Pontus

PONTUS (Gr. Pontos, sea). A large province of northern Asia Minor that lay along the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinius). All the references to Pontus in the NT indicate that there were many Jews in the province. Jews from Pontus were in Jerusalem at the first Pentecost (Acts.2.9). Luke mentions in Acts.18.2 that a certain Christian Jew named Aquila was born in Pontus. So far as we know, Pontus and the other northern provinces were not evangelized by Paul. The Holy Spirit did not permit him to preach in Bithynia (Acts.16.7). However, Peter addresses his first letter to “strangers in the world, scattered throughout Pontus” and other regions (1Pet.1.1), lending credence to the tradition that Peter preached in northern Asia Minor rather than in Rome after Pentecost. In secular history, Pontus is noted for the dynasty of kings, headed by the great Mithridates, that ruled from 337 to 63 b.c.


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PONTUS, pŏn’ təs (Πόντος, G4510, sea). A region in northern Asia Minor occupying a considerable part of the southern coast of the Euxine, or Black Sea between the Halys River and Colchis. Inland its territory extended to Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia. It is a rugged terrain formed by a series of mountain ranges parallel with the seacoast, enclosing deep valleys. The deltas of the Halys and the Idris form two coastal plains, and the two rivers drain the country and form pathways of communication to the interior. One lateral road ran from Amastris to Sebasteia. The region has a good rainfall, considerable fertility, and a fairly mild climate apart from the highlands. The olive was a staple product, as in most other Mediterranean and associated lands. There was abundant timber. Grain could be grown near the coast.

The political structure of Pontus resembled that of Cappadocia and other border lands of the old Pers. empire. There was a primitive village population that formed the ethnic substratum of the population, and that followed a territorial pattern of organization as old as human society in the area. There were small Gr. city-states dating from the great early movement of Gr. colonization in the Euxine. As usual, the Gr. colonies were in the nature of coastal trading posts with little territory, and no tendency to expand into or to dominate the hinterland. There were large temple territories staffed by multitudes of slaves and ruled by a hierarchy. A feudal Iranian nobility permeated the whole structure. One of these aristocratic houses, dominating the rest and bringing the hierarchy of priests into subjugation, gained control of the country and established a system of unified administration. One may guess that wild tribal areas remained beyond central control, but c. 337/336 b.c., a strong Pontic kingdom was emerging, and with such independence that first the Persians and then the Seleucids of Antioch allowed it. In a remote area, in difficult territory, walled by mountains and with difficult communications, Pontus was not open to easy subjugation, decisive invasion, or alien control.

The history of the first three centuries is fragmentary. The royal rulers of Pontus became more and more involved in the history and fortunes of Asia Minor as a whole. The progress of their kingdom was interwoven with the doings of neighboring Bithynia and the dynamic kingdom of Pergamum and finally with Rome, as the Republic began to penetrate the eastern Mediterranean and the Asia Minor peninsula.

Mithridates V followed a philo-Rom. and Hellenizing policy in the middle years of the 2nd cent. b.c. He aided Rome in the final war against Carthage (149 to 146 b.c.). When Aristonicus of Pergamum rose in revolt and Attalus III bequeathed his kingdom to Rome, Mithridates aided the Republic to put down the rebellion and to establish the firm and final foothold in Asia Minor that the amazing bequest of Attalus gave. Mithridates’ payment was Phrygia, and since he already had gained control of the vast “heartland” of Galatia, the ruler of Pontus was dominant in all Asia Minor and a force to be reckoned with. Mithridates V was assassinated in 120 b.c. at Sinope, and his will, undoubtedly a forgery, named Laodice his wife, and his two minor children Eupator and Chrestos as his heirs and successors.

With Eupator, an unusual youth who was to be called Mithridates VI, began the most remarkable and ultimately tragic chapter in the history of Pontus. In a typical Toynbee pattern of “withdrawal and return,” the boy fled from his mother’s court, led a fugitive existence in the rugged interior of the land, and ultimately returned to take Sinope, dethrone his mother, kill his brother, and resume from the captured throne his royal father’s program of dynamic expansion. Cannily, and with farsighted strategy, he first secured the northern shore of the Euxine, thus gaining control over the coastal communities and vital lanes of communication. Revenue and manpower came from the same region. Thrusting southward into Paphlagonia and Cappadocia, Mithridates VI found himself in confrontation with Rome. The Republic was feeling for a firm frontier in the area, and had not yet found one.

Rome blocked Mithridates’ thrust westward into Bithynia, and the clash led to the First Mithridatic War. Rome, in the midst of her expansion, with the corruption of her governing aristocracy spreading hatred and resentment through the expanding area of her rule, was unloved in Asia Minor, and Mithridates found ready support in the population of the peninsula, where he was hailed as a deliverer. The war began in 88 b.c. Mithridates rapidly occupied Asia Minor where there was a vast massacre of Italian and Roman immigrants. He carried the war across the Aegean only to meet defeat at the hands of the able and ruthless Sulla.

