The Meteor That Determined the Outcome of a Battle

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Podcast Transcript

There are many factors that go into the outcome of a battle.

The number of soldiers, training, supplies, the weather, and the terrain the battle is fought on all play a part in determining the outcome.

However, the biggest factor is the one that no one can control: luck. 

There has never been a battle where luck played a greater role than one that took place over 2,000 years ago.

Learn more about the astronomical event that determined the outcome of a battle on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

The event that this episode centers on was absolutely, incredibly improbable. 

If you run the history of the world over from scratch, the odds that such an event was to happen again would likely be close to zero.

However, as far as we know, the events that I’m about to describe actually did happen. 

The story takes place during the Third Mithridatic War.

As I’m guessing most of you have no idea what the Third Mithridatic War was, I should probably explain that first. 

The Third Mithridatic War was the final of three wars that took place between King Mithridates VI of Pontus and the Roman Republic. 

The kingdom of Pontus was a Hellenistic Kingdom located on the northeast coast of modern-day Turkey along the Black Sea. 

Mithridates VI Eupator, also known as Mithridates the Great, was arguably the greatest leader of Pontus in its history.  He was actually a very significant person in the ancient Mediterranean. 

Pontus, like many kingdoms in the region, found themselves butting up against the power of Rome. 

Rome had conquered the western half of Asia Minor and dubbed it the Province of Asia. The Roman sphere of influence was now bordering Pontus, which had been expanding under Mithridates.

Knowing that a war with Rome was probably in the cards, Mithridates struck first. 

The first Mithridatic War began in 88 BC with a stunning surprise attack. Mithridates organized the Greek cities in Roman Asia to rise up against the Romans. 

On the night of May 23, 88 BCE, a coordinated uprising took place in cities all over the Roman province of Asia. Rioters, consisting of local inhabitants and various Greek factions, launched a coordinated attack on the Roman residents, resulting in a brutal massacre. It is said that around 80,000 Romans and Italians were killed in the violence throughout the province.

The rebellion quickly spread throughout the province of Asia, and other Greek cities joined the revolt against Rome. The Roman governor of Asia, Gaius Aquillius, was unable to contain the uprising and was eventually captured and executed by the rebels.

Needless to say, Rome did not take this lightly. This was the greatest insult possible, so Rome declared war on Pontus and King Mithridates, starting what we know as the First Mithridatic War. 

The Roman leader during this war was none other than Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who I’ve mentioned in previous episodes.

Sulla was successful, and the war ended in 85 BC with the Treaty of Dardanos, which allowed Pontus to remain as a kingdom with Mithridates as its king.

Soon after, in 83 BC, Mithridates launched a preemptive attack against Rome with the support of several Greek city-states. This was the start of the Second Mithridatic War. 

The Romans, this time led by the general Lucius Licinius Lucullus, managed to push Mithridates back to his capital of Sinope. However, the war ended in 81 BC with a Roman defeat, and the outcome was inconclusive.

The peace lasted longer this time, but there was still one more war to be fought, which gets us to our story. The Third Mithridatic War. 

The Third Mithridatic War was the largest, most important, and final war between Rome and Pontus. 

The war began when the King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia gave his kingdom to the Roman Republic in his will in 74 BC. Bithynia was also located on the northern coast of modern-day Turkey, located just to the west of Pontus. 

Collectively, Pontus and Bithynia made up the entire northern coast of Anatolia. 

Mithrades couldn’t just let Rome waltz in and take over Bithynia, so he took his army that he had been rebuilding since the end of the last war and invaded Bithynia.

Luckily for Mithrades, at the same time he invaded Bithynia, a Roman by the name of Sertorius launched a rebellion over in the province of Hispania in modern-day Spain.

Rome sent two generals to Asia Minor to deal with Mithrades. The previously mentioned Lucullus was sent to Cilicia in southern Anatolia, and Marcus Aurelius Cotta was sent to pin down Mithrades’ navy in Bithynia. 

The plan was for Lucullus to cross Anatolia to meet Mithrades by land while Cotta took care of him by sea.

Unfortunately, it didn’t go that way. Mithrades defeated Cotta at the Battle of Chanceldon. When word of the defeat arrived, Lucullus and his army were already in Bithynia. 

Lucullus, at this point, was urged to turn and march right into Pontus, which was now undefended. However, Lucullus decided to end the problem once and for all by going after Mithrades. 

Lucullus commanded about 30,000 men. The army of Mithrades, however, was significantly larger. By some accounts, there may have been as many as 300,000 men. 

