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Persistent, implacable but an ultimate failure
on 2 April 2009
This book, Matyszak states, "aims to make Mithradates [Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus b 134 BC, d 63 BC] accessible to a more general readership." In terms of killing, family murders, epic battles on land and sea, political treachery, duplicitous politics and diplomacy et al this is hard-core brutal history. The book charts a persistent 25 year conflict, as much a diplomatic chess puzzle as military campaign. Some may see Mithradates as a bastion to the greed of Roman imperialism, but he was a cruel predator. Don't look for gallantry, or glory, in this story.
The events take place in Asia Minor, Greece, the Black Sea and Anatolia. Mithradates decided to confront Roman expansionism while advancing his own teritorial ambtions. Starting with a pogrom where estimates suggest between 50-150,000 Roman civillians (Asiatic Vespers, 88BC) were slaughtered. Mithradates ensured there would be no going back - 'Jacta alea est' perhaps! Yet relations could be subtle, the dead could always be walked over by the Generals. The First Mithridatic War was fought between 88 BC and 84 BC, where Sulla forced Mithradates from Greece and wasthen replaced the less impressive Murena. A transitory peace was broken by Rome. The Second Mithridatic War from 83 BC to 81 BC resulted in another cease fire after the Romans suffered several tactical defeats. But no one ever knew how to loose in these bloody wars! Mithradates rebuilt his forces, and when Rome attempted to conquer Bithynia, attacked with a larger army leading to the Third War 73 BC to 63 BC. First Lucullus and then Pompey were sent against the failing King, who retreated to his heartland of Pontus. He was finally defeated by Pompey (who was took rather more credit than he was entitled). Mithradates met a tepid demise, a sons betrayal inducing his suicide.
The most interesting aspect - hypothesis - advanced by Matyszak is that Mithradates cleverly calculated that Rome's extremity was his opportunity. He saw the upstart empire about to implode with the Social War (91-88BC), the Spartacus slave rebellion which came close to disembowelling Rome from the countryside and Sulla's (the Civil War with Marius) dictatorship seeing the Roman elite tearing at each other's throats. Even the seas were conspiring, riddled with pirates. "Rome was a colossus besieged on all sides." It is not hard to see why Mithradates calculated Rome was in its death throws and his time had come. This assumed a timely and comprehensive understanding of "geo-political events". Was Mithradates actaully making, was he able to make, such very sophisticated strategic calculations?
Roman nightmares were populated by demons, Gaul's from the north, Hannibal from the South via the Alps, and from the East Mithradates. The King of Pontus was an implacable and persistent opponent who knew how to cut throats and dupe diplomats but was never a fundamental threat to Rome. As ever we are cheated, history was belatedly written by the Romans and their less literate opponent's version obliterated or lost. Was Mithradates "Great"? Yes, in the sense that the First World War was "Great". It is an epitaph. He was persistent, the fighting ultimately pointless, the cost appalling. This is a useful book, a good orientation to the events while presenting the facts in a tidy manner. Matyszak makes one too many witty one liners which are tedious, a good editor would have helped.