Ancient History & Civilisation

Amazon turned historian? A love story

Ringing the Black Sea like a charm-studded bracelet, two dozen thriving cities once stood, founded by Greek colonists beginning in the seventh century B.C. On the northeast shore was Phanagoria. Once a coastal metropolis, its shorelines had moved over the centuries. The city’s structures had suffered terrible damage during a massive fire in 63 B.C.; thus archaeologists had found little of note on land.

During underwater excavations at Phanagoria in 2010, however, a Russian archaeological team headed by Vladimir Kuznetsov found what he called a remarkable grave marker. Who did it memorialize? Hypsicratea, history’s most overlooked Amazon. (More on her and the Amazons in entries elsewhere in this book.)


King Mithradates VI of Pontus liked to be depicted in the heroic rebel mode on his coinage. But the real hero might have been a heroine, his warrior companion and last lover, Hypsicratea.

Her fond lover preferred to call her by the masculine form of her name as a compliment to her strength, endurance, and courage. In fact, the inscription on the marble headstone reads: “Hypsikrates, wife of Mithradates VI.” (The king, whose name means “sent by Mithra the sun god,” was also called Mithrid ates by the Romans.)

The man who called himself her husband, King Mithradates VI of Pontus, was Rome’s most bitter and long-lived enemy, fighting three successive wars against them. The story of his last wife and lover Hysicratea was once thought to be a somewhat fanciful tale of “outlaw love,” embroidered on by that old romantic Boccaccio, an Italian writer of the fourteenth century A.D.

Although she was barely mentioned by ancient writers Plutarch, Strabo, and Appian, the brief details they offered about Hypsicratea have been found to be largely true. In addition, this woman did much more than she’s been given credit for, deeds meticulously documented in The Poison King, the 2010 biography by esteemed historical researcher and author Adrienne Mayor.

In 69 B.C., along with thousands of others, Hypsicratea was recruited by the king to join his nomadic forces. She belonged to one of the fierce tribes whose women fought and lived on horseback just as the men did. They roamed the steppes and thought nothing of navigating the Caucausus, those nearly impassable white-toothed mountains that link the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Hypsicratea was selected as one of the king’s grooms, but her warrior skills soon brought her to Mithradates’ personal attention. (A virile man who maintained a harem while marrying a series of wives, Mithradates connected to her physically as well.) A fit, well-muscled woman with long flowing hair, she was in her mid-thirties when she met the king. Although close to sixty-five, he remained a vigorous, cunning warlord who’d already trounced Roman generals various times.

Hypsicratea and Mithradates had six years together, during which she fought by his side, on horseback and on foot, in battle sites from Pontus to Armenia. She was there when he gave a humiliating defeat to Roman general Lucullus. With her deep knowledge of the treacherous vertical terrain and the guerrilla tactics she’d learned during a lifetime of nomad raids, she had his back, time after time. It wasn’t easy. Mithradates not only fought the Romans and a great many others, he also battled his five sons and some of his daughters, most of whom wanted him dead.

By 64 B.C. the now-ailing king recognized that his military endgame was near, although his “Hypsicrates” refused to concede such a thing. Nevertheless, Mithradates gave her a vial of poison to swallow in case she was captured, just as he did for his top officers. Mithradates himself could not commit suicide by ingesting poison, since he’d taken low doses of a variety of toxins, including arsenic, throughout his lifetime.

The Roman army, now led by General Pompey, closed in on Mithradates, Hypsicratea, and their army at Phanagoria, helped by the king’s treacherous fifth son.

After her mate’s death, Hypsicratea disappeared. Even though that marble monument is inscribed with her name, it’s possible her remains were never buried under it. Author Adrienne Mayor has suggested a plausible alternative: given the masculine name she was routinely and publicly called by King Mithradates, this vibrant, still-young fighter might have survived by passing as a male.

Mayor points to a series of intriguing coincidences: in his books, author and geographer Strabo, who hailed from Pontus on the Black Sea himself, mentions one of his valued sources as a certain Hypsicrates—after the supposed death of Hypsicratea.

Equally fascinating are the other facts Mayor has assembled. Sixteen years after Mithradates’ death, Julius Caesar came to the Black Sea region. At the coastal city of Amisus in Pontus, he supposedly freed a prisoner of war named Hypsicrates, who, as theOxford Classical Dictionary says, “may have served Caesar … as Theophanes served Pompey.” As a historian, in other words.

This man Hypsicrates was alleged to have written various works on Pontus and the kingdom of the Bosporus. So far the works haven’t turned up, but Hypsicrates is quoted by various historians, including Strabo, Josephus, and Lucian of Samosata.

As a piquant P.S., in a work attributed to Lucian, called Macrobii (Long Lives), is a sentence that reads: “Hypsicrates of Amisenum, the historian, who mastered many sciences, lived to be ninety-two.”

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