What was the First Mithridatic War (89-85 BC)?
The First Mithridatic War was a conflict that took place between 89 and 85 BC between the Kingdom of Pontus, ruled by King Mithridates VI, and the Roman Republic.
It was the first major military confrontation between Rome and Mithridates VI of Pontus, who sought to expand his kingdom’s influence and challenge Roman hegemony in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition to his campaigns, he financed a number of revolts against Rome’s rule in Greece.
Mithridates achieved several early victories, but the war ultimately ended in a Roman victory with the signing of the Treaty of Dardanos in 85 BC.
First Mithridatic War: Quick Facts
Duration: 89-85 BC
Location: Eastern Mediterranean
Outcome: Roman victory
Roman generals and allies: Lucius Licinius Lucullus, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Gaius Flavius Fimbria, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia
Pontic generals and allies: Mithridates VI of Pontus, Archelaus, Archelaus, Dorylaeus
The First Mithridatic War (89-85 BC) began when Mithridates VI took advantage of the political instability in the Roman Republic, specifically the Social War, to launch a campaign against Roman interests in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey).
Basically, the Pontic emperor was challenging Roman Republic’s growing influence and territorial expansion in the Mediterranean. Upon his ascension to the Pontic throne in 120 BC, Mithridates began committing enormous resources towards the expansion of his kingdom. Those places that he intended capturing were Roman client states.
For example, he managed to capture large parts of the coast in the Black Sea region. He also orchestrated a plan that resulted in the death of Ariarathes VI, his brother-in-law and ruler of the Kingdom of Cappadocia. And when his nephew, King Ariarathes VII, refused to have his allies in the Cappadocian court, he invaded Cappadocia and killed Ariarathes. He then placed his son as the ruler of Cappadocia. Queen Nicomedes, the mother of the Ariarathes, pleaded her case with Rome.
The Roman Senate voted to have Mithridates removed from power in Cappadocia. It was also decreed that Ariobarzanes I of Cappadocia be appointed king of Cappadocia. A furious Mithridates managed to convince his son-in-law, Tigranes the Great of Armenia, to wage war against Cappadocia so that Ariobarzanes could be removed from power.
Despite receiving several warnings from the Roman Senate, Mithridates’ persisted in his interference in those client states of Rome in Asia Minor. Therefore, it was only a matter of time before his war of expansion and aggression would elicit the fury of Rome.
Rome dispatched famed politician and general Consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who had under his command several Roman legions. Sulla had the mandate to wage war against Mithridates IV’s empire and end his interference in Rome’s affairs.
Ultimately, Sulla and his forces emerged victorious against Mithridates’ forces and his Armenian allies. Ariobarzanes was restored to the throne of Cappadocia.
Still committed to expanding his influence in the region, Mithridates supported the removal of Nicomedes IV, ruler of neighboring Bithynia. The Pontic ruler financed the coup efforts of Socrates Chrestus, the half-brother of Nicomedes IV. Like Queen Nicomedes of Cappadocia, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia made his case with Rome, and once again, the Roman Senate intervened. Also, around this time, Ariobarzanes had once again been removed from power by Tigranes with support from Mithridate.
Following their restoration to power, Nicomedes and Ariobarzanes found themselves neck deep in debt, considering the fact that they took quite a lot of loans in order to get the Roman Senate to support their case. Nicomedes’ advisors and creditors managed to convince him to invade some of the territories of Mithridates and then use the plunder to pay off his loans.
Mithridates intentionally did not try to stop the raids carried out by the Bithynian forces. He hoped to use this to garner sympathy and support from neighboring kingdoms like the Armenians, the Ptolemies in Egypt, the Thracians, Syrian kings, and the Scythians.
The Pontic ruler’s goal was to portray the Roman Republic as an oppressive state that was out to stifle the Pontic Empire using client states like Bithynia. Mithridates called on Rome to severely punish what he termed as Bithynia’s act of aggression.
In 89 BC, and for the fourth time, Mithridates invaded Cappadocia, toppled Ariobarzanes I, and then had his son placed as ruler of Cappadocia. This act was considered by some ancient historians as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Both Rome and Pontus began amassing troops and prepared for a showdown.
Around this time, it so happened that Sulla was elected consul. This made him have the mandate to command the Roman troops that would fight against Mithridates’ Pontic forces and allies.
Mithridates slaughters thousands of Roman and Italian inhabitants
Before the war began, Mithridates tried to win the support of communities of the Roman province in the region. The Pontic king was advised by Metrodoros of Skepsis to carry out massive slaughtering of the Roman inhabitants in those provinces.
Mithridates listened to the ill-advice of Metrodoros of Skepsis, who was known for being staunchly anti-Roman. With those mass killings of Romans, Mithridates was able to secure the control of those Roman provinces in 88 BC. According to some sources more than 80,000 Romans were killed by Mithridates’ forces.
