Mithridates VI Timeline

Mithridates VI Timeline

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The King who Tried to Become Immune to Poison – It Didn’t End Well

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean people aren’t out to get you. Just ask Mithridates. For rulers who lived during the era of Ancient Rome, paranoia was a virtue. With betrayal, assassination, and backstabbing happening on a constant basis to those who were in power, one would be wise to develop methods of self-protection.

While some rulers might have preferred to employ bodyguards to protect themselves, Mithridates VI went a different way to ensure that he would be safe not only from assassination but also from poison. Instead of just hiring a taste tester who would check his food for poison, Mithridates VI instead slowly accustomed himself to various poisons to the point where he thought he would become immune. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t end well.

Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI as Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1st century). Louvre, Paris.

Mithridates VI was born in the city of Sinope, the son of the ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus, Mithridates V. Pontus now covers parts of Turkey, Russia, Romania, and Greece, among other countries. His father’s reign would be closely allied with the Roman Republic and he would perform admirably in his duties, as king–for a time.

In 120 B.C., Mithridates V was murdered by an unknown assassin, killed by poison administered during a feast. This sudden departure of his father left Mithridates VI in danger because neither he, nor his younger brother, Chrestus, was of age to take the throne. Instead, his mother, Laodice VI, would become the regent, ruling in their stead.

Laodice VI’s eyes went toward Mithridates VI’s brother as the one to succeed. This was troublesome to Mithridates VI, because his life would be at risk under his mother’s rule. If she appointed his brother as the king, it could potentially lead to a civil war, which Laodice VI could prevent simply by killing the eldest son.

Mithridates VI went into hiding for quite some time, ensuring that he would be safe from his mother’s grasp until he was ready to try to take the throne.

During his time in hiding, Mithridates VI took it upon himself to ensure that he would not meet the same fate as his father.

He began a regimen of regularly consuming poisons, being careful to take doses that were below the lethal level.

He believed that this constant exposure would build in him an immunity to being poisoned by his enemies.

It was also during this time that a legend sprung up about a special mixture of herbs and other ingredients to create an antidote to any poison. This antidote was later known as a mithridate, after the name of its inventor.

Sometime between 116 and 113 B.C., Mithridates VI returned to his home of Sinope and seized hold of the throne, having his mother arrested and eventually executed.

His brother would also be put to death soon after, to ensure that Mithridates VI would be able to hold his claim to the throne securely.

As the new king of Pontus, Mithridates VI set about bringing serious expansion and prosperity to his people.

While his father had been on friendly terms with the Romans, over time Mithridates would end up running afoul of them.

Map of the Kingdom of Pontus: Before the reign of Mithridates VI (dark purple), after his conquests (purple), his conquests in the first Mithridatic wars (pink) and Pontus’ ally the Kingdom of Armenia (green).

His military conquests, at first, had been of no consequence to the Roman Republic. He moved across the Black Sea and began to fight the Scythians, in the process taking possession of the Bosporoan kingdom.

They traded their freedom in exchange for protection against the Scythian people. With each victory, Pontus would grow in size and power.

However, a dispute over the region of Cappadocia led to a conflict between Mithridates and the Romans.

The myth of Pandora’s Box

Mithridates VI had been working to establish Cappadocia as his own territory, through political maneuvering and the careful arranging of marriages.

This would ensure that he would be able to have a claim to the region but would lead to open conflict between King Nicomedes III of Bithynia, who had his own plans to take control of Cappadocia.

The fights between these two rulers led them to implore Rome to approve their own claims.

However, Rome demanded that both Mithridates VI and Nicomedes release their grip on the region and restore Cappadocia to being an independent state.

Replica of ancient Pontos coin. Mithridates VI of Pontus. Photo by Andrew Butko – CC BY SA 3.0

As the Pontus kingdom had expanded in strength and numbers, the idea of Cappadocia being under the control of a puppet government was disconcerting for the Romans. They would prefer that Mithridates VI’s presence was removed.

At first, Mithridates would comply with the Roman Senate’s demands, but by 89 B.C. he would invade Cappadocia again. This prompted a military response from the Romans in a campaign known as the First Mithridatic War.

He was unable to maintain his hold on the territories that he held, and after a five-year campaign, was pushed back to Pontus. There, a peace treaty was signed, but provisions were made that Mithridates VI would be allowed to rebuild his army.

A coin depicting Mithridates VI

Two more Mithridatic wars would follow, with the third one being the longest and most devastating.

With Mithridates VI forming an alliance with several other kingdoms, he was seen as a serious threat to the Roman Republic, triggering another war meant to shatter the alliance once and for all.

Illustration of Mithridates VI

In short, Mithridates VI would end up losing his forces and was forced to flee into the northern lands across the Black Sea.

Undeterred, he would attempt to build up an army, but his recruitment methods were considered to be too draconian and lead to a local rebellion that threatened to put an end to Mithridates.

Rather than die at the hands of an unruly mob, it was here that Mithridates VI decided that he would take the noble way out (as was custom for the time) by committing suicide. His method of choice? Poison.

