The Mithridatid kingdom

The Kingdom of Pontus at its height: before the reign of Mithridates VI (dark purple), after his early conquests (purple), and his conquests in the first Mithridatic wars (pink)

The history of Pontus is the history of its ruling family, the Mithridatid kings. It was their tenacity, military skill and ability to out–double–cross, betray and backstab their rivals that built the Pontic kingdom from scratch, and it was their economic nous that developed it into a profitable concern.

The propaganda of the Mithridatids proclaimed their descent from the Achaemenid Persian kings, and modern historians have rather surprised themselves by discovering indications that this was so.1 The evidence for these early ancestors of Mithridates VI is sketchy and in places contradictory. Depending on how we read the sources, the early Mithridatids were minor nobility based around the town of Cius in Propontis, or wealthy Persian noblemen who dominated the much larger area of Mysia. But however one reads the evidence, the family certainly existed well before its future kingdom.

The family history becomes clearer soon after the death of Alexander the Great, ruler of all Asia Minor and much else besides. On Alexander’s death, one of his generals called Antigonus forcibly took charge of the region. Whilst consolidating his rule, he put to death a man called Mithridates of Cius, the first unmistakeably identifiable ancestor of Mithridates VI. The executed Mithridates had a relative of the same name (referred to by the historian Appian as ‘a scion of the royal house of Persia’). He was probably a nephew of Mithridates of Cius, and was at that time staying in the court of Antigonus. One night (so the legend goes) Antigonus dreamed that he had sown a harvest of gold dust, and the crop was reaped by the young Mithridates. Accordingly the superstitious Antigonus planned to have this Mithridates executed. He confided this fact to his son Demetrius (the same Demetrius who later in life famously failed to capture Rhodes), notwithstanding the fact that Demetrius and Mithridates were close friends. Demetrius was sworn to silence, but overcame the conflict between filial loyalty and comradeship by mutely sketching the word ‘flee’ in the sand whilst the pair were walking along the beach. Asiatic nobility survived by picking up on hints far more subtle than this, and within hours Mithridates was on the run.

The year 300 BC saw the fugitive dug into the mountains of Paphlagonia, on the westernmost border of his family’s future kingdom. With the fortress town of Cimiata as his base, Mithridates took advantage of the confusion elsewhere in Asia Minor to begin gouging himself a little kingdom out of the inland river valleys to the east. The next time Mithridates appears in the historical record is as an ambitious upstart with predatory designs on the town of Amastris on the Black Sea coast. Amastris, founded by a Greek noblewoman, was also claimed by the Greek city of Heraclea, on the grounds that Amastris’ founder had been a Heracliot. However, Heraclea had fallen out with the current Seleucid king, who, partly to spite the Heracliots, handed Amastris to Ariobarzanes, son of Mithridates. The dynasty thus won its first Greek city, a handsome establishment with two good harbours, and a thriving business in exporting boxwood from the immediate interior.

In 281 BC the Seleucids made an effort to bring the embryonic Pontic kingdom back under their control, but Mithridates fought them off with the help of the newly–arrived Galatians. It is probable that he issued his first coins at this point, defiantly asserting the independence that his kingdom had just so conclusively proven. By the time this Mithridates died in 266 BC, he well deserved his nickname of Ctesias (‘founder’). He left his heir a small but well–appointed realm with considerable potential for expansion.

All that is known of the heir, Ariobarzanes, once he changed from ruling Amastris to Pontus as a whole, is that the kingdom was so weak that the Galatians successfully ravaged the place on his death. However, this does not mean that Ariobarzanes had not been busy during his reign. One of the distinguishing features of the area that was to become Pontus is a range of mountains created by the earthquake–prone Anatolian fault line. These mountains, home of almost the only temperate rainforests on the Eurasian landmass, separate a coastal plain only a few miles wide from the interior of Asia Minor. The drier, warmer interior of this area is dominated by the systems of the Halys and the Lycus rivers. It is quite possible that Ariobarzanes followed his father’s example and spent his time busily expanding up these river valleys, out of sight of the Greek cities of the coast on whom our historical record relies.

