King Mithridates VI was a formidable, ruthless and ambitious ruler whose life was defined by an unyielding defiance against the Roman Republic, an insatiable fascination with poisons driven by the fear of assassination, and the tragic betrayal by his own blood.
A skilled warrior and tactician, Mithridates’ bloody wars against Rome showcased not only his military prowess but also his enduring spirit of resistance against seemingly insurmountable odds. His reign, characterised by triumph, tragedy, and timeless intrigue, has immortalised him as one of history’s most compelling and enigmatic rulers.
Indeed his reign was marked by a complex interplay of expansion, alliances, and conflicts, both external and internal. The kingdom faced significant challenges, particularly from the growing power of Rome, which ultimately led to the fall of the Pontic dynasty.
This is the remarkable life and times of Mithridates the Great.
The Early Life of Mithridates of Pontus
Like many of the historical figures from the second and first century BC, facts about Mithridates are scarce. Indeed almost all that we know about Mithridates has been told by – almost certainly hostile – Roman chroniclers, such as Plutarch and Appian who lived one to two centuries after Mithridates’ death.
While their commentary is naturally skewed in favour of Rome, their writings make clear their admiration for his persistence, resolve and defence of the freedom of his people in the face of the seeming injustice of Roman domination.
Mithridates VI was the son of King Mithridates V Euergetes and Queen Laodice VI, and was born somewhere around 135 BC – 132 BC in the modern-day Turkish city of Sinop on the Black Sea coast. The kingdom of Pontus itself was located in the northeastern part of modern-day Turkey, stretching along the southern coast of the Black Sea. It reached its territorial zenith under Mithridates VI, however his expansionist policy brought him into direct conflict with the Roman Republic, resulting in the famous Mithridatic Wars.
When his father was killed, possibly poisoned, in approximately 120 BC, Mithridates – meaning ‘a gift from the god Mithra’ – was made king. He was too young to rule on his own so his mother acted as regent. However it was said she preferred his younger brother and plotted against the young king.
When Mithridates VI was somewhere between fifteen and twenty years old, he removed his mother and brother from the royal court and imprisoned them both. His mother supposedly died in prison while his brother may have been tried for treason and executed. It was this early experience of brutality within his own family that likely shaped Mithridates’ later paranoia, and his obsession with poisons and assassination attempts.
Mithradates Eupator Dionysus, as he was also known, was now the sole ruler of Pontus. He was about to embark on a career of conquest.
Mithridates VI: The Conqueror
Upon assuming power, Mithradates continued his father’s policy of expansion by subjugating Colchis, a Black Sea coast region in modern-day Georgia. A number of additional cities on the Crimean Peninsula surrendered to him in return for protection. He then attacked the Sarmatians and the Scythians, nomadic people from eastern Iran, adding their soldiers to his forces.
During this time, he negotiated complex trade agreements with neighbouring nations and instituted reforms in the economy and the law.
The Mithridatic Wars: 88 BC - 63 BC
With Roman political and economic power growing in the eastern Mediterranean and Asia Minor – much of modern-day Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Syria and Cyprus – the regional hegemony of Mithridates of Pontus was threatened. This prompted him into action.
At the same time, the Social War in Rome (91 BC – 87 BC) pitted the Roman Republic against its autonomous allies in Italy, causing internal divisions within the Roman world. Mithridates sought to take advantage of these internecine struggles to take on Rome while it was at its weakest. Conflict now became inevitable.
The First Mithridatic War
The First Mithridatic War lasted for four years between 89 BC and 85 BC, and pitted Mithridates the Great against the forces of the Roman Republic.
An initial battle ended with a victory for Pontus and Mithridates ordered the genocide of up to 80,000 Italian and Roman expatriate settlers in his lands. Some sources put the number as high as 150,000. This was known as the Asiatic Vespers.
However, despite overwhelmingly superior numbers – it has been suggested that Mithridates commanded around 350,000 combatants against something like 130,000 Romans and Greeks – the Romans, now under the command of general Lucius Cornelius Sulla, secured a decisive victory.
Peace was declared in the Treaty of Dardanus signed in 84 BC, Mithridates surrendered his fleet and paid a huge tribute to Rome.
The Second Mithridatic War
The Second Mithridatic War (83-82 BC) began when Roman commander Murena, suspecting Mithridates of preparing for war, attacked Comana, violating the peace treaty established after the first war. Despite Mithridates’ envoys invoking the treaty, Murena continued to plunder Mithridates’ territories. The Pontic King initially refrained from retaliation, but after a series of provocations, a fierce battle ensued, resulting in Murena’s defeat. Many Asian states now shifted allegiance from Rome to Mithridates. Eventually, Roman officials intervened, leading to a reconciliation between Mithridates and Rome, thus ending the war.
The Third Mithridatic War and the Downfall of Mithridates
The third and final Mithridatic War lasted for a decade between 73 BC and 63 BC. The war began when Mithridates launched an attack on Roman territories in the east, taking advantage of a revolt in the Spanish provinces which had left Rome with limited resources.
The Senate sent Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Marcus Aurelius Cotta to counter the Pontic threat. Mithridates rapidly advanced westward, seizing key cities before besieging Cyzicus. Lucullus arrived and established a counter-siege, trapping Mithridates’ army. After a disastrous retreat and multiple defeats, Mithridates sought refuge in Armenia with his son-in-law King Tigranes. Lucullus consolidated Roman control over Pontus, while Cotta returned to Rome.
Outmanoeuvring the Roman forces once more, Mithridates was able to once again return to Pontus, and stunned the Roman forces with victory at the Battle of Zela. With Lucullus’ authority over his army weakened, he withdrew to Galatia, and Pompey was sent to succeed him in 66 BC. Mithridates used the lull to retake parts of his kingdom, but Pompey pursued Mithridates, cornering and defeating him at the Battle of Lycus.
The Third Mithridatic War marked the end of the Pontic Kingdom’s resistance and the expansion of Roman influence in the region.
Exile and Death
Mithradates fled to Panticapaeum in the Crimea where, undeterred, he planned to raise an even bigger army to take on the Romans, but it was not to be. After murdering his eldest son – who had aligned himself with Rome – his younger son Pharnaces II led a rebellion against Mithradates, and finally the game was up. In 63 BC, instead of risking capture and a shameful parade through Rome, he asked a servant to run him through with a sword.
Mithridates of Pontus: His Obsession with Poisons
Perhaps due to his lifelong fear of treachery and assassination, Mithridates the Great – an epithet given to him after he died – developed a resistance to poisons by ingesting small sub-lethal amounts. This practice started when he was young and became known as mithridatism or mithridatisation.
It was said that he also developed a universal antidote to poisons called mithridate containing up to sixty-five different ingredients. Indeed it was used until the Renaissance and an updated version was in use until the nineteenth century.
Ironically, it’s believed that he tried to poison himself after his sons had betrayed him, but failed due to the resistance he had built up to the poisons.
The Legacy of Mithridates VI
Mithridates of Pontus was a warrior-king who defied the seemingly invincible Roman Republic, challenging its relentless advance and carving out his own empire along the southern coast of the Black Sea.
Ruthless and unwaveringly ambitious, he was one of very few in the annals of history who offered a serious challenge to the might of Rome. He was a soldier, a scientist, a liberator and a mass-murderer. He was seen by some as a hero and by others as the ultimate villain, and the legacy of King Mithridates VI stretches far beyond the confines of his once-vast empire.