Lessons on the tides of history from Mithridates VI of Pontus; Rome’s irrepressible foe

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Mithridates VI of Pontus

He gathered all the springs to birth

From the many-venomed earth;

First a little, thence to more,

He sampled all her killing store;

And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,

Sate the king when healths went round.

They put arsenic in his meat

And stared aghast to watch him eat;

They poured strychnine in his cup

And shook to see him drink it up:

They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:

Them it was their poison hurt.

I tell the tale that I heard told.

Mithridates, he died old.

A.E Houseman (1896)

Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysus, 135 BCE — 63 BCE, also known as Mithridates the Great, was king of Pontus in Anatolia from 120 BCE — 63 BCE. Known to many as the poison king, he was said to have an unrivalled knowledge of poisons and their antidotes, and to have habituated his body to their effects to the point where poison could not harm him, the above poem illustrates this legend. It also reflects the character trait which above all describes Mithridates, his dynasty and his eventual legend; he was indomitable.

Mithridates came from a long and distinguished lineage, a descendant of Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Achaemenid empire, he could claim a blood link through his father to the ancient dynasty which Alexander the Great had bludgeoned to death. The Pontic kingdom itself represented the irrepressible spirit of that line of kings, rising phoenix like from the ashes as Alexander’s successors fought each other for domination of the world.

On his mother’s side, the king could claim descent from Alexander himself and Seleucus Nicator, the successor who claimed the lion’s share of the conquerors fractured realm. On this side too the Pontic kings represented a stubborn resilience, in the 1st century BCE they were one of the last of a dying breed. The Hellenistic kings which had succeeded Alexander and strode arrogant and proud over the world for almost three hundred years had been brought low. Their hubris exposed, by the rising power of Rome in the west and trampled down by the hooves of the Parthians in the east. Those kings that were left would bow and eventually succumb to new powers, but Pontus would stand defiant for a time. Under Mithridates, it would even come close to returning a Hellenistic kingdom to dominance.

Mithridates would fight three wars with Rome, titanic struggles which would push each side to the brink. At first victorious, Mithridates would, at least temporarily, expel the Romans from Asia Minor and take the war to Greece, threatening to drive the Romans back into Italy itself. Each time the Romans came back stronger, retaking what they had lost. But hydra like, the poison king would rise again, threatening Roman rule once more. Even after the Romans drove him out of his kingdom, the king conspired to return, exploiting the political tensions and unrest within the Roman republic, he seized his chance to retake his throne.

Once finally driven out of Pontus by Pompey the Great, the king would flee into the wilds of what is now Ukraine. Re-emerging from what many believed was a place of certain death, to seize control of the Bosporan Kingdom in what is now Crimea from his son, Menchares, who had made his peace with Rome. By now in his late sixties, Mithridates was still irrepressible, some sources report that from his new base he planned a thrust at the heart of Rome, towards Italy itself. It would have been a final call back to his predecessors, a campaign on the ambitious scale of Darius, Xerxes, or Alexander himself.

But it was not to be. Another son, Pharnaces, would lead a rebellion against his father. Rather than be captured and sent to Rome in chains, Mithridates chose to take his own life, along with a few of his daughters, some of whom apparently pleaded to die with him. Many had tried to assassinate the king in the past, none had come even close to succeeding, those who tried by poison least of all. The irony of Mithridates precautions came forth when the poison which killed his daughters had no effect on the king, even in this predicament his body still seemed to will him to persevere. Either a loyal bodyguard named Bituitis slew his king by the sword, or else his son’s men broke in and the king fell to their blades, the sources on his death disagree.

Either way his legend proved just as indomitable as the man himself. Becoming a tale to remember for the Romans, a source to trace knowledge of poison and medicine for the people of the middle ages and a tragic tale of resistance to overwhelming force for later centuries. Not that Mithridates would have seen himself in this way, or approved, in his eyes he was a rival to Rome not its inferior. One notable example of the grip the tale of Mithridates held was Mozart’s opera of 1770 called Mithridate.

Mithridates was no doubt great in his own way, and possessed of an irrepressible spirit, a laser like focus on his goals and a drive and will to succeed no matter the odds placed against him. All qualities human societies have always held up and admired. But in many ways, he also represented a dying breed, the last of the old Achaemenids, one of the few Hellenistic kings still standing and refusing to bow to the menace of Rome. However, stubbornness, a refusal to accept defeat and dogged determination could only bring him so far. The fall of his kind and the rise of Rome was not inevitable, although it may seem that way looking back, indeed Mithridates himself came close to pushing over the dominoes upon which Rome stood. But what the story of Mithridates life does show is that despite his undoubted skill, and his indomitable nature, one person is not enough to hold back the tides of history, we can either ride upon them or be subsumed beneath.

Main Sources

Mark, Joshua J. “Mithridates VI.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 04 Dec 2017. Web. 09 Aug 2020.

Robin Lane Fox, “The Classical World; An epic history of Greece and Rome”, Penguin Books, London UK, 2006

Peter Green, “Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age”, Orion Publishing Group, London, UK, 2007

Philip Matyszak, “Mithridates the Great; Rome’s Indomitable Enemy”, Pen and Sword, London, UK, 2008

Adrienne Mayor, “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy”, Princeton University Press, USA, 2011

Translated by Horace White, Appian, “Appian: Roman History, I, Books 1–8.1”, Loeb Classical Library #2, Volume I, Harvard University Press, USA, 1912

I write about history and its echoes and lessons for the present.

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