Mithridatic Wars

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Mithridatic Wars
The Pontic Kingdom
Date88 – 63 BC
Eastern Mediterranean region
Result Roman victory
Greece and Near East
Roman Republic divided by the Roman civil wars Kingdom of Pontus and its extensive momentary allies
Commanders and leaders
Magistrates mainly of the Optimates party, but sometimes of the Populares party. Mithridates VI of Pontus and his sons and subordinates, mainly Archelaus (general)

The Mithridatic Wars were three conflicts fought by Rome against the Kingdom of Pontus and its allies between 88 BC and 63 BC. They are named after Mithridates VI, the King of Pontus who initiated the hostilities after annexing the Roman province in Asia into its Pontic Empire (that came to include most of Asia Minor) and committing massacres against the local Roman population known as the Asian Vespers. As Roman troops were sent to recover the territory, they faced an uprising in Greece organized and supported by Mithridates. Mithridates was able to mastermind such general revolts against Rome and played the magistrates of the optimates party off against the magistrates of the populares party in the Roman civil wars. Nevertheless, the first war ended with a Roman victory, confirmed by the Treaty of Dardanos signed by Lucius Sulla and Mithridates. Greece was restored to Roman rule and Pontus was expected to restore the status quo ante bellum in Asia Minor.

Roman Republic Period of ancient Roman civilization (509–27 BC)

The Roman Republic was the era of classical Roman civilization beginning with the overthrow of the Roman Kingdom, traditionally dated to 509 BC, and ending in 27 BC with the establishment of the Roman Empire. It was during this period that Rome's control expanded from the city's immediate surroundings to hegemony over the entire Mediterranean world.

Kingdom of Pontus Former country

The Kingdom of Pontus or Pontic Empire was a state founded by the Persian Mithridatic dynasty, which may have been directly related to Darius the Great and the Achaemenid dynasty. The kingdom was proclaimed by Mithridates I in 281 BCE and lasted until its conquest by the Roman Republic in 63 BCE. It reached its largest extent under Mithridates VI the Great, who conquered Colchis, Cappadocia, Bithynia, the Greek colonies of the Tauric Chersonesos, and for a brief time the Roman province of Asia. After a long struggle with Rome in the Mithridatic Wars, Pontus was defeated; part of it was incorporated into the Roman Republic as the province Bithynia et Pontus, and the eastern half survived as a client kingdom.

The Optimates were a conservative political faction in the late Roman Republic.


As the treaty of Dardanos was barely implemented in Asia Minor, the Roman general Murena (in charge of retaking control of Roman territory in Asia) decided to wage a second war against Pontus. The second war resulted in a Roman defeat and gave momentum to Mithridates, who then forged an alliance with Tigranes the Great, the Armenian King of Kings. Tigranes was the son-in-law of Mithridates and was in control of an Armenian empire that included territories in the Levant. Pontus won the Battle of Chalcedon (74 BC), gave support to Cilician pirates against Roman commerce, and the third war soon began.

Tigranes the Great King of Armenia

Tigranes II, more commonly known as Tigranes the Great was King of Armenia under whom the country became, for a short time, the strongest state to Rome's east. He was a member of the Artaxiad Royal House. Under his reign, the Armenian kingdom expanded beyond its traditional boundaries, allowing Tigranes to claim the title Great King, and involving Armenia in many battles against opponents such as the Parthian and Seleucid empires, and the Roman Republic.

Levant Geographic and cultural region consisting of the eastern Mediterranean between Anatolia and Egypt

The Levant is an approximate historical geographical term referring to a large area in the Eastern Mediterranean, primarily in Western Asia. In its narrowest sense, it is equivalent to the historical region of Syria. In its widest historical sense, the Levant included all of the eastern Mediterranean with its islands; that is, it included all of the countries along the Eastern Mediterranean shores, extending from Greece to Cyrenaica.

