From the Archives - Mithridates’ Mule Saves His Ass
Mithridates VI, King of Pontus and many adjacent areas in Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Crimea, for nearly 60 years (120-63 B.C.), was one of Rome’s most inveterate foes. Mithridates was large, man, well-over 6-feet tall, and extremely intelligent, he apparently spoke 22 languages was reputed to have never forgotten the name of a single soldier in his army (which reportedly at times numbered as many as 250,000 troops). He was also tough, hard, and unscrupulous; having come to power by bumping off his father, he kept a close eye on his many offspring, and regularly knocked them off if he thought they were a danger to his power. Tales told about him abound, such as one that he deliberately took small doses of poison, in order to immunize himself, lest someone try to add a little extra seasoning to his dinner.
Mithridates fought the Romans for decades from about 100 B.C. to his death, at his own hand to avoid capture, in 63 B.C. The slaughter was great, by one account his minions killed 80,000 Roman civilians – an improbable figure – throughout Asia Minor. Although he was several times defeated by the Romans, since, during those decades the Romans were frequently occupied in civil wars and coups, they never quite got ‘round to finishing him off. So after every defeat he was always able to apply his superb organizational skills to raising new armies and making new trouble. One of the Romans who campaigned against Mithridates was the great Lucius Licinius Lucullus, a skilled commander who was even more famous as a connoisseur and gourmet (His chef, impressed by an elaborate menu that Lucullus had ordered prepared, once asked who was coming to dinner, and was told, “Tonight, Lucullus dines with Lucullus!).
In 72 B.C., Lucullus’ forces defeated Mithridates at Kabeira in Asia Minor. The king’s camp was overrun. As the royal troops fled in disorder, the Romans went in search of the king. What happened next, is best told by the Greek historian Plutarch, in his Lucullus, Chapter 17.
Mithridates, having not one of his guards, nor even a groom remaining with him, got out of the camp in the throng, but had none of his horses with him; until Ptolemy, the eunuch, some little time after, seeing him in the press making his way among the others, dismounted and gave his horse to the king. The Romans were already close upon him in their pursuit, nor was it through want of speed that they failed to catch him, but they were as near as possible doing so. But greediness and a petty military avarice hindered them from acquiring that booty which in so many fights and hazards they had sought after, and lost Lucullus the prize of his victory. For the horse which carried the king was within their reach, when one of the mules that carried the treasure either by accident or by design of the king, came between him and the pursuers, who seized and pilfered the gold, and falling out among themselves about the prey, let slip the great prize.