“Ancient Rome declined because it had a Senate, now what’s going to happen to us with both a House and a Senate?” – Will RogersI happened to be reading about the Third (and final) Mithridatic War between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus in the 1st Century B.C. because that’s how I roll. Can’t get me enough of those obscure wars and forgotten countries (Rome and Pontus fought three separate wars, ultimately resulting in the absorption of Pontus into the Roman Republic as the province of Bithynia et Pontus). It feeds my innate pessimism to note the seemingly inevitable rise and fall of empires, and if it includes a report of a remarkably strange occurrence, all the better, for as I’m fond of saying, monsters may not exist, but they still seem to be out to get us. Those entertaining Ancient Aliens aficionados love to cite the 74 B.C. Battle of Otryae between Roman Consul Lucullus and Pontian monarch Mithridates VI Eupator in Phrygia (modern day Turkey, near the Sakarya River) as a classical example of an unidentified flying object interfering with human affairs. My first thought was that freaking extraterrestrials need to mind their own business. Maybe deal with the minority of degenerates among them that have a weird anal fixation or unreasonable hatred of cattle. My second thought was that I need a whiskey. Now, my third thought was more of a question. Why would an advanced species of alien visitors take any interest whatsoever in a minor skirmish in the general vicinity of Armenia? We all know that it’s generally considered a strategic faux pas to fight a land war in Asia, but hey, that hasn’t stopped the human race from trying every few centuries. What course of events could be changed by intervening in the Roman annexation of Pontus in 74 B.C.?
Clearly, something was awry at the Circle K in Phyrigia. General Lucius Licinius Lucullus (say that three times fast) had marched through Phrygia with the intention of invading Pontus, while his naval commander Consul Marcus Aurelius Cotta inadvisably stationed his fleet at Chalcedon (near modern Istanbul) with the intention of suppressing the fleet of Pontian King Mithridates VI. Mithridates was no slouch and managed to trap Cotta and burn the Roman fleet. After Lucullus had rescued Cotta, he marched his troops straight back to Phyriga with the intention of finishing off the Pontians once and for all. He was a little surprised when Mithridates showed up with a vast army, ready for a tussle. That’s when things got weird and close encounters ensued, as later described by Greek historian Plutarch (46-120 A.D.).
He led his army against Mithridates, having thirty thousand foot-soldiers, and twenty-five hundred horsemen. But when he had come within sight of the enemy and seen with amazement their multitude, he desired to refrain from battle and draw out the time. But Marius, whom Sertorius had sent to Mithridates from Spain with an army, came out to meet him, and challenged him to combat, and so he put his forces in array to fight the issue out. But presently, as they were on the point of joining battle, with no apparent change of weather, but all on a sudden, the sky burst asunder, and a huge, flame-like body was seen to fall between the two armies. In shape, it was most like a wine-jar [pithoi], and in colour, like molten silver. Both sides were astonished at the sight, and separated. This marvel, as they say, occurred in Phrygia, at a place called Otryae. (Plutarch, Lucullus, Ch. 8:5-6).
Nobody was quite sure what the hell just happened. I’m going to go with an ostentatious display of ordinance, and if you have the kind of free time that allows you to check out what a Roman “pithos” (wine storage jug) looks like, you’ll note an uncanny resemblance to a modern missile warhead. Not saying that aliens decided to lob a shell between the armies of Rome and Pontus to make a point, but clearly something odd enough to make both sets of combatants abandon the field and wait for a more opportune time to slaughter each other in slightly less strange circumstances. Modern scholars have suggested that we can’t rule out a coincidental meteor impact that just happened to land directly between the two armies. I’m thinking the odds are pretty low, particularly as the descriptions of the intervening object are fairly specific. And it doesn’t jibe with your garden variety bolide.