Unfortunately, it turned out that his body really was immune to the effects of the poison and he did not die from his suicidal dose, despite what he drank.

Image by John Leech, from: The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A. Beckett. Bradbury, Evans & Co, London, 1850s. Mithridates, his rash act.

There are two different accounts of how he died. The first account, provided by Appian’s Roman History, claims that he gave his sword to his close friend and had him do the deed.

The second account, in Cassius Dio’s Roman History, claims that he was unable to end his own life with either by poison or sword, and instead met his fate at the hands of the rebels.

Either way, the story has one constant: The man who feared assassination by poison was unable to die from it because of his immunity. True irony.

Andrew Pourciaux is a novelist hailing from sunny Sarasota, Florida, where he spends the majority of his time writing and podcasting.

When Pontus Challenged Roman Rule: The Rise Of King Mithridates VI

The expansion of Pontus under Mithridates VI

In the year 122 BCE, Rome’s meteoric ascent to hegemony in the Mediterranean seemed unstoppable. The Republic was busily strengthening its influence in Greece and Anatolia through the establishment of several client states and strategic alliances. In that same year, however, another fateful event came to pass, with Mithridates VI ascending to the throne of Pontus, a diminutive kingdom in north-eastern Anatolia.

Over the course of his reign, Mithridates would become the single greatest challenger to Roman expansion towards the Black Sea. Pontus and Rome would fight three bloody conflicts, known as the Mithridatic Wars, in the space of twenty-five years. The first such conflict would end with the Treaty of Dardanos in 85 BCE, cementing Roman control of Greece and Anatolia.

The Rise of Mithridates VI

Mithridates VI Eupator ascended the throne of Pontus at the age of thirteen, under the regency of his mother, and following the assassination of his father. His ruthless streak was revealed mere years later, with the killing of his brother Mithridates Chrestus in order to secure his own sole rulership over Pontus. He had his mother imprisoned, where she allegedly died of natural causes, and married his sixteen year old sister to solidify his control on the kingdom.

Asia Minor before the outbreak of the First Mithridiatic War (90BC)

Mithradates’ first major success was the conquest of Colchis, a polity located in modern-day Georgia, which was rapidly followed by the annexation of Crimea and the Bosporan kingdom some time around 115 or 114 BCE. This was done under the pretext of protecting the Greek cities of the region from the Scythians, nomadic peoples who were being pushed towards them by the advancing Sarmatians.

This threat was apparently severe enough that the cities and kingdoms of the area willingly surrendered their independence to Mithridates. The latter embarked on a vigorous campaign that allowed him to defeat the Scythians on multiple occasions, and in so doing dominating most of Crimea. Due to the way in which Mithridates had cleverly used a combination of force and diplomacy to gain control of his new territories, his armies were now bolstered by his new subjects and allies, including the Scythians themselves, and some Sarmatian princes.

The Road To War

Some two decades prior to these events, Rome had established a definitive foothold in the region, by gaining Pergamum through peaceful means. With his dying will, Pergamum’s last monarch provided for Rome to inherit his kingdom, rather than see it descend into a succession crisis, which also threatened to entice Pergamum’s greedy neighbours. Additionally, the Roman domination of Greece, and strong alliances with Greek states like Rhodes, provided Rome with a strong position to act from.

However, the Jurgurthine and Cimbri wars severely distracted the Romans, just as Mithridates turned his attention to the west. The Pontic king took this opportunity to occupy Pathlagonia, in concert with the kingdom of Bithynia. The occupation was short-lived: with Roman fortunes on the rise, the Senate ordered Mithridates to leave the territory, which he did – though Bithynia at the time ignored this demand. His next attempt at expansion was to conquer Cappadocia, a feat achieved largely through the assassinations of Ariarathes VI and VII. This time, the Romans responded quickly, forcing Mithridates to withdraw, and expelling Bithynian forces from Pathlagonia.

Portrait of the king of Pontus Mithridates VI, wearing a lion’s head and impersonating Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1st century).

These attempts at expansion were beginning to seriously concern the Romans. Marius, in his diplomatic role in the region, had insisted that Mithridates should “be stronger than the Romans or obey their commands in silence”. Rome fully expected Mithridates to challenge them at some point, in order to make good his attempts to expand into much of Asia Minor. Mithridates, however, moved quicker than expected, hammering out an alliance with the Armenian king Tigranes I. Armenia was a significant regional power, and in combination with Pontus, it could present a realistic threat to Roman hegemony in the region.

Challenging Rome

Despite the stiffening Roman resistance, Mithridates remained on the lookout for opportunities to exploit. One such opportunity came when the Italian peninsula descended into the Social War, a military conflict that pitted Rome against its long-standing allied city-states and tribes in Italy. While Rome was distracted by the fighting, Mithridates rapidly seized control of much of Asia Minor, quickly retaking as far as Cappadocia to the south and using a pretender to de-facto seize control of Bithynia as well. The Romans dispatched Manius Aquillius to place the original kings of these countries back on their thrones, which Mithridates did not immediately oppose. Only when Aquillius coerced Nicomedes of Bithynia to attack Pontus did the war start in earnest.