The Battle of Chalcedon was a land and naval battle in 74 BC during the Third Mithridatic War. It ended in a Pontic victory.

For the third war, the Romans sent the consul Lucullus to fight against Armenia and Pontus. Lucullus won the Battle of Cabira and the Battle of Tigranocerta but his progress was nullified after the Battle of Artaxata and the Battle of Zela. Meanwhile, the campaign of Pompey against the Cilician pirates in the Mediterranean was successful and Pompey was named by the senate to replace Lucullus. Pompey's subsequent campaigns caused the collapse of the Armenian Empire in the Levant (with Roman forces taking control of Syria and Palestine) and the affirmation of Roman power over Anatolia, Pontus and nearly all the eastern Mediterranean. Tigranes surrendered and became a client king of Rome. Hunted, stripped of his possessions, and in a foreign country, Mithridates had a servant kill him. His former kingdom was combined with one of his hereditary enemies, Bithynia, to form the province of Bithynia and Pontus, which would forestall any future pretender to the throne of Pontus.

Lucullus ancient roman statesman

Lucius Licinius Lucullus was an optimate politician of the late Roman Republic, closely connected with Lucius Cornelius Sulla. In the culmination of over twenty years of almost continuous military and government service, he became the conqueror of the eastern kingdoms in the course of the Third Mithridatic War, exhibiting extraordinary generalship in diverse situations, most famously during the Siege of Cyzicus, 73–72 BC, and at the Battle of Tigranocerta in Armenian Arzanene, 69 BC. His command style received unusually favourable attention from ancient military experts, and his campaigns appear to have been studied as examples of skillful generalship.

The Battle of Cabira was fought in 72 or 71 BC between forces of the Roman Republic under proconsul Lucius Licinius Lucullus and those of the Kingdom of Pontus under Mithridates the Great. It was a decisive Roman victory.

Battle of Tigranocerta Battle fought in 69 BC

The Battle of Tigranocerta was fought on 6 October 69 BC between the forces of the Roman Republic and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia led by King Tigranes the Great. The Roman force was led by Consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus, and Tigranes was defeated. As a result, Tigranes' capital city of Tigranocerta was captured by Rome.

Origin of the term

The bellum Mithridaticum, ("Mithridatic War") referred in official Roman circles to the mandate, or warrant, issued by the Roman Senate in 88 BC pertaining to the declaration of war against Mithridates by that body. Handed at first to the consuls, it would not end until the death of Mithridates or the declaration by the Senate that it was at an end. As there were no intermissions in the warrant until the death of Mithridates in 63 BC, there was officially only one Mithridatic War. In its final phases it was taken over by the Roman Assembly, which had precedence over the Senate, and which was convinced that the Senate could not execute the warrant.

This latter change, brought about by a new law, the Lex Manilia, after Manilius, its proposer, was a marked constitutional change. It established an alternative path to power besides the consulship and the Cursus Honorum. The empire would before long be created from it.

Subsequently, historians noticed that the conduct of the war fell into three logical subdivisions. Some of them began to term these subdivisions the "First," "Second," and "Third" in the same texts in which they used the term in the singular. As the Roman Republic faded from general memory, the original legal meaning was not recognized. A few historians folded events prior to the declaration of war into the war.

Today anything to do with the war can be included under it. Hence "First Mithridatic War" is extended to include the wars between the states of Asia Minor as well as Roman support or lack of it for the parties of these wars. The officers offering this support were acting under other mandates from the Senate; to do anything not mandated was to risk criminal charges at home.

List of wars

The wars within the mandate of the bellum Mithridaticum are as follows:

First Mithridatic War

The First Mithridatic War (88–85 BC) began with a declaration of war by the Senate. The casus belli was the Asiatic Vespers, although some few claim that war was declared first; that is, that the Vespers were a reaction rather than a cause. Consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla having received the mandate by lot was given several legions fresh from the Social War to implement the mandate.

