A Legend for Our Time

In the spring of 88 b.c., dozens of cities across Asia Minor united in a secret plot to kill all the Romans and Italic peoples—man, woman, and child—in their territories.  How the plot was kept secret remains unknown, but the massacre was carried out successfully.  Ancient sources indicate that almost all Roman and Italic residents of Asia Minor and surrounding islands—at least 80,000—were massacred on a single appointed day.  People were killed in their homes, dragged from temples and butchered, and their property was confiscated.  This is perhaps the most stunning, and mysterious, mass revolt in Roman history.

The mastermind behind this plot was Mithradates, whose Persian name means “sent by Mithra,” the Iranian sun god.  Mithradates, king of Pontus, opposed Roman control of his territories—first through subversive diplomacy and later through guerilla warfare.  For decades Mithradates eluded Roman armies, but he finally succumbed after the betrayal of his own people.

Mithradates has long been a subject of fascination for Westerners.  In more civilized times, when a man admired his enemy’s accomplishments in addition to criticizing his faults, Europeans did not fall short in their acknowledgment of this “king of kings.”  Machiavelli considered him a valiant hero; A.E. Housman, Mozart, and Racine helped to immortalize him.  Perhaps...

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