At this point, the Pontic ambassadors had successfully engineered events to make Rome look like the instigator of aggression against Pontus, therefore allowing Mithridates to present his war as a defensive one. Once conflict erupted, his forces rapidly overran most of Asia Minor and defeated Aquillius in battle. After he had secured these territories and appointed satraps to govern them, Mithridates issued an order to massacre all Romans and Italians in Asia Minor, including their families and freedmen.

This massacre, known as the Asiatic Vespers, involved the slaughter of between 80,000 and 150,000 people, with Rhodes being the only real safe haven available for the targets of the butchery. This city remained a staunch ally of the Romans even while the other Greek states began to rebel in favour of Mithridates.

Bust of Sulla, the Roman general who defeated Mithridates in the First Mithridatic War. He would go on to become Rome’s dictator, reviving the office for the first time since the end of the Second Punic War.

Rome responded in earnest to these upheavals. Sulla was dispatched to command a military expedition which quickly pacified the Greek states which had gone over to Mithridates. The operation was a complete success for Rome, with Sulla besieging Athens and forcing it to surrender in 86BCE. After Athenian dignitaries managed to insult Sulla while trying to surrender, the latter used sappers to bring down a huge section of the walls defending the city. With the way into the city open, Sulla’s army sacked Athens with such brutality that senators in the commander’s retinue had to beg him to not completely raze the city.

After the sacking of Athens, Sulla proceeded to win a crushing victory against a Pontic army between two and four times the size of his own, under Archelaos, at Chaeronea. He then proceeded to win another decisive victory against the odds at Orchomenus, where his army was similarly outnumbered. Sulla achieved this feat by doggedly entrenching his positions against repeated Pontic assaults, bleeding the attackers dry. At the same time, Roman forces under Flaccus and then Fimbria managed to retake Pergamum in Asia Minor.

The Treaty Of Dardanos

Despite these drastic victories, Sulla could not afford to wait out the enemy and endure a long war. Trouble at home required his return, and the general recognised the need to speedily come to terms with Mithridates. In light of the atrocities committed by Mithridates, peace negotiations with Pontus were perceived as a betrayal by many, including Sulla’s own soldiers. This was made even worse by the provisions of the treaty, which merely forced Mithridates to abandon the territory which he had gained during the war, and to pay reparations equal to the financial cost of the war.

The Greek states who had sided with Pontus were not shown the same leniency: Rome slapped them with collective war reparations around ten times higher than the cost of the conflict, and imposed harsh billeting terms which, according to Plutarch, ruined many wealthy families. The peace also allowed Rome to consolidate its power in Greece, fully subjugating the cities there to Roman rule. Additionally, Mithridates was declared a friend and ally of Rome once his personal reparations had been paid. However, the treaty was never ratified by the Senate, and as such its legal force depended exclusively on the personal power of Sulla.

The war had a curious cultural impact, as detailed by Plutarch: during the sack of Athens, Sulla acquired the library of Apellicon the Teian, which contained many works by Aristotle and Theophrastus. These books were not publicly available at the time, but this changed after Sulla’s seizure. Copies were made and shared, primarily with Rhodes, allowing the texts to become more widely known and safer from being completely lost.

The First Mithridatic War was ultimately inconclusive, with two more wars being required before Rome could extinguish the threat posed by Mithradates and his ally Tigranes I. At that point, Roman dominance in Greece and the west and south of Asia Minor finally became unchallenged.

Tryphaena, daughter of Ptolemy VIII Physcon and Cleopatra III [ edit ]

Tryphaena was a sister of Ptolemy IX Lathyros, Ptolemy X Alexander I, Cleopatra IV and Cleopatra Selene. Ώ] ΐ] If this Tryphaena also bore the name Cleopatra, has not been attested. This Tryphaena may have been born in early 9861 or 9860 . She married Antiochus VIII Grypus, king of Syria, in 9877 , and bore him five sons: Seleucus VI Epiphanes, the twin Antiochus XI Epiphanes and Philip I Philadelphus, Demetrius III Eucaerus, and Antiochus XII Dionysus. The couple also had a daughter called Laodice. Tryphaena was killed in Antioch (Greek: Αντιόχεια), capital of Syria, by Antiochus IX Cyzicenus, as a revenge for his own wife's (Cleopatra IV) death by the orders of her sister Tryphaena (in 9890 ). Α]

King Mithridates and Poisoning

MithrIdates VI (reigned c. 120-63 BC), called Mithridates the Great, was one of the richest rulers and strongest foes of the Romans in the late Republic. From 88-63 BC four Roman generals, Sulla, Lucinius, Lucullus and Pompey, were sent against him. After 25 years of war, Pompey finally defeated Mithridates and threatened to take him to Rome as the prime trophy in his triumphal parade:

