How Rome Defeated Pontus: 5 Significant Events in the Mithridatic Wars

How Rome Defeated Pontus: 5 Significant Events in the Mithridatic Wars

Patrick Lynch - February 27, 2017

Although the Roman Empire wasn’t formed until the ascension of Octavian to the role of Emperor in 27 BC, the Republic was using its military might to expand its territories long before its dissolution. This led to a variety of conflicts, including a trio of wars against King Mithridates VI of Pontus. In these wars, Rome and Pontus fought for control of the northeastern Mediterranean.

The First Mithridatic War officially began in 89 BC. Mithridates wanted to expand his empire, but his neighbors were Roman client states. Any invasion of these territories would naturally put him in conflict with Rome. The king incorporated most of the region around the Black Sea into his kingdom and switched focus to the Kingdom of Cappadocia. He had its king murdered which placed his sister, the wife of the dead monarch, in power as regent for her son Ariarathes VII.

She married Nicomedes III of Bithynia, a traditional enemy of Pontus. Nicomedes occupied Cappadocia but Mithridates quickly forced him out and eventually killed Ariarathes. Mithridates placed his son on the throne, and Nicomedes appealed to Rome for help. After a brief power struggle and a Pontic re-occupation of Cappadocia, war was declared in 89 BC.

How Rome Defeated Pontus: 5 Significant Events in the Mithridatic Wars

1 -Battle of Chaeronea (86 BC)

The First Mithridatic War began poorly for the Romans as Mithridates enjoyed some important victories and overran all of Asia Minor. Soon after seizing control of the province, the King of Pontus ordered a mass execution of Romans and Italians. At least 80,000 people were killed although Plutarch claims the figure was much higher. The Romans only officially declared war in 87 BC and Lucius Cornelius Sulla marched on Athens. After a lengthy siege, Sulla took the city and forced the enemy commander Archelaus into open battle at Chaeronea.

It was the same location as the famous battle in 336 BC featuring King Phillip II of Macedon and a young Alexander the Great. On this occasion, Sulla took to the field at a significant disadvantage. While estimates of the Pontus army strength vary from 76,500 to 110,000, they heavily outnumbered the 30,000 strong Roman army. Sulla’s forces contained Greek and Macedonia allied troops along with his Roman soldiers.

What Sulla lacked in numbers, he made up for in tactical discipline. He took great lengths to ensure he dictated the time and location of the battle. While the Romans had one clear commander, the Pontus forces had two. Archelaus was supposed to be the leader but had to cede control to Taxiles who arrived with a larger force. While the former wanted a war of attrition, the latter wanted to defeat the Romans decisively in open battle.

The battle was a complete disaster for the Pontic army as it was massacred by its enemy. There is no reliable data for the losses suffered by both sides. Sulla’s claim that his army lost just 12 men against 100,000 casualties for the enemy is clearly nonsense. What we do know is that the Pontic forces had to retreat and the end of the first war was just one year away.

How Rome Defeated Pontus: 5 Significant Events in the Mithridatic Wars
Sulla. Wikimedia

2 – Battle of Orchomenus (85 BC)

If Sulla thought his crushing victory at Chaeronea was decisive, he was sorely mistaken. Archelaus received 80,000 reinforcements under the command of Dorylaus, and his new army consisted of around 90,000 men; once again outnumbering the Romans. A new Roman army under the leadership of Flaccus arrived in Greece, and while it was officially attacking the Pontic forces, its real goal was to oppose Sulla as his enemies now held power in Rome. He wasn’t aware that Flaccus was an enemy and marched to Thessaly to meet the consul.

En route to this rendezvous, he heard reports that Dorylaus landed at Chalcis with a new army in support of Archelaus. Dorylaus encountered Sulla’s forces and after a brief skirmish decided that a gradual war of attrition (the same strategy favored by Archelaus the previous year) was the best course of action. However, Archelaus clearly changed his mind over his wearing down plan. Instead, he proposed another open battle because the flat terrain around his camp at Orchomenus favored his strong cavalry force.

The Pontic commander made the mistake of allowing his men to relax once they took their positions. They outnumbered the enemy by at least 5:1 according to sources but their confidence was misplaced. Sulla proceeded to eliminate the cavalry advantage by digging trenches and ditches in the hope of forcing the enemy to fight on a boggy surface. He also asked his men to dig a ten-foot trench on each end of the battlefield to avoid being outflanked. The Pontic commander recognized the tactic and launched attacks on the Legionnaires digging the trenches.

