Mithridates VI Eupator and His Army

At the time of his father’s death, Mithridates VI was in his early teens. He was well aware that it would suit many at court if he got no older. His untimely death would enable his mother to continue as regent until his younger brother was old enough to assume the throne, and undoubtedly this situation would also suit the younger brother and his supporters.

It was also apparent that the new regent of Pontus intended to continue her husband’s policy of friendship with Rome, even though the Romans, worried by the growing power of Pontus, took every opportunity of chiselling away at the kingdom’s borders. The gains of the war with Aristonicus were reversed, with the senate refusing to allow Pontus control of Phrygia, and supporting the claims of the Bithynians to disputed parts of Paphlagonia. Given the spirited character of Mithridates and his later determination to expand the kingdom at every opportunity, it is unlikely that he took this Roman interference patiently. Therefore it might well be that the Roman governor in Pergamum quietly let it be known that Rome would not be unhappy if the charismatic young Mithridates never came to power.

It was probably at this point that Mithridates, aware of his numerous and powerful enemies, earned his nomination as the world’s first experimental toxicologist. He started taking small doses of poison on a regular basis; both to accustom himself to the taste, and his system to the effects. After a while he had put together a small pharmacopoeia of poisons and antidotes that were known for generations afterwards as ‘Mithridatic potions’. Pliny the Elder gives one such antidote claiming that it was found by Pompey among Mithridates’ private papers in his own hand–writing. The ingredients were two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue (a bitter aromatic plant), pounded together with a grain of salt. This might not have conferred immunity to poison as claimed, but would certainly have given the poison swift enough passage through the victim’s system to limit any damage. Other potions described by Pliny and the later writer Celsus have literally dozens of ingredients, and are also described as the fruit of Mithridates’ relentless investigations.7 Mithridates’ alleged immunity to poison might well have saved his life on several occasions, not least because it persuaded potential assassins that poison was not even worth trying.

While accepting that Mithridates had powerful ill–wishers, we should be wary of the romantic myth that the young king took himself off into hiding in the Pontic wilderness like an early version of Robin Hood. Hunting and horse riding were normal parts of a Persian prince’s upbringing. No doubt Mithridates enjoyed these enthusiastically, but it is unlikely that he was engaged in them for seven years in the wilderness as was later reported. Someone, at least, was certainly ruling as Mithridates VI, as coins appear bearing his image, and dedications on statues refer to him as king of Pontus.

It is probable that young Mithridates, who was as aware as anyone of the mortality rate among the royalty of the region, abandoned Sinope in favour of extended tours of his kingdom. This both removed him from his mother’s court (and his mother’s cooks) and gave him the chance to gather personal support among the provincial governors of the kingdom’s provinces (called eparchies). This support would be needed for the power struggle with his immediate family which Mithridates must have known was imminent. That these tours later gave his biographers the chance to link a period in the wilderness with a similar legend about the great Persian king Cyrus, was something of a bonus.

With Mithridates, those responsible for promoting his image had promising material to work with. The young king was handsome enough to bear comparison with Alexander the Great; if only Alexander had been able to handle a sixteen-horse chariot as Mithridates could. The Romans, who considered Asiatic monarchs effete and decadent, readily made an exception for Mithridates. Naturally robust, he regularly exercised and took part in sporting events. This gave him exceptional stamina, and he was said to have been able to ride 1,000 stades (about 110 miles) in a day, wearing out a chain of horses in the process. He was also a keen bowman, and alleged that it was his passion for archery which led him to keep a bow handy at all times (one never knows when having a long–range weapon about might come in handy). His fondness for exercise gave Mithridates a formidable physical presence, which as a skilled propagandist he exploited – for example by sending copies of his armour to Delphi, ostensibly as a gift to the gods, but in reality to show that the ruler of Pontus was powerful in every respect.

The writer Justin also reports that when Mithridates was born in Sinope, the skies above his birthplace were illuminated by ‘a comet which burned with great splendour, so that for seventy days in succession, the whole sky appeared to be on fire with a brightness that seemed to obscure even the sun. The tail of the comet covered a quarter of the sky, and its rising and setting took a whole four hours’.8 Justin was quoting a historian called Trogus. Though Trogus’ father had probably fought against Mithridates, the son was definitely a fan. Mithridates was for him a king ‘whose greatness was afterwards such that he surpassed all kings in glory – not only those kings of his own times, but of preceding ages too’.

