Chios and the Roman Empire

Chios and the Roman Empire

by Miljan Peter Ilich
Early in the first century before the birth of Christ, Rome faced a deadly threat to its very existence. The fate of the growing empire hung in the balance for more than two decades while Roman legions engaged in a life and death struggle with Mithridates VI Eupator, the King of Pontus, in Asia Minor. Had he prevailed, there could have been no continuation of the Roman Empire that lasted for centuries and created a vast united area for the spread of Christianity. Consequently, the destiny of humanity would have been drastically different. Mithridates did indeed almost defeat Rome. Next to Hannibal, he was the most dangerous enemy that Rome ever faced. The King of Pontus failed largely due to the pivotal role in history that Chios played at that critical time.

Mithridates ruled an empire of his own based in what is now Turkey, but extending to much of the Middle East, many Greek city states and even large segments of the Ukraine. The King of Pontus commanded huge armies and was immensely wealthy. He hated Rome, believing that it was determined to destroy his independence and was prepared to use all of his great power to crush the Roman state.

This enemy of the Romans had personal qualities that were major assets to his cause. Mithridates was an impressive, charismatic leader about six and a half feet tall at a time when the average height was about five feet. He spoke many languages, including Greek, fluently. A brilliant colossus, he quickly attracted a wide following.

Being a talented strategist, he perceived that he needed allies to defeat the mighty Roman Republic and pursued alliances with numerous Greek states of Asia and Europe, as well as with the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt. The Greek connection was the cornerstone of his grand strategy. To assure himself of Hellenic support, though he was basically Persian, he proclaimed himself a champion of Hellenism ad Greek Independence from Roman control. Mithridates promoted Greek culture and posed as the liberator of the Greeks.

By this time, many of the Greek states were under direct or indirect Roman rule and were quite resentful about the loss of their ancient independence. Others felt that Rome was a threat to their liberties. As a result, Mithridates? message fell on fertile grounds. Greek cities flocked to his banners. Attica, Boetia, Laconia, Achaia and most of the Hellenic cities of Ionia and Asia Minor joined the war against Rome. Powerful Hellenistic Egypt wavered on the sidelines.

Chios had a long standing good relationship with the Romans and was reluctant to join in a war against them. However, it attempted to conciliate the King of Pontus and even participated in some battles against his other enemies. There was a strong pro-Roman party in Chios that bided its time to declare its intentions. The support of many Greek states gave Mithridates a great deal of confidence about the success of his mission to defeat Rome.

In 88 BC he struck a massive blow against it by ordering the massacre of some 80,000 Roman and Italian citizens in Asia Minor and the neighboring Greek Islands. His commands were widely carried out. Chios was generally one of the major exceptions. Mithridates was informed that the Chians not only did not execute all the Romans on the island, but saved the lives of many. He became angry at the people of Chios.

The great massacre was the starting flashpoint of two Mithridaic wars which lasted over twenty years and almost destroyed the nascent Roman Empire. During these conflicts Mithridates crushed several Roman legions, and came close to even greater successes.

A young Julius Caesar was participant in those wars. Had the Pontic King emerged victorious, Caesar would have lost his life. This alone would have changed two thousand years of history.

During an early stage of the wars, Mithridates was engaged in a naval action against Rhodes. Suddenly a Chian ship ran into his flagship while he was aboard. The shock to the King?s vessel was severe, though he was not injured. Chians claimed that this was an accident. At first, Mithridates pretended not to mind. However, this ignited further suspicions about Chios. He seemed to think that it may have been a purposeful collision and later punished the Chian pilot and the ship?s lookout.

The Pontic King increasingly felt that Chian leaders were conspiring with Rome against him. Roman historian Appianos wrote that Mithridates ?conceived a hatred for all Chians?, Many of the island?s elite did favor Rome and fled to the protection of Roman General Sulla. They were loyal to traditional Roman friends and also increasingly feared Mithridates. This move into the Roman camp angered him even more. He decided to punish the Chians severely and make the island an example to others who may harbor disloyalty towards him. What followed was a strangely similar precursor to the 1822 Chian tragedy.

Mithridates first confiscated the property of the Chians who joined Sulla. Then he sent representatives to Chios to discover Roman property with the intention of seizing it. Finally, he was ready for the most serious actions against the island.
In 87 B.C., Zenobius, Mithridates? best General, stormed to Chios with a large fleet and a strong army. In a sudden night attack, he seized the walls of the city of Chios and all the fortified places. Armed guards were stationed at the city gates. General Zenobius then summoned the Chians to the assembly to give them a message from the Pontic King.