Asia turned against Mithridates in defeat, and in 84 b.c. at Dardanus, the king made peace on Sulla’s terms, which stripped him of all his conquered territory. That he was left in control of Pontus shows that Sulla had realized that there was a limit to Rome’s reach and power to subdue. The king used the next ten years well. The Romans harried Mithridates’ borders in 81 b.c. in a minor conflict, which it is the fashion to call the Second Mithridatic War, but the king had little trouble in parrying the attacks of Murena, Sulla’s lieutenant. He wisely limited his activities, tightened his grip on the vital Black Sea littoral, piled up money and supplies, and made useful compacts with the pirate fleets.

In 74 b.c. Rome decided to annex Bithynia. Mithridates saw the move as an attack on his flank, and occupied Bithynia, which began the Third Mithridatic War. Lucullus was in command of the Romans. He moved on Pontus by way of the Lycus valley, defeated the king and drove him to seek refuge in Armenia in 71 b.c. Spending the winter in the organization and administration of Asia, Lucullus advanced into Armenia in 70, 69 and 68 b.c. The slow deliberate campaigning was difficult for the morale of the troops and for the patience of those at home. The Lex Manilia in 66 b.c. transferred the command to Pompey, Caesar’s great rival, and the foremost soldier of the day.

Pompey had little difficulty in concluding the war. Mithridates had been worn down by Lucullus, and he was driven from his kingdom to find refuge in the Crimea. He sought to carry on the war from exile but his subjects in Pontus had reached the limit of endurance. Rebellion broke out and the king died by the sword of a guardsman at the age of 68. The legend was that he tried in vain to poison himself, for he had long immunized his body to poisons of all sorts by a diet of prophylactic doses. He had fought a valiant fight against the might of the world’s emerging power. Lucullus and Pompey outgeneraled him, and he proved unable to retain the loyalty of his subjects.

In his postwar organization, Pompey broke up Pontus, giving a portion to Deiotarus of Galatia and restoring other parts to the priestly or regional control, which they had enjoyed or endured before the unification of the kingdom. Varied patterns of divided city and regional rule, difficult to describe and document, filled the next hundred years. Pompey’s object of “divide and rule” seems to have been in large measure successful, for no major military threat took shape in the region after the defeat of the great Mithridates. From a.d. 64, Pontus was made part of the Galatian-Cappadocian province. Variants of no great historical significance may be noted in the political affiliation and structure of the area from this time to the end of the empire.

The region retained throughout much of its original character. It was remote, and neither Gr. nor Rom. culture had penetrated it deeply or decisively. City and countryside remained divided. Feudal rule retained a shadow. The Jews from Pontus mentioned in the NT (Acts 2:9; 18:2) were no doubt colonists in the Gr. coastal towns. Christianity penetrated the area (1 Pet 1:1) but there is no information about its origins or progress.

Bibliography

CAH, XI, 211ff., 575; D. Magie, Roman Rule in Asia Minor, 2 vols. (1950).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

Was an important province in the northeastern part of Asia Minor, lying along the south shore of the Black Sea. The name was geographical, not ethnical, in origin, and was first used to designate that part of Cappadocia which bordered on the "Pontus," as the Euxine was often termed. Pontus proper extended from the Halys River on the West to the borders of Colchis on the East, its interior boundaries meeting those of Galatia, Cappadocia and Armenia. The chief rivers besides the Halys were the Iris, Lycus and Thermodon. The configuration of the country included a beautiful but narrow, riparian margin, backed by a noble range of mountains parallel to the coast, while these in turn were broken by the streams that forced their way from the interior plains down to the sea; the valleys, narrower or wider, were fertile and productive, as were the wide plains of the interior such as the Chiliokomon and Phanaroea. The mountain slopes were originally clothed with heavy forests of beech, pine and oak of different species, and when the country was well afforested, the rainfall must have been better adequate than now to the needs of a luxuriant vegetation.

The first points in the earliest history of Pontus emerge from obscurity, much as the mountain peaks of its own noble ranges lift their heads above a fog bank. Thus, we catch glimpses of Assyrian culture at Sinope and Amisus, probably as far back as the 3rd millennium BC. The period of Hittite domination in Asia Minor followed hard after, and there is increasing reason to suppose that the Hittites occupied certain leading city sites in Pontus, constructed the artificial mounds or tumuli that frequently meet the eyes of modern travelers, hewed out the rock tombs, and stamped their character upon the early conditions. The home of the Amazons, those warrior priestesses of the Hittites, was located on the banks of the Thermodon, and the mountains rising behind Terme are still called the "Amazon Range"; and the old legends live still in stories about the superior prowess of the modern women living there.

See Archaeology of Asia Minor.

