Mithradates’ Incredible Trek over the Caucasus, 65 BC
By Adrienne Mayor
The Romans feared him as a second Hannibal, but they were astounded when their dread enemy, Mithradates VI of Pontus, eluded their grasp yet again—this time by crossing the formidable Caucasus Mountains in winter. He accomplished this seemingly impossible feat right under the nose of Pompey the Great and his legions.
Pompey was the fourth Roman general to take on the costly Mithradatic Wars, dragging on for decades. The Romans won battle after battle, but failed to capture the charismatic, brilliant rebel king Mithradates, an escape artist extraordinaire. Mithradates’ diverse allies included Eurasian nomads, whose evasive tactics flummoxed the Roman commanders.
In 66 BC, after a crushing defeat by Pompey in northeastern Turkey, Mithradates narrowly escaped, with his beloved companion (the nomad horsewoman Hypsicratea), and 2,000 soldiers. The renegades led Pompey on a wild goose chase across the mountainous frontier of Armenia and melted into Colchis (Georgia), a rugged wedge of land bounded by the Black and Caspian seas and the Caucasus range.
A frustrated Pompey crisscrossed Colchis from one end to the other. His dispatches describe attacks by ferocious tribesmen and Amazons, and he lost many men to toxic honey, poison vipers, scorpions, and tarantulas. Mithradates, meanwhile, bided his time in a nomad encampment. Assuming the fugitive king was doomed to a frozen grave if he attempted to cross the 10,000 foot mountains, Pompey ordered his navy to patrol the Black Sea coast, while his troops blocked the main approach to the daunting pass known as the “Scythian Keyhole.”
But Mithradates and his fugitive army, wearing snowshoes and furs, guided by local mountaineers, sneaked up precipitous switchbacks to an alternate path that joined the main trail to the Scythian Keyhole. Descending into friendly Scythia (south Russia), the little army rounded the Sea of Asov and reached the Crimea, part of Mithradates’ Black Sea Empire. Here, the intrepid Hannibal of the East immediately began planning a land invasion of Italy over the Alps.
IMAGE: Approach to the “Scythian Keyhole,” Caucasus Mountains. Photo by Hans Heiner Buhr