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The Third Mithridatic War (73-63 BC) was the last and longest of three Mithridatic Wars fought between Mithridates VI of Pontus and his allies and the Roman Republic. The war ended in defeat for Mithridates, ending the menace of his Pontic Kingdom and resulted in the Kingdom of Armenia becoming an allied client state of Rome.

Prior to War

The period between the Second and Third wars of Rome and the Pontic Kingdom is discussed under the Second Mithridatic War of 83-81 BC, which was comparatively brief. There it can be seen how the long piracy wars were a development out of the First Mithridatic War and especially of the alliance between Mithridates VI and Sertorius, which in joining those two threats into a unity much larger than its parts had the serious potential of overturning Roman power.

Commencement date of the Third War

The date of the outbreak of the Third Mithridatic War was one of the most controversial chronological issues in Roman history, right up until the 1980s. The single longest note in Robert Broughton's famous reference text on the Roman magistrates and provincial commands was devoted to this problem. Broughton decided for 74 BC (while admitting the uncertainties), in line with the bulk of the evidence and majority scholarly opinion. But a significant body of experts preferred 73 and could cite in its favour less quantity but better quality evidence. This question affected the whole chronological arrangement of the initial years of the war until the completion of the Roman conquest of the Pontic kingdom in Anatolia and the flight of Mithridates VI to Armeniamarker in 71 BC.

But a compelling resolution was finally found in previously overlooked contemporary references in Cicero's speech pro Cluentio which prove that Lucullus was still in Rome as consul combating the agitating tribune Lucius Quinctius in the final weeks of the latter's office which ended on (pre-Julian) 9 December, or according to current best modelling about Julian December 2, 74 BC. The year of Lucullus and Marcus Aurelius Cotta ended only 19 days later on the contemporary calendar date 29 December, or about Julian December 21, 74 BC. So it is now plain that the opening movements and operations described by the ancient texts prior to the first winter of the war cannot have taken place in Lucullus' consulate and must belong to the following year.Thus many modern accounts of the early stages of the war, otherwise high quality in many respects, are vitiated by the dating error and must be used with great caution, or not at all. Most of the following description is based on David Magie's excellent 1950 account in RRAM (see below, Modern works: Major Studies). His preference for the 73 BC initiation date has now been vindicated.

Forces and initial deployments, 74-73 BC

Launching an attack at the same time as a revolt by Sertorius swept through the Spanish provinces, Mithridates was initially virtually unopposed. The Senate acted, by sending the consul Lucius Licinius Lucullus to deal with the Pontic threat. The only other possible general for such an important command, Pompey, was in Gaul, marching to Hispania to help crush the revolt led by Sertorius.

Roman - Armenian War

Upon his arrival, Lucullus met up with several legions, which had been campaigning in Asia Minor.In 69 BC Lucullus led a campaign into Armeniamarker against Tigranes II, Mithridates' son-in-law and ally, to whom Mithridates had fled after Cabeira. He began a siege of the new Armenian imperial capital of Tigranocerta in the Arzenene district. Tigranes returned from mopping up a Seleukid rebellion in Syria with his main host, which Lucullus annihilated despite odds of about ten to one against an army apparently unbeaten for more than twenty years. This was the famous battle of Tigranocerta. It was fought on the same (pre-Julian) calendar date as the Roman disaster at Arausio 36 years earlier, the day before the Nones of October according to the reckoning of the time (or October 6), which is Julian October 16, 69 BC.. Tigranes retired to the northern regions of his kingdom to gather another army and defend his hereditary capital of Artaxata, while Lucullus moved off south-eastwards to the kingdom of the Kurds (Korduene) on the frontiers of the Armenianmarker and Parthian empires. During the winter of 69-68 BC both sides opened negotiations with the Parthian king, Arsakes XVI, who was presently defending himself against a major onslaught from his rival Frahates III coming from Bactria and the far east.

In the summer of 68 BC Lucullus marched against Tigranes and crossed the Anti-Taurus range heading for the old Armenian capital Artaxata. Once again Tigranes was provoked to attack and in a major battle at the Arsanias River Lucullus once again routed the Armenianmarker army. But he had left this campaign too late in the year and when the wintry season came on early in the Armenianmarker Tablelands his troops mutinied, refusing to go further, and he was forced to withdraw southwards back into Arzenene. From there he proceeded back down through Korduene into old Assyria and in the late auutmn and early winter besieged and took Nisibismarker, the main Armenianmarker fortress city in Northern Mesopotamia.

During the winter of 68-67 BC at Nisibismarker, his authority over his army was more seriously undermined by the efforts of his young brother-in-law Publius Clodius Pulcher, apparently acting in the interests and pay of Pompey Magnus, who was eager to succeed Lucullus in the eastern command. After mutiny spread in the legions with the troops refusing to obey Lucullus' commands, the senate sent Pompey to succeed Lucullus. This lull allowed Mithridates and Tigranes to retake part of their respective kingdoms.

