Text #9497"First Mithridatic War", in .
The First Mithridatic War (89–85 BC) was a war challenging Rome’s expanding Empire and rule over the Greek world. In this conflict, the Kingdom of Pontus and many Greek cities rebelling against Rome were led by Mithridates VI of Pontus against the Roman Republic and the Kingdom of Bithynia. The war lasted five years and ended in a Roman victory which forced Mithridates to abandon all his conquests and return to Pontus. The conflict with Mithridates VI would continue in two further Mithridatic Wars.
Following his ascension to the throne of Kingdom of Pontus, Mithridates VI of Pontus focused on expanding his kingdom. Mithridates’ neighbors however were Roman client states, and expansion at their expense would inevitably lead him to conflict with Rome. After successfully incorporating most of the coast around the Black Sea into his kingdom, he turned his attention towards Asia Minor, in particular the Kingdom of Cappadocia, where his sister, Laodice was Queen. Mithridates had his brother-in-law, Ariarathes VI assassinated by Gordius (a Cappadocian nobleman who was allied with Mithridates) leaving the Kingdom in the hands of Laodice, who ruled as regent for her son Ariarathes VII of Cappadocia.
Laodice married Nicomedes III of Bithynia, whose country was Pontus’ traditional enemy. Nicomedes occupied Cappadocia and Mithridates retaliated by driving him out of Cappadocia and establishing himself as patron of his nephew’s kingship on the throne. When Ariarathes refused to welcome Gordius back, Mithridates invaded Cappadocia again and killed Ariarathes. He proceeded to place his son also called Ariarathes on the throne of Cappadocia under the guardianship of Gordius.
Nicomedes appealed to the Roman Senate, which decreed that Mithridates be removed from Cappadocia and Nicomedes be removed from Paphlagonia and the Senate appointed Ariobarzanes I of Cappadocia as King of Cappadocia. Mithridates prompted his son-in-law Tigranes the Great of Armenia to invade Cappadocia and remove Ariobarzanes.
In the late summer 90 BC a Senatorial legation was sent east, under Mn. Aquillius and Manlius Maltinus, to restore Nicomedes and Ariobarzanes to their kingdoms. The Senate also sent instructions to Cassius “the commander of Asia about Pergamon who had a small army” and to Mithridates Eupator himself to assist in this.
Cassius’ small army was probably the standard peace-time garrison force of between a whole and half legion (5 to 10 cohorts) and a few local auxiliary units - certainly no more than 5,000 troops in all. The Aquillian legation soon augmented it with a large force of Galatian and Phrygian auxiliary regiments and with these troops proceeded to restore both monarchs. Mithridates, angry with the Romans, refused to cooperate but neither did he offer opposition and both kings were restored without any fighting in about the autumn 90 BC.
Its mandate achieved, the Aquillian legation ought to have gone home in winter 90-89. Instead, no doubt on the excuse of keeping Mithridates under observation, it began to work upon Marius’ covert instructions to Aquillius of provoking the Pontic King to war. A very risky and reckless policy with the Italic War still in the balance.
The kings, Nicomedes in particular, had taken out big loans at Rome to bribe the Senators to vote for their restoration (this decision was a given in accordance with long-term policy in the region, but it appears that by now nothing much was done by the Senate in foreign affairs without accompanying payments from the foreigners with something to gain by Roman intervention). Aquillius’ retinue included representatives of the lenders. With Aquillius’ support they now urged the two kings to invade the Pontic kingdom to secure the booty with which to repay the bribery loans. Fearing the power of Mithridates (and probably aware that the Senate had given no such orders), both kings demurred. But Nicomedes’ creditors persisted with their pressure until he at last consented.
It was probably at the end of autumn 90 that Nicomedes regained control of the Thracian Bosporos and in the new sailing season (from mid March 89 BC) he prevented egress from the Euxine to Pontic ships.
Around the middle of spring 89 Nicomedes invaded the ancient Mithridateian dynastic lands of Mariandynia, plundering as far east as Amastris without encountering resistance. Mithridates had long been preparing a challenge to Roman power and the time was now ripe. As a final means of enlisting as much sympathy as possible in Anatolia, he offered no opposition to the Bithynian raid, preferring to appear as manifestly wronged by the puppets and representatives of Rome. The Bithyni returned home with a great deal of plunder - presumably sufficient for Nicomedes to repay his debts.
After the raid Mithridates sent his spokesman Pelopidas to the Roman legates and commanders to make complaint, apparently at Pergamon. At the same time Mithridates continued with his war preparations, trusting especially in his existing alliance with Tigranes of Armenia, although the more distant connection with Parthia was now without use because his ally Mithridates II had been slain by his rival Sanatruk attacking from the east in summer 91 BC, and a serious internal war persisted between Sanatruk and Mithridates’ eldest son and heir Gotarzes I. Eventually the Parthian internal conflict was to seize the entire attention of Tigranes too, but this could not yet be known. The Pontic king was also exploiting carefully prepared networks of support and recruitment among the Thracians and the Scythians, and now solicited help and alliance from the kings in Syria and from Ptolemy Alexander I and the Cretans.
