Mithridates VI of Pontus
|King of Kings|
Mithridates VI from the Musée du Louvre
|Successor||Pharnaces II of Pontus|
|Father||Mithridates V of Pontus|
Mithridates VI or Mithradates VI ([pronunciation?]; Greek: Μιθραδάτης, Μιθριδάτης), from Old Persian Mithradatha, "gift of Mithra"; 134–63 BC, also known as Mithradates the Great (Megas) and Eupator Dionysius, was king of Pontus and Armenia Minor in northern Anatolia (now Turkey) from about 120–63 BC. Mithridates is remembered as one of the Roman Republic’s most formidable and successful enemies, who engaged three of the prominent generals from the late Roman Republic in the Mithridatic Wars: Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Gnaeus Pompey Magnus. He is often considered the greatest ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus.
Ancestry, family and early life
Mithridates was a prince of Persian and Greek ancestry. He claimed descent from Cyrus the Great, from the family of Darius the Great, the Regent Antipater and from the generals of Alexander the Great and later kings: Antigonus I Monophthalmus and Seleucus I Nicator. Mithridates was born in the Pontic city of Sinope, and was raised in the Kingdom of Pontus. He was the first son and among the children born to Laodice VI and Mithridates V of Pontus (reigned 150–120 BC). His father, Mithridates V, was a prince and the son of the former Pontic Monarchs Pharnaces I of Pontus and his wife-cousin Nysa. His mother, Laodice VI, was a Seleucid Princess and the daughter of the Seleucid Monarchs Antiochus IV Epiphanes and his wife-sister Laodice IV.
Mithridates V was assassinated in about 120 BC in Sinope, poisoned by unknown persons at a lavish banquet which he held. In the will of Mithridates V, he left the Kingdom to the joint rule of Laodice VI, Mithridates and his younger brother, Mithridates Chrestus. Mithridates and his younger brother were both under aged to rule and their mother retained all power as regent. Laodice VI’s regency over Pontus was from 120 BC to 116 BC (even perhaps up to 113 BC) and favored Mithridates Chrestus over Mithridates. During his mother’s regency, he escaped from his mother's plots against him, and went into hiding.
Mithridates emerged from hiding and returned to Pontus between 116 BC and 113 BC and was hailed King. He removed his mother and brother from the throne, imprisoning both, and became the sole ruler of Pontus. Laodice VI died in prison of natural causes. Mithridates Chrestus may have died in prison from natural causes or was tried for treason and executed. Mithridates gave both a royal funeral. Mithridates first married his younger sister Laodice, aged 16. He married her to preserve the purity of their bloodline, and to co-rule over Pontus, to ensure the succession to his legitimate children, and to solidify his claim to the throne.
Mithridates entertained ambitions of making his state the dominant power in the Black Sea and Anatolia. After he subjugated Colchis, the king of Pontus clashed for supremacy in the Pontic steppe with the Scythian King Palacus. The most important centres of Crimea, Tauric Chersonesus and the Bosporan Kingdom readily surrendered their independence in return for Mithridates' promises to protect them against the Scythians, their ancient enemies. After several abortive attempts to invade the Crimea, the Scythians and the allied Rhoxolanoi suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Pontic general Diophantus and accepted Mithridates as their overlord. The young king then turned his attention to Anatolia, where Roman power was on the rise. He contrived to partition Paphlagonia and Galatia with King Nicomedes III of Bithynia. It soon became clear to Mithridates that Nicomedes was steering his country into an anti-Pontic alliance with the expanding Roman Republic. When Mithridates fell out with Nicomedes over control of Cappadocia, and defeated him in a series of battles, the latter was constrained to openly enlist the assistance of Rome. The Romans twice interfered in the conflict on behalf of Nicomedes (95 – 92 BC), leaving Mithridates, should he wish to continue the expansion of his kingdom, with little choice other than to engage in a future Roman-Pontic war.