First Mithridatic War

The First Mithridatic War 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.

Asiatic Vespers

The Asiatic Vespers refers to an infamous episode prior to the First Mithridatic War, serving as the casus belli, or immediate cause of the war. Rome had been asked to arbitrate long-standing disputes between the Kingdom of Bithynia and the Kingdom of Pontus, which were located side-by-side on the south shore of the Black Sea. The ruling families of each had descended from Persian satrapies unincorporated into the empire of Alexander the Great. Roman troops had been drawn into Anatolia as allies of the Republic of Rhodes, which had holdings there. Now that they were there, the two kings decided to ask the Roman Senate to settle their dispute. After deliberation the Senate decided to back Bithynia. The king of Pontus, Mithridates VI, hitherto a friend of Rome, whose ancestors had sent ships to help it in the Third Punic War, was willing to accept this decision. The Senate's control over its troops in the field, however, was minimal. At the instigation of the soldiers, the Roman officers in Anatolia began to urge the Bithynians to ravage Pontus, claiming the decree of the Senate had created an armed conflict. It had not. The Senate had no such intent. It had instructed the army that in the event of war between Bithynia and Pontus, they were to assist the Bithynian army. In that capacity they would have a share in the spoils of war accrued from plundering the rich towns of Anatolia.

Sulla Ancient Roman general, consul and dictator

Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, known commonly as Sulla, was a Roman general and statesman. He had the distinction of holding the office of consul twice, as well as reviving the dictatorship. Sulla was a skillful general, achieving numerous successes in wars against different opponents, both foreign and Roman.

Athenion, a peripatetic adherent at Athens sent to Mithridates as ambassador, won over by the latter, returned to Athens to convince it to rise in revolt, making him general. Most of Greece followed suit, some not. Athenion, implementing a new constitution that he believed was based on Aristotle's Politics, conducted a reign of terror on behalf of the redistribution of wealth. The wealthy that could escaped the city to become exiles. Athenion sent an old comrade and known rare document thief, Apellicon of Teos, with a force to recover the Athenian national treasury stored at Delos. It was decisively beaten by the Roman commander, Orobius.

Apellicon, a wealthy man from Teos, afterwards an Athenian citizen, was a famous book collector of the 1st century BC.

Delos island in Greece

The island of Delos, near Mykonos, near the centre of the Cyclades archipelago, is one of the most important mythological, historical, and archaeological sites in Greece. The excavations in the island are among the most extensive in the Mediterranean; ongoing work takes place under the direction of the French School at Athens, and many of the artifacts found are on display at the Archaeological Museum of Delos and the National Archaeological Museum of Athens.

Orobius was a Roman general, who defeated the supporters of Mithridates at Delos.

The commanders included Lucius Valerius Flaccus and Gaius Flavius Fimbria. Significant battles included the Battle of Chaeronea and the Battle of Orchomenus in 86 BC. The war ended with a Roman victory, and the Treaty of Dardanos in 85 BC.

Lucius Valerius Flaccus was the name of several notable Romans of the Republican era, who were patricians from the gens Valeria. Six held consulships in the period from 261 BC to 86 BC; one also held a censorship.

Gaius Flavius Fimbria was a Roman politician and a violent partisan of Gaius Marius. He fought in the First Mithridatic War.

For the earlier battle, see Battle of Chaeronea

Second Mithridatic War

Third Mithridatic War

Notices in the sources

The works of classical historians

Diodorus Siculus

Enough remains of Diodorus Siculus to relate a summary of the Mithridatic Wars mixed in with the Civil Wars in the fragments of Books 37-40. [1]


A brief summary of the events of the Mithridatic Wars starting with the Asiatic Vespers combined with events of the Civil Wars can be found in Velleius Paterculus, Book II. [2]


