Lucullus against Mithridates and Tigranes

Taking full advantage of Roman preoccupations in Italy and Spain, allying himself with the pirates and accepting a military mission from Sertorius, Mithridates had gone far to re-establishing the military potential of which Sulla had temporarily deprived him. Sulla’s deputy in the province of Asia (i.e., west Asia Minor), suspicious of the king’s designs, had renewed military operations against Pontus without authorization from Rome. When he was worsted in battle, Roman prestige suffered.

Full-scale war had again broken out when Mithridates invaded Bithynia, a province which Rome had acquired by the bequest of its late monarch in 75 BC. Nobody was better qualified than Lucullus to undertake operations in this theatre, but in order to secure command of Cilicia and Asia during his consulate (74 BC), he had found it necessary to intrigue deviously with the mistress of a political adversary. He was immediately obliged to rescue his colleague in Bithynia who, anxious to take sole credit for a quick victory, had been defeated by Pontic forces both on land and in sea battles.

Mithridates, learning perhaps equally from his own past experience and from Sertorius’ military mission, had remodelled his army and navy. It is true that his large Oriental host still included such lumber as scythe-wheel chariots, which were usually ineffective because they needed an excessively long run in order to gather impetus. He had, nevertheless, equipped his infantry with short swords and long shields on the Roman pattern, and had adopted Roman tactical formations. In general, his forces were now equipped more obviously for war than for ceremonial occasions as they previously had been.

Mithridates besieged the Romans in Chalcedon (opposite Byzantium) and pressed farther westward along the south shores of the Propontis (Sea of Marmara) to attack Cyzicus. Lucullus, however, after successful actions by land and sea, relieved both these cities and, dispersing Mithridates’ invading armies, launched a counter-offensive into Pontus, where he soon penetrated the chain of fortress towns that defended the western territories of the kingdom. Mithridates, once more defeated in a pitched battle, fled eastward to take refuge with his son-in-law Tigranes, king of Armenia. Lucullus sent an embassy to demand the fugitive’s extradition and, while waiting for an answer, did much to restore the economy of the Asiatic cities, still crippled by Sulla’s impost. When the Armenian king refused to surrender Mithridates, Lucullus marched his legions into Armenia and, in a battle which showed him an astute tactician, defeated Tigranes’ multitudinous host. He then captured the newly built capital of Tigranocerta and inflicted a further defeat on Tigranes and Mithridates farther east. But the war threatened to extend itself interminably eastward, and it now seemed likely that Lucullus would involve himself against the Parthians, south of the Caspian Sea. His troops mutinied and it was impossible for him to carry his conquests any farther.

Indeed, not only was a halt called to Lucullus’ victorious advance, but the Roman army in Armenia was paralysed by indiscipline, and the prolongation of Lucullus’ command was already in question. In these circumstances, Mithridates, who was nothing if not resilient, mustered new forces and reoccupied Pontus. At the same time, Tigranes resumed the offensive and entered Cappadocia in eastern Asia Minor. Shocked by news of Roman defeats in Pontus, the mutinous troops at last followed their general back westward to rescue the legions which had been left to garrison that territory. But such was their mood that it was not possible to restore the situation, and this unhappy state of affairs still persisted when Pompey arrived to assume command of the war.

Lucullus was a man of very independent mind, always determined to rely on his own ability and integrity in a world where sycophancy and demagogy were prerequisites of success. Consequently, he lost the support not only of the legionaries under his command but of his own staff, at the same time giving opportunities to his political enemies in Rome. He was a firm disciplinarian, but that was not enough. Perhaps the greatest grievance of his soldiers was that he prevented them from plundering the cities of friendly and subject peoples – in a way that Sulla would certainly have allowed.

In 63 BC, Lucullus managed at last to celebrate a well-deserved triumph, after which he retired from war and politics to live a life of refined luxury. Unfortunately, he became insane in his old age. His supersession by Pompey must have been extremely galling to him. The two men had been rivals ever since the days when they both served under Sulla. But Sulla, always unaccountable, had consistently favoured Pompey, though he had more confidence in Lucullus.

