Roman Empire > Roman Empire History > Third Or Great Mithridatic War - b.C. 74-61

Third Or Great Mithridatic War - b.C. 74-61

When Sulla returned to Italy after the First Mithridatic War, he left L. Murena, with two legions, to hold the command in Asia. Murena, who was eager for some opportunity of earning the honor of a triumph, pretending that Mithridates had not yet evacuated the whole of Cappadocia, not only marched into that country, but even crossed the Halys, and laid waste the plains of Pontus itself (B.C. 83). To this flagrant breach of the treaty so lately concluded the Roman general was in great measure instigated by Archelaus, who, finding himself regarded with suspicion by Mithridates, had consulted his safety by flight, and was received with the utmost honors by the Romans. Mithridates, who was wholly unprepared to renew the contest with Rome, offered no opposition to the progress of Murena; but finding that general disregard his remonstrances, he sent to Rome to complain of his aggression. When, in the following spring (B.C. 82), he saw Murena preparing to renew his hostile incursions, he at once determined to oppose him by force, and assembled a large army, with which he met the Roman general on the banks of the Halys. The action that ensued terminated in the complete victory of the king, and Murena, with difficultly, effected his retreat into Phrygia, leaving Cappadocia at the mercy of Mithridates, who quickly overran the whole province. Shortly afterward A. Gabinius arrived in Asia, bringing peremptory orders from Sulla to Murena to desist from hostilities, whereupon Mithridates once more consented to evacuate Cappadocia. Thus ended what is commonly called the Second Mithridatic War.

Notwithstanding the interposition of Sulla, Mithridates was well aware that the peace between him and Rome was in fact only suspension of hostilities, and that the haughty Republic would never suffer the massacre of her citizens in Asia to remain ultimately unpunished. Hence all his efforts were directed toward the formation of an army capable of contending, not only in numbers, but in discipline, with those of Rome; and with this view he armed his barbarian troops after the Roman fashion, and endeavored to train them up in that discipline of which he had so strongly felt the effect in the preceding contest. In these attempts he was doubtless assisted by the refugees of the Marian party, who had accompanied Fimbria into Asia, and on the defeat of that general by Sulla had taken refuge with the King of Pontus. At their instigation, also, Mithridates sent an embassy to Sertorius, who was still maintaining his ground in Spain, and concluded an alliance with him against their common enemies. But it was the death of Nicomedes III., king of Bithynia, at the beginning of B.C. 74, that brought matters to a crisis, and became the immediate occasion of the war which both parties had long felt to be inevitable. That monarch left his dominions by will to the Roman people, and Bithynia was accordingly declared a Roman province; but Mithridates asserted that the late king had left a legitimate son by his wife Nysa, whose pretensions he immediately prepared to support by his arms.

The forces with which Mithridates was now prepared to take the field were such as might inspire him with no unreasonable confidence of victory. He had assembled an army of 120,000 foot-soldiers, armed and disciplined in the Roman manner, and 16,000 horse, besides a hundred scythed chariots. His fleet, also, was so far superior to any that the Romans could oppose to him as to give him the almost undisputed command of the sea. These preparations, however, appear to have delayed him so long that the season was far advanced before he was able to take the field, and both the Roman Consuls, L. Licinius Lucullus and M. Aurelius Cotta, had arrived in Asia. Neither of them, however, was able to oppose his first irruption. He traversed almost the whole of Bithynia without encountering any resistance; and when at length Cotta ventured to give him battle under the walls of Chalcedon, his army and fleet were totally defeated. Mithridates now proceeded to lay siege to Cyzicus both by sea and land. But Lucullus, who had advanced from Phrygia to the relief of Cotta, and followed Mithridates to Cyzicus, took possession of an advantageous position near the camp of the king, where he almost entirely cut him off from receiving supplies by land, while the storms of the winter prevented him from depending on those by sea. Hence it was not long before famine began to make itself felt in the camp of Mithridates, and all his assaults upon the city having been foiled by the courage and resolution of the besieged, he was at length compelled (early in the year B.C. 73) to abandon the enterprise and raise the siege. In his retreat he was repeatedly attacked by the Roman general, and suffered very heavy loss at the passage of the Æsepus and Granicus. By the close of the year the great army with which he had commenced the war was annihilated, and he was not only compelled to retire within his own dominions, but was without the means of opposing the advance of Lucullus into the heart of Pontus itself. But he now again set to work with indefatigable activity to raise a fresh army; and while he left the whole of the sea-coast of Pontus open to the invaders, he established himself in the interior at Cabira. Here he was again defeated by Lucullus; and despairing of opposing the farther progress of the Romans, he fled into Armenia to claim the protection and assistance of his son-in-law Tigranes.