The next ruler of Bithynia, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia, was a figurehead manipulated by the Romans. Mithridates plotted to overthrow him, but his attempts failed and Nicomedes IV, instigated by his Roman advisors, declared war on Pontus. Rome itself was involved in the Social War, a civil war with its Italian allies. Thus, in all of Roman Asia Province there were only two legions present in Macedonia. These legions combined with Nicomedes IV's army to invade Mithridates' kingdom of Pontus in 89 BC. Mithridates, however, won a decisive victory, scattering the Roman-led forces. His victorious forces were welcomed throughout Anatolia. The following year, 88 BC, Mithridates orchestrated a massacre of Roman and Italian settlers remaining in several Anatolian cities, essentially wiping out the Roman presence in the region. This episode is known as the Asiatic Vespers. The Kingdom of Pontus comprised a mixed population in its Ionian Greek and Anatolian cities. The royal family moved the capital from Amasya to the Greek city of Sinope. Its rulers tried to fully assimilate the potential of their subjects by showing a Greek face to the Greek world and an Iranian/Anatolian face to the Eastern world. Whenever the gap between the rulers and their Anatolian subjects became greater, they would put emphasis on their Persian origins. In this manner, the royal propaganda claimed heritage both from Persian and Greek rulers, including Cyrus the Great, Darius I of Persia, Alexander the Great and Seleucus I Nicator. Mithridates too posed as the champion of Hellenism, but this was mainly to further his political ambitions; it is no proof that he felt a mission to promote its extension within his domains. Whatever his true intentions, the Greek cities (including Athens) defected to the side of Mithridates and welcomed his armies in mainland Greece, while his fleet besieged the Romans at Rhodes. Neighboring King of Armenia Tigranes the Great, established an alliance with Mithridates and married one of Mithridates’ daughters, Cleopatra of Pontus. They would support each other in the coming conflict with Rome.
The Romans responded by organising a large invasion force to defeat him and remove him from power.The First Mithridatic War, fought between 88 BC and 84 BC, saw Lucius Cornelius Sulla force Mithridates VI out of Greece proper. After victory in several battles, Sulla received news of trouble back in Rome posed by his enemy Gaius Marius and hurriedly concluded peace talks with Mithridates. As Sulla returned to Italy Lucius Licinius Murena was left in charge of Roman forces in Anatolia. The lenient peace treaty, which was never ratified by the Senate, allowed Mithridates VI to recoup his forces. Murena attacked Mithridates in 83 BC, provoking the Second Mithridatic War from 83 BC to 81 BC. Mithridates scored a victory over Murena's green forces before peace was again declared by treaty.
When Rome attempted to annex Bithynia (bequested to Rome by its last king) nearly a decade later, Mithridates VI attacked with an even larger army, leading to the Third Mithridatic War from 73 BC to 63 BC. First Lucullus and then Pompey were sent against Mithridates VI, who surged back to retake his kingdom of Pontus, but was at last defeated by Pompey. After his defeat by Pompey in 63 BC, Mithridates VI fled with a small army from Colchis (modern Georgia) over the Caucasus Mountains to Crimea and made plans to raise yet another army to take on the Romans. His eldest living son, Machares, viceroy of Cimmerian Bosporus, was unwilling to aid his father. Mithridates had Machares killed, and Mithridates took the throne of the Bosporan Kingdom. Mithridates then ordered the conscriptions and preparations for war. In 63 BC, Pharnaces II of Pontus, one of his sons, led a rebellion against his father, joined by Roman exiles in the core of Mithridates' Pontic army. Mithridates withdrew to the citadel in Panticapaeum, where he committed suicide. Pompey buried Mithridates in the rock-cut tombs of his ancestors in Amasya, the old capital of Pontus.
During the time of the First Mithridatic War, a group of Mithridates' friends plotted to kill him. These were Mynnio and Philotimus of Smyrna, and Cleisthenes and Asclepiodotus of Lesbos. Asclepiodotus changed his mind and became an informant. He arranged to have Mithridates hide under a couch to hear the plot against him. The other conspirators were tortured and executed. However, this was not enough for Mithridates, who also killed all of the plotters' families and friends.