By their dogged resistance to Lucullus, Mithridates and Tigranes had ultimately exhausted not only the Roman forces but their own. The mutiny among Lucullus’ troops had found its counterpart in palace intrigues and family dissensions in the despotic establishments of Pontus and Armenia. One of Mithridates’ sons had already set up a separatist government in South Russia and had been recognized by Lucullus. Tigranes’ son was soon to adopt a similarly independent line. The mere prospect of Pompey’s vast resources thrown into the scale against the Asiatic kingdoms was enough to increase already existing strains to breaking point.

Lucullus had overcome enemy armies many times larger than his own. Plutarch, quoting Livy, says that in the great battle which preceded the capture of Tigranocerta the Romans were outnumbered by more than twenty to one, and Livy must be presumed more accurate on history near to his own times than on semi-legendary antiquity or even the Hannibalic Wars. The situation, however, was now very much altered. Pompey possessed huge financial resources still untapped, increased by plunder taken from the pirates, not to mention the ships which he had captured. The Asiatic despots had lost heavily in men and Pompey had added the army of Lucullus to the massive forces which he had deployed against the pirates. Making full use of his naval strength, Pompey set his ships to guard the Asiatic coast from Syria to the Bosphorus, a precaution against any attack by the Pontic navy in his rear. He then left his Cilician base to confront Mithridates in the north. His striking force was not unduly large. Certainly, it was not unwieldy, and it was as much as he needed, for he had already by adroit diplomacy managed to involve Tigranes against the Parthians, and the king of Pontus was conveniently isolated.

Tigranes the Great’s empire c. 80 BC.

King Tigranes of Armenia

In 78 BC King Tigranes of Armenia, the son-in-law of Mithridates, invaded Cappadocia and reputedly sent three hundred thousand of the inhabitants in chains to his capital, Tigranocerta. By 75 BC Mithridates had allied himself with Sertorius, who sent him some Roman advisers, and prepared for war with Rome. When, in 74 BC, the childless king of Bithynia died and bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, Mithridates invaded. Pontic forces quickly swept through Paphlagonia and Bithynia and on into the Roman province of Asia, besieging the Roman governor in Chalcedon.

For this Third Mithridatic War, the Pontic king is alleged to have gathered 140,000 infantry and sixteen thousand cavalry. The latter included Armenians, Scythians, Bastarnae (called ‘the bravest nation of all’ by Appian) and Sarmatians of the lazyge and Basilidae tribes. It was a markedly smaller mounted force than Mithridates had fielded in the first war, undoubtedly due in part to the depletion of horse stocks in the war-ravaged region, but it was still sufficient to give him a massive superiority over the Romans in this arm. This advantage was, however, frittered away by misuse and strategic ineptitude, skilfully exploited by the Roman commanders.

Even after urgent local recruiting, Lucius Licinius Lucullus, the consul sent out from Rome to restore the situation, was only able to field 1600 cavalry and thirty thousand infantry. He moved these forces up close to where Mithridates was now besieging Cyzicus. With a tenfold advantage in cavalry, Mithridates might have been expected to attempt a war of manoeuvre to force the Romans into a pitched battle on unfavourable terms. Instead he repeated the mistake his general Archelaus had made against Sulla in the first war, persisting with the siege and allowing himself to be tied to the positional warfare that best suited the Romans. Even if unwilling to abandon the siege, his horsemen should have been able to dominate the surrounding area to prevent the Romans foraging. In the event, the collusion of one of Mithridates’ Roman advisers (one of those sent by Sertorius, who was by this time dead) allowed Lucullus to occupy a strategically located mountain, thereby cutting off Mithridates’ supply lines and penning him in against the city.

As the siege progressed, Mithridates’ cavalry horses rapidly lost condition from lack of fodder and suffered from ‘sore hooves’, probably from malnourishment causing the keratin of the hoof wall to become brittle. He therefore took the decision to send them back to Bithynia to preserve them for future operations. Lucullus got wind of this and ambushed them as they crossed a river. Some were killed but fifteen thousand men and six thousand horses were captured. With his cavalry effectively destroyed at a single stroke, Mithridates abandoned the siege and withdrew to Bithynia, suffering heavy losses en route due to the lack of cavalry protection.

