There haven’t been many in ancient history, who have had the chutzpah to thumb their noses at the mighty Roman Republic and bring it close to the brink of collapse. The great Carthagian general, Hannibal (247-182BC) was one and then there was a slave named Spartacus (109-73BC).
There was another man of whom the world hardly speaks today – the ruler of a tiny state called Pontus on the southern banks of the Black Sea, in present-day Turkey. The fact that today’s history books do not afford any prominence to him does not diminish his greatness in any way. There was a time when he was both, feared and hailed as the ‘Hannibal of the East’, a sobriquet that he earned by constantly challenging the hegemony of Rome, rendering it’s eastern reaches vulnerable and rebellious, steadily grabbing neighboring Roman satrapies.
The reason why he does not find prominent mention in history books could be due to the preferences of the historians of antiquity, like Plutarch, Pliny the Elder and others who I understand dismissed him as a minor brigand and despot, who did not leave behind any lasting legacy and in the end got what was coming to him. Maybe even Shakespeare is to blame for not penning a tragedy on his life.
Could there by another possibility as to why he languished in obscurity? Did someone else snatch away the thunder? Around the same point in time, the famous revolt of slaves under Spartacus against the Romans was unfolding in the Italian peninsula. Spartacus’s exploits had certainly seemed more swashbuckling and romantic and might have turned the attention of the historians away from this man’s exploits.
Meet Mithridates VI (120-63BC) – King of Pontus.
Bust of Mithridates VI at The Louvre, Paris
Ancient map of Asia Minor, showing the kingdom of Pontus, right of center
Listen, henceforth I’ll just go ahead and call Mithridates VI ‘Mitsy’ for short since it is less complicated, if you don’t mind. Not that I give a tiddly twat if you do.
Mitsy is believed to have directly descended from both, Darius the Great of Persia and one of Alexander the Great’s three Generals, Seleucus I (founder of the Seleucid Empire after Alexander’s death). When he was just 12, his mommy, Queen Laodice VI, poisoned his dad and seized power as regent, since Mitsy and his younger bro, Chrestus, were still minors.
Unfortunately for Mitsy, Laodice favored Chrestus over him, a sentiment that most parents have even today. Take me, I was the darling of my mom, being the youngest. But of course, my mother never plotted to kill my two elder bros, though sometimes after I got beaten up by them for being a pain in the butt, I wished she had.
Mitsy realized that his mother’s preference of his younger bro could not be a good thing. Being the oldest son, he was the heir apparent and therefore he had to be done away with. Mitsy’s fears were justified. Laodice had begun plotting to poison him and word about her machinations somehow got to him. Before she could carry out her plan, he escaped into the wilderness and began living off the land. After three years of living in exile, around 113BC, Mitsy returned when he felt he was secure and the first thing he did was to have his mom and younger bro executed and claim his rightful status as king.
The second thing that Mitsy did upon becoming King was to marry his 16-year old sister, also named Laodice, probably Laodice VII. Marrying sisters was common among kings those days, done to preserve the bloodline and ensure that there wouldn’t be any succession issues anytime, since there wouldn’t be any in-laws.
Mitsy was an ambitious king. In a way, rulers of the ancient dog-eat-dog world had very little choice. You could either be ambitious and ruthless and live a long life or you could be passive and be invaded, raped and enslaved. It is difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine just how much aggression and treachery was going around then. Aren’t you glad to be born in the modern age? Imagine growing up wondering if your bro is going to murder you in your sleep or if your momma is going to mix strychnine in your breakfast cereal.
Almost immediately after gaining the throne, Mitsy set about expanding his empire. Around him was a vast region of tiny states barely managing to survive against the threat of invasion from Rome as well as those vicious horsemen from the plains. The land surrounding Pontus encompassed Anatolia and Asia Minor (today’s Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia).
Mitsy began a long series of battles with the neighboring states of Bythnia, Cappadocia, Armenia and Colchis (see map above), some of which, like Bythnia, wanted to align themselves with Rome. We see a similar situation today in Ukraine, with Russia is hell bent on preventing it from becoming a NATO country.
Mitsy prevailed and this brought him in direct confrontation with Rome. Alarmed at his meteoric rise and his empire-building ambitions, Rome declared war on Pontus, throwing into battle three of it’s greatest generals – Sulla, Lucullus and Marius and sparking off the two and half decade long Mithridatic Wars (88-63BC).
Initially Mitsy was on a roll, winning battle after battle against the Roman legions. In the neighboring Roman protectorate of Anatolia, he set about ethnically cleansing the whole population, of all Roman inhabitants, men, women and children, as retribution for Rome’s aggression. The bloodbath lasted a week and in total, 80,000 died, as per the historian, Clesus. There were no such things as war crimes tribunals in those days.
Mitsy was, like many rulers of his genre, a paradoxical individual. He thought nothing of slaughtering civilians, took countless slaves and was particularly brutal toward his enemies, a typical take-no-prisoners kind of guy. On the other hand, he was hailed by Greeks and Persians and the other small states that felt threatened by Rome, as a savior from Roman occupation.
In many ways, Mitsy likened himself to his illustrious predecessor, Alexander the Great. While he himself enslaved when he felt like it, he also freed folk that had been slaves under the Romans and often freed prisoners of war who swore allegiance. He shared his wealth with his troops, cancelled debts, expanded citizens’ rights and tried to restore the kind of democratic governance that the Greeks had practiced over the past centuries.
Eventually however, the Romans got to him. He was betrayed by his treacherous son, Pharnesces II, to the Roman forces under the command of the legendary general, Pompey.
But what Mithridates is remembered the most for is not his extraordinary courage and defiance of Rome. It was for the body of research that he carried out on the art of killing by poison as well as preventing death from it, with antidotes. Though the 15th century Swiss-German chemist, Paracelsus, is widely believed to be the father of toxicology, it is actually Mithridates’ scientific experiments with plant, animal, and mineral poisons (and their antidotes) that became a sort of gold standard in the history of the science of toxicology for more than 2000 years.
You won’t believe this but an all-in-one antidote that Mitsy perfected, known as Mithridatium, was on sale in pharmacies in Rome till 1984!