Pompey the Great, c. 50 BC Mithridates shaking hands with Hercules

“Mithridates tried to make away with himself and after first removing his wives and remaining children by poison, he swallowed all that was left yet neither by that means nor by the sword was he able to perish by his own hands. For the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him since he had inured his constitution to it, taking precautionary antidotes in large doses every day and the force of blow from his sword was lessened on account of the weakness of his hand caused by his age (71) and present misfortunes, and as a result of taking the poison….When therefore he failed to take his own life through his own efforts and seemed to linger beyond the proper time, those whom he had sent against his son fell upon him and hastened his end with their swords and spears. Thus Mithridates, who had experienced the most varied and remarkable fortune, had not even an ordinary end to his life. For he desired to die, albeit unwillingly, and though eager to kill himself was unable to do so but partly by poison and partly by the sword he was at once self-slain and murdered by his foes.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 37.13

No doubt the prime reason Mithridates took regular antidotes against poisoning is because his mother, Laodice VI, had poisoned his father. His mother preferred his younger brother, so Mithridates went into hiding after his father’s death. He finally came forward, claimed the throne and threw his mother and brother into prison. But he could never be sure she did not have palace sympathizers who were trying to poison him.

French pharmacy jar, c. 1725-1775 Illustration from the Tacuinum Sanitatis

For almost 2,000 years after his death, a potion called Antidotum Mithridaticum, later called Theriac, was used as a panacea for serious ailments. It contained up to 60 ingredients and was guaranteed to cause immunity to most diseases. Galen (129-c.200 AD), the Greek physician, wrote a book entitled Therike and his patient Emperor Marcus Aurelius took it daily. In the Middle Ages there were shops that made and sold Theriac. Even after the age of Enlightenment, people believed in the principle of ingesting poison to combat diseases.

The first person in history who actually took Mithridates’ principle to a useful place was Edward Jenner (1749-1823), a devout Christian. As a young medical student, he had noticed that milkmaids who tended cows who had cowpox did not get cowpox. He took fluid from a cowpox blister and scratched it into the skin of an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. A blister arose, formed a scab and Phipps suffered no after effects. About six weeks later on May 14, 1796, Jenner injected fluid from small pox blisters into the boy. No disease occurred.

This was world-shattering. Jenner had developed the first vaccine. Since then, scientists and doctors have followed Jenner’s principle and have developed vaccines for polio, measles, typhoid fever and other diseases.

Mithridates’ daily dose of poison worked on the same principle as our modern vaccines. To combat smallpox, inject some smallpox virus and the body will produce anti-bodies that cause immunity to smallpox. The Asian King Mithridates’ daily dose of poison to ward off death by poisoning worked—and still works.

“I am not surprised that men are thankful to me but I wonder if they be grateful to God for the good which He has made me the instrument of conveying to my fellow-creatures.” Edward Jenner—Article by Sandra Sweeny Silver

Mithridates V of Pontus

Mithridates V Euergetes (Greek: Μιθριδάτης ὁ εὐεργέτης, which means "Mithridates the benefactor" flourished 2nd century BC, reigned 150� BC) also known as Mithridates V of Pontus, Mithradates V of Pontus and Mithradates V Euergetes, was a Prince and seventh King of the wealthy Kingdom of Pontus.

Mithridates V was of Greek Macedonian and Persian ancestry. He was the son of the King Pharnaces I of Pontus and Queen Nysa, while his sister was Nysa of Cappadocia. His mother is believed to have died during childbirth, when his mother was giving birth to his sister or Mithridates V. He was born and raised in the Kingdom of Pontus. Mithridates V succeeded his paternal aunt Laodice and paternal uncle Mithridates IV of Pontus on the Pontian throne and the accession of Mithridates V is uncertain.

Mithridates V continued the politics of an alliance with the Roman Republic started by his predecessors. He supported them with some ships and a small auxiliary force during the Third Punic War (149� BC) and at a subsequent period rendered them useful assistance in the war against King of Pergamon, Eumenes III (131� BC).

For his services on this occasion, Mithridates V was rewarded by the Roman consul Manius Aquillius with the province of Phrygia. However the acts of the Roman consul were rescinded by the Roman Senate on the grounds of bribery, but it appears that he maintained his possession of Phrygia until his death. Mithridates V also increased the power of the Kingdom of Pontus by the marriage of his eldest child, his daughter Laodice of Cappadocia to King Ariarathes VI of Cappadocia. The end of his reign can only be approximately determined based on statements concerning the accession of his son Mithridates VI, which is assign in the year 120 BC to end of the reign of Mithridates V.

Mithridates V was assassinated in about 120 BC in Sinope, poisoned by unknown persons at a lavish banquet which he held. Mithridates V, was a great benefactor to the Hellenic culture which shows on surviving coinage and honorific inscriptions stating his donations in Athens and Delos and had great veneration in which he kept for the Greek God Apollo. At the Capitoline Museums in Rome, is on a display a bilingual inscription dedication to him. Mithridates V was buried in the royal tombs of his ancestors at Amasya.

Mithridates V married the Greek Seleucid Princess Laodice VI, who was the daughter of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and Laodice IV. Mithridates V and Laodice VI were related, thus he had lineage from the Seleucid dynasty.