Mithridates was well aware of the advantages of what would today be called a personality cult. He deliberately portrayed himself as a fusion of Greek and Persian culture, giving himself the Greek nickname of Eupator, ‘loving father’, and also adopting the title of Dionysius, a god associated with liberty, peace and law; on the other hand, Mithridates habitually dressed in the robes of a Persian noble. He explicitly boasted to his troops that they found in him the best of both worlds. ‘I count my ancestors, on my father’s side, from Cyrus and Darius, the founders of the Persian empire, and on my mother’s side Alexander the Great and Seleucus Nicator, who established the Macedonian empire’.9

Sadly, at this point Mithridates’ mother was not present to hear her lineage so proudly recounted. Some time before 116 BC the lady departs from the scene. Some historians believe that Mithridates had her killed, others assert that she was merely thrown into a dungeon and forgotten. It appears that the palace coup by which Mithridates removed his mother from power was a largely bloodless affair. Basically, having survived to an age when he could rule the country, Mithridates simply started to do so. His orders were obeyed, and politically his mother became irrelevant.

The younger brother was disposed of. He was executed. The nature of the charge was largely irrelevant, since everyone knew that his true crime was that he had been born of the same parents as the king, and (to paraphrase the later Roman emperor, Augustus) one can have too many Mithridatids. Perhaps working on the principle that one kept one’s friends close, and one’s enemies closer, Mithridates took his younger sister (Laodice, naturally) as his wife. His older sister (Laodice) was already married to the king of Cappadocia as a result of a foreign policy adventure on the part of Mithridates V. His remaining sisters he kept in luxurious seclusion, unwilling to marry them to possible rivals, yet reserving them for a suitable diplomatic match should the need arise.

Now firmly in the saddle, Mithridates could take stock of his kingdom. The heart of Pontus was the royal capital of Amaseia, where the Pontic kings were traditionally buried. High in the hills, yet only 82km from the Black Sea coast, Amaseia was a highly defensible site, protected on one side by the river Iris, and on the other by steep cliffs. The great citadel contained both the royal palace and a huge altar to Zeus Stratios, whom the Mithridatids identified with Ahura–Mazda, the Iranian fire god and official protector of the dynasty. Originally founded by the ancient Hittite civilization, Amaseia gained its name from Amasis, the legendary queen of the Amazons who was said to have ruled from there. The cool climate and fertile soil of the area produced crops such as the apples for which the region is famous even today.

Mithridates knew that the true strength of his kingdom lay here and in the lands of the interior, especially along the Lycus and Iris river valleys. These areas often comprised huge tracts of temple land such as those at Comana and Zela (the temple complex at Comana was large enough to support 6,000 sacred slaves, reports the geographer Strabo).10 Comana was also a rare city in the Pontic interior; a lively trade centre with a famously cosmopolitan and decadent lifestyle. These provinces of the interior gave Mithridates unquestioning loyalty almost to the last. It was here, in the many highly-defensible royal strongholds which dotted the area, that Mithridates was later to keep his reserves of treasure, and from here that he raised levy after levy of troops.

The interior provided support and manpower, and these in turn gave Pontus dominance of the fertile coastal plain, and the wealthy Greek cities of (from west to east) Amastris, Sinope, Amisus, Pharnarcia and Trapezus. These not only provided trading outlets for the Pontic interior and beyond but were also useful bases from which Mithridates intended to fulfil the ancestral ambition of expanding across the Black Sea. Between the interior and the coastal plain, the thickly forested mountains had the timber for the ships which could make this ambition possible. From the borders of Armenia to the mountains of Paphlagonia the kingdom was about a thousand miles across, and with a population estimated as being over two million strong.

A large population and reserves of money and metal meant a strong army. We do not know as much as we would like about the Pontic army, the composition of which certainly changed as Mithridates’ empire grew and shrank. Certainly even the core levies of the kingdom would have been a mixture which varied from Greek cities with the latest in military technology to semi–barbarian tribes such as the Leucosyrians from the deep interior. It is an interesting reflection of Mithridates ability as a leader that he was able to keep this cosmopolitan army largely intact and coordinated, not to mention that for decades he kept it considerably more loyal and disciplined than the forces of his Roman opponents.

It might be assumed that the core of the army was the phalanx, a unit of close–formation pikemen who used long pikes as their primary weapon. Because a pike could be up to twenty–one feet long, this meant that several ranks could present their pikes to the enemy at once, forming a veritable hedge of spears. (The Roman general Aemilius Paullus faced the phalanx in 168 BC during the third Macedonian war, and admitted that just the memory of it bearing down on him was enough to bring him out in a cold sweat.) Horrible as the phalanx was when advancing head–on, it was pathetically vulnerable on the flanks. Three ranks of men with their pikes levelled cannot be easily turned to face a threat on the left or right, and since the forward progress of the phalanx required everyone to move forward in time, even a few rabbit holes in the wrong place could severely impair its progress.

However, given the right conditions, and adequate cover for the flanks, the phalanx could keep an enemy army pinned whilst cavalry swept down to take them from the sides and rear. It was a technique which Alexander had used time and again to conquer huge swathes of Asia, and it was still the preferred form of warfare among his successors. The Greek cities of Pontus provided a good supply of phalangites (as members of a phalanx are called), and the interminable wars of the Seleucids and their successors meant that there was always a large pool of mercenaries to draw upon, as the Mithridatids often did. Often only the front ranks of the phalanx wore armour, but Pontus, with its wealth and large iron reserves could afford to be generous in this regard.