Certainly by the time Mithridates II came to the throne in about 250 BC he was considered suitable to marry a daughter of the Seleucid royal house, and the proud Seleucids did not marry off their offspring to just anybody. Bloodlines were very important to the royalty of Asia Minor, mainly because kingdoms were very seldom inherited by those outside a rambling network of relatives by marriage. This was certainly not due to family affection, but because the powerful landowners on whom the kings relied for financial and military support preferred that this was so. For Mithridates II to be admitted to the ranks of the Seleucid family suggests both that the Mithridatid claim to Persian royal blood was credible, and that Ariobarzanes had indeed built a good–sized extension on to the family property. Later, Mithridates VI was to claim Phrygia as part of the Pontic kingdom on the basis that Mithridates II had received it as part of his wife’s dowry.

Lying just to the southeast of Pontus, Phrygia was not a particularly good fit with the then-existing borders of the kingdom. A mountainous area, it was both where Alexander had cut the Gordian knot and where Midas had his golden touch. However, Phrygia had suffered badly at the hands of the Galatians, and the nascent power of Pergamum had a firm grip on what was left. Mithridates II chose instead to concentrate on the northeastern seaboard, where citizens of the wealthy Greek city of Sinope suddenly became aware that the power beyond the mountains had a deep and personal interest in them. It is not known whether Mithridates II actually made a military grab for the city, but if he did he was unsuccessful, since Sinope remained independent for another generation and Pontus vanishes off the pages of history; apart that is, from mention of Mithridates II scoring a further diplomatic coup by marrying his daughter to the Seleucid king – the first time that a Seleucid monarch had taken a wife outside Macedonian royalty.

One has to assume the period of 220 –190 BC as the reign of Mithridates III, simply because he has to be fitted into the record somewhere. The only evidence for the existence of Pontus at this time is the coinage which archaeologists are still unearthing in the region. They show a distinctly Asiatic–looking Mithridates (presumably III) on the obverse, together with the crescent moon and star which was to become a symbol of Pontus and the Mithridatids (a symbol which has since become a bone of heated contention both as to its origins and its relationship with the star and crescent symbol of the Turks). However, it is probable that Mithridates III tightened the Pontic noose around Sinope by bringing Amisus (a coastal city to Sinope’s east), into his hegemony.

If Mithridates III was content to keep a low profile, the next ruler, Pharnarces I, was not. He immediately became involved in a messy war between Pergamum and Bithynia, and when the Romans forced a ceasefire in about 183 BC, he did not stand down his army but instead pounced on and captured Sinope. This was a crucial acquisition. With a splendid harbour, once used by the Hittites, Sinope was the Black Sea terminus for trade caravans from Mesopotamia, and thus another stop on the Silk Road which so enriched all the countries which it passed through. Pharnarces brought Sinope’s colonies of Cerasus and Cotyora into his kingdom at the same time, and shifted the populations of these colonies to a site near Cerasus. There he established an omnibus edition of the two colonies which he named Pharnarcia. At about the same time the rich mines of the Chalybes region are recorded as belonging to the Mithridatids, though Mithridates III may have acquired these late in his reign rather than Pharnarces early in his. In any case, this area, in the east of the kingdom, was immensely rich in iron, but also boasted substantial silver and copper deposits. With control of this area came Trapezus, a city on the coast which specialized in refining the metals from the Chalybes mines and exporting them to the Mediterranean world. Pharnarces also made the first ventures into the Chersonese; the start of a family project aimed at turning the entire Black Sea into a Pontic lake.

This vigorous empire builder also moved aggressively into Cappadocia and Paphlagonia, and even attempted to steal the town of Tium from Bithynia in the west. This was too much for the neighbours, and Pharnarces was brought to heel by an armed coalition which forced him to withdraw from many of his conquests (Though he kept Sinope and most of the Pontic gains to the east). Pharnarces died about 170 BC, leaving the finances of the kingdom in some disorder, testimony to the fact that his ambition had outstripped his resources. Yet Pharnarces also bequeathed his heirs the infrastructure to make those resources considerably more extensive.