Laodice bore Mithridates V seven children who were: Laodice of Cappadocia, Mithridates VI of Pontus, Mithridates Chrestus, Laodice, Nysa (sometimes spelt as Nyssa), Roxana and Statira. Roxana and Statira were compelled to kill themselves with poison after the fall of the Kingdom of Pontus in 63 BC. Nysa was taken prisoner by the Romans and made to march in the triumphs of two Roman generals.

Rome's Greatest Enemies Gallery

Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysius, to give him his full name, was the greatest king of the Pontic kingdom, which was centred on the southern shores of the Black Sea. He was Rome's most dangerous enemy in the first century BC, following the Roman defeat of Carthage in the second century BC.

Mithradates began by conquering the Crimea and the northern Euxine, securing almost complete control of the shores of the Black Sea and with it huge resources for his wars. At this point, Roman power was advancing into the eastern Mediterranean and a showdown was inevitable.

Mithradates prepared carefully, annexing Bithynia and Cappadocia to increase his powerbase. In his first Roman war (89-85 BC), he conquered all of Asia Minor, where he massacred all resident Romans and Italians. He even took Greece before five Roman legions forced him back to Asia, where the subsequent peace confined him to his original Pontic kingdom. (To win Greek support against the ominous advance of Roman power, he had carefully echoed the ruling style and imagery of Alexander the Great.)

The second war (83-81 BC) was no more than a series of skirmishes, but full-scale conflict broke out again over Bithynia in 73 BC. The Romans were victorious and even drove him briefly into exile in Armenia. He was able to return to Pontus again in 68 BC, but was finally defeated by Pompey the Great and forced back into a Crimean redoubt.

There he was said to be planning a bizarrely ambitious invasion of Italy when his son overthrew him. Inured to poison by years of taking it, Mithradates was forced to ask a willing guard to run him through.

The End of Athens: How the City-State’s Democracy was Destroyed

Two scenes from Athens in the first-century BC: Early summer, 88 BC, a cheering crowd surrounds the envoy Athenion as he makes a rousing speech. He’s just returned to the city-state from a mission across the Aegean Sea to Anatolia, where he forged an alliance with a great king. Athens, humbled in recent years by the Romans, can seize control of its destiny, Athenion declares. After his speech, the excited throng rushes to the theater of Dionysus, where official assemblies are held, and elects Athenion as hoplite general, the city’s most important executive position. Athenion struts on stage before the crowd, then displays the sloganeering skills of a modern politician, saying: “Now you command yourselves, and I am your commander in chief. If you join your strength to me, my power shall reach the combined power of all of you.” Then March 86 BC, shouts and trumpet blasts rend the night air as Roman soldiers, swords drawn, run through the city. Blood flows in the narrow streets, as the Romans butcher the Athenians—women and children included. The number of dead is beyond counting. In despair, many Athenians kill themselves.

Less than two years separate these scenes. How did Athens swing so quickly from euphoria to catastrophe? The answer lies in a dramatic tale starring the demagogue Athenion, a mindless mob, a tyrant, and a brutal Roman general. The heart of this story is a months-long battle featuring treachery and clever siege warfare. And its denouement is the Roman sack of Athens, a bloody day that effectively marked the end of Athens as an independent state.

Athens in the early first century had energy and culture. The city held festivals and presented nine plays each year, both comedies and tragedies. Its popular Assembly directed internal affairs as a showcase of democracy. But this was all before the powerful Athens of the fifth century BC, when the city had been at its zenith. Macedonians under Philip II—father of Alexander the Great—had defeated Athens in 338 BC and installed a garrison in the Athenian port city of Piraeus. Under Macedonian control, Athens had dwindled to a third-rank power, with no independence in foreign affairs and an insignificant military.

In 229, when the Macedonian King Demetrius II died, leaving nine-year-old Philip V as his heir, the Athenians took advantage of the power vacuum and negotiated the removal of the garrison at Piraeus. But in 200, Philip, having come of age and claimed the crown, dispatched an army toward Athens to regain the port. With few military resources of its own, the city turned for help to the Roman Republic, the rising power of the day. Rome responded, rushing 20 warships and 1,000 troops to Piraeus to keep Philip V at bay.

This newfound alliance initially benefited Athens. When the Romans destroyed the Macedonian Kingdom in 168, the Senate awarded Athens the Aegean island of Delos. Athens declared the Delos harbor duty-free, and the island prospered as a major trading center. In 129 BC, after Rome established its province of Asia, in western Anatolia across the Aegean, Delos became a trade hub for goods shipped between Anatolia and Italy.