By 72 BC Lucullus felt ready to carry the war into Pontic territory. His initial advance, however, was halted by defeat in a cavalry engagement in which his cavalry commander was captured. Although Mithridates had been able to muster only four thousand cavalry, they still heavily outnumbered those with the Roman forces. Lucullus took up a strong mountainside position and refused battle out of respect for the enemy’s continued cavalry superiority. Fortune and his opponents’ blundering, however, again came to Lucullus’ aid. Mithridates sent a picked force of cavalry to ambush a vital Roman supply column. The attackers were beaten off with heavy casualties as they ineptly attempted to launch a mounted attack in a narrow defile. This need not have been more than a frustrating setback if the shaken survivors had not galloped back into the Pontic camp by night, causing widespread alarm that quickly escalated into panic and the flight of the whole army. The next morning Lucullus unleashed his remaining cavalry in pursuit and Mithridates was lucky to escape to Tigranes in Armenia with just two thousand cavalry.

In 69 BC Lucullus, having effectively secured and garrisoned Pontus, invaded Armenia with two legions and five hundred cavalry. Tigranes sent two thousand cavalry to slow the Roman advance, but these were routed in the first encounter and part of the Roman force laid siege to the capital. Tigranes had raised a vast army, said by Appian to include a barely possible fifty thousand cavalry. He sent six thousand of these to the capital, where they succeeded in breaking through the Roman lines and rescuing the royal concubines. Mithridates warned him against meeting the Romans in open battle, advising him instead to harass them with cavalry and devastate the country in their path to deny them supplies. Tigranes, however, was determined to fight and brought his army close to the Romans.

In the battle that followed it was Lucullus’ tactical skill and clever use of the terrain that negated the enemy superiority in numbers. His tiny cavalry force was used to draw off a large portion of the enemy cavalry by means of a feigned retreat, a typically eastern ploy that may demonstrate that Lucullus had learnt a lot while in the east. Meanwhile, the legions marched under cover of dead ground to seize a hill in the rear of the enemy and then their camp. The sudden danger behind them, and the threat to their possessions, threw the whole Armenian army into chaos. When Tigranes’ cavalry abandoned their chase to hurry back to assist, the Roman cavalry turned on their erstwhile pursuers and routed them, leading to the complete collapse of any remaining organized resistance. Tigranes escaped but his capital fell shortly after.

The following year Tigranes and Mithridates, having scoured the countryside to raise another army of 70,000 infantry and 35,000 (mostly Armenian) cavalry, tried again. This time Tigranes attempted to follow his father-in-law’s advice, sending a large force of horsemen to attack a detachment of Roman troops out foraging. The legionaries, warned of the attack by the inevitable dust cloud, managed to take up arms and get into close formation in time to repulse the attack. Mithridates and Tigranes then decided to surround the whole of Lucullus’ army by dividing their forces and marching around him on both sides. Lucullus, again warned by the dust cloud, sent out ‘the best of his cavalry’ to oppose them and delay their deployment while he led out the legions, which seems to have succeeded despite the odds. Although we lack any detail of exactly how this was achieved, it may well be symptomatic of Lucullus’ cavalry having achieved a significant psychological advantage over their Pontic and Armenian counterparts, whose morale must by now have been at rock bottom.

While Tigranes withdrew to the depths of central Armenia, a dispirited but determined Mithridates marched towards Pontus with just eight thousand troops, half of them Armenian. Here he defeated the legate in command of the Roman garrison, who was then forced to arm freed slaves for a second battle. In this Mithridates was again carrying the day until he was severely wounded in the knee and face and forced to retire. Another legate, Triarius, assumed command of the local Roman forces and was able to hold off Mithridates in an inconclusive battle before both sides retired to winter quarters. In 67 BC, Mithridates again faced Triarius and scattered his army by means of a powerful cavalry charge. As he led the pursuit, a suicidally courageous Roman officer managed in the confusion to ride unnoticed for some time among his entourage until the opportunity presented itself to strike. Seeing that the king’s body was too well armoured to wound him there, the Roman ran his sword into Mithridates’ thigh, only to be cut to pieces by his bodyguard. Although his officers halted the pursuit, again preventing Mithridates from fully exploiting his advantage, the Roman casualties were already heavy and included twenty-four tribunes and one hundred and fifty centurions.

Lucullus, accused of deliberately prolonging the war, was replaced in 66 BC by Pompey, who had followed victory in Spain by mopping up the remnants of Spartacus’ rebellious slaves in Italy and a dazzlingly successful campaign against piracy throughout the Mediterranean.

Tigranocerta (69 B.C.)

