JULY 2018

JULY 2018
One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017


Friday, January 29, 2010


I have given this a lot of thought, and have come to the firm conclusion that Mithradates Eurpator Dionysius, the sixth Great King of Pontus by that name, also known as the “King of Poisons”, the last man to stand between Rome and world domination, and also known as “The Good Father” to his people –or so we’re told - , was completely and absolutely demented, deranged, mentally unstable, maniacal, rabid, raving, preposterous, psychotic and certifiably legally nuts. Now, it isn’t that often you can make an unqualified observation like that about an historical figure. But, trust me, it is all true. Now, Mithradates was of course the King, so nobody pointed out at the time that he was as loony as a vegetarian working in a meat packing plant. But a lot of people must have been thinking it.
The Kingdom of Pontus was one of the jigsaw-puzzle of petty kingdoms that sprang up from Alexander the Great’s empire, after the famous ‘faygala’ died in 323 B.C.E. The politics of the time reflected the map; a hodge-podge of dozens of principalities whose kings (and queens) were each vying to be next to earn the title of ‘GREAT’. Given the eat-or-be-eaten diplomatic climate, any one of half a dozen kingdoms could have dominated Asia Minor, but Pontus was better situated than most. It hugged the mountainous northern coast of what is today Turkey, and was centered on the great port city of Sinop. The minerals in the mountains made the kingdom rich, which paid for the Pontic fleets which eventually turned the Black Sea into a Pontic lake.
As with most kings, Mithradates Europator’s biggest problem was his own family. In about 120 B.C.E. his father, Mithradates V, unexpectedly dropped dead, probably from poison, which was in all probability administered by his wife, Laodice. She was the daughter of another local King, and had already earned a reputation as a political cut throat. She was quickly named regent for the 13 year old Europator, his brother Chesthus, and their sister. There appear to have been other children from the King’s many wives, but these three were the only ones to survive. Which of the others were murdered by Laodice, and which were merely victims of the horrendous death toll common in the last century Before the Common Era, is unclear.
What we do know is that all his life Mithradates Europator was terrified of being poisoned. He would eat only freshly cooked food, and he even went so far as to begin a life long regimen of ingesting deadly substances with every meal, in order to build up his immunity to his enemies, including his own mommy dearest. The tale is so well known that my favorite poet, A.E. Houseman, was even inspired by it. “They put arsenic in his meat, And stared aghast to watch him eat. They poured strychnine in his cup, And shook to see him drink it up. They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt: Them it was their poison hurt. --I tell the tale that I heard told. Mithridates, he died old”
Sometime around 115 B.C.E, the 20 year old Mithradates Europrator stepped into his role as King, becoming Mithradates VI. And his first act was to execute his own mother. Call it self defense. Shortly thereafter his brother Chesthus disappeared; call that just being careful. That left only his sister, also named Laodice. Her, he married; a common practice in amongst Kings of ancient times, the better to keep the crown jewels in the family. And with the home front under control, Mithradates raised his ambition to the horizon.
First he crossed the Black Sea and conquered the Crimea Peninsula, later placing his son on the throne. And then he subjugated Armenia and Georgia, which bordered Pontus on the west. And then he crossed the mountains and defeated his neighbors to the south on the Anatolian plain. All of this energetic activity brought Mithradates to the attention of the Romans, and visa-a-versa. Mithradates took the immediate measure of the Roman Republic and decided he did not feel comfortable with thousands of Roman merchants and settlers living in his kingdom. They were the advance wave of Roman influence that always preceded the Roman armies. So, in a typical Mithradates’ solution, on an appointed day in 88 B.C.E., he ordered all the Latin speakers across Anatolia butchered, every man, woman and child. It is figured approximately 80,000 people were killed in a single day.
It was a body blow to the Roman Empire, bankrupting many of the rich nobility of the city. The Roman response was to dispatch the ambitious Counsel Marcus Aquilius to deal with this Asian troublemaker. However, rather than run up the expense actually fighting a war, Aquilius bribed Mithradates’ allies to betray him. But except for a few isolated incidences, the scheme failed. By Spring of 87 B.C.E. Mithradates controlled all of Asia Minor, even capturing Aquilius. Repaying the honor, Mithradates had molten gold poured down the Counsel’s throat. And that is what I would call a burning irony.
When the Romans failed to respond strongly, Mithradates saw an opening and accepted an invitation from Athens to send his armies into Greece. He portrayed himself as modern day Alexander come to save Hellinistic culture from the vulgar Romans. And finally the Romans decided to send in six legions, under the command of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, an ambitious and hungry general. Sulla sacked Athens, filling the streets with blood, and then defeated a much larger Pontic army, driving Mithradates back across the Aegean Sea. And in 86 B.C.E. Sulla followed. But just when it looked like Mithradates would be cornered and killed, Sulla offered a truce, with generous terms. Now why would he do that?
The answer was, of course, that Sulla was more interested in capturing Rome than he was in capturing Mithradates. And he did just that, killing every significant member of the Roman nobility who opposed him, except for one; Julius Gaius Caesar. And Mithradates was busy as well. Beaten and driven out of Greece, he found himself more popular than ever, as the man who had stood up to the Romans. Wrote the Roman Senator Cicero, “Somehow, Mithradates accomplished more by being defeated than if he had been victorious!” Rulers lined up to serve in what would come to be called the Second Mithradatic War. In 83 BCE a new Roman general, Lucius Lincinius Murena, invaded Pontus. But Mithradates fought him to a stand still, and forced the Romans to make peace, yet again.
The Republic and Mithradates suffered each other for over a decade of uneasy peace, because they were both busy with internal politics, meaning plots and assassinations. But in 72 B.C.E., when the Gladiator Spartacus inspired a slave revolt in Italy, Mithradates saw yet another opening, and attacked the Roman forces again. And again the Romans dispatched a second class general, and again Mirthradates was able to sting him into retreat. So finally, in 66 B.C.E., Rome sent forth Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known as Pompey the Great, to deal with Mithradates once and for all.
Pompey earned his title by doing just that. He captured Sinop, and drove Mithradates out of his own kingdom, chasing him through Armenia and Azerbaijan. For a time it appeared that Pompey had Mithradates pinned against the high Caucasus Mountains. But rather than pressing his advantage until he had killed Mithradates, Pompey declared victory and moved on conquer new lands. (Sound familiar?) But our hero refused to die and slipped across the high passes before appearing again in his son’s kingdom in the Crimea.
But his son was more interested in holding onto his own kingdom, than in supporting his father’s dreams of revenge on Rome. And in 65 B.C.E., Mithradates was at last  forced to admit the end had come. He gave poison to all his loyal wives and children, and then tried to drink the drink himself. But all those years of building immunity now came back to bite him.
The Roman writer Cassiuus noted, “"Mithridates had tried to make away with himself…(but) the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him,” Mithradates then tried to disembowel himself but “the force of the sword blow was lessened on account of the weakness of his hand, caused by his age and…as a result of taking the poison.” So a trusted servant had to finish off his master. “Thus Mithridates, who had experienced the most varied and remarkable fortune, had not even an ordinary end to his life.”
The genius of Pompey was displayed when he had Mithradates’ body brought back to Sinop, and placed in the family tomb in a great funeral. There was now no doubt that the old trouble maker was truly dead, and that Rome had finally vanquished him. But in a way, Mithridates, also won. In dealing with the crises produced by Mithradates, the Roman Republic had been forced repeatedly to turn to a talented and ambitious man, first Sulla, and then Pompey, and eventually Julius Caesar. It was a habit the Romans found adictive.
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