Over time, however, the Romans had begun to look less friendly. In 146, they ruthlessly destroyed the city-state of Corinth and established their authority over much of Greece. Then, early in the first century BC, a political crisis engulfed Athens when its “eponymous archon,” or chief magistrate, refused to abide by the Athenian constitution’s one-term limit. Rome, which was preoccupied fighting its former Italian allies in the Social War (91–88), failed to step in to settle matters, increasing resentment in Athens.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Aegean, events touched off an explosion whose force would swamp Athens. The Romans were extorting as much revenue as possible from their new province of Asia. Suffering dearly, the Greek cities on the Anatolian coast went looking for help and found a deliverer in Mithridates VI, king of Pontus in northeastern Anatolia. Mithridates, who came from a Persian dynasty, ruled a culturally mixed kingdom that included both Persians and Greeks. To the Persians, he emphasized his descent from ancient Persian kings. To the Greeks, he represented himself as a “new Alexander,” the champion of Greek culture against Rome.

War between Pontus and Rome—the First Mithridatic War—broke out in 89 BC over the petty state of Bithynia in northwestern Anatolia. The Romans placed a proxy on the Bithynian throne and encouraged him to raid Pontic territory. Mithridates swiftly retaliated, invading and overrunning Bithynia. The Pontic army used scythes mounted on chariots as weapons of terror, cutting swaths through the Bithynian ranks. Appian, the historian who wrote in the second century AD, records that the Bithynians were “terrified at seeing men cut in halves and still breathing, or mangled in fragments, or hanging on the scythes.”

After defeating the Bithynians, Mithridates drove into the Roman province of Asia. Most of the Greek cities there welcomed the Pontic forces, and by early 88, Mithridates was firmly in control of western Anatolia. At the king’s order, the locals slaughtered tens of thousands of Romans and Italians who lived among them. Terrified Romans fled to temples for sanctuary, but to no avail they were butchered anyway. Not all the Anatolian Greeks wanted to do the dirty work: the citizens of the inland town of Tralles hired an outsider—a man named Theophilus—to kill for them. Theophilus even hacked off the hands of Romans clinging to statues inside a temple.

About the same time that the Pontic army was sweeping across the province of Asia, Athens dispatched the philosopher Athenion as an envoy to Mithridates. The Greek emissary became an enthusiastic booster of the king and sent letters home advocating an alliance. Athenion promised that Mithridates would restore democracy to Athens—an apparent reference to the archon’s violation of the constitution’s one-term limit. He also said that Mithridates would free the citizens of Athens from their debts (whether he meant public or private debts is not clear).

According to a fragmentary account by the historian Posidonius, Athenion’s letters persuaded Athens that “the Roman supremacy was broken.” The prospect of the Anatolian Greeks throwing off Roman rule also sparked pan-Hellenic solidarity. When Athenion returned home in the early summer of 88, citizens gave him a rapturous reception. People rushed to greet him as he was carried into the city on a scarlet-covered couch, wearing a ring with Mithridates’s portrait. The next day, as he made his way to the Agora for a speech, a mob of admirers strained to touch his garments. With the help of bodyguards, Athenion pushed through the crowd to the front of the Stoa of Attalos, a long, colonnaded commercial building among the most impressive in the Agora. Athenion at first feigned a reluctance to speak because of “the sheer scale of what is to be said,” according to Posidonius. Then he recounted events in the east. Gloating over Roman misfortunes, he declared that Mithridates controlled all of Anatolia. The Roman leaders, he said, were prisoners, and ordinary Romans were hiding in temples, “prostrate before the statues of the gods.” Oracles from all sides predicted Mithridates’s future victories, he said, and other nations were rushing to join forces with him. Athens, too, should throw in with this rising power, he asserted.

Athenion had the mob eating out of his hand. His election as hoplite general quickly followed. Yet his plans hit a snag when Delos refused to break from Rome. The island had many Roman and Italian residents and relied heavily on the Roman trade. When Athenion sent a force to seize control of Delos, a Roman unit swiftly defeated it.

But where Athenion failed, Mithridates was determined to succeed. The Pontic king sent his Greek mercenary, General Archelaus, into the Aegean with a fleet. Archelaus was to seize Delos, then solidify Pontic control of Athens and as much of Greece as possible. The king probably wished to engage the Romans far to the west, away from his core territories in Anatolia. As the “new Alexander,” he may also have seen the conquest of Greece as a natural move.

Arriving at Delos, Archelaus quickly took the island. Historian Appian states that the Pontics massacred thousands of Italians there, a repeat of the slaughter in Anatolia. Though Archelaus restored Delos to Athenian control, he turned over its treasury to Aristion, an Athenian citizen whom Mithridates had chosen to rule Athens. When the fleet reached the city, Aristion quickly seized power, thanks in part to a personal guard of 2,000 Pontic soldiers. Athenion’s fate is not clear. He disappears from the historical record Aristion must have deposed him.

As the Pontic general Archelaus persuaded other Greek cities to turn against Rome—including Thebes to the northwest of Athens—Aristion established a new regime in Athens. City residents who had cheered lustily for Athenion, the demagogic envoy, now found themselves ruled by a tyrant. Aristion executed citizens accused of favoring Rome and sent others to Mithridates as prisoners. Such brutality may have been carried out with a design Athenians fearing a Roman military intervention were growing restless under Aristion. Many tried to flee, but Aristion placed guards at the gates. When some topped the walls and ran away, he sent cavalry after them.