As the Hittite power shrunk in extent and force, by the year 1000 BC bands of hardy Greek adventurers appeared from the West sailing along the Euxine main in quest of lands to exploit and conquer and colonize. Cape Jason, which divides the modern mission fields of Trebizond and Marsovan, preserves the memory of the Argonants and the Golden Fleece. Miletus, "greatest of the Ionic towns," sent out its colonists, swarm after swarm, up through the Bosphorus, and along the southern shore of the Black Sea. They occupied Sinope, the northern-most point of the peninsula with the best harbor and the most commanding situation. Sinope was in Paphlagonia, but politically as well as commercially enjoyed intimate relations with the Pontic cities. Settlers from Sinope, reinforced by others from Athens direct, pressed on and founded Amisus, the modern Samsoun, always an important commercial city. Another colony from Sinope founded Trebizond, near which Xenophon and the Ten Thousand reached the sea again after they had sounded the power of Persia and found it hollow at Cunaxa. Among the cities of the interior, picturesque Amasia in the gorge of the Iris River witnessed the birth of Strabo in the 1st century BC, and to the geographer Strabo, more than to any other man, is due our knowledge of Pontus in its early days. Zille, "built upon the mound of Semiramis," contained the sanctuary of Anaitis, where sacrifices were performed with more pomp than in any other place. Comana, near the modern Tokat, was a city famous for the worship of the great god Ma. Greek culture by degrees took root along the coast; it mixed with, and in turn was modified by, the character of the older native inhabitants.

When the Persians established their supremacy in Asia Minor with the overthrow of Lydia, 546 BC, Pontus was loosely joined to the great empire and was ruled by Persian satraps. Ariobarzanes, Mithradates and Pharnaces are the recurring names in this dynasty of satraps which acquired independence about 363 and maintained it during the Macedonian period. The man that first made Pontus famous in history was Mithradates VI, surnamed Eupator. Mithradates was a typical oriental despot, gifted, unscrupulous, commanding. Born at Sinope 136 BC and king at Amasia at the age of twelve, Mithradates was regarded by the Romans as "the most formidable enemy the Republic ever had to contend with." By conquest or alliance he widely extended his power, his chief ally being his son-in-law Dikran, or Tigranes, of Armenia, and then prepared for the impending struggle with Rome. The republic had acquired Pergamus in 133 BC and assumed control of Western Asia Minor. There were three Roman armies in different parts of the peninsula when war broke out, 88 BC. Mithradates attacked them separately and over-threw them all. He then planned and executed a general massacre of all the Romans in Asia Minor, and 80,000 persons were cut down. Sulla by patient effort restored the fortunes of Rome, and the first war ended in a drawn game; each party had taken the measure of its antagonist, but neither had been able to oust the other. The second war began in the year 74, with Lucullus as the Roman general. Lucullus took Amisus by siege, chased Mithradates to Cabira, modern Niksar, scattered his army and drove the oriental sultan out of his country. Subsequently on his return to Rome, Lucullus carried from Kerasoun the first cherries known to the western world. In the third war the hero on the Roman side was the masterful Pompey, appointed in 66 BC. As a result of this war, Mithradates was completely vanquished. His dominions were finally and permanently incorporated in the territories of the Roman republic. The aged king, breathing out wrath and forming impossible plans against his lifelong enemies, died in exile in the Crimea from poison administered by his own hand.

Most of Pontus was for administrative purposes united by the Romans with the province of Bithynia, though the eastern part subsisted as a separate kingdom under Polemon and his house, 36 BC to 63 AD, and the southwestern portion was incorporated with the province of Galatia. It was during the Roman period that Christianity entered this province. There were Jews dwelling in Pontus, devout representatives of whom were in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Ac 2:9). Paul’s associates, Aquila and Priscilla, were originally from here (Ac 18:2). The sojourners of the Dispersion are included in the address of the first Epistle of Peter together with the people of four other provinces in Asia Minor (1Pe 1:1). Local traditions connect the apostles Andrew and Thaddeus with evangelistic labors in this region. They are said to have followed the great artery of travel leading from Caesarea Mazaca to Sinope. Pliny, governor of Bithynia and Pontus 111-113 AD, found Christians under his authority in great numbers (see Bithynia), and Professor Ramsay argues that Pliny’s famous letters, Numbers 96 and 97, written to the emperor Traian on the subject of the treatment of Christians under his government (see Persecution), were composed in view of conditions in Amisus (Church in Roman Empire, 224, 225).

The Roman empire in the East was gradually merged into the Byzantine, which is still known to the local inhabitants as the empire of "Roum," i.e. Rome. Pontus shared the vicissitudes of this rather unfortunate government until, in 1204, a branch of the Byzantine imperial family established in Pontus a separate small state with its capital at Trebizond. Here the house of the Grand Comneni, sheltered between the sea and the mountain ranges, maintained its tinsel sovereignty to and beyond the fall of Constantinople. In 1461 Trebizond was taken by Mohammed the Conqueror, since which date Pontus, with its conglomerate population of Turks, Armenians, Greeks and fragments of other races, has been a part of the Ottoman empire.

G. E. White