What were the Mithridatic Wars?


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 of 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 organised 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.

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.

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.

What is the 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 recognised. 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.

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.

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.

Second Mithridatic War

Second Mithridatic War (83-81 BC). Roman armies commanded by Lucius Licinius Murena. The war ended inconclusively after a Roman defeat, and withdrawal on Sulla’s orders.

Third Mithridatic War

Third Mithridatic War (75-63 BC). Roman armies led by Lucius Licinius Lucullus (75-66 BC) then by Pompey (66-63 BC). War ended with Roman victory and the death of Mithridates VI in 63 BC.


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