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Pontus was the name of the north-eastern province of Anatolia, a long and narrow strip of land on the southern coast of the Black Sea (Pontus Euxinus), from which the designation was later transferred to the country. Before this the province was called Cappadocia on the Pontus and even earlier it and neighbouring Paphlagonia had been occupied by the Kaskans. The country was shut in by high and wild mountain ranges, but was exceedingly fertile in the lower parts on the coast, in the interior, and on the plateaux. It belonged to the Persian empire until it was conquered by the Greek king, Alexander the Great. But even by about 400 BC the area was to a considerable degree independent of the Persians.

Control of Pontus during the lifetime of Alexander the Great is uncertain. One Zopyrion may have been satrap here, but he is also claimed as satrap of Thrace, so either the records are confused or he governed both regions for a time. Following Alexander's death, Pontus largely fell within the territories of the Empire of Antigonus until the death of that general in 301 BC, although that control was relatively loose and distracted at best. The founder of the kingdom was Mithradates I, son of Persian-descended Prince Mithradates of Cius on the Propontis (a Persian satrapy), who was murdered in 302 BC. Mithradates was in the service of Antigonus when he took advantage of the confusion caused by the Diadochian Wars, rode into Pontus with only six horsemen, and was able to assume the title of king. Close relations were formed straight away with the Greeks, and the kingdom became heavily influenced by Hellenic culture.