The cavalry attack on the left flank was almost successful, but Sulla rallied his men and reinforced the flank with two additional cohorts from the other side. They regained their position and repelled a second Pontic attack. Archelaus launched a disastrous assault on the Roman center with chariots; they plunged right into the spikes planted by Sulla’s men. The Roman cavalry countered and caused panic amongst the enemy chariot horses; they bolted towards their own lines and disrupted the Pontic phalanx. Archelaus lost up to 15,000 men on day one of the battle and retreated.

Sulla attacked on the second day with more trenches, and soon, the fight turned into a complete rout. The Pontic commander had to hide in the swamp for two days to escape, but his army was destroyed. When Mithridates heard about the disaster, he ordered Archelaus to negotiate peace terms. Initially, the King of Pontus rejected the offer but after losing at the Battle of Tenedos in 85 BC, he had no choice but to agree to the original terms. Sulla quickly wrapped up his affairs in Asia Minor and Greece and returned to Rome to reclaim his standing in the city.

How Rome Defeated Pontus: 5 Significant Events in the Mithridatic Wars
Mithridates VI. Suggest

3 – Pontus Strikes Back in the Second Mithridatic War (83-81 BC)

The First Mithridatic War resulted in a Roman victory, but it was far from a decisive one. Sulla allowed Mithridates to remain in control of Pontus although the king had to relinquish Asia Minor and agree to the borders between Rome and Pontus that existed before the first conflict. While Sulla wanted peace with Pontus and Mithridates appeared content with the situation, the Roman governor of Asia, Lucius Licinius Murena, had other ideas. Murena was an ambitious man and wanted to restart the war in the hope of winning a quick victory and earning a triumph.

After losing the first war, Mithridates had to contend with rebellions in his kingdom. His armed response concerned Murena who probably believed Rome’s old enemy was trying to rearm in a bid to regain lost territory. Archelaus fanned the flames by convincing Murena that Pontus was preparing an attack on Rome (he had fallen out of favor with Mithridates).

In 83 BC, Murena launched an attack on the town of Comana which was in the kingdom of Pontus. Mithridates sent ambassadors to meet the Roman, and they appealed to the treaty they had in place with Rome. Murena claimed there was no treaty (as no written version existed) and plundered Comana before staying in Cappadocia for the winter. When the weather improved, Murena continued his conquest by taking hundreds of small Pontic villages with little opposition.

He ignored a message from the Roman Senate which ordered him not to attack Mithridates, and when Murena raided Pontus for the second time in 82 BC, the king reacted in the belief that Rome had declared war. Murena faced the general Gordius at the Halys River, and soon, Mithridates arrived with a large army. He attacked Murena and defeated the Roman governor. Murena fled over the mountains and eventually, a message from Sulla resulted in the end of the brief Second Mithridatic War.

Bizarrely, Murena received his triumph despite suffering an embarrassing defeat. Rome and Pontus were officially at peace in 81 BC, but it was an uneasy truce. When Sulla died in 78 BC, another conflict was inevitable as he was one of the last voices for peace. In 75 BC, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia died and left his kingdom to Rome. It was the precursor to war, and in 74 BC, Rome started mobilizing in Asia Minor. Mithridates invaded Bithynia in 73 BC, and the Third Mithridatic War began.

How Rome Defeated Pontus: 5 Significant Events in the Mithridatic Wars
Statue of Tigranes the Great at Versailles. WordPress

4 – Battle of Tigranocerta (69 BC)

This battle was fought between Consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Tigranes the Great of Armenia. The Armenia King became involved in the war because he was married to Cleopatra, Mithridates’ daughter. The war was turning against the King of Pontus, and he fled to Armenia to seek refuge with his son-in-law. Lucullus told Tigranes that he must hand over Mithridates or face war with Rome. He was stunned by the refusal and immediately prepared his army for conflict with Armenia.

