How important was Lucullus in the history of Rome

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Lucullus (118-56 BC) was regarded by the ancient biographer Plutarch as one of the greatest generals and statesmen of the late Republic. He was someone who had contributed to the rise of the Roman Empire and was a decisive influence on its culture. However, today Lucullus is largely unknown and forgotten. However, not only was he a great general but was also a noted patron of the arts. Lucullus was as Plutarch argued a very important historical figure. He greatly contributed to the defeat Mithridates IV of Pontus one of Rome’s most formidable enemies. Lucullus also laid the foundation for Roman supremacy in the Near East and Black Sea region, that was to last for centuries. Finally, he was also a very important figure in the development of the culture of Rome.

A drawing of a lost bust of Lucullus


Lucullus was born into one of the noblest families in Rome and he was related to some of the most powerful clans in the Republic. His received the traditional education of a young member of the elite and as expected, of someone from his class, he began a public career. Lucullus was a member of the optimates, which supported the traditional Senatorial class against the Populists, who sought the support of the common people. This was a very unstable period in Roman history and there was political violence in the city and the Republic descended into near civil war. Lucullus served with the Optimate general Sulla and it appears that he served with him during the Social War[1]. Lucullus seemed to have been highly rated by Sulla and he was elected as Quaestor of Rome (88 BC). Sulla had made himself absolute ruler of the Republic and he wanted to reform Rome and end its endemic political instability. However, a crisis in the Eastern Mediterranean forced him to leave Italy. This was the beginning of a great conflict with, Mithridates IV of Pontus, in ways as formidable as the great Carthaginian Hannibal.

Mithridates IV of Pontus

Rome after the defeat of the Kingdom of Macedonia became the dominant power in the Eastern Mediterranean. It did not directly control Greece and Asia Minor but was the dominant player in the region. This was resented by many and particularly resented by the King of Pontus, Mithridates IV (135-63 BC). He ruled a powerful kingdom on the Black Sea coast of modern Turkey and was of Iranian descent. He was a larger than life figure and he was famed for his cunning, Herculean strength, his brutality and was a legend in his own lifetime [2]. The King of Pontus seized the Greek state in the Crimea and also subjugated large parts of the Caucuses. Mithridates wanted to end Roman influence in what he saw as his region and to seize Asia Minor (modern Turkey). He decided to act and ordered the massacre of any Latin in Asia Minor and several thousand were murdered (88 BC) and simultaneously he invaded Bithynia which was allied to Rome. This led the Senate to declare war on the king, in response the Pontic monarch he gathered a huge army and invaded Greece. However, Sulla moved quickly and defeated Mithridates and his allies in two great battles and swept the Pontic king’s forces from Europe. Lucullus played a critical role in what became known as the First Mithridatic War, named after Mithridates VI [3]. He assembled a navy and defeated the Pontic naval forces and ferried Sulla’s army from Greece into Asia. This amphibious operation persuaded Mithridates to seek an end to the war and he was granted generous terms by Sulla who wanted to quickly return to Rome, which was in a state of civil war. Lucullus reputation was much enhanced by his role in the war[4].

Third Mithridatic War (73-63 BC)

Lucullus held several posts in Rome and he gained a reputation as a competent and fair administrator. Meanwhile, Mithridates was able to regroup and fought a brief conflict with a Roman general, which is known as the Second Mithridatic war. The balance of power changed in the Roman East when Lucullus became an ally of Tigranes the Great, an Armenian monarch who established a large Empire that ranged from the Caucuses into modern Syria and east into Iraq. Mithridates once more attacked Roman allies and quickly overran most of them in 73 AD. Lucullus as consul with sent with his co-consul in 70 BC to deal with the threat. His colleague blundered into a trap in Cynicus and was soon besieged by Mithridates. Lucullus responded quickly and soon surrounded the Pontic monarch’s army and inflicted a massive defeat on his forces. The Pontic monarch retreated into Armenia and went to the court of his ally Tigranes who was also his son-in-law. Lucullus took over the Pontic Kingdom and after Tigranes refused to hand over the Pontic king, the Romans invaded the Armenian Empire. The Roman general besieged the Armenian capital Tigrancerta. The Armenian king who had been quelling a revolt returned to relieve the siege of his capital. Lucullus was outnumbered, and his enemy had assumed a defensive position. The Armenians cataphracts or heavy cavalry were the elite of Tigranes army [5]. Lucullus decided on a daring plan of attack. He ordered his infantry to advance over a hill and attacked the Armenian heavy cavalry in the rear. Lucullus army nearly annihilated the cataphracts and the Armenian infantry fled, but they were ridden down by the Roman cavalry. Lucullus has secured a remarkable victory and one that was studied throughout the centuries[6]. He went on to inflict another crushing defeat on the Armenian king in what is now modern Iraq. However, Mithridates resourceful as ever returned to Pontus and defeated the Roman garrison at the battle of Zela. Some in Rome blamed Lucullus for this defeat and for his apparent inability to end the conflict. Plutarch in his biography stated that Pompey wanted the command of the army in the war against Mithridates and he conspired with others against Lucullus [7]. An ally of Pompey incited a mutiny in the army and this led to the recall of Lucullus. Pompey took over command of his army and he secured the final submission of Tigranes. He advanced into the Caucuses and Mithridates committed suicide when his own son betrayed him. Lucullus returned to Rome an extremely wealthy man and was excluded from public life by the Pompeian allies. He became a great builder and a patron of the arts and was renowned for his lavish lifestyle [8].