Somewhere near the ancient city of Nicaea, the present-day city of Iznik, Turkey, the two sides squared off; the large Pontic army and the massively outnumbered Romans. 

We don’t know the exact date it occurred, it was sometime in the year 72 or 73 BC, but both armies were on the field of battle marching towards each other….when something happened. 

Everything I’ve spent the last few minutes explaining about Mithrades and the three wars with Rome was all just a prelude to this part of the story. 

In the sky, between the two armies marching towards each other, something appeared. 

The Roman historian Plutarch described it as follows:

But presently, as they were on the point of joining battle, with no apparent change of weather, but all of 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, and in color, 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.

A meteor had fallen from the sky at the exact time and place that this battle was to occur. 

Ancient people were a very superstitious lot. Heck, modern people are very superstitious, but ancient people were especially so. 

A sign from the heavens meant……something. The trick was figuring out exactly what it meant.  Any smart general or politician would try to interpret the omen as a good one for them. 

In the case of Mithrades, comets appeared in the sky both during his birth and during his coronation. Both sightings were interpreted to mean that he was destined for greatness. 

The Romans, however, had their own interpretation of the event. 

One of the most important places in Rome was the temple of Cybele. Cybele was also known as Magna Mater in Latin or Great Mother. During the Second Punic War against Carthage, when Rome was on the brink of annihilation, they consulted the Sybiline Books to tell them what to do. 

The Sybiline Books told them to establish a cult of Magna Mater and bring the goddess to Rome. In particular, they had to bring the physical Magna Mater to Rome, which was located in Asia Minor.

Unlike other temples to gods, the physical Magna Mater wasn’t a statue. Rather it was an iron meteorite. 

Having seen this sign in the heavens, both sides backed away, and there was no battle. 

This was fortuitous for the Romans because Pontus was having a difficult time logistically supplying its troops. When the battle didn’t happen, they had to retreat to a point where they could be better supplied. 

The sudden appearance of a meteor in the sky may have saved Lucius Licinius Lucullus and his army. 

However, whatever meaning the appearance of the meteor had, it didn’t end the war. It dragged on for several more years. By 66 BC, there were accusations that Lucullus was dragging on the war for personal profit, and the army eventually became worn down with low morale. 

The Romans eventually sent in their superstar general, Pompey. 

Pompey, whose name has appeared many times in other episodes, didn’t disappoint. Within a year, he had defeated the forces of Pontus, effectually ending the war. 

In 63 BC, Mithrades tried to raise another army and found all his allies, including his sons, had turned against him. Out of options, he killed himself.

Oddly enough, Mithrades had spent his entire life developing an immunity to poisons by taking very small doses. In fact, this practice is still known today as Mithridatism. 

The Roman historian Appian wrote:

Mithridates then took out some poison that he always carried next to his sword, and mixed it. There two of his daughters, who were still girls growing up together, named Mithridates and Nysa, who had been betrothed to the kings of [Ptolemaic] Egypt and of Cyprus, asked him to let them have some of the poison first, and insisted strenuously and prevented him from drinking it until they had taken some and swallowed it. The drug took effect on them at once; but upon Mithridates, although he walked around rapidly to hasten its action, it had no effect, because he had accustomed himself to other drugs by continually trying them as a means of protection against poisoners.

He was ultimately killed by one of his servants, but it was a highly ironic way to go out, considering he spent most of his life protecting himself from just such a death by poisoning.

Much of this episode was just an excuse to talk about King Mithridates and the Mithradic Wars, which are an often overlooked but important part of ancient history. 

But at its core is the extremely odd story of a meteor that called off a battle. Had the battle taken place, the outnumbered Romans may have lost, and the entire outcome of the war could have been different.

It is a reminder that as much as we like to think that great people and events determine history, sometimes it can be influenced by something as random as a rock falling from the sky.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

Today’s review comes from listener Laurar.travels over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

Physio companion!

I have been enjoying your podcast for a few months now. At first I started with current episodes and cherry picking the ones I thought I’d like. However, now your podcast is my companion to my post-surgery physiotherapy. I typically listen to 3-4 episodes per round of physio exercises, which I do about 5-6 times a day. At this pace you’ll need to unlock the Latvian branch of the completionist club next month! Thanks for being there and for expanding my knowledge while I strengthen my knee!

Thanks, Laurar! I hope your recovery is proceeding rapidly and I am honored to keep you company while you are building up strength in your knee.

As far as I know, we have yet to open a completionist club in Latvia or any of the Baltic states. I would love to open a beautiful art deco completionist clubhouse in Riga. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.