The Athenians had reason to fear for their lives. The Italian Social War ended in 88, freeing the Romans to meet the Pontic threat in the east. They didn’t act immediately a fight over who would lead the army against Mithridates was settled only when Consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla secured the command by marching on Rome, an unprecedented move. Sulla arrived in Greece early in 87 with five legions (approximately 25,000 men) and some mounted auxiliaries. As he advanced, Thebes and the other Greek cities that had allied with Archelaus nimbly switched back to the Roman side.

Once near his target, Sulla moved to isolate Athens from Piraeus and besiege each separately. The famous Long Walls that had connected the two cities during the Peloponnesian War had since fallen into disrepair. He detached a force to surround Athens, then struck at Piraeus, where Archelaus and his troops were stationed.

Following standard Roman procedure, Sulla’s men made a quick assault on the walls of the port, trying to catch the defenders by surprise. When that failed, the Romans settled in for a long siege. Sulla had siege engines built on the spot, cutting down the groves of trees in the Athenian suburb of the Academy, where Plato had taught some three centuries earlier. Sulla obtained iron and other material from Thebes and placed his newly built siege engines upon mounds of rubble collected from the Long Walls. Inside Piraeus, Archelaus countered by building towers for his siege engines.

As the year 87 drew on, Mithridates sent additional troops. Archelaus, who had more men than Sulla at the outset, tried to make use of his numerical superiority in an all-out attack on the besiegers. In the furious fighting that followed, he kept his army close to Piraeus to ensure that his archers and slingers on the wall could still wreak havoc on the Romans. Neither side gained an advantage until a group of Romans who had been gathering wood returned and charged into battle. Some 2,000 of Archelaus’s men were killed. The Romans drove the rest back into Piraeus so swiftly that Archelaus was left outside the walls and had to be hauled up by rope.

The stalemate continued. With winter coming on, Sulla established his camp at Eleusis, 14 miles west of Athens, where a ditch running to the sea protected his men.

Throughout the siege, Sulla got regular reports from spies inside Piraeus—two Athenian slaves who inscribed notes on lead balls that they shot with slings into the Roman lines. The two either supported the Romans or were currying favor with the side that they expected to win. Regardless, Sulla benefited greatly. With Athens running short of food, Archelaus one night dispatched troops from Piraeus with a supply of wheat. Sulla, tipped off by a lead-ball message, captured the relief expedition.

Eventually Archelaus realized someone was divulging his plans, but turned it to his advantage. He sent out another convoy carrying food for Athens, and when the Romans attacked it, his men dashed from hiding inside the gates and torched some of the Roman siege engines.

As winter stretched on, Athenians began to starve. They butchered and ate all their cattle, then boiled the hides. Becoming more desperate, they gathered wild plants on the slopes of the Acropolis and boiled shoes and leather oil-flasks. (According to Plutarch’s Life of Sulla, the tyrant Aristion and his cronies were drinking and reveling even as famine spread. Plutarch also claims that Aristion took to dancing on the walls and shouting insults at Sulla. However, Plutarch drew on Sulla’s memoirs as a source, so these anecdotes may be unreliable Sulla had an interest in denigrating his opponent.)

To protect their money, some Athenians buried coin hoards. Archaeologists discovered these caches thousands of years later and found bronze coins minted during the siege, when Aristion and King Mithridates jointly held the title of master of the mint. These bronze coins bore the Pontic symbol of a star between two half-moons.

Sulla had logistical problems of his own. His political opponents had seized control of Rome, declared him a public enemy, and forced his wife and children to flee to his camp in Greece. The capital would be sending no more reinforcements or money. Sulla’s solution: rob the Greek temples of their treasures. The Romans looted even the great shrine at Delphi dedicated to Apollo. As soldiers carted away their prized and sacred possessions, the guardians of Delphi bitterly complained that Sulla was nothing like previous Roman commanders, who had come to Greece and made gifts to the temples.

Meanwhile, the siege of Piraeus continued, with each side matching the other’s moves. The Romans built a huge mobile siege tower that reached higher than the city’s walls, and placed catapults in its upper reaches to fire down upon the defenders. Archelaus in turn built a tower that he brought up directly opposite its Roman counterpart. An artillery duel developed. Men on both towers discharged “all kinds of missiles,” according to Appian. Sulla eventually gained the upper hand, thanks to large devices that Appian said “discharged twenty of the heaviest leaden balls at one volley.” These missiles killed a large number of Pontic men and damaged their tower, forcing Archelaus to pull it back.

At one point, the Romans carried a ram to the top of one of the mounds fashioned from the rubble of the Long Walls. But without warning, it sank into the earth. Archelaus’s men, Sulla discovered, had dug a tunnel and undermined it. The Romans quickly got to work on their own tunnel, and when the diggers from both sides met, a savage fight broke out underground, the miners hacking at each other with spears and swords “as well as they could in the darkness,” according to Appian.

