Around the Other Pond
How the Black Sea shaped the ancient Mediterranean world.
As historical postscripts go, it is difficult to beat the last years of Hannibal of Carthage. After drenching Apulian farmland with Roman blood at Cannae, then suffering defeat in his African homeland at Zama in 202 BC, Rome’s arch nemesis fled east, where he found a measure of respite in the kingdom of Prusias I. Sheltered by the king’s hospitality, in north-west Asia Minor, the 60-year-old general turned to letter writing, practised his Greek and lived the remainder of his life as a paranoid hermit, fearing extradition. When Rome’s agents finally arrived in 183 BC, the hardened Carthaginian took his own life. Hannibal, as Duane Roller recounts in Empire of the Black Sea, died a notorious, if cultured, outlaw.
Histories of the Roman Republic usually follow a predictable path after the Battle of Zama: North African territories acquired, problems in Italy, the ever louder drumbeat of imperial expansion. But Hannibal’s final years are a reminder not to take our eyes off the rest of the globe, as Roller’s new book demonstrates.
Empire of the Black Sea arrives at a propitious time, as novelists, playwrights and historians jockey to tell the stories of overlooked individuals, groups and empires, encouraging audiences to see stale material with fresh eyes. Roller’s book, nudging the Ptolemies and togas to the side, tells of the rise and fall of the Kingdom of Pontus, on the southern shore of the Black Sea: from its origins as a modest family enterprise in the third century BC, to the family’s capture of the major shipping hub at Sinope a century later (when they overhauled the city into Pontus’ capital) to the family’s gradual domination of the Black Sea under their legendary monarch, Mithridates the Sixth.
That such a forceful dynasty would arise from Sinope (now Sinop, in modern Turkey), in a land so removed from Mediterranean life it could evoke the fables of Jason and the Argonauts, gobsmacked Greeks and Romans. Centuries later, an ancient disdain for the periphery still renders it difficult to see this region, as Roller says, ‘outside of mythology’.
Yet timber was plentiful on Black Sea shores, and the local red ochre, an essential ingredient in paints and medicines, had a reputation for being sublime. Athens knew that its farmland offered bountiful harvests as early as the fifth century BC, when the city began importing its food on Black Sea ships. And at the jaw-dropping price of 300 drachmas a jar, its salted fish tempted Mediterranean epicures with a world of expensive tastes. By the second century BC, to celebrate Pontus’ growing wealth and reputation, its king, Pharnakes, financed the Middle Stoa in Athens’ agora until problems closer to home drained his budget and he saddled the Athenians, to their surprise, with finishing the project.
Roller, an emeritus professor of Greek and Latin known for his biography of Cleopatra and profiles of a host of unheralded female rulers, has a knack for combing through sources in search of the lives of hard-to-find subjects. He puts that method to use here in assembling an accessible narrative of the early kingdom and of its demise under Mithridates, whose life and death fully occupies one half of the book.
Infamous for the role he played in the first century BC as antiquity’s menacing ‘poison king’ (and memorably brought to life in Adrienne Mayor’s engaging 2010 biography, The Poison King), Mithridates faced a harsh and challenging world where the great, heavyweight rivals of the Hellenistic era – the Attalids of Pergamon, the Seleucids of Asia Minor and the Ptolemies of Egypt – fought with each other and with Rome for supremacy. Men gave away their kingdoms as casually as other households bequeathed a pot or family heirloom.
Roller deftly registers these intrigues and conflicts, as well the king’s part in them. And while it’s satisfying to learn the when and the why behind many of history’s ‘firsts’ (first contact between Rome and Macedonia, first contact between Pontus and Rome, first evidence for Pontus’ interests in Armenia), the overly scrupulous technique occasionally makes for bumpy reading, especially when Roller switches gears to point out everything we can’t know about Pontus – which, as it turns out, is quite a lot.
During the kingdom’s final decade, around 75 BC, Mithridates contacted a rebel in Tangier, Sertorius, who had recently been stripped of his official Roman post. With Rome threatening Pontus’ neighbours in Cappadocia and Galatia, Mithridates wanted to broker a strategic alliance with the disgruntled insurgent. Pontus would get soldiers to defend itself, Sertorius ships for his revolt. The unusually far-reaching partnership illustrates how events on the periphery of one sea determined the fate of another. With them, Roller ever so subtly reminds his readers that in the ancient Mediterranean, as in other periods of history, the margin often was the centre. The postscripts are the story.
Empire of the Black Sea: The Rise and Fall of the Mithridatic World
Duane W. Roller
Oxford 288pp £19.99
Douglas Boin is Professor of History at Saint Louis University and author of Alaric the Goth: An Outsider’s History of the Fall of Rome (W.W. Norton, 2020).