On rough ground, where the phalanx feared to tread, it was the job of the peltast to rush in. Because they required rather less training than the rigorously drilled phalanx, peltasts were often recruited from semi–Hellenized tribes, or newly levied citizens. Because their mobility was the peltasts’ prime asset, it was also easy for the peltasts to rush out again if they encountered opposition stronger than they could handle. They wore minimal armour, and carried a spear twice as tall as themselves (so about 11 feet), the better to deal with cavalry. (Cavalry, though useless against formed troops, was death on hooves to skirmishers and troops which had broken ranks.) The prevalence of bowmen in oriental armies meant that peltasts also needed large, light shields and metal helmets. By contrast, the phalangites had discovered that raising their pikes to between forty-five degrees and vertical managed to deflect a surprising amount of incoming arrows, and they therefore coped with just a minimal shield strapped to a forearm.

Dealing with enemy bowmen, as opposed to enduring them, was the job of psiloi. These were very lightly-armed, highly mobile troops, often armed with missile weapons themselves. The close ties between the Mithridatids and Crete meant that Pontus always had a good supply of Crete’s famous mercenary archers on tap, and within Pontus itself, it was a rare shepherd who was not proficient with a sling.

A special class of mercenaries were the Galatians. Thanks to their warrior culture, the Galatians were usually happy to fight against anyone, and between themselves if no-one else was available. The wealth of Pontus meant that the Galatians could combine business with pleasure, and large numbers of them were usually available to fight under the Mithridatid standard. It appears that the Galatians still fought in traditional Gallic style. Though skilled metal workers, all but tribal leaders generally fought naked. This is less silly than it seems when one considers that many deaths in ancient battles resulted from dirty clothing being forced into the bloodstreams of the wounded. Slashers to a man, every Gaul who could afford it wielded a long sword which some did not even bother putting a pointy end on to. The Gauls made excellent shock troops, as it took experienced opponents to stand firm against a headlong charge by hundreds of large sword-wielding warriors who wore nothing but spiky lime hairstyles and ferocious expressions. The bad news was that the Galatians had only a rudimentary grasp of military discipline, and tended to regard setbacks as an invitation to go home.

The perfect mixture for an ancient army was generally regarded as about fifty-five percent heavy infantry, twenty percent light infantry and skirmishers and twenty-five to thirty percent cavalry. Not many ancient armies managed to get to the thirty percent cavalry mark, but thanks in part to the south Pontic Cappadocian plains and the plains of Lycaonia, the Pontic army managed this without difficulty. Because horsemen in the ancient world fought without stirrups, any attempt to charge at high speed with a couched lance would have propelled the lancer backward over his horse’s buttocks on impact. Therefore cavalrymen fought with swords or with long spears which they wielded at shoulder height. The exceptions were heavily-protected horsemen known as cataphracts (literally ‘covered-overs’), who were virtually an armoured phalanx on hooves. However, Mithridates seems not to have made much use of this innovation in warfare.

His cavalrymen still varied as much as did the infantry. From the very east of the country, Armenia Minor provided both armoured heavy cavalry able to stand and fight all but heavy infantry, and light horse archers, capable of emulating their Parthian cousins and firing over the rumps of their horses even as they galloped away from their attackers.

The Galatians made use of the fact that they occupied some fine horse country, and were considerably better horsed than their compatriots in Europe. Because the horsemen tended to be from among the aristocracy, they were armoured, and usually carried sword and shield. In this they were similar to Cappadocian cavalry who seem to have been kitted out as were the average Greek horsemen, on unarmoured horses with riders wearing cuirass or mail, and carrying javelins and/or xyston (a kind of long thrusting spear). As will be seen, Mithridates expansion of his kingdom was to increase the variety of the cavalry arm even further.

Finally, Mithridates seems to have been the first of his line to give serious consideration to a navy, although the raw material in the form of well-forested hillsides and Greek expertise had been available for decades. In part, Pontus had not needed a fleet, because the kingdom made a point of being friendly with the pirates who infested the coast of Crete, and more recently, Cilicia. Now, with mastery of the Black Sea in mind, Mithridates began to recruit shipbuilders. It might also have occurred to him that if the questions of Phrygia and Paphlagonia could not be amicably resolved, Pontus and the Romans were probably going to have a serious falling out at some point.

Given that the Roman navy was as bad as the Roman army was good, and that the only practical way of getting an army to face Mithridates in Asia Minor was to bring it by sea, it would be a good idea to face the Romans on the water rather than on land. The problem was what to do about the Romans and their allies already in Asia Minor. From the later evidence, it appears that the young Mithridates spent a substantial part of his early reign considering this question.

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