The presence of thousands of witnesses, including Lucullus and Mithridates, vouches for the incident’s occurrence. The term pithos was routinely applied by ancient meteorologists to any large barrel-shaped, smoky celestial fire, according to Posidonius. Could the object of 74 BC have been a meteorite? The bright silvery color might describe the incandescence of the object while falling, but freshly fallen meteorites are black, and Plutarch makes no mention of any noise, let alone an impact. The object must have measured much more than a meter across, since it was easily resolved at a distance greater than half the range of a bowshot. If it had remained on the ground, a meteorite of such size would doubtless have become a cult object in Phrygia, with its long tradition of meteorite worship, yet later historical records referring to Phrygian meteorites are silent about it. In modern experience, an episode like this would easily fall under the rubric of a classic UFO encounter. But we cannot rule out the fall of a bolide (Stothers, 2007, p87).
Gods, aliens, or supernatural critters of some ilk taking very specific interest in the conflict between Rome and Pontus? It seems an oddly specific sort of intervention. I mean, Rome was busy conquering the known world and had bigger fish to fry in Western Europe at the time (Lucullus was sent to Pontus because Rome couldn’t spare General Pompey, who was busy knocking heads in Gaul and Hispania after the revolt of Sertorius). What was the significance of Pontus that merited this kind of preternatural attention? It turns out the problem was a little divinity known as Mithras.
1st Century B.C. Pontus was the center of Zoroastrianism, one of the world’s oldest organized, and at one time most powerful religions, with for its time, a unique cosmogonic dualism and eschatological monotheism among the major religions of the world. Its concepts of messianism, heaven and hell, and free will influenced other religious systems, including Second Temple Judaism, Gnosticism, Christianity, and Islam. Basically, Zoroastrianism can be viewed as the prototype for all our modern monotheisms, emerging around 600 B.C. The kings of Pontus harkened their genealogy back to Darius I and later Achaemenid emperors, all of whom were pretty hip to the Zoroastrian ethos. The kings of Pontus traditionally took the name “Mithridates” (“gift of Mithra”). Now Mithra is a funny critter in Zoroastrianism. Linguists have maintained that there are ancient connections between the Vedic common noun mitra, the Avestan common noun miora, which derives from proto-Indo-Iranian mitra, from the root mi- “to bind”, with the “tool suffix” -tra- “causing to.” Thus, etymologically mitra/miora means “that which causes binding”. Thus the notion that there was some sort of divinity especially concerned with covenants and oaths seems to be a plausible assumption. Zoroaster himself never mentioned Mithra, rather Mithra pops up in much later Zoroastrian liturgies as the patron saint of contract law.
Spoiler alert. I’m going to start sounding a little crazy. If you’ve read this far, that’s probably not a shock. I like to do little mental experiments. Don’t worry, I’m all better now. Spiders! Sorry, brief relapse. Anyhow, let’s say you’re a relatively benevolent non-human species of something that has taken a keen interest in the development of the grubby little species we call Homo sapiens, who largely seem interested in clocking each other over the head, expanding their territories, hosting debaucheries such as gluttonous feasts and orgies that ultimately end up in the vomitorium, and feeding people to the lions. The first century B.C. was big on war, slavery, and some ethnocentric version of manifest destiny. As an outsider, maybe you’re looking at the ubiquitous pantheism, and thinking it leaves a little too much room for interpretation of divine law. Maybe you are foolish enough to think our redeeming qualities outweigh our flaws, and maybe this nasty species can make something out of itself. Bang! Along comes a religion with an inkling of what we would later call “the social contract”. As Rousseau said, “What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to everything he tries to get and succeeds in getting; what he gains is civil liberty and the proprietorship of all he possesses”. Moving us theologically from the notion that might makes right to the idea that somehow we “all just have to get along”, and the basis of that should probably be codified in rules that everyone can read is a big step. Ultimately, the Roman Empire would adopt the Zoroastrian inheritor religion of Christianity, spreading the notion of a contractual universe far and wide. I’d call that an impressive feat of social engineering. Curiously, having established a universe governed by tort as a fundamental precursor to civilization; we’ve codified the much philosophically feared “war of all against all” by theologically, politically, and socially instilling the ultimate sort of paranoia in all our relationships, or as Charles Stross said, “Contract law is essentially a defensive scorched-earth battleground where the constant question is, ‘If my business partner was possessed by a brain-eating monster from beyond spacetime tomorrow, what is the worst thing they could do to me?’”
Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.
Stothers, Richard. “Unidentified Flying Objects in Classical Antiquity”. The Classical Journal 103.1: p79–92, 2007.