The article below by Brian McGing: Mithradates VI “Eupador” of the Pontus Kingdomwas originally posted in the Encyclopedia Iranica. Kindly note that the images, videos and accompanying descriptions below do not appear in the Encyclopedia Iranica original version. See also Kaveh Farrokh article: Eastern Anatolia: Heir to an Irano-Greek legacy
Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysos (r. 120-63 BCE), last king of Pontus, the Hellenistic kingdom that emerged in northern Asia Minor in the early years of the 3rd century BCE. He is noted primarily for his opposition to Rome. Of the three wars he fought against Rome, the first (89-85 BCE), in which his armies swept through Asia Minor and Greece, eventually only meeting defeat at the hands of Sulla, identified him as Rome’s most determined foreign enemy since Hannibal. His massacre in this war of tens of thousands of Roman and Italian civilians (the ‘Asian Vespers’) helped to establish his legendary notoriety as an exotic and cruel Oriental, a formidable but ultimately unsuccessful challenger to Rome’s Mediterranean supremacy.
Mithradates’ ancestors may well have been an offshoot of the Achaemenid royal family (Bosworth and Wheatley, 1998). They were certainly Iranian nobility who took part in the Persian colonization of Asia Minor, and in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE ran a fiefdom on the shore of the Propontis (the Sea of Marmara) and western end of the south coast of the Black Sea. Shortly before 300 BCE the family became involved in intrigues at the court of Antigonos and they were forced to flee further east into Paphlagonia, where, accompanied by six knights in a manner surely meant to recall the circumstances in which Darius became king of Persia, Mithradates I Ktistes founded what came to be known as the kingdom of Pontus and the line of Pontic kings (Diod. 20.111.4). Greek-style diplomacy, including a consistent policy of intermarriage with the Seleucids, established the kingdom’s Hellenistic credentials, but there was no attempt to hide the family’s Iranian origins: indeed it was precisely the mixture of Greek and Persian background that Mithradates Eupator later publicized, when he claimed (with some justification) to be descended from Cyrus and Darius, and (less convincingly) from Alexander the Great and Seleukos (Justin, Epit. 38.8.1). Stories of his birth and early life—comets, lightning, riding a dangerous horse, retreat to the wilderness for seven years—reflect this mixed Persian and Macedonian lineage (McGing, 1986, pp. 43-46).
An interesting relief at the ruins of Arsameia, the capital of the kingdom of Commagene in 1st century BCE (Source: Klaus-Peter Simon in Public Domain). King Mithradates I Kallinikos of Commagene (100–70 BC) dressed as the Zoroastrian Magi (left) shakes hands with the Greek god Hercules. Note that Hercules in Commagene also represented the Persian god Artagnes. Commagene like the Pontus was a small post-Achaemenid Iranian kingdom in Anatolia situated between Parthia and Armenia to its east and the expanding Roman Empire to its west. Various versions of Mithradates’ crown continue to appear among various mystical sects of Western Iran, notably Kurdistan.
Eupator was about 13 years old when his father, Mithradates V Euergetes, was assassinated in 120 BCE. Once in sole control of his kingdom, having murdered his mother and brother (App., Mith. 112), he first turned his attention to conquest on the northern side of the Black Sea (Justin, Epit. 37.3.1, 38.7.4-5), where his grandfather Pharnakes had established diplomatic links in the first half of the 2nd century (IosPE I2 402; IG Bulg. I2 40). An opportunity for military intervention presented itself when the city of Chersonesos, under intense pressure from its barbarian neighbors, invited Mithradates to become its protector (Strabo, 7.4.3 C309). The resulting campaigns of his general Diophantos against the Scythians—recorded in a long inscription (IosPE I 2 352)—ended with the conquest of the Crimea and annexation of the Bosporan kingdom of Paerisades (Strabo, 7.4.4 C310). This was the beginning of a highly successful policy that, by the time of his first clash with Rome, left Mithradates master of a network of subjects, allies, and friends incorporating almost the entire circuit of the Black Sea. While there were material benefits from this Euxine ‘empire’—the annual tribute from the Crimea and adjoining territories was 180,000 measures of corn and 200 talents of silver (Strabo. 7.4.6 C311)—the major significance of the Black Sea for Mithradates was military manpower. Time and again the literary sources emphasize the Euxine composition of his armies (e.g., App., Mith. 15; 69). Without this resource he could not have challenged Rome.
A 1st century CE Roman marble portrait of the Pontic king Mithradates VI as Hercules at the Louvre Museum (Ma: 2321; Source: Sting in Public Domain).
Whether he actually wanted to challenge Rome or was, rather, a compliant Hellenistic king dragged unwillingly into conflict by Bithynian and/or Roman aggression, is a matter of scholarly disagreement (e.g., McGing, 1986; Strobel, 1997). It would be difficult, however, to deny that he had some sort of imperial ambitions in Asia Minor. His first act in the area was to arrange, through his agent Gordios, the murder of his brother-in-law Ariarathes VI of Cappadocia (Justin, Epit. 38.1.1), with the purpose, presumably, of ensuring that his sister Laodice would be able to control the kingdom more easily as regent for her own young son, Ariarathes VII. His next major policy decision was the invasion and seizure of Paphlagonia (ca. 105 BCE), undertaken in cooperation with Nikomedes III of Bithynia (Justin, Epit. 37-38). At least initially, neither paid any attention to Roman demands for their withdrawal: Nikomedes placed his son on the throne, and Mithradates occupied part of Galatia. The alliance with Bithynia collapsed shortly thereafter, when Nikomedes invaded Cappadocia and married Laodike. Mithradates expelled them both, murdered his nephew Ariarathes VII, and installed his own eight-year-old son as Ariarathes IX, with Gordios as regent (Justin, Epit. 38.1). Mithradates’ diplomatic mission to Rome in about 101, just as Marius was winning great victories over the Teutones, Amrones, and Cimbri, may show him in more compliant form.