Mithridates VI (132-63 BC) was King of Pontus, a country on the southern shore of the Black Sea in what is now northern Turkey. His reign coincided with the expansion of Roman influence eastwards into what had previously been the Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great.

The locations of Pontus, Cappadocia and Armenia in ancient timesCredit: The Historical Atlas (1911) by William Shepherd

Mithridates came to the throne at the age of 12 when his father, Mithridates V, was murdered by his wife who sought to reign as regent until her son came of age. However, young Mithridates had good reason to fear for his life and went into hiding. He was most afraid of being murdered by poison, so he took the precaution of eating small amounts of poison in order to build up resistance. He later returned to his palace, imprisoned his mother (she may have been executed) and took over as king in his own right.

Mithridates saw himself as a latter-day Alexander and had the ambition of expanding Pontus so that the culture of Ancient Greece would spread throughout the region.

His first attempt at conquest was the province of Cappadocia, to the south of Pontus, but this brought him into direct conflict with Rome, which also had Cappadocia in its sights. Mithridates was therefore forced to back off.

This was followed by a direct Roman attack on Pontus. However, Mithridates was too strong for the invaders who were easily repulsed. He went one stage further by rounding up as many Roman settlers as he could find and massacring more than 80,000 people.

Mithridates and Rome were now enemies, and a series of wars ensued in which Mithridates continued to frustrate Roman ambitions. Things came to a head in 73 BC when Rome destroyed the Pontian fleet and forced Mithridates to flee east to Armenia after defeating him in battle at Cabira. His escape was mainly due to incompetence on the part of the Roman general Lucullus.

The King of Armenia was Tigranes, who had married the daughter of Mithridates. Tigranes now faced a terrible dilemma, because he risked invasion by the Romans if he continued to shelter his father-in-law.

Tigranes chose to stand up to Rome, although he must have known that he had very little chance of resisting for long. He was fortunate in that the Roman target was Mithridates; Tigranes was allowed to continue his reign but he was now a client king under Roman domination.

There was no further escape for Mithridates. With nowhere to go, and only the vengeance of Rome to look forward to, he took his own life. He took poison but it was ineffective, possibly because of the precautions he had taken in his earlier life. He then commanded one of his soldiers to run him through with his sword.

Mithridates is known to history as Mithridates the Great for good reason. He proved to be Rome’s most difficult opponent who frustrated their eastward expansion for thirty years.