Coin of Tigranes
Coin of Tigranes

Tigranes was at this moment the most powerful monarch of Asia, but he appears to have been unwilling to engage openly in war with Rome; and on this account, while he received the fugitive monarch in a friendly manner, he refused to admit him to his presence, and showed no disposition to attempt his restoration. But the arrogance of the Romans brought about a change in his policy; and Tigranes, offended at the haughty conduct of Appius Claudius, whom Lucullus had sent to demand the surrender of Mithridates, not only refused this request, but determined at once to prepare for war.

While Lucullus was waiting for the return of Claudius, he devoted his attention to the settlement of the affairs of Asia, which was suffering severely from the oppressions of the farmers of the public taxes. By various judicious regulations he put a stop to their exactions, and earned the gratitude of the cities of Asia; but at the same time he brought upon himself the enmity of the Equites, who were the farmers of the revenue. They were loud against him in their complaints at Rome, and by their continued clamors undoubtedly prepared the way for his ultimate recall.

Meanwhile community of interests between Mithridates and Tigranes had led to a complete reconciliation between them, and the Pontic king, who had spent a year and eight months in the dominions of his son-in-law without being admitted to a personal interview, was now made to participate in all the councils of Tigranes, and appointed to levy an army to unite in the war. But it was in vain that in the ensuing campaign (B.C. 69) he urged upon his son-in-law the lessons of his own experience, and advised him to shun a regular action with Lucullus: Tigranes, confident in the multitude of his forces, gave battle at Tigranocerta, and was defeated, before Mithridates had been able to join him. But this disaster, so precisely in accordance with the warnings of Mithridates, served to raise the latter so high in the estimation of Tigranes, that from this time forward the whole conduct of the war was intrusted to the direction of the King of Pontus.

In the following summer (B.C. 68) Lucullus crossed the Taurus, penetrated into the heart of Armenia, and again defeated the allied monarchs near the city of Artaxata. But the early severity of the season, and the discontent of his own troops, checked the farther advance of the Roman general, who turned aside into Mesopotamia. Here Mithridates left him to lay siege to the fortress of Nisibis, which was supposed to be impregnable, while he himself took advantage of his absence to invade Pontus at the head of a large army, and endeavor to regain possession of his former dominions. The defense of Pontus was confided to Fabius, one of the lieutenants of Lucullus; but the oppression of the Romans had excited a general spirit of disaffection, and the people crowded around the standard of Mithridates. Fabius was totally defeated, and compelled to shut himself up in the fortress of Cabira. In the following spring (B.C. 67), Triarius, another of the Roman generals, was also defeated with immense loss. The blow was one of the severest which the Roman arms had sustained for a long period: 7000 of their troops fell, among whom were an unprecedented number of officers, and their camp itself was taken.

The advance of Lucullus himself from Mesopotamia prevented Mithridates from following up his advantage, and he withdrew into Lesser Armenia, where he took up a strong position to await the approach of Tigranes. But the farther proceedings of Lucullus were paralyzed by the mutinous and disaffected spirit of his own soldiers. Their discontents were fostered by P. Clodius, whose turbulent and restless spirit already showed itself in its full force, and were encouraged by reports from Rome, where the demagogues who were favorable to Pompey, or had been gained over by the Equestrian party, were loud in their clamors against Lucullus. They accused him of protracting the war for his own personal objects, either of ambition or avarice; and the soldiery, whose appetite for plunder had been often checked by Lucullus, readily joined in the outcry. Accordingly, on the arrival of Tigranes, the two monarchs found themselves able to overrun almost the whole of Pontus and Cappadocia without opposition.

Such was the state of affairs when ten legates arrived in Asia to reduce Pontus to the form of a Roman province, and they had, in consequence, to report to the Senate that the country supposed to be conquered was again in the hands of the enemy. The adversaries of Lucullus naturally availed themselves of so favorable an occasion, and a decree was passed transferring to M. Acilius Glabrio, one of the Consuls for the year, the province of Bithynia, and the command against Mithridates. But Glabrio was wholly incompetent for the task assigned to him. On arriving in Bithynia he made no attempt to assume the command, but remained within the confines of his province, while he still farther embarrassed the position of Lucullus by issuing proclamations to his soldiers, announcing to them that their general was superseded, and releasing them from their obedience. Before the close of the year (B.C. 67) Lucullus had the mortification of seeing Mithridates established once more in the possession of his hereditary dominions. But it was still more galling to his feelings when, in the spring of the following year (B.C. 66), he was called upon to resign the command to Pompey, who had just brought to a successful termination the war against the pirates.