Where his ancestors pursued philhellenism as a means of attaining respectability and prestige among the Hellenistic kingdoms, Mithridates VI made use of Hellenism as a political tool. As protector of Greek cities on the Black Sea and in Asia against barbarism, Mithridates VI logically became protector of Greece and Greek culture, and would use this stance in his clashes with Rome. Strabo mentions that Chersonesus buckled under the pressure of the barbarians and asked Mithridates VI to become its protector (7.4.3. c.308). The most impressive symbol of Mithridates VI's approbation with Greece (Athens in particular) appears at Delos: a heroon dedicated to the Pontic king in 102/1 by the Athenian Helianax, a priest of Poseidon Aisios. A dedication at Delos, by Dicaeus, a priest of Sarapis, was made in 94/93 BC on behalf of the Athenians, Romans, and "King Mithridates Eupator Dionysus." Greek styles mixed with Persian elements also abound on official Pontic coins – Perseus was favored as an intermediary between both worlds, East and West. Certainly influenced by Alexander the Great, Mithridates VI extended his propaganda from "defender" of Greece to the "great liberator" of the Greek world as war with Roman Republic became inevitable. The Romans were easily translated into "barbarians", in the same sense as the Persian Empire during the war with Persia in the first half of the 5th century BC and during Alexander's campaign. How many Greeks genuinely bought into this claim will never be known. It served its purpose, however. At least partially because of it, Mithridates VI was able to fight the First War with Rome on Greek soil, and maintain the allegiance of Greece. His campaign for the allegiance of the Greeks was aided in no small part by his enemy Sulla, who allowed his troops to sack the city of Delphi and plunder many of the city's most famous treasures to help finance his military expenses.
When Mithridates VI was at last defeated by Pompey and in danger of capture by Rome, he is alleged to have attempted suicide by poison; this attempt failed, however, because of his immunity to the poison. According to Appian's Roman History, he then requested his Gaulish bodyguard and friend, Bituitus, to kill him by the sword:
- Mithridates then took out some poison that he always carried next to his sword, and mixed it. There two of his daughters, who were still girls growing up together, named Mithridates and Nysa, who had been betrothed to the kings of [Ptolemaic] Egypt and of Cyprus, asked him to let them have some of the poison first, and insisted strenuously and prevented him from drinking it until they had taken some and swallowed it. The drug took effect on them at once; but upon Mithridates, although he walked around rapidly to hasten its action, it had no effect, because he had accustomed himself to other drugs by continually trying them as a means of protection against poisoners. These are still called the Mithridatic drugs.
- Seeing a certain Bituitus there, an officer of the Gauls, he said to him, "I have profited much from your right arm against my enemies. I shall profit from it most of all if you will kill me, and save from the danger of being led in a Roman triumph one who has been an autocrat so many years, and the ruler of so great a kingdom, but who is now unable to die by poison because, like a fool, he has fortified himself against the poison of others. Although I have kept watch and ward against all the poisons that one takes with his food, I have not provided against that domestic poison, always the most dangerous to kings, the treachery of army, children, and friends." Bituitus, thus appealed to, rendered the king the service that he desired. (XVI, §111)
Cassius Dio Roman History, on the other hand, records his death as murder:
- Mithridates had tried to make away with himself, and after first removing his wives and remaining children by poison, he had swallowed all that was left; yet neither by that means nor by the sword was he able to perish by his own hands. For the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him, since he had inured his constitution to it, taking precautionary antidotes in large doses every day; and the force of the sword blow was lessened on account of the weakness of his hand, caused by his age and present misfortunes, and as a result of taking the poison, whatever it was. When, therefore, he failed to take his life through his own efforts and seemed to linger beyond the proper time, those whom he had sent against his son fell upon him and hastened his end with their swords and spears. Thus Mithridates, who had experienced the most varied and remarkable fortune, had not even an ordinary end to his life. For he desired to die, albeit unwillingly, and though eager to kill himself was unable to do so; but partly by poison and partly by the sword he was at once self-slain and murdered by his foes. (Book 37, chapter 13)
At the behest of Pompey, Mithridates' body was later buried alongside his ancestors (in Sinope, Book 37, chapter 14). Mount Mithridat in the central Kerch and the town of Yevpatoria in Crimea commemorate his name.
