Mithridates VI, the Great King of Pontus, was the most hardcore threat to Roman superiority since the good old days of Hannibal Barca bodysurfing armored pachyderms across the Tiber River with rafts made out of corpses of dead Roman citizens and then teabagging everything he encountered on the other side. Known as The Poison King, Mithridates opposed three of the greatest generals from the most powerful civilization in the world, successfully fucked with Rome for over 40 years, conquered lands spanning across Central Asia and Eastern Europe with an armada of badass, scary-as-hell scythed war chariots, helped the Spartans and Athenians successfully revolt against the Romans, commanded an armada of loyal pirates that marauded the entire Mediterranean, and was so fucking hardcore that he made himself completely immune to all forms of poison through a daily training regimen consisting essentially of eating lethal doses of poison and then not dying from it.
The Poison King was from a weird, nebulous place called Pontus, which is located in Turkey but was founded by Alexander the Great's Macedonians (who thought they were Greek) but who also claimed descent from Darius the Great of Persia, but Mithridates's mom was a Syrian princess too so honestly who the fuck knows what the hell was going on with that place anyways. Ambiguous ethnography aside, we know that Mithridates assumed the throne of Pontus in 120 BC at the age of 12, when his mom assassinated his dad, seized power as regent, and sent Mithridates running off into the forest to hide before some asshole with a sword showed up and sent him on a one-way trip to visit his pops. Mithridates hid out in the freezing, ultra-dangerous mountains of northern Turkey, training hard in horsemanship, swordfighting, and javelin throwing, learning dozens of languages, and toughening himself up with one-armed pull-ups, biceps curls, and baconized wheat grass protein shakes. As soon as he was done with his badass training montage, Mithridates marched into his rightful throne room, imprisoned and executed his own mother, had his only brother whacked out by a hitman, seized sole power of the Kingdom of Pontus, and prepared to animorph a relatively small Kingdom in backwoods Asia Minor into an Empire that would rival Rome herself.
The Pontic Army.
P.S. the prerelease screenshots for Rome: Total War II kind of give me a boner.
Starting with his days chilling in the forest punching rocks and wrestling bears, Mithridates got the excellent, Princess Bride-style idea of developing an immunity to poisons by ingesting small amounts of lethal toxins every morning with his orange juice, then slowly ratcheting it up to the point where he was bombing arsenic keg stands and freshening his breath with cyanide mouthwash. His obsession with poisons was so intense that the longest-lasting impact of his life is concoction he invented known as the Antidotum Mithridaticum, a bizarre antidote cocktail of 54 ingredients ranging from acacia and cinnamon to duck blood and something called "Gallic Nard" that I really hope isn't what I think it is. Throughout his reign, Mithridates perfected the recipe by testing it out by giving it to convicted criminals and prisoners of war and then seeing if they died from lethal doses of poison. This sounds fucked up, but this shit is so crazy that the Antidotum Mithridaticum was still being used as a poison antidote in England until 1745 and in Germany and France until about 1900. As in 1900 AD, roughly two thousand years after this duck blood smoothie was invented.
Oh yeah, and if you think this was all just some paranoid delusional bullshit that seemed to be pretty common with ancient kings, think again – Mithridates survived at least two assassination attempts during his 57-year reign. In both cases he had the perpetrators tortured to death, then executed their entire extended families.
This is the first thing that comes up
when you Google "Gallic Nard".
Ok so Mithridates Six inherited a decent-sized kingdom, but he had pretty hardcore ambitions to be all that he could be in terms of kicking ass and conquering Asia. A guy who loved his old-school Greek and Persian heritage and thought all this newfangled Roman Republic hipster bullshit was pretty much the lamest thing since ancient Sumeria, Mithridates's master plan was to basically be Alexander the Great (the guy was so hardcore about it that he even wore Alexander the Great's cloak around like a throwback jersey so that should tell you something) stomping balls from Persia to Athens. Already fairly wealthy thanks to his control of trade on the Black Sea, Mithridates hired a shit-ton of mercenaries from across Asia and Europe, kitted his forces out with everything from Scythian horse archers and scythed war chariots to Macedonian-style infantry phalanxes, and went to work making sure the rest of the world never forgot where the hell Pontus was and what it was all about. He intervened in a war in Crimea, ended up conquering the region for himself, then took both warring countries into his empire as protectorates. He kicked the Scythians in the balls, destroyed the armies of Colchis, captured territory all around the Black Sea, and married his daughter off in a political alliance with the king of Armenia.
He marched his army into Cappadocia, and, just as the Cappadocian army was lining up against him, one of Mithridates's assassins shanked their king in the ass in front of his entire army and the Cappadocians quit the field, surrendered without a fight, and kinda just sat there with their mouths open like dumbasses while Mithridates put his 8 year-old son on the throne and blew the hell outta there in time for Jeopardy. When the Cappadocians rebelled against this King Joffrey bullshit a few years later and nominated a replacement king, Mithridates had that guy poisoned to death without even getting out of his gold-plated recliner.
The Pontic Empire.
