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“Asiatic Vespers” – ancient genocide

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Terracotta figurine depicting Mithridates VI
Terracotta figurine depicting Mithridates VI

As Italy’s last points of resistance were dying out in the war against allies, and Rome was calming down after the recent civil war, the king of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator, thrust a knife into the back of the Empire, attacking its eastern fringes. Pontic troops spread over the province of Asia defeating the Roman army.

Mithridates was greeted in the province as a savior and liberator from the Roman occupation that was associated with the inhabitants as years of renunciation and tyranny of officials and publishers. They were fed up with taxes, exploitation and subordination to the Empire, and therefore the arrival of Mithridates was awaited by them. As the Pontines entered Asian cities, they were greeted from their windows and balconies, and flowers were thrown over their marching column and greeted with shouts. Inhabitants demolished signs of Roman authority, knocked down monuments and expelled officials. Asia is overwhelmed by euphoria and hope for the future. Mithridates realized this immediately, and since he harbored an age-old hatred towards the Romans, he wanted to take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, when he was getting ready for another military campaign, he decided to do something that would disgrace him for the rest of his life. He sent to the recently conquered Asian cities and to the satraps he had established for the administration of the conquered lands, letters that contained the order that after 30 days there should be slaughter on the Romans living or staying in Asia Minor. The order was ruthless, because Mithridates did not limit the slaughter to anyone – he intended to completely annihilate the Roman and Italian people in this region. All would be killed without exception, including women, children, old men, and their bodies would be abandoned and unburied; while the property was to be divided among the rest of the city’s inhabitants and Mithridates himself.

At the same time, the king, in order to prevent the burial of the murdered, imposed penalties on people who bury the dead or help the Romans hide. On the other hand, he promised monetary rewards to informers and murderers, to slaves he promised freedom for killing their master, and debtors to deduct half of the sum they owed their creditors. The king knew that the inhabitants of Asia, after years of humiliation and poverty they suffered because of the Romans, would be able to take revenge on the occupant, so the implementation of this undertaking would not be difficult. The decision made by the Pontic king to this day is incomprehensible and disgusting; it was a very powerful catalyst for the unification of the Romans in order to defeat Mithridates, who appeared to them as a monster and a murderer. Never in the history of the Empire has there been such a well-organized and cold-blooded genocide operation carried out on such a large scale. Soon the cities of Asia Minor ran red with blood, and the hatred that arose between the Romans and Pont forever destroyed the cooperation of the two countries.

Soon the time devoted to the preparation of the murder was over, and in most cities of the former Roman province a nightmare began that lasted several days. To better illustrate these macabre scenes, it is worth quoting the events of the largest cities in the region. In Ephesus, where the slaughter began, the Romans fled to the temple of Artemis, where they counted on asylum; however, the townspeople tore them off the statues and dragged them out of the temple, and then killed them all with utter ruthlessness. The people looked at the murderers, but the sight did not disgust them, on the contrary, they were happy, because they saw in Italians their greatest enemies, those who were the perpetrators of their miseries. Likewise, the Italics in Pergamon hoped to save themselves by hiding in the temple of Asclepius; the furious crowd, however, broke into the building, trying to “detach” them from the holy statues. The persecuted people tried to resist the murderers, so the inhabitants of the city, not wanting to fight the enemy, decided to have fun and all the Italians staying in the temple fired their bows, ignoring the place of worship. In the city of Adramyttion, the inhabitants chased the Romans throughout the city to the sea, where they tried to save themselves by swimming. The inhabitants, however, chased them, regardless of anything, until they drowned everyone. The children were also not spared.

Similar events took place in Kaunos. The Italics hid in the city council building, at the foot of the altar of Vesta. Residents broke into the building and ripped the Romans away from the holy statue. First, they killed their children in front of their parents, then their mothers in front of their husbands, and finally the men. In the city of Tralles, where the inhabitants did not intend to stain themselves with the blood of other people, and at the same time, in order not to expose themselves to Mithridates, they decided to hire a bandit Theophilus of Paphlagon’s origin, who was to do them out. The hired executioner brought the Romans to the Temple of Concord and began the slaughter there. The Romans who clung to the statue of the goddess lost their hands.

The described events shocked the entire ancient world, which was terrified by Mithridates’ ruthlessness. During the several days of murders, later called “Asiatic Vespers”, more than 80,000 inhabitants of Asia Minor of Roman and Italian origin were killed. This scale was electrifying considering that it was close to the estimated Italic population in Asia. These days were not forgotten by Rome until the end of its existence, and such great brutality of Mithridates caused many of his allies to be frightened and intend to go to the Roman side at the earliest opportunity.

Author: Cyprian Herl (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Appian, The Mithridatic Wars, 22.85-91

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