In his youth, after the assassination of his father Mithridates V in 120 BC, Mithridates is said to have lived in the wilderness for seven years, inuring himself to hardship. While there, and after his accession, he cultivated an immunity to poisons by regularly ingesting sub-lethal doses of the same. He invented a complex "universal antidote" against poisoning; several versions are described in the literature. Aulus Cornelius Celsus gives one in his De Medicina and names it Antidotum Mithridaticum, whence English mithridate. Pliny the Elder's version comprised 54 ingredients to be placed in a flask and matured for at least two months. After Mithridates' death in 63 BC, many imperial Roman physicians claimed to possess and improve on the original formula, which they touted as Mithradatium. In keeping with most medical practices of his era, Mithridates' anti-poison routines included a religious component; they were supervised by the Agari, a group of Scythian shamans who never left him. Mithridates was reportedly guarded in his sleep by a horse, a bull, and a stag, which would whinny, bellow, and bleat whenever anyone approached the royal bed.
Mithridates as polyglot
In Pliny the Elder's account of famous polyglots, Mithridates could speak the languages of all the twenty-two nations he governed. This reputation led to the use of Mithridates' name as title in some later works on comparative linguistics, such as Conrad Gessner's Mithridates de differentis linguis, (1555), and Adelung and Vater's Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachenkunde (1806–1817).
Wives, mistresses and children
Mithridates VI had wives and mistresses, by whom he had various children. The names he gave his children are a representation of his Persian, Greek heritage and of his ancestry.
- First wife, his sister Laodice. They were married from 115/113 BC till about 90 BC. Mithridates with Laodice had various children:
- Sons: Mithridates, Arcathius, Machares and Pharnaces II of Pontus
- Daughters: Cleopatra of Pontus (sometimes called Cleopatra the Elder to distinguish her from her sister of the same name) and Drypetina (a diminutive form of "Drypetis"). Drypetina was Mithridates VI’s most devoted daughter. Her baby teeth never fell out, so she had a double set of teeth.
- Second wife, the Greek Macedonian Noblewoman, Monime. They were married from about 89/88 BC till 72/71 BC. By whom, he had:
- Third wife, Greek woman Berenice of Chios, married from 86–72/71 BC
- Fourth wife, Greek woman Stratonice of Pontus, married from after 86–63 BC
- Son: Xiphares
- Fifth wife, unknown
- Sixth wife, Caucasian woman Hypsicratea, married from an unknown date to 63 BC
His sons born from his concubine were Cyrus, Xerxes, Darius, Ariarathes IX of Cappadocia, Artaphernes, Oxathres, Phoenix (Mithridates’ son by a mistress of Syrian descent) and Exipodras. His daughters born from his concubine were Nysa, Eupatra, Cleopatra the Younger, Mithridates and Orsabaris. Nysa and Mithridates, were engaged to the Egyptian Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy XII Auletes and his brother Ptolemy of Cyprus.
In 63 BC, when the Kingdom of Pontus was annexed by the Roman general Pompey the remaining sisters, wives, mistresses and children of Mithridates VI in Pontus were put to death. Plutarch writing in his lives (Pompey v.45) states that Mithridates' sister and five of his children took part in Pompey's triumphal procession on this return to Rome in 61 BC.
The Cappadocian Greek nobleman and high priest of the temple-state of Comana, Cappadocia Archelaus had descended from Mithridates VI. He claimed to be a son of Mithridates VI, however chronologically Archelaus may have been a maternal grandson of the Pontic King, who his father was Mithridates VI’s favorite general may have married one of the daughters of Mithridates VI.
- There was a king reigned in the East:
- There, when kings will sit to feast,
- They get their fill before they think
- With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
- He gathered all that springs to birth
- From the many-venomed earth;
- First a little, thence to more,
- He sampled all her killing store;
- And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
- Sate the king when healths went round.
- They put arsenic in his meat
- And stared aghast to watch him eat;
- They poured strychnine in his cup
- And shook to see him drink it up:
- They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
- Them it was their poison hurt.
- –I tell the tale that I heard told.
- Mithridates, he died old.