The Pontic envoy Pelopidas cleverly ignored the fact that Aquillius and his suite had induced the Bithynian raid. Instead he made propaganda about Roman intolerance towards Mithridates and concluded by appealing to the Treaty between Mithridates and Rome, calling upon the Romans, as friends and allies, to punish or restrain the Bithynian aggressor. Bithynian envoys replied first, citing Pontic aggression against Bithynia and her present king, the ominous Pontic buildup of arms, territory and resources, and alliances - from Armenia to Thrace while negotiations were still in progress with the Ptolemaic Empire and Seleucid Empire. Such vast preparations, the Bithyni insisted, were aimed not at Bithynia but at Rome herself. Pelopidas countered by agreeing to let bygones be bygones, and accepting all Roman acta in the East hitherto. But he insisted that something must be done about the most recent Bithynian acts of aggression: the closing of the Euxine and the invasion and plunder of Pontic territory. He once again called upon the Romans to honour the letter of the Treaty and help Mithridates punish his attackers, or at least its spirit and to stand aside while Mithridates himself took his revenge.
Through Pelopidas’ skill in presenting the case, Mithridates’ attempt to embarrass and even discredit the Roman representatives succeeded. The latter had made a show of listening fairly to both sides and were now embarrassed by the obvious injustice done to a nominal friend and ally. After a lengthy delay they finally came up with a publicly acceptable pronouncement: we do not wish harm done to our ally Mithridates, nor can we allow war to be made against Nicomedes because it is against the interests of Rome that he be weakened. Assembly dismissed. Pelopidas wished to make something of the insufficiency of this answer, but was ushered out.
Mithridates knew enough about the workings of Roman politics to seek redress from the Senate, were he really interested. Instead he wanted to act under the éclat of the recent violation of his territory. After Pelopidas’ return he sent his son Ariarathes into Cappadocia with a strong army. The occupation (summer 89 BC) was rapid and once again (now for a fourth time) Ariobarzanes I the philoromaios was expelled and the rule of Mithridates’ son enforced. This violated both of the Senatus consultum authorising Aquillius’ mission, and the Treaty. It was a strategic move with a view to serious conflict with the Romans: unlike Nicomedes, Ariobarzanes had done naught to offend. It was thus a de facto declaration of war.
The main ancient source, Appian, now states that both sides began to assemble large forces for all-out war, and implies precipitate action by the Pontic King. Instead a Pontic delegation was sent to Rome, and the marshalling of the armies in Anatolia must have taken up the remainder of the year. The Pontic embassy dates to the autumn and early winter 89 BC.
The details of the beginning of the war show that the precipitate action was taken by Aquillius himself, who was clearly keen to begin the war before the Pontic legation returned (even though its chances of success were slim following the reoccupation of Cappadocia, the possibility remained, in the context of the disastrous Italic War losses, that the Senate might prefer to negotiate a settlement and send a new legation to replace the provocative Aquillius). Marian instructions to Aquillius had probably been to precipitate war and thus present the Senate with a fait accompli. But the present situation was even better from Marius’ viewpoint, since the war was now inevitable but still impending: which gave him time to get out to Asia province before it began, if he hurried. The election of Sulla as consul came as a shock (autumn 89, probably calendar December), and cannot have been foreseen.
News of Mithridates’ second expulsion of Ariobarzanes (c. July 89) must have reached Rome in September, a month or two before Sulla was elected consul with Pompeius Rufus, for Plutarch records at the time of his entry into office:
Sulla regarded his consulate as a very minor matter compared with future events. What fired his imagination was the thought of the war against Mithridates. Here, however, he found himself opposed by Marius.
Clearly the prevalent view at Rome was that the reoccupation of Cappadocia was the last straw and that the Pontic king should be attacked and deposed. Even more importantly, the winding-down of the Italic War now released the troops necessary to effect this. Sulla’s consulate came as something of a surprise. He had put himself back in the public eye by a good showing as a commander in the Italic War, and his election to the supreme executive seems to have been stitched up at the last minute in late autumn 89 by his marriage to Metella Delmatici filia, widow of the recently deceased princeps senatus M. Aemilius Scaurus, cousin of the praetor Metellus Pius and the young Luculli brothers. This brought him the whole weight of the extensive Metellan influence at the elections, while he was already close to his colleague Pompeius Rufus whose son was already married, with at least one child, to his daughter Cornelia. The men Sulla defeated apparently included another ambitious patrician vir militaris, L. Cornelius Cinna.