Pompey in Command

On the approach of Pompey, Mithridates retreated towards Armenia but was defeated. As Tigranes the Great now refused to receive him into his dominions, Mithridates resolved to plunge into the heart of Colchis, and thence make his way to his own dominions in the Cimmerian Bosporusmarker. Pompey now marched against Tigranes, whose kingdom and authority now severely weakened, sued for peace and met with Pompey to plead a cessation of hostilities. The Armenian Kingdom now became an allied client state of Rome.

In 65 BC, Pompey set out in pursuit of Mithridates meeting opposition from the tribal Caucasian Iberians and Albanians; and after advancing as far as Phasis in Colchis, where he met his legate Servilius, the admiral of his Euxine fleet. Pompey now retraced his steps, and spent the winter at Pontus, which he declared would become a Roman province.

Complete Roman Victory

After his defeat by Pompey in 65 BC, Mithridates VI fled with a small army from Colchis (modern Georgia) over the Caucausus Mountains 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.His eldest son, Machares, now king of Cimmerian Bosporusmarker, whose kingdom had been reorganized by the Romans, was unwilling to aid his father. Mithridates had Machares murdered and took the throne of the Bosporan Kingdom, intent on retaking Pontus from the Romans. His younger son, Pharnaces II, backed by a disgruntled and war weary populace, led a rebellion against his father. This betrayal, after the decisive defeat in battle, hurt Mithridates more than any other and seeing his loss of authority he attempted suicide by poison. The attempt failed as he had gained immunity to various poisons from taking tiny doses of all available poisons throughout his life to guard against assassination.A History of Rome, LeGlay, et al. 100 According to Appian's Roman History, he then ordered his Gallic bodyguard and friend, Bituitus, to kill him by the sword:Mithridates body was buried in Sinope, the capital of Pontus, on the orders of Pompey himself.


  1. See B. C. McGing, Phoenix 38 (1984), 12-18
  2. Plutarch Camillus 19.11, Lucullus 27.8-9
  3. See Roman calendar, sub-heading Conversion of pre-Julian dates)
  4. The Last King, Michael Curtis-Ford (2005) ISBN 0-312-93615-X

Ancient sources

  • FHG = Karl Müller (ed.) Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum
  • FGrH = Felix Jacoby (ed. & critical commentary) , Die Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (commenced 1923)

  • Memnon of Herakleia Pontike, 9th century epitome in the ΒΙΒΛΙΟΘΗΚΗ of Photius of Byzantium (codex 224)
- ed. René Henry Photius Bibliotheque Tome IV: Codices 223-229 (Association Guillaume Budé, Paris, 1965), pp.48-99: Greek text with French translation

- ed. K. Müller FHG III, 525: Greek text with Latin translation

- ed. F. Jacoby FGrH no.434: Greek text, detailed commentary in German

  • Phlegon of Tralles fragmenta
- ed. K. Müller FHG III, 602ff.

- ed. F. Jacoby FGrH no.257

- English translations and commentary by William Hansen, Phlegon of Tralles' Book of Marvels (University of Exeter Press, 1996)

Modern works


RE = Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, eds. Pauly, Wissowa, Kroll

Major studies.
  • Eckhardt, Kurt. "Die armenischen Feldzüge des Lukullus",
I. Introduction. Klio, 9 (1909), 400-412

II. Das Kriegsjahr 69. Klio, 10 (1910), 72-115

III. Das Kriegsjahr 68. Klio, 10 (1910), 192-231

  • Rice Holmes, T: The Roman Republic and the Founder of the Empire, vol.I (1923), 398-436
  • Gelzer, Matthias: "L. Licinius Lucullus cos.74", RE vol.XIII (1926), s. v. Licinius (104), colls.376-414.
  • Magie, David: Roman Rule in Asia Minor, to the End of the Third Century after Christ 2 vols. (Princeton University Press, 1950)
  • Van Ooteghem, J: Lucius Licinius Lucullus, (Brussels, 1959)
  • Keaveney, Arthur: Lucullus. A Life. (London/New York: Routledge, 1992). ISBN 0-415-03219-9.

Shorter articles.
  • Anderson, J G C: "Pompey's Campaign against Mithradates", JRS 12 (1922), 99ff.
  • Downey, Glanville: "Q. Marcius Rex at Antioch", Classical Philology 32 (1937), 144-151
  • Bennett, William H: "The Death of Sertorius and the Coin", Historia, 10 (1961), 459-72
  • McGing, B C: "The Date of the outbreak of the Third Mithridatic War", Phoenix, 38 (1984), 12-18
  • Williams, Richard S: "The Appointment of Glabrio (COS.67) to the Eastern Command", Phoenix 38 (1984), 221-234
  • Tatum, W J: "Lucullus and Clodius at Nisibis (Plutarch, Lucullus 33-34)", Athenaeum, 79 (1991)

See also

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