By late 88 BC, Mithridates was firmly in control of large parts of Asia Minor. He sent one of his advisors and Cappadocian Greek general Archelaus to collaborate with an Athenian philosopher and politician Aristion. The two men were tasked with securing the support of Greek city states. And with the help of Aristion, who had risen to a tyrant in Athens, some Greek city states revolted against their overlords, the Romans.
Roman Senate declares war on Mithridates IV
Having grown fed up of Mithridates, the Roman Senate declared a full-scale war on the Pontic Empire in 88 BC. Roman general Sulla and his legions sailed for Athens in 87 BC. There, he placed the Greek city state as well as Piraeus under siege. Pireaus, a port city in Athens, was occupied by Mithridates’ general, Archelaus.
By early March of 86 BC, Sulla and his forces had taken control of the city, forcing Archelaus and his officers to flee to Boeotia. The Romans inflicted a severe punishment on Athens for their support of Mithridates. Sulla also had Aristion executed in 86 BC. Sulla’s completely disregarded religious customs and chased Aristion into the Acropolis of Athens. There, he was apprehended and dragged out and then poisoned.
In Boeotia, Sulla secured a well-fought victory over Pontic forces and their Greek allies at the Battle of Chaeronea. A few months later, in 85 BC, Sulla secured another Roman victory by defeating Mithridates’ forces, who were led by Archelaus, at the Battle of Orchomenus. The battle, which took place in Boeotia, brought an end to Mithridates’ invasion of Roman territories in Europe.
Even Asia Minor, Mithridates had began to lose his grip on many of the Greek cities he had recently conquered. Those cities, including the islanders of Chios in the northern Aegean Sea, rebelled as they had grown tired of Mithridates oppression.
Mithridates suffered another defeat in 85 BC. That defeat came at the hands of Gaius Flavius Fimbria, a Roman general who led a mutiny against Lucius Valerius Flaccus. The Pontic ruler managed to escape (by sea) by the skin of his teeth as Fimbria did not have the enough ships to pursue Mithridates.
The Treaty of Dardanos in 85 BC
That same year, in 85 BC, Sulla and Mithridates met to secure a peace treaty – the Treaty of Dardanos. The two men met at Dardanus, a city in the Troad in northwestern Anatolia (in the Çanakkale province of modern Turkey).
Per the terms of the treaty, Mithridates would surrender all the newly conquered territories on the Greek mainland and islands. Mithridates was also supposed to give up the provinces Phrygia, Paphlagonia, Cappadocia, and Bithynia.
Finally, the Treaty of Dardanos of 85 BC required the Punic ruler to pay thousand talents as war indemnity. The figure was said to be the equivalent to the value of two decades’ export production of the Punic kingdom. Similarly, many of the Greek city states, especially Athens, that rebelled during the First Mithridatic War were slapped with heavy war indemnities.
Read More: When and how did the Roman Republic conquer Greece?
While the First Mithridatic War ended with a Roman victory, it set the stage for future conflicts between Mithridates and Rome. The war highlighted the Roman Republic’s increasing involvement and military presence in the eastern Mediterranean and underscored the rivalry between Rome and regional powers such as Pontus.
Questions and Answers
What caused the First Mithridatic War?
The war was triggered by a series of events and tensions in the region. Mithridates VI of Pontus saw an opportunity to exploit Rome’s political instability during the Social War, a conflict within Italy, to expand his power and influence. The Pontic ruler sought to reclaim territories that had previously been under Pontic control, as well as expand his dominion into neighboring regions, including Bithynia and Cappadocia.
Why did Mithridates IV massacre thousands of Roman inhabitants in Asia Minor?
In 88 BC, Mithridates ordered the massacre of Roman and Italian residents in various cities in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), an event known as the Asiatic Vespers. This act provoked a violent backlash against the Roman presence, and many Roman citizens and allies were killed.
When did the First Mithridatic War begin?
In 87 BC, the Roman Senate declared war against Mithridates, officially commencing the First Mithridatic War. The war initially went in Mithridates’ favor as he achieved significant military successes. His forces swiftly captured Roman-held cities and territories in Asia Minor, including the province of Asia and the province of Bithynia.
Who led the Roman forces against Mithridates IV in the First Mithridatic War?
The tide of the war turned in 86 BC when the Roman general Lucius Cornelius Sulla was appointed as commander of the Roman forces. Sulla led a successful counteroffensive, recapturing key cities and defeating Pontic armies in battles such as the Battle of Chaeronea and the Battle of Orchomenus.
When did the First Mithridatic War end?
The war concluded in 85 BC with the signing of the Treaty of Dardanos between Mithridates and Sulla. The treaty restored the status quo ante bellum, returning the Roman provinces to Roman control and recognizing Pontus as a Roman ally. Mithridates agreed to pay a large indemnity to Rome as reparations for the war.
What did the Treaty of Dardanos in 85 BC do?
Basically, the Treaty of Dardanos in 85 BC was aimed at returning eastern Mediterranean to the status quo – conditions that prevailed before 89 BC. And by signing the treaty, Mithridates accepted Rome’s dominion over the various Greek city states, including Athens.