Mithridates IV nicknamed himself Philadelphus, which suggests he was probably the brother of Pharnarces (the name Philadelphus suggests fraternal love). Love of a sister was also involved, as Mithridates IV adopted a practice not uncommon among Hellenistic kings and married his sister, Laodice (one of the many Laodices who crop up in the history of the region). Laodice appears on the coins of Mithridates IV associated with Hera, queen of the gods, a portrayal which, like his Greek nickname, shows that this Mithridates was trying hard to make his new Greek subjects like him. Under Mithridates IV, Pontus also tried the rare foreign policy of getting on well with the neighbours and there were no major wars in his reign.

It is probable that Mithridates IV was ruling on behalf of his nephew, the son of Pharnarces. This young man became king when Mithridates IV died (or was disposed of) around 150 BC, and he took the name of Mithridates V Euergetes (Benefactor). Mithridates V seems to have adopted a pro–Roman policy. He gave nominal assistance to the Romans in the final war against Carthage in 149 BC, and his support for Rome in the rebellion of Aristonicus meant that Rome acquiesced in his partial occupation of Phrygia. That Pontus was able to extend its reach to Phrygia means that by now the state must have been dominant in Paphlagonia, as well as in Cappadocia. Control of Cappadocia was achieved by blatant invasion. Aware that this would offend Roman sensibilities, Mithridates V stayed in occupation only long enough to marry his daughter (another Laodice) to the king, effectively making Cappadocia a client state. It is possible that at some point in his diplomatic dealings Mithridates V met a man called Cornelius Sulla, since the sons of the two were to meet in later years and the paternal ‘friendship’ was a topic of discussion.

Mithridates V set another precedent for his son in his aggressive recruitment of Greek mercenaries. There had probably always been an element of these soldiers in the Pontic armies, but Mithridates V is on record as actively recruiting across the entire Aegean island chain and on the Greek mainland. It is probable that Mithridates V also invested in Cretan archers, whose bows were superior to those of his own hillmen.

By now Pontus was a well-established kingdom stretching across most of the southern shore of the Black Sea, and deep into the interior of Asia Minor. It had mineral wealth, good crops, and useful supplies of timber, not to mention a healthy trade with Mesopotamia and onward from there to Rome. Their coinage shows that the later Mithridatid kings chose to defiantly proclaim their Iranian origins in the face of the current fashion for Hellenization, yet they nevertheless took care to be seen as benevolent rulers who had the best interests of their Greek subjects at heart. Indeed, it was one of the major achievements of the Mithridatid kings that they ruled their kingdom with apparently very little friction between the half–dozen or so major ethnic groups of which it was composed.

To the mercantilist, cosmopolitan Greeks of the Black Sea ports, the Mithridatids were civilized monarchs with a Hellenistic court who sent embassies to Rome, and who made donations and sacrifices to the gods at the Greek sanctuaries. Yet to the people of the interior, many of whom knew little of life outside their own valleys, the Mithridatids were the ancient heirs of the Persian kings, to whom their priests and barons owed unswerving loyalty.

To the outside world, Pontus was an energetic, expansionist power, ready to try diplomacy or armed force as the occasion suited. Every rebuff sent the Pontic rulers into a period of consolidation from which they emerged, richer, stronger, and as fixed on their target as before. Mithridates V had every reason to feel pleased with his contribution. Pontus had hegemony in Paphlagonia and Cappadocia, Galatia was cowed, and relations with Rome were good. The kingdom was rich and getting richer. His wife had given him two sons and there were possibilities for his heirs to further expand into the Chersonese and the eastern shores of the Black Sea. In short, by 120 BC everything was going swimmingly for Mithridates V, right up to the moment when his wife had him assassinated.