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The Mithridatic Wars: Facts & Causes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Before it became an empire, the Roman Republic was already expanding. One result of this expansion was the Mithridatic Wars. In this lesson, we'll explore these wars and see how they impacted Roman history.

The Mithridatic Wars

The Roman Republic didn't become the Roman Empire until it was formally organized in about 27 BCE, but by the 1st century BCE the Republic was starting to use its military to conquer territories outside of Italy. These campaigns led to a number of conflicts, such as the Mithridatic Wars, a set of three wars waged between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus (a Persian kingdom located around the Black Sea). King Mithridates VI of Pontus, for whom the wars are named, fought for control of the northeastern Mediterranean against a Roman power that was slowly becoming more imperial.

Mithridates on a coin
Mithridates

The First Mithridatic War (89-85 BCE)

The Mithridatic Wars began with contested claims to lands in the Roman province of Asia Minor, today roughly the nation of Turkey. Mithridates and a neighboring king both claimed legitimate ownership of a region called Cappadocia, and went to the Romans to settle the dispute. Discontented by years of debates in Roman courts, Mithridates began invading nearby territories. That was the beginning of the First Mithridatic War.

The Kingdom of Pontus, in yellow
Pontus

Rome quickly created an army to defend its territories in the province, but due to political instability in the city itself, it was unable to effectively fight the war at first. In 88 BCE, Mithridates demonstrated his resolve by ordering his army to execute any Romans or Italians they found in Asia Minor. Roughly 80,000 were murdered as Mithridates captured Roman cities in the province and moved into Greece.

By 87 BCE, the Romans had gathered a new army under Consul Lucius Sulla. Sulla's forces faced heavy resistance from the Pontic armies, but eventually reclaimed Athens and southern Greece before moving north. The decisive encounter came at the Battle of Chaeronea in 86 BCE, when Roman troops managed to deliver a crushing defeat to Mithridates' troops despite being heavily outnumbered. Further victories followed, both on land and at sea, and by 85 BCE Mithridates was finally forced to accept Sulla's peace treaty and abandon all claims to lands outside of Pontus itself. The First Mithridatic War ended with a Roman victory, reasserting Roman control over Asia Minor and disgracing the Kingdom of Pontus.

The Second Mithridatic War (83-81 BCE)

As Sulla withdrew from Asia Minor to return to a politically fractured Rome, he left one of his main generals in charge of keeping the province stable. That general's name was Lucius Licinius Murena. Murena had a big job to do, as many of the cities in the province were on the brink of collapse after the war. In 83 BCE, the general heard rumors that Mithridates VI of Pontus was building up a new army with the intent of attacking Roman territories. So, Murena decided to invade Pontus without Sulla's permission. This was the Second Mithridatic War. Murena invaded Pontus in 83 BCE, but was quickly defeated by Mithridates at the River Halys in 82 BCE. Sulla ordered his general to withdraw and reinstated the peace treaty between Pontus and the Roman province.

The Third Mithridatic War (74-62 BCE)

When Sulla died in 78 BCE, the tentative peace that he maintained started to crumble. Mithridates began building another massive army and started a new campaign to expand his borders. The Roman consuls Cotta and Lucullus prepared for war, with Cotta gathering a naval fleet and Lucullus planning to invade Pontus. The war began around 74 BCE, and the Romans realized quickly that Mithridates' army was much larger than they anticipated. In fact, they were seriously outnumbered. Cotta was defeated at the Battle of Chalcedon in 73 BCE, but Lucullus' forces arrived in the region soon after, stopping the Pontic advance.

Lucullus then went on the offensive, scoring a major victory at Battle of the Rhyndacus River, near the port city of Cyzicus which Mithridates hoped to capture. By the time that Mithridates abandoned his hopes of conquering Cyzicus, he had lost the majority of his forces. Mithridates fled back to Pontus, followed by Lucullus. City by city, Lucullus conquered Pontus, forcing Mithridates to flee again to the neighboring territory of Armenia.

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