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Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom: Background paper

Mithridates VI was undoubtedly one of the most prominent figures in the Late Hellenistic period. Throughout his long reign (120-63 BC), the political and cultural landscape of Asia Minor and the Black Sea was reshaped along new lines.
Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom has over the past decade been the subject of several important monographs, but so far an interdisciplinary conference devoted to this topic with participating scholars working within the fields of ancient history, archaeology, epigraphy, and numismatics has not been held. By bringing together scholars from different institutions and traditions drawing on their experience from working with various types of evidence, we hope to be able to approach the theme from as many points of view as possible. Below we introduce some of the questions, which the conference may help to shed light upon. It is meant as a guideline only, and many other interesting issues and approaches will hopefully surface in the course of the conference.



The winner writes the history. The available ancient literary sources describing Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom mostly belong to the late first and the second century AD when Roman supremacy over Asia Minor had long been undisputed. Although writers as Plutarch and Appian were not uncritical admires of Roman imperialism, they were certainly not favorably disposed towards Mithridates VI, who is often portrayed as an oriental despot, who's regime the Roman general Lucullus, according to Plutarch, freed the Greek cities from. Furthermore given the agendas of the writers, the information is often biased and the scope is rather limited leaving many subject matters untouched upon. We must tackle this question of their value and limitations in reconstructing the history of Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Can these problems be overcome by collating the literary sources with other types of evidence?


Black Sea Empire

Like any other Hellenistic king, Mithridates VI strove to expand his ancestral domain, and he was indeed more successful than most. The expansionist policies of Mithridates VI eventually brought nearly the whole of the Black Sea under his sway. In the northern Black Sea area, a wealth of excavations reveals the impact of the Pontic domination. However, this evidence is rarely viewed beyond a local context. There have been very few attempts to fully integrate this knowledge into studies of the Pontic Kingdom to see what it may contribute to the understanding of the Kingdom as a whole. It is one of the aims of this conference to bring together scholars working within different parts of the Black Sea in an attempt strengthen the awareness of the Pontic Kingdom as a unity and not as separate and disconnected parts, as there has been a tendency towards due to linguistic and national barriers.


The conflict with Rome

The expansionist policies of Mithridates VI in Asia Minor eventually brought him into conflict with Rome. Even though scholars have acknowledged the role played by Roman politicians and generals in stirring up the conflict, the predominate view has been that Mithridates provoked the First Mithridatic War as a result of his policy and that he likewise was responsible for the outbreak of the Third Mithridatic War as a response to the Roman inheritance of Bithynia in 74 BC. It is however questionable whether the Mithridatic Wars were a part of a deliberate Pontic policy coursed either by Mithridates's ambition to form a Pontic kingdom including the Roman province of Asia or out of a uncontrollable hatred to Rome. Mithridates's rather imperialistic policy leading up to the Pontic annexation of especially Bithynia made a Roman response unavoidable, but it is worth noticing that Mithridates, when meet with substantial military response from Rome, accepted the Roman conditions for a withdrawal. The role Roman magistrates played in the wars between Rome and Pontos is often overlooked or downplayed either due to the belief that Roman imperialism was defensive or because Mithridates had been seen as an active saviour of the Greek world. It may be worthwhile to take a fresh look at the causes and the effects of the conflict with Rome.


The Ephesian Vesper

Central to the understanding of the conflict with Rome stands the so-called Ephesian Vesper in which tens of thousands of Italians living in the Province of Asia were massacred. The literary tradition unanimously blames Mithridates for this genocide. He gave the orders, which the Greek cities had no choice but to obey out of fear for retributions from the king. However, as with other accounts of the Mithridatic Wars, this rendering of the events is open to interpretation. It may be worth asking who had an interest in presenting this version of the incident. Perhaps a more nuanced view can be reached by balancing the literary sources with local sources such as epigraphy, numismatics, and archaeological finds.
We plan to make the genocide of the Italians the topic of a round table discussion with an introductory paper, and ask the participants, if they wish, to make short, five minute, presentations related to the topic as background for a general discussion.


Hellenization and the question of identities in the Pontic Kingdom

Like most other Hellenistic kingdoms, the Pontic Kingdom was a mosaic of different ethnic groups. Along the coast of the Black Sea, old Greek colonies lay like beads on a string, but in the interior of Asia Minor Anatolian and Persian culture and religious beliefs had strong roots. There has been a long discussion about the level of Hellenization in Pontos with surprisingly conflicting opinions represented. Some maintain that Pontos was thoroughly Hellenised into the deepest valley through a conscious royal policy, while others rather see a conglomerate of different ethnic groups held together by a basically Persian but very adaptable royal ideology. As this question deeply influences the way we view the Pontic Kingdom, a fundamental discussion of the premises for reaching these widely different conclusions is badly needed.
Recently the question has been raised whether such a thing as a Pontic identity could be traced back to the Hellenistic period. Based on the currently available evidence it seems likely that the notion of a specific Pontic identity only came about after the area had been incorporated into the Roman provincial system. This leaves open the question of how the inhabitants in the different parts of the Pontic Kingdom viewed their identity. Mithridates VI claimed descend from both Alexander the Great and the Persian king Dareios and presented himself to his subjects both as philhellene king and as successor to the Persian Empire according to the audience he addressed. But did the different ethnic groups remain as separate homogenous entities or were they influenced by one another to form new cultural medleys, and how were these identities expressed?


New archaeological research

Compared to other regions in the Black Sea area, Pontos is archaeologically sadly under explored. Very few excavations have taken place and basic recording of many monuments still lacks. Things are slowly beginning to change. The Royal tombs in Amaseia and other rock-cut tombs in Pontos are currently being studied. The systematic survey at Sinop for the first time lifts the veil to how the territory around the capital on the coast was organised and exploited. Likewise there are other surveys that begin to concentrate more on the Greek and Roman period. Projects are under way that records the epigraphic evidence, although there still exist some white spots on the map. These initiatives open up new possibilities for research.
Previous research on the Pontic Kingdom has primarily focused of the foreign policy of Mithridates VI for which the literary sources contain a generous amount of information. Much less is known about the internal organization of the kingdom. How was royal control exercised in the different parts of the empire, what was the nature of the relationship between the cities and the king, what settlement patterns can we observe? The answer to these questions must to a large extent rest on the emerging archaeological evidence.


Reception history

The story of Mithridates VI did not end with his suicide in Pantikapaion in 63 BC. Although the kingdom was dissolved and its constituents in Asian Minor were incorporated into the Roman province Pontos and Bithynia, descendants of Mithridates continued to rule in the Bosporan Kingdom and the legacy of Mithridates VI and Pontic royal symbols were essential elements in the self-representation of the Bosporan rulers. Much later the figure of Mithridates and Pontic history became popular themes, particularly in operas, among which the one by Mozart undoubtedly lays claim to being the most famous. We hope to be able to cover some of these aspects of the reception history of Mithridates VI as well.

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