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Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom

Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom

Edited by Jakob Munk Højte (Black Sea Studies 9). Pp. 375, b&w figs. 136, color figs. 5, tables 7. Aarhus University Press, Aarhus 2009. $51. ISBN 978-87-7934-443-3 (cloth).

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Mithridates VI once had a higher status in the reception of antiquity than might have been expected for the Iranian ruler of a north Anatolian kingdom, but for most people today he is surely one of those figures familiar by name and occasional anecdote rather than by intelligible, joined-up narrative. Even those who have studied the ancient world at school or university are most likely to know him as merely the distant catalyst for fraught conflicts between military dynasts in the Late Roman Republic: his defeat launched a new eastern world order, to be sure, but it is Pompey’s returning veterans and the changing world order in the West that mostly grab the attention. All the same, burgeoning interest in the Hellenistic world, and the wish of some students of that world to reject the damnosa hereditas of Hellenocentrism bequeathed by earlier Greek historians, have made non-Greek rulers in the East a more pressing concern (and even prompted the detection of a definite non-Greek tinge in some Greek rulers). Meanwhile, the growth of Black Sea studies has provided a different context within which Mithridates, in particular, can command attention. This growth is the proximate origin of the present book, the result of a 2007 conference mounted by the Danish National Research Foundation’s Centre for Black Sea Studies.

In one respect, readers of the AJA may be a touch disappointed. The Kingdom of Pontus itself is poor in epigraphy (when not involved with external politico-military events, it is largely invisible, at least at any level of detail in structural or prosopographic terms), and—coins aside—can boast almost no preserved archaeological remains except for royal tombs and palace walls at Amaseia and the acropolis on Harşena daği. There are pertinent monuments elsewhere, but this is not a very archaeological volume. Still, it is a full volume, and an indication of the contents of its 20 chapters is perhaps the most useful thing I can provide in the space at my disposal.

Marek surveys Hellenization and Romanization in Pontos and Bithynia, which allows for some drawing of contrasts but also dilutes the focus. Gabelko argues that Syncellus’ figures for the Bithynian and Pontic dynasties (which he emends but still does not fully explain) reflect a view that they really started in 235 and 240 B.C.E., respectively, in connection with Seleucid dynastic marriages. De Callatay concludes that Pontus was a poorly monetized kingdom until the mid second century. Højte’s brief discussion of administration suggests that Mithridates VI distinctively made phrouria the kingdom’s organizational backbone. Fleischer and Højte discuss funerary monuments and disagree about Pharnaces’ abandonment of Amaseia as a site of royal burial. Kreuz and (again) Højte comment on various monuments outside Pontus, especially the Delian Mithridateion, a confection illustrating the king’s international status and the prominence of Greeks at his court. That monument also figures in Olbrycht’s survey of Mithridates’ dealings with Parthia, which concludes that instability in Parthia after 87 B.C.E. weakened the Pontic king’s position significantly.

Madsen questions whether Mithridates initially aimed to drive the Romans from Anatolia (some responsibility for the conflict lay with Rome), whereas McGing affirms that the putative descendant of Darius and imitator of Alexander was wired for aggression. Ballesteros-Pastor offers some overly conjectural propositions about Juba’s role in the historiography of Mithridates. Smekalova notes the novel minting of brass and copper coins in Pontus and Bosporus from 89/8 B.C.E. onward. Saprykin illustrates Mithridates’ syncretistic religious environment (suggesting that the Iranian strand was the least important) and suggests that he assimilated himself to Dionysos because assimilation to Zeus (cf. Zeus Stratios) would be a bit much even for a Hellenistic king, and Dionysos was a convenient pis aller who was readily assimilable with a variety of Anatolian deities.

Two chapters deal with east Anatolian temple-states—one discussing them in general (Sökmen), the other reporting on archaeological survey at Comana-Hamamtepe (Erciyas)—but little new light is thrown on the phenomenon. Mastrocinque takes another tantalizing topic—the Antikythera mechanism—and identifies it as the sphaera of Billaros from Sinope looted by Lucullus and lost at sea (Strabo 12.3.11). This is an engaging idea but is plainly indemonstrable, especially as the statue of Autolycus (also mentioned by Strabo) cannot be recognized among the statues of the Antikythera wreck. (In passing, we are also told that we know Vergil, Ovid, and other Augustan poets were influenced by Bithynian poetic tradition. Do we know that?)

Two chapters have a specifically Bosporan focus: Molev argues that the Bosporus became a province under the rule of Mithridates, while Gavrilov describes a fortress site on the edge of the Theodosian chora in Late Spartocid and Pontic times. Gavrilov postulates reflections of politico-military history in the coins found at the fortress until its putative destruction in 47 B.C.E., in the aftermath of Pharnaces’ defeat at Zela.

Finally (though oddly, this chapter opens the book), Summerer discusses the post-Antique reception of Mithridates—the multilingual toxicologist who counted as a good king before Mommsen rebadged him a sultan avant la lettre. It is a pity to have missed Cavafy’s Darius, which features the poet Phernazes, whose hope of attracting Mithridates’ patronage with an epic about Darius is dashed when war with Rome means the king will no longer have time for “Greek poems.”

The mixture of survey and detailed discussion on offer here would, if studied carefully (and with due attention to previous bibliographies), certainly be one way of moving toward a better understanding of what can and cannot be known about Mithridates. In the end, however, the book is rather less than the sum of its parts, and the great king remains elusive. The state of the sources is frankly not propitious, and one wonders whether future archaeological investigations in Pontos—of the sort wished for by the editor at the end of his introduction—are actually ever likely to transform the situation. In any event, if Mithridates is to find a fitting modern biographer, it will be someone who can conjure a joined-up narrative from isolated data, and evoke the Irano-Graeco-Anatolian cultural and political milieu that was that narrative’s background, through the judicious application of informed imagination. It is not obvious at the moment that such a person is to be found among the authors of this volume.

Christopher Tuplin
Department of Classics and Ancient History
School of Archaeology, Classics, and Egyptology
University of Liverpool
Liverpool L69 7WZ
United Kingdom

Book Review of Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom, edited by Jakob Munk Højte

Reviewed by Christopher Tuplin

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 4 (October 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1144.Tuplin

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