Mithridates VI of Pontus

Mithridates Coin

Mithridates VI (Greek: Μιθριδάτης, more correctly Mithradates, literally (in Persian): "given by Mithra"), 132–63 BC, also known as Mithridates the Great and Eupator Dionysius, was king of Pontus in northern Anatolia from 120 to 63 BC. He is remembered as one of Rome's most formidable and successful enemies who engaged three of the most prominent generals of the late Roman Republic: Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey the Great.

Early reign

Mithridates VI was the son of Mitridates V (150 BC–120 BC), who died when he was a boy. During Eupator's minority, supreme power was exercised by his mother queen Gespaepyris, whom he eventually deposed and committed to prison (ca. 115 BC). To clear his path to the throne of the kingdom of Pontus, he killed off many of his brothers but not his sister, Laodice, whom he married.

Mithridates entertained ambitions of making his state the dominant power in the Black Sea and Anatolia. After he subjugated Colchis, the king of Pontus clashed for supremacy in the Pontic steppe with the Scythian king Palacus. The most important centres of Crimea, Tauric Chersonesus and the Bosporan Kingdom, readily surrendered their independence in return for Mithridates' promises to protect them against the Scythians, their ancient enemies. After several abortive attempts to invade the Crimea, the Scythians and the allied Rhoxolanoi suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Pontic general Diophantus and accepted, albeit at the point of the sword, Mithridates as their overlord.

The young king then turned his attention to Anatolia, where the Roman power was on the rise. He contrived to partition Paphlagonia and Galatia with Nicomedes III of Bithynia. It soon became clear to Mithridates that Nicomedes steered his country into an anti-Pontic alliance with the expanding Roman Republic. When Mithridates fell out with Nicomedes over control of Cappadocia and defeated him in a series of battles, the latter was constrained to openly enlist the assistance of Rome. The Romans twice interfered into the conflict on behalf of Nicomedes (92 and 95 BC), making the Roman-Pontic war inevitable.

Mithridatic Wars

The next ruler of Bithynia, Nicomedes IV, was a figurehead manipulated by the Romans. Mithridates plotted to overthrow him, but his attempts failed and Nicomedes, instigated by his Roman advisors, declared war on Pontus. Mithridates invaded Bithynia and promptly overran the country, leading his troops all the way to the Propontis.

"He posed as the champion of Hellenism, but this was mainly to further his political ambitions; it is no proof that he was deeply imbued with Greek culture or that he felt a mission to promote its extension within his domains" (2006 Encyclopaedia Britannica). Whatever his true intentions, the Greek cities (including Athens) defected to the side of Mithridates and welcomed his armies in mainland Greece, while his fleet besieged the Romans at Rhodes.

After conquering western Anatolia in 88 BC, Mithridates VI reportedly ordered the killing of all Romans living there. The alleged massacre of 80,000 Roman men, women and children brought matters to a head. During the First Mithridatic War fought between 88 BC and 84 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla forced Mithridates VI out of Greece proper but then had to return to Italy to answer the threat posed by Marius; subsequently, Mithridates VI was defeated but not beaten. A peace was made between Rome and Pontus, but this proved a mere temporary setback.

Mithridates recouped his forces, and when Rome attempted to annex Bithynia, Mithridates VI attacked with an even larger army, leading to the Second Mithridatic War from 83 BC to 82 BC. First Lucullus and then Pompey the Great were sent against Mithridates VI, who was at last defeated by Pompey in the Third Mithridatic War of 75 BC to 65 BC.

After his final defeat in 65 BC, Mithridates VI fled to Crimea and attempted to raise yet another army to take on the Romans but failed to do so. In 63, he withdrew to the citadel in Panticapaeum. Later he marched north with a small number of men. At Colchis he commandeered a fleet and went to his eldest son, Manchares, the king of Cimmerian Bosporus. However, when he arrived he found his son had betrayed him. Manchares committed suicide and Mithridates took the throne of the Bosporan Kingdom. Mithridates ordered the conscription of many Scythians in order to regain his kingdom. Pharnaces II, his younger son, led a new Scythian rebellion against his father. This rebellion was stirred by Roman exiles that Mithridates kept as the core of his Pontic army.


When Mithridates VI was at last defeated by Pompey and in danger of capture by Rome, he is alleged to have attempted suicide by poison; this attempt failed, however, because of his immunity to the poison.[1][2] According to Appian's Roman History, he then made a servant, Bituitus, kill him by the sword:

Mithridates then took out some poison that he always carried next to his sword, and mixed it. There two of his daughters, who were still girls growing up together, named Mithridates and Nyssa, who had been betrothed to the kings of [Ptolemaic] Egypt and of Cyprus, asked him to let them have some of the poison first, and insisted strenuously and prevented him from drinking it until they had taken some and swallowed it. The drug took effect on them at once; but upon Mithridates, although he walked around rapidly to hasten its action, it had no effect, because he had accustomed himself to other drugs by continually trying them as a means of protection against poisoners. These are still called the Mithridatic drugs.