As below ground, so above. When a Roman ram breached part of the walls of Piraeus, Sulla directed fire-bearing missiles against a nearby Pontic tower, sending it up in flames like a monstrous torch. The Romans then fractured a nearby portion of the wall and launched an all-out attack. The opposing forces clashed bitterly for a long time—Appian records that both Sulla and Archelaus held forth in the thick of the action, cheering on their men and bringing up fresh troops. Ultimately, the Romans grew exhausted, and Sulla ordered a retreat.

During the night, Archelaus sealed the breaches in the walls by building lunettes, or crescent-shaped fieldworks, inside. Sulla attacked again the next morning with his entire army, hoping the wet mortar of the lunettes would not hold.

But geometry worked against him. Attacking into the half circle of the lunette, they were hit by missiles from the front and both flanks. It was too much. Sulla ordered another retreat, and turned his attention to Athens, which by now was a softer target than Piraeus.

With the city starving, its leaders asked Aristion to negotiate with Sulla. Though he at first refused, he later relented and sent a delegation to meet with the Roman commander. But when one of the Athenian delegates began a grand speech about their city’s great past, Sulla abruptly dismissed them. “I was not sent to Athens by the Romans to learn its history, but to subdue its rebels,” he declared.

Soon after, Roman soldiers overheard men in the Athenian neighborhood of the Kerameikos, northwest of the Acropolis, grousing about the neglected defenses there. One night Sulla personally reconnoitered that stretch of wall, which was near the Dipylon Gate, the city’s main entrance. In the dark early morning of March 1, 86 BC, the Romans opened an attack there, launching large catapult stones. Centuries later, archaeologists discovered some of these in the ruins of the Pompeion, a gathering place for the start of processions. Apparently, some Roman stones had missed the gate and crashed into the Pompeion next door.

Eventually the Romans breached a section of the wall and poured through. The Athenian defenders, weakened by hunger, fled. A mass slaughter followed. According to Appian, Sulla “ordered an indiscriminate massacre, not sparing women or children.” Many Athenians were so distraught that they committed suicide by throwing themselves at the soldiers. Inside homes, the Romans discovered a sight that must have horrified even the most hardened among them: human flesh prepared as food.

Realizing the city’s defenses were broken, Aristion burned the Odeon of Pericles, on the south side of the Acropolis, to prevent the Romans from using its timbers to construct more siege engines. He and his allies then retreated to the Acropolis, which the Romans promptly surrounded. Aristion didn’t hold out long: He surrendered when he ran out of drinking water. Sulla had the tyrant and his bodyguard executed. He also helped himself to a stash of gold and silver found on the Acropolis.

Now, Roman senators and Athenian exiles in Sulla’s entourage asked him to show mercy for the city. Sulla called a halt to the pillage and slaughter. Scorning the vanquished, he declared that he was sparing them only out of respect for their distinguished ancestors.

With Athens under his thumb, Sulla turned back to Piraeus. Weary of the siege and determined to seize the city by assault, he ordered his soldiers to fire an endless stream of arrows and javelins. Others brought up rams and entered the breach they’d made in the walls earlier. This time, they burst through Archelaus’s hastily constructed lunette. The Pontic troops had built other lunettes inside, but the Romans attacked each wall with manic energy. Sulla circulated among his men and cheered them on, promising that their ordeal was almost over. At last, Archelaus saw that the game was up and skillfully evacuated his army by sea. Sulla, lacking ships, could not give chase.

The war had one last act to play out. Archelaus landed on the Greek coast to the north and withdrew into Thessaly, where he joined forces with Pontic reinforcements that had marched overland from Anatolia. Sulla also moved north, however, and defeated Archelaus in two pitched battles in Boeotia, at Chaeronea and Orchomenos.

Those defeats persuaded Mithridates to end the war. The terms of the 85 BC peace agreement with Sulla were surprisingly mild considering that Mithridates had slaughtered thousands of Romans. Though Mithridates had to withdraw from territories he had conquered and pay an indemnity, he remained in power in Pontus.

Sulla had reason to let Mithridates off easy—he was anxious to deal with his political opponents back in Rome. In 83 BC, Sulla and his army returned to Italy, kicking off the Roman Republic’s first all-out civil war, which he won. In the meantime, Mithridates used the respite to rebuild his strength. Rome would have to fight the Pontic king again before his final defeat and death—purportedly by suicide—in 63.

Athens, meanwhile, was devastated. The Pompeion was ravaged beyond repair and left to decay. Buildings in the Agora and on the south side of the Acropolis remained damaged for decades, monuments to the poverty in postwar Athens.

The effect on the city’s model democracy was also staggering. Archaeologists have found no inscriptions with decrees from the Assembly that date within 40 years of the end of the siege. A small number of families came to dominate the leading political offices and ruled almost as an oligarchy—one that was careful not to provoke the Romans. Thanks to Sulla’s ruthlessness, Athenion’s demagoguery, and the Athenians’ manic enthusiasm for the proposed alliance with Mithridates, Athens’s days as an autonomous city-state were all but over.

Originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.

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