The Mediterranean Sea had long been swarming with pirates. From the earliest times piracy has more or less prevailed in this sea, which, lying between three continents, and abounding with numerous creeks and islands, presents at the same time both the greatest temptations and the greatest facilities for piratical pursuits. Moreover, in consequence of the Social and Civil wars, and the absence of any fleet to preserve order upon the sea, piracy had reached an alarming height. The pirates possessed fleets in all parts of the Mediterranean, were in the habit of plundering the most wealthy cities on the coasts, and had at length carried their audacity so far as to make descents upon the Appian Road, and carry off Roman magistrates, with their lictors. All communication between Rome and the provinces was cut off, or at least rendered extremely dangerous; the fleets of corn-vessels, upon which Rome to a great extent depended for its subsistence, could not reach the city, and the price of provisions in consequence rose enormously. Such a state of things had become intolerable, and all eyes were now directed to Pompey. At the beginning of B.C. 67 the Tribune A. Gabinius brought forward a bill which was intended to give Pompey almost absolute authority over the greater part of the Roman world. It proposed that the people should elect a man with consular rank, who should possess unlimited power for three years over the whole of the Mediterranean, a fleet of 200 ships, with as many soldiers and sailors as he thought necessary, and 6000 Attic talents. The bill did not name Pompey, but it was clear who was meant. The aristocracy were in the utmost alarm, and in the Senate Cæsar was almost the only person who came forward in its support. Party spirit ran to such a height that the most serious riots ensued. Even Pompey himself was threatened by the Consul, "If you emulate Romulus, you will not escape the end of Romulus" Q. Catulus and Q. Hortensius spoke against the bill with great eloquence, but with no effect. On the day that the bill was passed the price of provisions at Rome immediately fell, a fact which showed the immense confidence which all parties placed in the military abilities of Pompey.

Pompey's plans were formed with great skill, and were crowned with complete success. He stationed his lieutenants with different squadrons in various parts of the Mediterranean to prevent the pirates from uniting, and to hunt them out of the various bays and creeks in which they concealed themselves; while, at the same time, he swept the middle of the sea with the main body of his fleet, and chased them eastward. In forty days he drove the pirates out of the western seas, and restored communication between Spain, Africa, and Italy. After then remaining a short time in Italy, he sailed from Brundusium, cleared the seas as he went along, and forced the pirates to the Cilician coast. Here the decisive action was fought; the pirates were defeated, and more than 20,000 prisoners fell into his hands. Those on whom most reliance could be placed were distributed among the small and depopulated cities of Cilicia, and a large number were settled at Soli, which was henceforward called Pompeiopolis. The second part of this campaign occupied only forty-nine days, and the whole war was brought to a conclusion in the course of three months. Pompey remained in Cilicia during the remainder of this year and the beginning of the one following. Meantime the Tribune C. Manilius brought forward a bill (B.C. 66) giving to Pompey the command of the war against Mithridates, with unlimited power over the army and the fleet in the East, and with the rights of a Proconsul in the whole of Asia as far as Armenia. As his Proconsular power already extended over all the coasts and islands of the Mediterranean in virtue of the Gabinian law, this new measure virtually placed almost the whole of the Roman dominions in his hands. But there was no power, however excessive, which the people were not ready to intrust to their favorite hero; and the bill was accordingly passed, notwithstanding the opposition of Hortensius, Catulus, and the aristocratical party. Cicero advocated the measure in an oration which has come down to us (Pro Lege Manilia), and Cæsar likewise supported it with his growing popularity and influence.

On receiving intelligence of this new appointment, Pompey immediately crossed the Taurus, and took the command of the army from Lucullus.

The power of Mithridates had been broken by the previous victories of Lucullus, and the successes which the king had gained lately were only of a temporary nature, mainly owing to the disorganization of the Roman army. In the plan of the campaign Pompey displayed great military skill. One of his first measures was to secure the alliance of the Parthian king, which not only deprived Mithridates of all hopes of succor from that quarter, but likewise cut him off from all assistance from the Armenian king Tigranes, who was now obliged to look to the safety of his own dominions. Pompey next stationed his fleet in different squadrons along the coasts of Asia Minor, in order to deprive Mithridates of all communication from the sea, and he then proceeded in person at the head of his land-forces against the king. Thus thrown back upon his own resources, Mithridates sued for peace, but, as Pompey would hear of nothing but unqualified submission, the negotiation was broken off. The king was still at the head of 30,000 foot and 2000 horse; but he knew too well the strength of a Roman army to venture an engagement with these forces, and accordingly withdrew gradually to the frontiers of Armenia. For a long time he succeeded in avoiding a battle, but he was at length surprised by Pompey in Lesser Armenia, as he was marching through a narrow pass. The battle was soon decided; the king lost the greater number of his troops, and escaped with only a few horsemen to the fortress of Synorium, on the borders of the Greater Armenia. Here he again collected a considerable force; but as Tigranes refused to admit him into his dominions, because he suspected him of fomenting the intrigues of his son against him, Mithridates had no alternative but to take refuge in his own distant dominions in the Cimmerian Bosporus. To reach them he had to march through Colchis, and to fight his way through the wild and barbarous tribes that occupied the country between the Caucasus and the Euxine. He succeeded, however, in this arduous enterprise, and reached the Bosporus in safety in the course of next year. Pompey abandoned at present all thoughts of following the fugitive king, and resolved at once to attack Tigranes, who was now the more formidable of the two monarchs.