A bust of Mithridates VI as Hercules

Lucullus and the defeat of Mithridates

Mithridates was a formidable foe and was incredibly resilient and took advantage of the endemic divisions in the Roman Republic. In the First and Third Mithridatic War, he posed a grievous threat to Rome influence in the eastern Mediterranean. This was especially the case in the Third war between the Pontic king and the Republic when Mithridates entered into an alliance with the Roman rebels in Spain. Lucullus displayed remarkable generalship prevented the Pontic king and his Armenian allies from expelling Rome from the Near East [9]. His victories ensured that Mithridates was all but beaten. The King was able to escape and was even able to recapture some of his lands. In fact, the Pontic king was severely weakened and his alliance with Armenia was at an end. He only had a small army and many of his lands were in outright revolt. He was beaten and only his bravery and resourcefulness, allowed him to continue the fight against Rome. Lucullus was the general who could claim to have ended the threat from the Pontic King. By doing this he not only saved Rome in the east but also enabled the Republic to dominate Asia Minor and the Levant for centuries [10]. In fact, Roman control of Asia Minor was not again challenged until the 7th century AD.

The defeat of Armenia

Tigranes after he became king of Armenia, exploited Parthian and Seleucid weakness and created a vast Empire. He captured Mesopotamia and conquered the remnants of the once mighty Seleucid Empire. Tigranes made Armenia the greatest power in the region, even greater than Parthia. Lucullus defeat of Tigranes weakened the Armenian and much of his newly acquired lands revolted against his rule. He was forced to withdraw from the war with Rome and abandoned his ally, Mithridates. In the aftermath of Lucullus victory at Tigrancertta, the Armenian Empire collapsed into near anarchy. Pompey allied with the Parthians and as a result the chastened Armenians became a client kingdom of Rome, which it remained for centuries. This allowed Rome to secure a strategic advantage for itself on its Eastern frontier, until at least the rise of the Sassanian Empire. If Lucullus had not defeated Tigranes, the Armenian Empire may have endured, and this could have changed the history of the Near East. However, there was one unexpected outcome of the defeat of Tigranes and that was that it allowed Parthia to emerge stronger. It was to become the main foe of first the Republic and then later the Empire in the East.

Lucullus and the arts

The party of Pompey saw Lucullus as a threat and excluded him from public life and he ‘“fell back on a life of ease and luxury’’ [11]. Lucullus devoted himself to the cultivation of the arts and a life of luxury. He was a devotee of Latin and Greek literature and he amassed a great library in his villa. He allowed scholars to use his library and he patronized many poets and philosophers and this was imitated by other aristocratic Romans. Lucullus was a great builder and he built great parks and villas, whose designs were very influential. Lucullus during his campaigns in the East, was much impressed by the Persian tradition of horticulture. With his vast wealth he built a great park in the centre of Rome, that became known as the ‘Gardens of Lucullus’ [12]. His gardens was very important in the development of gardening in Europe. The Roman aristocrat was also interested in farming and introduced fruits such as the cherry into Rome and also experimented with aquaculture, especially fish ponds. Lucullus was also renowned for his feasts and was a gourmet. So famous was Lucullus for his love of food that he inspired the development of the English adjective Lucullan meaning excessive lover of food [13]. The victor of Tigrancertta was to influence the development of aristocratic culture in Rome. He inspired many members of the elite to abandon the traditional austere Republican lifestyle and to cultivate the arts. Lucullus encouraged many other Roman aristocrats to collect manuscripts, build villas and gardens. Lucullus patronage of the arts was very influential in the development of art and culture in Imperial Rome, especially during the Imperial period.

Reimagining of the Gardens of Lucullus


Lucullus is not as well known as his contemporaries such as Pompey or even Sulla. However, he was a great general who played a key role in the defeat of one of Rome’s greatest enemies, Mithridates IV of Pontus and it was he who more than anyone else end his dreams of Empire. The Roman also effectively ended the Armenian Empire and in doing so may have changed the history of the Middle East. His victories over the Pontic and Armenian armies allowed Rome to dominate the near east. Pompey was able to conquer Syria and Judaea and reduce Armenia and the Bosphoran Kingdom to the status of client kingdoms thanks to the brilliance of Lucullus. The Roman was not only an important military figure he was also a significant cultural figure and he helped to promote the patronage of the arts by aristocrats, which was crucial in the cultural flourishing of the first century AD.

Further Reading

Glew, D. "Mithridates Eupator and Rome: a study of the background of the First Mithridatic War." Athenaeum 55 (1977): 380.

Glew, Dennis. "The Selling of the King: A note on Mithridates Eupator's Propaganda in 88 BC." Hermes (1977): 253-256.

De Blois, Lukas. "Army and general in the late Roman Republic." A companion to the Roman army (2007): 164-79.

Swain, S.C., 1992. Plutarch's Characterization of Lucullus. Rheinisches Museum für Philologie, 135(H. 3/4), pp.307-316.

Thonemann, Peter J. "The Date of Lucullus' Quaestorship." Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (2004): 80-82.


  1. Plutarch. Life of Lucullus, 5. 4
  2. Mayor, Adrienne, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Princeton, PUP, 2009), p 14
  3. Mayor, 119
  4. Plutarch, 3. 5
  5. Sherwin-White, Adrian N. (1994). "Lucullus, Pompey, and the East". In J. A. Crook; Andrew Lintott; Elizabeth Rawson. The Cambridge Ancient History IX: The Last Age of the Roman Republic, 146-43 BC. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 241
  6. Keaveney, Arthur: Lucullus. A Life (London/New York: Routledge, 1992), p 119
  7. Plutarch, 7, 2
  8. Sherwin, p 242
  9. Sherwin, p. 245
  10. Sherwin, p 244
  11. Plutarch, 36-37. 3
  12. Keaveney, Arthur: Lucullus. A Life (London/New York: Routledge, 1992), p 119
  13. Keavney, p 201