Ancient Pontus and the ‘Poison King’

(Mithridates bust in Louvre Museum, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)


As each new year passes, the cumbersome encyclopedia of history continues to grow larger and larger. To make room in the history books of today, some older events have been pushed to the back of human consciousness and threaten to be forgotten completely by the average modern person. There are many historical states and kingdoms that are on the verge of being expunged from our immediate knowledge. For the sake of remembrance, here is an expose of a long-gone kingdom; the story of Pontus.

The Origin and Geography of Pontus


(Map by Thomas Lessman, via Creative Commons)


(Map of Pontus around 89 BCE, via Creative Commons)


The story of Pontus, like many other ancient countries, traces back to the Macedonian military genius, Alexander the Great (356-323 BCE). In a relatively short period of time, Alexander built an empire expanding from Greece all the way to India. Hellenistic culture was spread into these conquered regions as the Macedonian and Greek soldiers marched on their way to further conquests.

When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, there was no one person who was capable of keeping the conquered territory under a single rule. Consequently, Alexander’s greatest generals divided the empire among themselves, creating Hellenistic dynasties outside of Macedon and Greece. The most famous of these dynasties are Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Empire stretching from Anatolia (approximately modern-day Turkey) and Syria towards India.  Another of the states formed from Alexander’s Empire was Pontus, which rested in northern Anatolia, near the Black Sea.

Pontus was formed in the 4th century BCE and eventually spread its control outward to encompass most of Anatolia by the end of the 2nd century BCE Sinope (now called Sinop in Turkey) was eventually set as the capital of Pontus. A long line of Kings under the name Mithridates ruled Pontus, but the greatest would be Mithridates VI Eupator. 


Mithridates VI Eupator

Mithridates VI Eupator is a name worth remembering. If he had ruled Pontus a few decades before his actual ascendance to the throne in 120 BCE, he may have developed an empire to outshine Rome and Macedon. Unfortunately for Mithridates VI, however, he was born at a terrible time—the 1st century BCE was a golden age of Roman military leaders. Mithridates VI was trying to build an empire for Pontus while Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar were expanding Roman territory by leaps and bounds. With Pontus and Rome both trying to increase their influence in Greece and Anatolia, war was inevitable. These wars became known as the Mithridatic Wars.

Before we get to the meat of the warfare, a look into the character of Mithridates VI, himself, will be entertaining and informative—this king was a very interesting fellow. Most sources agree that Mithridates was a young boy when he became King of Pontus in 120 BCE. As he was young, his mother ruled as a regent for around five years until Mithridates VI had her arrested and imprisoned. Other sources darken the story, claiming that Mithridates had his mother and brother executed—either way, Mithridates removed any threat of rivals to his power. Under his rule, Pontus quickly expanded up the eastern shore of the Black Sea and into Crimea.

Another interesting bit of trivia about Mithridates VI, is his status as one of the first kings to willingly ingest doses of poison in an attempt to make himself immune to their effects. From this, he gained such a mystique around himself that he became known as the ‘Poison King.’ His antidotum mithridatium (which Mithridates used to counteract poisons) was seen by many old Roman scholars and physicians to be a cure-all to many ailments. Mithridatium was in use and included in medical books for around 2,000 years until it was largely abandoned by the turn of the 20th century. Mithridates VI’s most impressive accomplishment, however, was the amount of frustration he caused the Romans.


 Mithridatic Wars


(Pompey the Great bust, photographed by Carole Raddato—Creative Commons)


After taking much of the area around the Black Sea, Mithridates VI Eupator set his sights on Greece. In 89 BCE the First Mithridatic War began, pitting Pontus against Bithynia (approximately the coastal area just east of modern Istanbul) and Bithynia’s ally, Rome. Up until 85 BCE, Mithridates VI seemed unstoppable—he conquered Greece and executed around 80,000 Romans and Italians in the region. A Roman general named Sulla—a future dictator—pushed Mithridates back to Pontus’ original borders and implemented the Treaty of Dardanus to end the first war.

 After being thwarted in the first Mithridatic War, Mithridates VI was not dissuaded from his ambitions. Quite the opposite, he continued to seek ways to undermine Rome. Mithridates VI supposedly befriended enemies of Rome in Gaul and Spain, and formed an alliance with Thrace (approximately modern Bulgaria) and Ptolemaic Egypt. Whether or not these maneuverings caused a backlash from Rome, Romans invaded Pontus in 83 BCE starting the Second Mithridatic War.

 In 82 BCE, Mithridates defeated the initial Roman force. A period of light skirmishes persisted until 74 BCE, when Rome sent in some of their best generals to defeat Pontus. Lucius Lucullus won a great victory against the forces of Pontus in 73 BCE near the city of Cyzicus and caused Mithridates to flee to Armenia the following year. By 66 BCE, however, Lucullus’ position was deteriorating, which led to Pompey the Great taking over the command of Roman forces in the region and ushered Rome to total victory over Mithridates.

 Defeated again by Rome, Mithridates VI still showed no sign of ending his ambitions to topple Roman dominance and expand the Kingdom of Pontus. In 63 BCE, Mithridates VI planned to invade Italy itself to strike at the heart of Rome. Whether this bold—or desperate—plan would have worked will remain forever unknown, for Mithridates’ men rebelled against him before the plan was enacted. It is thought that Mithridates’ own son, Pharnaces II, began the rebellion. An interesting legend found in many sources about the end of Mithridates VI claims that the King of Pontus tried to poison himself when the rebellion succeeded—the suicide ironically failed because of the tolerance he had built up during his life. As a result, Mithridates had to order a loyal guard to end his life.

Written by C. Keith Hansley


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