On entering Armenia Pompey met with no opposition. He was joined by the young Tigranes, who had revolted against his father, and all the cities submitted to them on their approach. When the Romans drew near to Artaxata, the king, deserted by his army and his court, went out to meet Pompey, and threw himself before him as a suppliant. Pompey received him with kindness, acknowledged him as King of Armenia, and demanded only the payment of 6000 talents. His foreign possessions, however, in Syria, Phœnicia, Cilicia, Galatia, and Cappadocia, which had been conquered by Lucullus, were to belong to the Romans. To his son Tigranes, Sophene and Gordyene were given as an independent kingdom; but as the young prince was discontented with this arrangement, and even ventured to utter threats, Pompey had him arrested, and kept him in chains to grace his triumph.

After thus settling the affairs of Armenia, Pompey proceeded northward in pursuit of Mithridates. But the season was so far advanced that he took up his winter quarters on the banks of the River Cyrus. Early in the spring (B.C. 65) he resumed his march northward, and advanced as far as the River Phasis, but, obtaining here more certain information of the movements of Mithridates, and of the wild and inaccessible nature of the country through which he would have to march in order to reach the king, he retraced his steps, and led his troops into winter quarters at Amisus, on the Euxine. He now reduced Pontus to the form of a Roman province.

In B.C. 64 Pompey marched into Syria, where he deposed Antiochus Asiaticus, and made the country a Roman province. He likewise compelled the neighboring princes, who had established independent kingdoms on the ruins of the Syrian empire, to submit to the Roman dominion. The whole of this year was occupied with the settlement of Syria and the adjacent countries.

Next year (B.C. 63) Pompey advanced farther south, in order to establish the Roman supremacy in Phœnicia, Cœle-Syria, and Palestine. The latter country was at this time distracted by a civil war between Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. Pompey espoused the side of Hyrcanus, and Aristobulus surrendered himself to Pompey when the latter had advanced near to Jerusalem. But the Jews refused to follow the example of their king, and it was not till after a siege of three months that the city was taken. Pompey entered the Holy of Holies, the first time that any human being, except the high-priest, had penetrated into this sacred spot. He reinstated Hyrcanus in the high-priesthood, but compelled him to pay an annual tribute to Rome; Aristobulus accompanied him as a prisoner. It was during this war in Palestine that Pompey received intelligence of the death of Mithridates.

During the last two years Mithridates had been making the most extensive preparations for a renewal of the contest. He had conceived the daring project of marching round the north and west coasts of the Euxine, and penetrating even into Italy. With these views, he was busily engaged in assembling such a fleet and array as would be sufficient for an enterprise of this magnitude; but his proceedings were delayed by a long and painful illness, which incapacitated him for any personal exertion. At length, however, his preparations were completed, and he found himself at the head of an army of 36,000 men and a considerable fleet. But during his illness disaffection had made rapid progress among his followers. The full extent of his schemes was probably communicated to few; but enough had transpired to alarm the multitude, and a formidable conspiracy was organized by Pharnaces, the favorite son of Mithridates. He was quickly joined both by the whole army and the citizens of Panticapæum, who unanimously proclaimed him king, and Mithridates saw that no choice remained to him but death or captivity. Hereupon he took poison, which he constantly carried with him; but his constitution had been so long inured to antidotes that it did not produce the desired effect, and he was compelled to call in the assistance of one of his Gaulish mercenaries to dispatch him with his sword.

Pompey now devoted his attention to the settlement of affairs in Asia. He confirmed Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates, in the possession of the kingdom of Bosporus; Deiotarus, tetrarch of Galatia, was rewarded with an extension of territory; and Ariobarzanes, king of Cappadocia, was restored to his kingdom. After an absence of seven years, Pompey arrived in Italy toward the end of B.C. 62. His arrival had been long looked for by all parties with various feelings of hope and fear. It was felt that at the head of his victorious troops he could easily play the part of Sulla, and become the ruler of the state. Important events had taken place at Rome during the absence of Pompey, of which it is necessary to give an account before following him to the city.

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