For his part, Tigranes was surprised by the rapid advance of Lucullus and was caught off guard. He sent a general with 3,000 cavalry to slow down the Roman charge, but they were slaughtered. The Armenian king left a token force behind to defend the kingdom’s new capital of Tigranocerta, but Lucullus knew he couldn’t lay siege to the city due to lack of numbers. With approximately 16,000 men, the Roman general wanted a set piece battle, and Tigranes fulfilled his wishes.

The Armenian army numbered at least 100,000; Plutarch says 150,000 while Appian says 250,000 plus 50,000 cavalry. Whatever the real numbers, Tigranes enjoyed a significant numerical advantage which is why he decided to engage in battle despite Mithridates’ warnings. The Armenian King allegedly said the Roman force was “too small for an army, too large for an embassy.”

Not for the first time, sheer numbers proved to be insufficient in a battle. The armies were separated by a river at the beginning of the fight, and Tigranes placed his well-armored cavalry on his right. Lucullus cleverly lured the enemy cavalry into a pursuit before leading the Roman infantry to the right of the enemy, and then he attacked the Armenians where they were most vulnerable.

The heavily armored Armenian cavalry fled, and in the confusion, it ran into its own infantry. It broke apart, and Tigranes fled. Instead of staying to plunder, the Roman army pursued its enemy and massacred them. The Armenians suffered anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 casualties compared to small Roman losses. Although it was a significant victory for Lucullus, it happened in October which meant he couldn’t chase Tigranes into the mountains. He remained in the enemy capital and dismantled it although to his credit; he allowed the population to return to their original homes.

How Rome Defeated Pontus: 5 Significant Events in the Mithridatic Wars
Mithridates VI. ebay

5 – Pompey Finishes the Job

In 68 BC, Lucullus continued his pursuit of Tigranes all the way to the old Armenian capital of Artaxata. The Battle of Artaxata is seemingly shrouded in mystery. Most modern historians suggest the Romans won and obviously, the ancient Roman sources agree. However, other sources claim a victory for Tigranes and state that Lucullus was forced to retreat to the south where he occupied Mtsbin.

Both Plutarch and Livy see things a little differently. After four fierce days of battle, Lucullus’ army ultimately routed the enemy and forced a retreat. However, the Roman legions refused to march any further into the mountains in pursuit which meant Lucullus could not decisively end the conflict. This inaction allowed Mithridates to return to Pontus and he earned a victory over his enemies at Zela in 67 BC. Lucullus had to abandon his campaign and return home, but Pompey replaced him and proceeded to end the war once and for all.

In 67 BC, Pompey was in the Mediterranean and quickly defeated the pirates that were causing havoc for Roman traders. By the end of the year, he was on the verge of fighting a Roman rival in Crete when a Tribune by the name of C. Manilius passed a law that enabled Pompey to take control of the war in the east. He replaced Lucullus and received the same powers with the bonus that he could make war and peace without consulting the Senate.

With up to ten legions, a confident Pompey offered harsh peace terms to Pontus. The kingdom had to formally surrender to Rome and hand over Roman deserters now fighting for the enemy. Mithridates refused and faced the Romans in battle once again. After over six weeks of fighting in Dasteria in 66 BC, Mithridates suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Nicopolis.

The King of Pontus might have hoped that he could rely on Tigranes, but instead, he learned that his old ally had placed a price on his head. This is probably because the Armenian king’s son fled the royal court in fear of his life and considered allying with Mithridates but chose Pompey instead. Tigranes assumed Mithridates was about to betray him, so he issued an order to kill the Pontic King.

Mithridates landed at Colchis which had yet to fall into Roman hands and moved to Crimea soon after. However, his son Pharnaces II usurped the throne in 63 BC, and Mithridates died in the same year after ordering his bodyguard to kill him. In the meantime, Pompey defeated the Albanians on their borders and enjoyed success over the Iberians in 65 BC. He invaded Albania and spent most of 64 BC organizing Pontus; this included the pleasurable task of counting the vast fortune of Mithridates; estimated at 36,000 talents of gold and silver.

Once he learned of Mithridates’ death, Pompey returned home and celebrated a triumph in 61 BC. By the end of the Mithridatic Wars, the Pontic Kingdom was dissolved while the Kingdom of Armenia became a Roman state. The last pieces of the Seleucid Empire were in Roman hands, and although the state would reign supreme for centuries, Rome had almost reached its greatest level of territorial expansion in the East.