Seeing a certain Bituitus there, an officer of the Gauls, he said to him, "I have profited much from your right arm against my enemies. I shall profit from it most of all if you will kill me, and save from the danger of being led in a Roman triumph one who has been an autocrat so many years, and the ruler of so great a kingdom, but who is now unable to die by poison because, like a fool, he has fortified himself against the poison of others. Although I have kept watch and ward against all the poisons that one takes with his food, I have not provided against that domestic poison, always the most dangerous to kings, the treachery of army, children, and friends." Bituitus, thus appealed to, rendered the king the service that he desired.[1] (XVI, §111)

Dio Cassius' Roman History, on the other hand, records his death as murder:

Mithridates had tried to make away with himself, and after first removing his wives and remaining children by poison, he had 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 the sword blow was lessened on account of the weakness of his hand, caused by his age and present misfortunes, and as a result of taking the poison, whatever it was. When, therefore, he failed to take his 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.[2] (Book 37, chapter 13)

At the behest of Pompey, Mithridates' body was later buried alongside his ancestors at Sinope. (Book 37, chapter 14). Although he died at Panticapaeum, it is the town of Eupatoria in Crimea that commemorates his name.


Two curious legends are told of Mithridates VI of Pontus. First, he was supposed to have had a prodigious memory: Pliny the Elder and other historians report that Mithridates could speak the languages of all the twenty-two nations he governed. [3] ("Mithridates, who was king of twenty-two nations, administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue each of them, without employing an interpreter.")

Mithridates is also said to have sought to harden himself against poison, both by taking increasing sub-lethal doses of the poisons to build tolerance, and by fashioning a 'universal antidote' to protect him from all earthly poisons. Aulus Cornelius Celsus describes this complex antidote, named Antidotum Mithridaticum, in his De Medicina:

But the most famous antidote is that of Mithridates, which that king is said to have taken daily and by it to have rendered his body safe against danger from poison. It contains costmary 1.66 grams, sweet flag 20 grams, hypericum, gum, sagapenum, acacia juice, Illyrian iris, cardamon, 8 grams each, anise 12 grams, Gallic nard, gentian root and dried rose-leaves, 16 grams each, poppy-tears and parsley, 17 grams each, casia, saxifrage, darnel, long pepper, 20.66 grams each, storax 21 grams, castoreum, frankincense, hypocistis juice, myrrh and opopanax, 24 grams each, malabathrum leaves 24 grams, flower of round rush, turpentine-resin, galbanum, Cretan carrot seeds, 24.66 grams each, nard and opobalsam, 25 grams each, shepherd's purse 25 grams, rhubarb root 28 grams, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, 29 grams each. These are pounded and taken up in honey. Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient.[4] (Book V, 23:3)

Another large antidote, comprising 54 ingredients, was described by Pliny the Elder in Natural History. The antidote was put in a closed flask in which it was to stay for at least two months. Every day Mithridates VI took this medicine to counteract possible attempts to poison him.


Mithridate was a complicated mixture of ingredients used to cure poisoning during the Renaissance Period. Antidotum Mithridaticum, or Theriac, was used for about 1900 years after Mithridates' death. The most famous sort is called Theriacum Andromachi after Nero's physician. A. E. Housman alludes to Mithridates' antidote, also known as mithridatism, in the poem Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff in A Shropshire Lad. The legend also appears in Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

The demise of Mithridates VI is detailed in the 1673 play Mithridates written by Jean Racine. This play is the basis for several 18th century operas including one of Mozart's earliest, known most commonly by its Italian name, Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770). The Last King is a historical novel by Michael Curtis Ford about the King and his exploits against the Roman Republic.

In The Grass Crown the second in the Masters of Rome series, Colleen McCullough, the Australian writer, describes in detail the various aspects of his life - the murder of his sister/wife Laodice, his experiments with poison, and his fear and hatred of Rome. The aging Gaius Marius meets Mithridates in the palace of Ariarathus in Eusebeia Mazaca, a city in Cappadocia, and the former Roman Consul, quite alone and surrounded by the Pontic army, orders Mithridates to leave Cappadocia immediately and go back to Pontus - which he does.

Preceded by Mithridates V

King of Pontus 120 BC to 63 BC

Succeeded by Pharnaces II


  1. ^ A History of Rome, LeGlay, et al 100
  2. ^ The Last King, Michael Curtis-Ford (2005) ISBN 0-312-93615-X

Further reading

McGing, B.C. The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus (Mnemosyne, Supplements; 89). Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1986 (paperback, ISBN 90-04-07591-7).


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