Adrienne Mayor's new book is about the "terror" of the Roman world -- Mithradates VI of Pontus -- the focus and leader of anti-Roman sentiment in Asia Minor and beyond, the orchestrator of a massacre of 80,000 Romans and Italians, who struggled on and evaded capture or killing for quite a long time. As is well known, "he died old..." Mayor has a piece at HNN to give a brief account and connect Mithradates to the troubles of the present...Here's an excerpt:
The ensuing Mithradatic Wars dragged on for decades, with some of the biggest battles and highest casualties in all antiquity. A pioneer in asymmetrical, unconventional tactics, Mithradates’ fighting style perplexed the experienced Roman troops, luring them deeper into barren landscapes, and leading to mutinies, fragging, and desertions. Rome’s top generals won battle after battle, but failed to lay their hands on Mithradates. His uncanny ability to elude capture unnerved the Romans. Despite crushing defeats, Mithradates easily recruited new armies and allies. Today, US military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan dread this phenomenon, called the “Tet Offensive effect,” in which an enemy gains support and morale in spite of massive defeat. “Somehow,” exclaimed the Roman statesman Cicero, “Mithradates accomplished more by being defeated than if he had been victorious!”
After decimating Mithradates’ forces, the frustrated Romans saw their prey slip away, rescued by pirates, sheltered by his allies, hiding out in rugged terrain, escaping over secret mountain passes—and then surging back with new armies. Mithradates was never short of cash: even when losing battles he paid his soldiers in gold, in contrast to the Roman legionnaires who had to live on whatever they could loot.
In the First Mithradatic War, Sulla defeated Mithradates’ forces in Greece, then declared his mission accomplished, letting Mithradates off with a paltry fine. Taking advantage of his victory, Sulla rushed back to Rome, already in the throes of bloody civil war. Seizing power as Dictator, Sulla oversaw the dismantling of the Roman Republic.
Sulla’s failure to pursue Mithradates allowed Rome’s eastern Hannibal to come back even stronger. Mithradates’ smashing victory in the Second Mithradatic War gave him control of the seas, dominated by his pirate allies, who now manned a thousand swift ships.
Ultimately, betrayed by one of his sons, Mithradates, lost his kingdom and his life, in 63 BCE. But the Romans also lost something precious—government by “the Senate and the People (SPQR).” The Republic never recovered from the Mithradatic Wars.