After his defeat at Cabira (72), Mithridates took refuge with his kinsman Tigranes in Armenia. Lucullus demanded that he be surrendered. When this was refused, Lucullus marched with two legions against Tigranes at Tigranocerta. Nobody dared to tell the king that Lucullus was approaching because the first man to do so was beheaded for his pains. When Tigranes did learn the truth, he sent Mithrobarzanes against Lucullus with 2,000 horsemen, while he himself went out and collected an army which is said to have comprised between 150,000 and 250,000 foot and 50.000 horse. In the meantime Lucullus had readily defeated Mithrobarzanes at the first encounter and was now preparing to face Tigranes himself. Mithridates advised Tigranes not to come to close quarters with the Roman s but to surround Lucullus and to cut him off from all supplies. But Tigranes scorned such ideas and advanced to meet his enemy. Behind the king there was a hill of which Lucullus took good note. He stationed his cavalry in front of the enemy with instructions to harass them and by withdrawing slowly to draw them gradually forward in pursuit. Meanwhile, Lucullus led his infantry in a detour round to the hill, which he occupied unobserved by the enemy. As soon as he saw that they were widely scattered in pursuit of the Roman cavalry, Lucullus charged down the hill onto the enemy’s baggage train directly below. This caused chaos as the baggage personnel fled into the midst of the assembled horde of soldiery, setting everybody in collision with each other. At the same time, the R o m a n cavalry, having lured their pursuers after them, turned and hacked them to pieces. Tigranes and Mithridates fled, and the city of Tigranocerta fell to the Romans. It is said that more than 100,000 of the enemy infantry were slain and almost all of the cavalry. In contrast, 100 Romans were wounded while only five are reported as killed.

In the first century, the adoption of Roman equipment and tactics increased. During the First Mithridatic War, the Pontic army fielded a mixed force, including both Chalcaspides and troops armed in the Roman manner. 122 When Mithridates raised a new army to replace the one defeated in Greece in 86, he reputedly raised a force of 120,000 men armed with Roman-style equipment and trained in Roman tactics (Plut. Luc. 7.4). A Pontic legion is later found in Roman service fighting Pharnaces the son of Mithridates (Caes. B Alex. 39-40). At the battle of Tigranocerta in 69, 150,000 Armenian heavy infantry were drawn up partly in Roman cohorts and partly as a Greek phalanx (Plut. Luc. 26.6).

Artaxata 68 B.C.

Following his defeat and the capture of his royal city of Tigranocerta (above), Tigranes retired to his capital city of Artaxata [Artashat], Almost a year later Lucullus set out against him. Tigranes led out his forces to meet the enemy and took up a position on the banks of the river Arsanias [Murat], which Lucullus would have to cross on his march to Artaxata. Undeterred, the Roman crossed the river with his troops deployed on a broad front to prevent any outflanking movement. He was confronted at the outset by mounted archers and lancers who covered the main body of the enemy troops. Although Tigranes thought highly of them, a brush with the Roman cavalry was all that was needed to send them flying in all directions. When Tigranes took their place at the head of his cavalry, matters took on a different hue for Lucullus who was taken aback by their numbers and splendour. He recalled his own cavalry from the pursuit of the light troops and confronted the enemy immediately in front of him, but they fled before he could even get close to them. That ended the battle, leaving the Romans engaged in a pursuit which lasted throughout the night. The casualty figures are not recorded, but it is on record that Mithridates was among the first to make a shameful flight.  

Lucullus: The Life and and Campaigns of a Roman Conqueror by Lee Fratantuono (Author)

The military achievements of Lucius Licinius Lucullus (118-57/56 B.C.) have been the subject of admiration and great respect throughout the history of the study of warfare. Yet there have been few studies dedicated to a comprehensive examination of exactly how Lucullus conquered the Roman East and made it a more or less cohesive part of the empire. Lee Frantantuono considers every aspect of Lucullus life, starting with the training and education of a future Roman officer, but the greatest emphasis is on his military strategy and tactics during the Third Mithridatic War and his military adventures in Armenia. His most famous achievement was his victory against immense odds at the land battle of Tigranocerta. We are also reminded that he one of the most formidable naval strategists of the Roman Republic. Lucullus complicated relationship with Sulla and Crassus is explored and the study concludes with the retirement of the man Pliny the Elder memorably referred to as ‘Xerxes in a Toga’, a patron of the arts and master of a life of horticulture and reflection.

Lucullus: A Life, By Arthur Keaveney