded Pontus and defeated Mithradates' last army at Nicopolis. Tigranes would no longer help, but submitted to Pompey and Rome. Pompey's (unearned) victory was complete when Mithradates was killed in his hideout in the Crimea.
- The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor
- From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 BC to AD 68, by H. H. Scullard
- "How Democratic Was the Roman Republic?" by Allen M. Ward; New England Classical Journal 31.2 (2004)