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Mithridates VI of Pontus

See Mithridates for people and concepts with the same name.
Mithridates VI (Μιθριδάτης), 132–63 BC, also known as Mithridates the Great (Megas) and Eupator Dionysius, was king of Pontus in northern Anatolia from 120 to 63 BC. He is remembered as one of Rome's most formidable and successful enemies who engaged three of the most prominent generals of the late Roman Republic: Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey the Great.

Early reign

Mithridates VI was the son of Mithridates V (150 BC–120 BC), who died when he was a boy. During Eupator's minority, supreme power was exercised by his mother queen Laodice, whom he eventually deposed and committed to prison (ca. 115 BC). However, his mother - in an attempt to be queen and have the throne of the kingdom of Pontus - killed off many of his brothers but not his sister, Laodice, whom he married.

Mithridates entertained ambitions of making his state the dominant power in the Black Sea and Anatolia. After he subjugated Colchis, the king of Pontus clashed for supremacy in the Pontic steppe with the Scythian king Palacus. The most important centres of Crimea, Tauric Chersonesus and the Bosporan Kingdom, readily surrendered their independence in return for Mithridates' promises to protect them against the Scythians, their ancient enemies. After several abortive attempts to invade the Crimea, the Scythians and the allied Rhoxolanoi suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Pontic general Diophantus and accepted, albeit at the point of the sword, Mithridates as their overlord.

The young king then turned his attention to Anatolia, where the Roman power was on the rise. He contrived to partition Paphlagonia and Galatia with Nicomedes III of Bithynia. It soon became clear to Mithridates that Nicomedes steered his country into an anti-Pontic alliance with the expanding Roman Republic. When Mithridates fell out with Nicomedes over control of Cappadocia and defeated him in a series of battles, the latter was constrained to openly enlist the assistance of Rome. The Romans twice interfered into the conflict on behalf of Nicomedes (92 and 95 BC), making the Roman-Pontic war inevitable.

Mithridatic Wars

The next ruler of Bithynia, Nicomedes IV, was a figurehead manipulated by the Romans. Mithridates plotted to overthrow him, but his attempts failed and Nicomedes, instigated by his Roman advisors, declared war on Pontus. Mithridates invaded Bithynia and promptly overran the country, leading his troops all the way to the Propontis.

The kingdom Pontus comprised a mixed population in its Ionian Greek and Anatolian cities. The royal family became fully hellenised after the capital was moved to the Greek city of Sinope. Its rulers tried to fully assimilate the potential of their subjects by showing a Greek face to the Greek world and an Iranian/Anatolian face to the Eastern world. Whenever the gap between the rulers and their Anatolian subject became greater, they would put emphasis on their Persian origins. In this manner, the royal propaganda claimed heritage both from Persian and Greek rulers, including Cyrus, Darius I, Seleucus I and Alexander the Great. Mithridates too posed as the champion of Hellenism, but this was mainly to further his political ambitions; it is no proof that he felt a mission to promote its extension within his domains. Whatever his true intentions, the Greek cities (including Athens) defected to the side of Mithridates and welcomed his armies in mainland Greece, while his fleet besieged the Romans at Rhodes.

Tigranes II, king of neighboring Armenia, established an alliance with Mithridates and married the Pontic leader's daughter, Cleopatra. They would support each other in the coming conflict with Rome.

After conquering western Anatolia in 88 BC, Mithridates VI reportedly ordered the killing of all Romans living there. The massacre of allegedly 80,000 Roman men, women and children in an incident known as the Asiatic Vespers brought matters to a head. During the First Mithridatic War fought between 88 BC and 84 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla forced Mithridates VI out of Greece proper but then had to return to Italy to answer the threat posed by Gaius Marius; subsequently, Mithridates VI was defeated but not beaten. A peace was made between Rome and Pontus, but this proved a mere temporary setback.

Mithridates recouped his forces, and when Rome attempted to annex Bithynia, Mithridates VI attacked with an even larger army, leading to the Second Mithridatic War from 83 BC to 82 BC. First Lucullus and then Pompey the Great were sent against Mithridates VI, who was at last defeated by Pompey in the Third Mithridatic War of 75 BC to 65 BC.

