Pharnaces II of Pontus

"Pharnaces II" redirects here. For the satrap of Hellespontine Phrygia, see Pharnaces II of Phrygia.

Pharnaces II of Pontus, also known as Pharnaces II (Greek: Φαρνάκης; about 97–47 BC) was a prince, then King of Pontus and the Bosporan Kingdom until his death. He was a monarch of Persian and Greek Macedonian ancestry. Pharnaces II was the youngest son and child born to King Mithridates VI of Pontus from his first wife, his sister Queen Laodice.[1] He was born and raised in the Kingdom of Pontus and was the namesake of his late paternal great grandfather Pharnaces I of Pontus.


Pharnaces II was raised as his father's successor and treated with distinction. However, we know little of his youth from writers of the time and find him first mentioned after Mithridates VI had taken refuge from the Roman General Pompey during the Third Mithridatic War.

Mithridates VI was keen to wage war with the Romans once more, but Pharnaces was less keen, and thus began a plot to remove his father from power. His plans were discovered, but the army, not wishing to engage Pompey and the Roman armies, supported Pharnaces. They marched on Mithridates VI and forced their former king to take his own life in 63 BC.

Pharnaces II quickly sent an embassy to Pompey with offers of submission and hostages, for he was keen to secure his position. He also sent the body of his father, to be at the disposal of Pompey. The latter readily accepted Pharnaces' overtures, for he wished to be back at Rome having been seen to have made peace in the region. Pompey granted Pharnaces the Bosporan Kingdom, and named him friend and ally of Rome.

Contemporary historians are silent on his early reign, but eventually, on viewing the increasing power struggles between the Romans, and with an eye to recreating the kingdom of his father, he attacked and subjugated the free Greek city of Phanagoria, violating one of his agreements with Pompey.

War with Gaius Julius Caesar

In 49 BC, civil war broke out between the two surviving Roman triumvirs Gaius Julius Caesar and Pompey. Whilst the Romans were distracted by this, Pharnaces II decided to seize the opportunity and, with the forces under his disposal and against little opposition, made himself the ruler of Colchis and Lesser Armenia. The ruler of Galatia, Deiotarus, appealed to Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, the lieutenant of Caesar in Asia, for support, and soon the Roman forces sought battle with Pharnaces. They met at Nicopolis in Anatolia, where Pharnaces II defeated the Roman army and overran Pontus.

After this show of strength against the Romans, Pharnaces II drew back to suppress revolt in his new conquests. However, the extremely rapid approach of Caesar in person forced Pharnaces to turn his attention back to the Romans. At first, recognizing the threat, he made offers of submission, with the sole object of gaining time until Caesar's attention fell elsewhere; but Caesar's speed brought war quickly, and battle took place near Zela, where Pharnaces was routed and was able to escape with just a small detachment of cavalry. Caesar himself, in a letter to a friend in Rome, said of the short war: “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”).

Pharnaces II fled back to the Bosporan Kingdom, where he managed to assemble a small force of Scythian and Sarmatian troops, with which he was able to gain control of a few cities. His former governor and son-in-law Asander, attacked his forces and killed him. The historian Appian states that he died in battle; Cassius Dio says he was captured and then killed.


Gold and silver coins have survived from his reign dating from 55 BC-50 BC.[2] An example of a coin like this is in the obverse side displays a portrait of Pharnaces II. On the reverse side, displays the ancient Greek God Apollo semi-draped, seated on a lion-footed throne, holding a laurel branch over a tripod. Apollo’s left elbow is resting on a cithara at his side. On top and between Apollo is inscribed his royal title in Greek: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΝ ΜΕΓΑΛΟΥ ΦΑΡΝΑΚΟΥ, which means of King of Kings Pharnaces the Great.

Marriage, issue and succession

Mithridates VI in the early 1st century BC, made an alliance with the Sarmatian tribes [3] and probably through this alliance Pharnaces possibly sometime after 77 BC married an unnamed Sarmatian noblewoman.[4] She may have been a princess, a relative of a ruling Sarmatian monarch or an influential aristocrat of some stature . His Sarmatian wife bore Pharnaces a son, Darius, a daughter, Dynamis, and a son, Arsaces. The names that Pharnaces II gave his children are a representation of his Persian and Greek heritage and of his ancestry. His sons were made Pontian kings for a time after his death, by Roman triumvir Mark Antony. His daughter and her family succeeded him as ruling monarchs of the Bosporan Kingdom. Pharnaces II through his daughter would have further descendants ruling the Bosporan Kingdom.

Pharnaces II in opera

The 18th-century librettist Antonio Maria Lucchini crafted a libretto based on incidents from the life of Pharnaces II that was originally set by Antonio Vivaldi in 1727 under the title Farnace. Based on the number of revivals of it that were staged, it must be counted as one of Vivaldi's most successful operas. A few later composers also set Lucchini's libretto, among them Josef Mysliveček, whose opera Farnace of 1767 was perhaps the best written after Vivaldi's setting. Pharnaces II also appears in Mitridate by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

See also

Preceded by
Mithridates VI
King of Pontus
63–47 BC
Succeeded by
Roman rule


  1. Mayor, The Poison King: the life and legend of Mithradates, Rome’s deadliest enemy p.xviii
  4. Mayor, The Poison King: the life and legend of Mithradates, Rome’s deadliest enemy p.362


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