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Mithridates VI or Mithradates VI from Old Persian Miθradāta, “gift of Mithra”; 135–63 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.
Mithridates VI was a prince of Persian and Greek ancestry. He claimed descent from Cyrus the Great, the family of Darius the Great, the Regent Antipater, the generals of Alexander the Great as well as the 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 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. He left the kingdom to the joint rule of Mithridates’ mother, Laodice VI, Mithridates, and his younger brother, Mithridates Chrestus. Neither Mithridates nor his younger brother were of age, and their mother retained all power as regent for the time being. 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, returning to Pontus between 116 BC and 113 BC and was hailed as king. He removed his mother and brother from the throne, imprisoning both, becoming the sole ruler of Pontus. Laodice VI died in prison, ostensibly of natural causes. Mithridates Chrestus may have died in prison also, or may have been tried for treason and executed. Mithridates gave both royal funerals. Mithridates first married his younger sister Laodice, aged 16. His goal was to preserve the purity of their bloodline, solidify his claim to the throne, to co-rule over Pontus, and to ensure the succession to his legitimate children.
Mithridates entertained ambitions of making his state the dominant power in the Black Sea and Anatolia. He first subjugated Colchis, a region east of the Black Sea, and prior to 164 BC, an independent kingdom. He then clashed for supremacy on 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 Pompey defeated him in Pontus in 66 BC, Mithridates VI fled with a small army to Colchis (modern Georgia) and then 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.
After Pompey defeated him in Pontus, Mithridates VI fled to the lands north of the Black Sea in the winter of 66 BCE in the hope that he could raise a new army and carry on the war. However, his preparations proved to be too harsh on the local nobles and populace, and they rebelled against his rule. He allegedly 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.
Cassius Dio Roman History, on the other hand, records a different account:
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.
At the behest of Pompey, Mithridates’ body was later buried alongside his ancestors (in either Sinope or Amaseia). 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.
In Pliny the Elder’s account of famous polyglots, Mithridates could speak the languages of all the twenty-two nations he governed.
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:
- Daughter: Athenais, who married King Ariobarzanes II of Cappadocia
- 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
One of his mistresses was the Galatian Celtic Princess Adobogiona the Elder. By Adobogiona, Mithridates had two children: a son called Mithridates I of the Bosporus and a daughter called Adobogiona the Younger.
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, named after kings of the Persian Empire, which he claimed ancestry from. 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.
Duggan, Alfred, He Died Old: Mithradates Eupator, King of Pontus, 1958.
Ford, Michael Curtis, The Last King: Rome’s Greatest Enemy, New York, Thomas Dunne Books, 2004, ISBN 0-312-27539-0
McGing, B. C. The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus (Mnemosyne, Supplements: 89), Leiden, Brill Academic Publishers, 1986, ISBN 90-04-07591-7
Cohen, Getzel M., Hellenistic Settlements in Europe, the Islands and Asia Minor (Berkeley, 1995).