After his final defeat in 65 BC, Mithridates VI fled to Crimea and attempted to raise yet another army to take on the Romans but failed to do so. In 63, he withdrew to the citadel in Panticapaeum. Later he marched north with a small number of men. At Colchis he commandeered a fleet and went to his eldest son, Manchares, the king of Cimmerian Bosporus. However, Manchares, whose kingdom had been reorganized by the Romans, was unwilling to recognize his father. Mithridates had Manchares killed, and Mithridates took the throne of the Bosporan Kingdom. Mithridates then ordered the conscription of many Scythians in order to regain his kingdom. Pharnaces II, his younger son, led a new Scythian rebellion against his father. This rebellion was stirred by Roman exiles that Mithridates kept as the core of his Pontic army. Mithridates eventually committed suicide and was buried in Sinope, the capital of Pontus.

Propaganda

Where his ancestors pursued philhellenism as a means of attaining respectability and prestige among the Hellenistic kingdoms, Mithridates VI made use of Hellenism as a political tool. As protector of Greek cities on the Black Sea and in Asia against barbarism, Mithridates VI logically became protector of Greece and Greek culture, and would use this stance in his clashes with Rome. Strabo mentions that Chersonesus buckled under the pressure of the barbarians and asked Mithridates VI to become its prostates (7.4.3. c.308). The most impressive symbol of Mithridates VI's approbation with Greece (Athens in particular) appears at Delos: a heroon dedicated to the Pontic king in 102/1 by the Athenian Helianax, a priest of Poseidon Aisios. A dedication at Delos, by Dicaeus, a priest of Sarapis, was made in 94/93 on behalf of the Athenians, Romans, and "King Mithridates Eupator Dionysus." Greek styles mixed with Persian elements also abound on official Pontic coins - Perseus was favored as an intermediary between both worlds, East and West.

Certainly influenced by Alexander the Great, Mithridates VI extended his propaganda from "defender" of Greece to the "great liberator" of the Greek world as war with Rome became inevitable. The Romans were easily translated into "barbarians," in the same sense as the Persian Empire during the war with Persia in the first half of the 5th century and during Alexander's campaign. How many Greeks genuinely bought into this claim will never be known. It served its purpose, however. At least partially because of it, Mithridates VI was able to fight the First War with Rome on Greek soil, and maintain the allegiance of Greece. His campaign for the allegiance of the Greeks was aided in no small part by his enemy Sulla, who allowed his troops to sack the city of Delphi, letting them blow off steam, and plundered many of the city's most famous treasures to help finance his military expenses.

Death

When Mithridates VI was at last defeated by Pompey and in danger of capture by Rome, he is alleged to have attempted suicide by poison; this attempt failed, however, because of his immunity to the poison. According to Appian's Roman History, he then made his non-relative twin, general, and friend, Bituitus, kill him by the sword:
Mithridates then took out some poison that he always carried next to his sword, and mixed it. There two of his daughters, who were still girls growing up together, named Mithridates and Nyssa, who had been betrothed to the kings of [Ptolemaic] Egypt and of Cyprus, asked him to let them have some of the poison first, and insisted strenuously and prevented him from drinking it until they had taken some and swallowed it. The drug took effect on them at once; but upon Mithridates, although he walked around rapidly to hasten its action, it had no effect, because he had accustomed himself to other drugs by continually trying them as a means of protection against poisoners. These are still called the Mithridatic drugs.
Seeing a certain Bituitus there, an officer of the Gauls, he said to him, "I have profited much from your right arm against my enemies. I shall profit from it most of all if you will kill me, and save from the danger of being led in a Roman triumph one who has been an autocrat so many years, and the ruler of so great a kingdom, but who is now unable to die by poison because, like a fool, he has fortified himself against the poison of others. Although I have kept watch and ward against all the poisons that one takes with his food, I have not provided against that domestic poison, always the most dangerous to kings, the treachery of army, children, and friends." Bituitus, thus appealed to, rendered the king the service that he desired. (XVI, §111)

Dio Cassius' Roman History, on the other hand, records his death as murder:

Mithridates had tried to make away with himself, and after first removing his wives and remaining children by poison, he had swallowed all that was left; yet neither by that means nor by the sword was he able to perish by his own hands. For the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him, since he had inured his constitution to it, taking precautionary antidotes in large doses every day; and the force of the sword blow was lessened on account of the weakness of his hand, caused by his age and present misfortunes, and as a result of taking the poison, whatever it was. When, therefore, he failed to take his life through his own efforts and seemed to linger beyond the proper time, those whom he had sent against his son fell upon him and hastened his end with their swords and spears. Thus Mithridates, who had experienced the most varied and remarkable fortune, had not even an ordinary end to his life. For he desired to die, albeit unwillingly, and though eager to kill himself was unable to do so; but partly by poison and partly by the sword he was at once self-slain and murdered by his foes. (Book 37, chapter 13)

At the behest of Pompey, Mithridates' body was later buried alongside his ancestors at Sinope. (Book 37, chapter 14). Although he died at Panticapaeum, it is the town of Eupatoria in Crimea that commemorates his name.