The surviving history [3] closest to the Mithridatic Wars is the History of Rome by Livy (59 BC – 17 AD), which consisted of 142 books written between 27 BC and 9 BC, dated by internal events: he mentions Augustus, who did not receive the title until 27 BC, and the last event mentioned is the death of Drusus, 9 BC. Livy was a close friend of Augustus, to whom he read his work by parts, which means that he had access to records and writings at Rome. He worked mainly in retreat at Naples. Livy was born a few years after the last Mithridatic War, and grew up in the Late Republic. His location at Padua kept him out of the Civil Wars. He went to the big city perhaps to work on his project. Its nature sparked the interest of the emperor immediately (he had eyes and ears everywhere), who made it a point to be Octavian, not Augustus, to the circle of his friends (he often found duty tedious and debilitating). Livy was thus only one generation away from the Mithridatic Wars writing in the most favorable environment under the best of circumstances. [4]

Only 35 of the 142 books survived. Livy used no titles or period names. He or someone close to him wrote summaries, or Periochae, of the contents of each book. Books 1 – 140 have them. Their survival, no doubt, can be attributed to their use as a “little Livy,” as the whole work proved to be far too long for any copyist. The events of the Mithridatic Wars survive only in the Periochae.

The term “Mithridatic War” appears only once in Livy, in Periocha 100. The Third Mithridatic War was going so badly that the Senators of both parties combined to get the Lex Manilia passed by the Tribal Assembly removing command of the east from Lucullus and others and giving it instead to Pompey. The words of the Periocha are C. Manilius tribunus plebis magna indignatione nobilitatis legem tulit, ut Pompeio Mithridaticum bellum mandaretur, “Gaius Manilius, Tribune of the People, carried the law despite the great indignation of the nobility that the Mithridatic War be mandated to Pompey.” The “nobility” are the Senate, who usually had the privilege of mandates. There is a possible pun on “great,” as Pompey had received the title of “The Great” in the service of Sulla, the original recipient of the mandate. Sulla was deceased; Lucullus held the mandate in his place. This is an intervention by the tribune in the legal business of the Senate. Now it was the indignation that was great.

The “Mithridatic War” is not just a descriptive term of the historians; it is the name of a mandate. As such it began with the declaration of war by the Senate in 88 BC after the Asiatic Vespers (modern term), the casus belli . Mandates were assigned to the consuls, who, as the name implies, must perform them on penalty for refusal or failure of death. Similarly, only the Senate could declare the termination of a mandate, which is why Livy does not speak of three Mithridatic Wars. Sulla reached an agreement with Mithridates but it was never accepted by the Senate. Interim peace was never anything more than a gentleman's agreement. Tiring of this political game the ad hoc peace party bypassed the Senate, not only preempting the mandate but also giving to Pompey the power himself to declare it at an end. It ended automatically, however, with the death of Mithridates in 63 BC, the mission being complete.


Florus writes the briefest of summaries of the Mithridatic War. [5]



Cassius Dio

Works of geographers


Works of philosophers


Documents of the times

Peripatetic constitution at Mithridatic Athens

Greek monumental inscriptions

Some monumental inscriptions of the times in Greece shed some light on the Roman command structure during First Mithridatic War.

Letter of Mithridates to Arsaces

Speech in the Roman assembly in favor of Pompey

See also


  1. "Diodorus Siculus, Book 37 (fragments covering the period 91-88 B.C.)". Attalus.
  2. Velleius 2018 , Chapters 17-58
  3. ”History” here means the work of the classical historians, men who set as their targets a general history of events, rather than science, philosophy or creative literature. Some historians wrote contemporaneously with the events, but their work has not survived. Fragments of others survive. This section is for more extensive survivals.
  4. An extensive introduction to Livy and his work is given in Livy (1967). "Introduction". In Warmington, E.H. (ed.). Livy in fourteen volumes. The Loeb Classical Library. I. Translated by Foster, B.O. Cambridge, Massachusetts; London: Harvard University Press; William Heinemann Ltd.
  5. Florus 2018 , Book 40


Classical sources

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