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Mithridates VI – victim of Roman imperialism?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Asia Minor before the outbreak of the war with Mithridates VI
Asia Minor before the outbreak of the war with Mithridates VI

In Roman sources, Mithridates VI Eupator appears to us as the leader of the wars that the Romans had to wage for about 25 years in the East. Mithridates was to strive to create a regional power from Pontus and displace Roman influence from the territories of present-day Turkey. But can we really speak of Mithridates as an aggressor, or rather a victim of Roman imperialism?

In the beginning, it should be noted that the Romans, after defeating Carthage, Macedonia, and the Seleucid monarchy in the 2nd century BCE have become the dominant power in the Mediterranean area. The Romans tried to act politically and militarily in places where they could obtain tangible benefits. Another ambitious politician and Roman leaders, who were looking for glory, played a large role here.

The Romans had rather a positive contact with Pontus. Mithridates VI’s father – Mithridates V – in exchange for the support he gave to the Romans in suppressing the rebellion of Aristonicus (133-129 BCE), received the Great Phrygia as a reward for his country. However, as it turned out, the “gift” was temporary and after his death in 120 BCE, the Romans received the donated lands. It should be noted that at that time the heir to the throne, Mithridates VI, was only 12 years old.

From an early age, Mithridates was able to find out that he could not trust the Romans, who created many client states in Asia Minor that could try to influence the Pontus. Mithridates turned out to be an ambitious and strong leader who saw his chance only in creating a force that could discourage the Romans from taking an interest in his country. To this end, he pursued an active policy, first in alliance with Bithynia, then fighting with her. The Romans regularly intervened diplomatically, taking the side of Bithynia, on the throne of which, incidentally, was the client ruler Nikomedes IV. In addition, Cappadocia was ruled by the Roman-backed Ariobarzanes, who only followed orders from Rome.

At one point, there was an attempt to extort a bribe from Mithridates VI. The refusal to pay tribute caused Roman creditors to order Nicomedes to invade Pontus. Mithridates unsuccessfully demanding the intervention of the Romans finally decided to take the counteroffensive and put the matter “on the edge of the knife”. He managed to defeat the Bithynia troops and the supporting Roman troops. Following the wave of successes, he reached the western shores of Asia Minor controlled by the Romans. There there was a real slaughter of Roman inhabitants, which was partially carried out on the orders of Mithridates. Roman colonists were murdered not only by the Pontic army but also by the local community, in which hatred for fiscal burdens had been growing for years. 80,000 Romans were to fall victim.

Rome’s war with Mithridates was fought intermittently between 89 and 63 BCE. Rome, disturbed by internal conflicts such as: the fight against Sertorius in Spain; uprisings in the Balkans; or the rivalry of popular versus optimists, could not undertake a decisive and final expedition against Pontus. Mithridates successfully competed with the greatest power of the ancient world for some time. Ultimately, however, he was forced to leave the kingdom, fleeing to Armenia, and then to Crimea.

Being completely safe, he deluded that he would be able to gather the necessary army among the Thracians, Scythians, and Getae and set out to conquer Italy. His plan was to march up the Danube, join the Gauls and a joint attack through northern Italy on Rome, and also an attack on Rome’s Balkan possessions from the north, from the Danube. However, ruthless tax exploitation and cruel rule led to the rebellion of the royal subjects. It was headed by Mithridates’ son, Pharnakes. Mithridates, trapped in the Bosporan capital of Pantikapayon, wanted to commit suicide. Due to the fact that for years he had taken small doses of various poisons in order to immunize himself and protect himself against a possible attack, the poison did not work. At Mithridates’ request, a Gallic slave from the bodyguard on his command pierced him with a sword in 63 BCE.

As you can see, the cruel fate of the Roman colonists and the complicity of Mithridates VI in these activities resulted largely from the hatred that was in the hearts of people who feared domination and exploitation by the Romans. The Romans would sooner or later begin to try to influence the Pontic state more and more actively, as evidenced by extorting bribes and surrounding Pontus with Rome’s client allies. Mithridates wanted to maintain dignity and independence from Rome. This should be borne in mind and not always viewed from the perspective of the winning.

  • Ziółkowski Adam, Historia Rzymu, Poznań 2008

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