Ralph Waldo Emerson included his "Mithridates" in his 1847 "Poems". The legend also appears in Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo. The demise of Mithridates VI is detailed in the 1673 play Mithridate written by Jean Racine. This play is the basis for several 18th century operas including one of Mozart's earliest, known most commonly by its Italian name, Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770). He is the subject of the opera Mitridate Eupatore (1707) by Alessandro Scarlatti. In The Grass Crown, the second in the Masters of Rome series, Colleen McCullough, the Australian writer, describes in detail the various aspects of his life – the murder of Laodice (sister-wife of Mithridates VI of Pontus), and the Roman Consul who, quite alone and surrounded by the Pontic army, ordered Mithridates to leave Cappadocia immediately and go back to Pontus – which he did.
Wordsworth, amidst casting about for poetic themes in The Prelude:
- Sometimes, more sternly moved, I would relate
- How vanquished Mithridates northward passed,
- And, hidden in the cloud of years, became
- Odin, the Father of a race by whom
- Perished the Roman Empire.
- Like him who day by day unto his draught
- Of delicate poison adds him one drop more
- Till he may drink unharmed the death of ten,
- Even so, inured to beauty, who have quaffed
- Each hour more deeply than the hour before,
- I drink--and live--what has destroyed some men.
In Dorothy L. Sayers' Detective Novel "Strong Poison", from 1929, the protagonist, Lord Peter Wimsey, refers to Mithridates' measures to survive poisoning; as well as Albert Einstein's theory of Special Relativity, when the protagonist warns not to trust someone who looks straight in your eye, as they're trying to distract you from seeing something, "..even the path light travels is bent".
James Joyce alludes to Mithridates' immunity to poison in his love poem Though I Thy Mithridates Were.
The Last King is an historical novel by Michael Curtis Ford about the King and his exploits against the Roman Republic. Mithridates is a major character in Poul Anderson's novel The Golden Slave. Mithridates of Pontus is mentioned by E. E. "Doc" Smith in Triplanetary, the first novel of the famous Lensman science fiction series. In the story, Mithridates was supposed to be one of the humans possessed by a member of an evil alien race bent on remaking human civilization into its own image.
In the novel Mithridates is Dead (Spanish: Mitrídates ha muerto), Ignasi Ribó traces parallels between the historical figures of Mithridates and Osama Bin Laden. Within a postmodern narrative of the making and unmaking of history, Ribó suggests that the September 11 attacks on the United States closely paralleled the massacre of Roman citizens in 88 B.C. and prompted similar consequences, namely the imperialist overstretch of the American and Roman republics respectively. Furthermore, he suggests that the ensuing Mithridatic Wars were one of the key factors in the demise of Rome's republican regime, as well as in the spread of the Christian faith in Asia Minor and eventually throughout the whole Roman Empire. The novel implies that the current events in the world might have similar unforeseen consequences.
|King of Pontus
- The spelling "Mithridates" was the Roman Latin version, but "Mithradates", the spelling used in Greek inscriptions and Mithridates' own coins, is regaining precedence, see e.g. Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3d ed.
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- Johann Christoph Adelung & Johann Severin Vater, Mithridates oder allgemeine Sprachenkunde mit dem Vater Unser als Sprachprobe in bey nahe fünf hundert Sprachen und Mundarten, , Mithridites was also fluent in the ancient language of the Persians and would practice it on any Persian prisoners he had not yet killed or tortured.1806–1817, Berlin, Vossische Buchlandlung, 4 volumes. Facsimile edition, Hildesheim-Nueva York, Georg Olms Verlag, 1970.
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- Madsen, Jesper Majbom, Mithradates VI : Rome's perfect enemy. In: Proceedings of the Danish Institute in Athens Vol. 6, 2010, p. 223-237.
- Ballesteros Pastor, Luis, Pompeyo Trogo, Justino y Mitrídates. Comentario al Epítome de las Historias Filípicas (37,1,6 - 38,8,1) (Spudasmata 154), Hildesheim-Zürich-New York, Georg Olms Verlag, 2013, ISBN 978-3-487-15070-3.