Well all this conquering and asskicking and pureeing enemy warriors into chowder with spinning scythe chariot blades understandably got Rome a little nervous, so they eventually got around to sending a guy named Manius Aquilius out there to get this Poison King bullshit under control. Aquilius casually rode out there with five legions and told Mithridates to get the hell out of Cappadocia and a couple other places and settle down with this massacre/killing thing. Mithridates wasn't really looking to fuck with Rome just yet, so he said, "yeah, sure thing," and withdrew his forces back to Pontus. Aquilius, thinking he was the biggest shit ever, started power-tripping balls, installed Roman-allied governors in the area, shut down economic trade, blocked the entrance to the Black Sea, and stupidly acted like a total dick to the most powerful ruler in Asia Minor.
Mithridates asked Aquilius to reconsider. Aquilius told him to fuck off.
Ok fuckers, that's how we're going to play it, huh?
HERE'S A SCYTHED WAR CHARIOT, FOOL
At the head of a fleet of warships, a thundering herd of horsemen, and a sea of face-shanking phalanx soldiers, Mithridates the Great, King of Pontus, rode out from his borders in 89 BC, crushed the Romans and their allies, reconquered the land he'd oh-so-reasonably just withdrew from, killed Aquilius by pouring molten gold down his throat, and then unflinchingly ordered the summary execution of all 80,000 Romans and Italians living within his borders. Then he went on the march. Cities he encountered had two options: Surrender and hand over any Roman officers within your walls and not only will you be unharmed, but I'll make sure you pay less taxes than you were paying to Rome. Resist and die.
Mithridates busted through the Romans, sent troops to Athens and Sparta to help them overthrow their Roman rulers, marched into Macedonia and Eastern Europe, plundered Roman stores and sanctuaries, and then, when he was done, he danced like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder.
You will need a United Nations fucking resolution to
keep me from fucking destroying you.
Ok, well, slaughtering tens of thousands of Romans, getting high-fives from Spartans, and carving a swath of destruction at the head of a mighty army was sweet and all, but let's face it: Rome is still Rome, and Rome does what Rome does and what Rome does is beat the shit out of everything else in the world. Eventually a dude named Sulla (who I intend to write much more about later) showed up, defeated Mithridates in two massive battles, put the King of Pontus in his place, and then blew outta there with a relatively lenient peace treaty considering how much trouble Mithridates had caused. When he got home, everyone thought Sulla was so awesome that they made him Consul, then Dictator.
Well while lesser Kings might have lost their shit over something like this, it just made Mithridates more angry. First, he had to deal with a couple jackasses in his own empire that thought they could overthrow him (they couldn't – he crushed them on the battlefield, then invited anyone he suspected of being disloyal to a huge banquet in the royal palace, where he subsequently had the doors barred and everyone slaughtered in an episode that should sound somewhat familiar). Then, once he'd proved that he hadn't lost his nerve to kill everything in sight, Mithridates went to work fucking with Rome in every way short of direct military intervention. He sent money to rebels in Hispania. He befriended the Gauls and had them start investigating invasion routes into Italy. He allied with Ptolemaic Egypt and Thracian war chiefs. He even sent an envoy to fucking Spartacus to see if that guy wanted a hand with anything.
He also started fucking with Roman sea trade by building a huge armada of pirate ships, allying himself with the Pirate King of Sicily, and encouraging every seaman with an eyepatch and/or sword to pillage Roman trade in the Black Sea and Mediterranean. It got so bad that Rome actually sent another general, Lucius Licinius Murena, to send an expeditionary force to raid inside Pontus borders, but the second Murena set foot in Mithrdates' kingdom the Poison King met him on the field of battle and smashed his army and mailed it back to Rome in cookie dough tubes.
Well as tends to happen with these things, everything eventually boiled down to one epic showdown for ultimate control of Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, and unfortunately there was very little in the world that could stand up to the Roman war machine once it got it's shit together. First, an army under Marcus Aurelius Cotta went after Mithridates and failed miserably in their mission to not be violently massacred at spear-point or ball-shanked with fire arrows, but following this victory for Mithridates, Rome sent two of her most badass military geniuses – Lucius Lucullus and Pompey the Great –with a half-dozen hardcore, veteran Roman legions that defeated Mithridates's generals and sent him into flight. The Poison King took a boat, sailed it across the Black Sea, and asked his son (who he'd installed as King of Scythia) for help. When he realized that his own kid had been bought out by the Romans Mithridates personally executed him and just continued trying to rally support, hoping to unite the Thracians and Scythians and launch a desperate, last-ditch invasion of Rome. Before he could get that far, however, he was discovered and cornered by Roman agents. Seeing that the end was near, the 69 year-old Mithridates VI of Pontus tried to kill himself, but it didn't work, because he was immune to poison, and even though he chugged enough Drano to kill a horse it still didn't put him down, and he died, sword in hand, being cut down by Roman assassins. He had been King of Pontus for 57 years, and an enemy of Rome for 40, which is about 39 years longer than most people stayed enemies of Rome during this time period.
Because he had defeated the longest-running enemy in Rome's history, when Pompey returned home he was officially given the name "Pompey the Great", and was thrown a triumph that lasted two full days. Mithridates' possessions – items ranging from gold-plated couches to nine-foot statues of the Poison King, to a collection of 2,000 goblets made of pure Onyx and studded with jewels – were paraded through the streets. Mithridates' death would mark the end of large-scale organized opposition to Roman rule in Asia.
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Ancient History Sourcebook
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Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Penguin, 2001.
Keaveney, Arthur. Sulla. Psychology Press, 2005.
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Plutarch. Lives. Oxford University Press, 1999.