The Chian citizens gathered as requested. More than two thousand years later, it is still easy to imagine their apprehension. Zenobius told them that the King was suspicious of the Chians because of those among them who were pro-Roman. However, he would be satisfied if they surrendered their weapons and gave up the children of leading families as hostages. The Chians had no choice but to comply with all demands.

Mithridates was still not satisfied. Some days later he sent a letter to Chios with his proclamation:

?You favor the Romans even now, and many of your citizens are still sojourning with them. You are reaping the fruits of the Roman lands in Chios, on which you pay us no percentage. Your trireme ran against and shook my ship in the battle before Rhodes. I willingly imputed that fault to the pilots alone, hoping that you would consult the interest of your safety and rest content. Now you have secretly sent your chief men to Sulla, and you have never proved or declared that any of them acted without public authority, as was your duty if you were not co-operating with them.? Although my friends consider that those who are conspiring against my government, and have already conspired against my person, ought to suffer death, I condemn you to pay a fine of 2000 talents.?

Many of the Chians did persist in being loyal to Rome despite the dangers from Mithridates. Now the islanders attempted to buy him off. The citizens of Chios, with a great deal of difficulty, collected the huge sum demanded.

Zenobius was still not satisfied. He claimed that not enough had been paid and summoned all the people again to the great theatre of Chios. After the Chian populace assembled, the army of Zenobius surrounded the theatre with drawn swords. His men also lined the streets leading from the theatre to the sea. The Chians were then roughly driven out to the ships of Zenobius. The men were separated from the women and children. Anybody who resisted was undoubtedly slain.

All the citizens were taken in chains before Mithridates in Pergamon. He sentenced them to be sent to the shores of the Black Sea in effective enslavement. The men were to be separated from the women and children so that the community of Chians ?would be extinguished.? It would disappear from the face of the earth.

On the way to their desolate destination, some of the captured Chians were rescued by the citizens of Heraclea. However, most remained in exile for years. Chios became largely depopulated. Even the slaves were generally removed by Pontic troops and officials.

News about the tragedy of Chios shocked the Hellenistic world. It was now clear to many Greeks that Mithridates was not a friend of their people -- though he had pretended to be. Besides, if he could destroy Chios as a community, how could any other Greek city or state feel safe from his wrath.

Some Greeks continued to fight on his side, due to fear, because they hatred Rome more than him, or for hope of gain. However, many cities reacted in revulsion and turned against the King of Pontus. His dream of grand alliance against Rome quickly turned to ashes because of what he did on Chios. And his cause was doomed.

The great city of Ephesus was the first to revolt against Mithridates. When Zenobius came to Ephesus, he was lured into the municipality, apprehended and executed. Appianos recorded that the citizens of Tralles, Hypaepa, Mesopolis and some other towns heard about the revolt of Ephesus and, ?fearing lest they should meet the fate of Chios?, they also rose up against Mithridates. The monarch inflicted savage revenge on the rebels, thus angering the Greek world even more. Leading citizens of Smyrna and Lesbos turned against the Pontic King and conspired against him. Mithridates quickly lost the support of most Greek powers because of his ruthlessness on Chios, thus effectively ensuring an eventual Roman victory in their wars.

Romans were angered at what happened at Chios and felt that the islanders suffered because of their loyalty to Rome. General Sulla required Mithridates to repatriate the Chians as an essential condition for peace with Rome. The Pontic Monarch agreed, but his struggle with the Romans continued intermittently until his defeat and death in 63 B.C. It was only then, with the final Roman victory, that a full return of Chian survivors could take place in safety.

The government of Rome had an abiding appreciation for Chian loyalty and sacrifice. Its leaders perceived that the fate of Chios helped make a Roman victory possible. Julius Caesar visited and honored Chios. Rome?s Senate, in gratitude, proclaimed Chios a free city associated with the Roman Empire. Uniquely, it was decided that even Roman citizens in Chios should be subject to Chian rather than Roman law. Chios could coin its own money, always a sign of autonomy. The island?s special autonomous status within the Roman Empire continued until about 200 A.D. Romans long recognized their debt to the citizens of Chios as a result of the tragedy of a small people that shaped the course of history.
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