Legends

Various legends are told of Mithridates VI of Pontus. First, he was supposed to have had a prodigious memory: Pliny the Elder and other historians report that Mithridates could speak the languages of all the twenty-two nations he governed. ("Mithridates, who was king of twenty-two nations, administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue each of them, without employing an interpreter.") Pliny's account is referred to in the story Funes the Memorious by Jorge Luis Borges. After his polyglottism, some books with samples of many different languages have been published under the title of Mithridates.

Furthermore, Mithridates is said to have lived for seven years in the wilderness as a child, following the assassination of his father, Mithridates V, in 120 BCE. Here he grew strong and accustomed to hardship, before taking on the throne and initiating his conquest of the Black Sea and Asia.

Mithridates is most famously said to have sought to harden himself against poison, both by taking increasing sub-lethal doses of the poisons to build tolerance, and by fashioning a 'universal antidote' to protect him from all earthly poisons. Aulus Cornelius Celsus describes this complex antidote, named Antidotum Mithridaticum, in his De Medicina:

But the most famous antidote is that of Mithridates, which that king is said to have taken daily and by it to have rendered his body safe against danger from poison. It contains costmary 1.66 grams, sweet flag 20 grams, hypericum, gum, sagapenum, acacia juice, Illyrian iris, cardamon, 8 grams each, anise 12 grams, Gallic nard, gentian root and dried rose-leaves, 16 grams each, poppy-tears and parsley, 17 grams each, casia, saxifrage, darnel, long pepper, 20.66 grams each, storax 21 grams, castoreum, frankincense, hypocistis juice, myrrh and opopanax, 24 grams each, malabathrum leaves 24 grams, flower of round rush, turpentine-resin, galbanum, Cretan carrot seeds, 24.66 grams each, nard and opobalsam, 25 grams each, shepherd's purse 25 grams, rhubarb root 28 grams, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, 29 grams each. These are pounded and taken up in honey. Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient. (Book V, 23:3)

Another large antidote, comprising 54 ingredients, was described by Pliny the Elder in Natural History. The antidote was put in a closed flask in which it was to stay for at least two months. Every day Mithridates VI took this medicine to counteract possible attempts to poison him.

Mithridate was a complicated mixture of ingredients used to cure poisoning during the Renaissance Period. Antidotum Mithridaticum, or Theriac, was used for about 1900 years after Mithridates' death. The most famous sort is called Theriacum Andromachi after Nero's physician.

The king's anti-poison routines were supervised by the Agari, a group of Scythian shamans who never left him. Mithridates was guarded in his sleep by a horse, a bull, and a stag, which would whinny, bellow, and bleat whenever anyone approached the royal bed.

Literature

The poet A. E. Housman alludes to Mithridates' antidote, also known as mithridatism, in the final stanza of his poem "Terence, This Is Stupid Stuff" in A Shropshire Lad.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
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.
A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad

The legend also appears in Alexandre Dumas's novel The Count of Monte Cristo.

The demise of Mithridates VI is detailed in the 1673 play Mithridates written by Jean Racine. This play is the basis for several 18th century operas including one of Mozart's earliest, known most commonly by its Italian name, Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770). The Last King is a historical novel by Michael Curtis Ford about the King and his exploits against the Roman Republic.

In The Grass Crown (novel) the second in the Masters of Rome series, Colleen McCullough, the Australian writer, describes in detail the various aspects of his life - the murder of his sister/wife Laodice, his experiments with poison, and his fear and hatred of Rome. The aging Gaius Marius meets Mithridates in the palace of Ariarathes in Eusebeia Mazaca, a city in Cappadocia, and the former Roman Consul, quite alone and surrounded by the Pontic army, orders Mithridates to leave Cappadocia immediately and go back to Pontus - which he does.

Mithridates the Great is a major character in Poul Anderson's novel The Golden Slave.

See also

References

"Poem LVII: Terence, this is stupid stuff." A Shropshire Lad. A.E. Housman (1896)

Further reading

  • McGing, B.C. The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus (Mnemosyne, Supplements; 89). Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 1986 (paperback, ISBN 90-04-07591-7).
  • Curtis Ford, Michael. "The Last King".
  • Alfred Duggan, "He died old", 1958

External links

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