May 25, 2013
Peter Stothard on ‘The Poison King’
Posted on Jan 15, 2010
Three Latin words, Veni Vidi Vici, make up the most famous export from the mountainous strip of Turkey by the Black Sea that in the ancient world was called Pontus. This alliterative delight—I came, I saw, I conquered—is a triumph of linguistic showmanship even by the laconic standards of its author, Julius Caesar, a boast for the folks back home which followed his brisk defeat in 47 B.C. of Pharnaces II, son and successor to the hero of Adrienne Mayor’s book “The Poison King.” Caesar’s rapid coming, seeing and conquering inspired later lyricists of rock music and opera as well as the secret hopes of lesser military commanders who imagined that they too might quickly accomplish their business in the East and be back home for tea. It did not, however, represent the normal experience of Romans in Pontus in the first century B.C.
For the fortunate Julius Caesar, fresh from his civil war victory over Pompey and refreshed by a Nile cruise with Cleopatra, the task of facing Pharnaces instead of his father, Mithradates VI, had been like fighting Napoleon III instead of Napoleon I. The conqueror’s triumphal procession through the streets of Rome, in a chariot drawn by four white horses, almost certainly took longer than the battle which had won it. Fifteen years earlier, Pompey’s Pontic triumph, had, by contrast, come at the end of three wars lasting a quarter of a century, fought by a series of generals against a determined Eastern leader famed for biological and chemical weaponry, among many other skills, and whom Mayor reasonably designates in her subtitle “Rome’s Deadliest Enemy.”
Mithradates’ most notorious act of ancient terror took place in a single day in 88 B.C., the second year of his first war with Rome, when he ordered the massacre of some 88,000 Romans and Italians in the cities of the eastern Aegean coast. This was an unexpected outrage even by the less outraged standards of that time. The temptation to seek modern parallels here is very great, and Mayor does not wish us to avoid them. To be in Ephesus or Pergamum in 88 B.C. was to share the same unenviable place in history as the Iraqi Kurds of 1988 and the office workers of the World Trade Center in 2001. Mayor offers a lengthy comparative list of dates on which a group of unsuspecting civilians suffered a sudden and little-suspected blow that significantly shifted the course of subsequent events.
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy
By Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press, 472 pages
Mithradates had many characteristics of the classic Eastern despot. He made extensive use of poisons for his political advantage—in lethal doses to his enemies and, even more notoriously, in smaller doses on himself to harden his resistance to revenge attacks and his reputation for invulnerability. He was secretive, paranoid, extraordinarily adept at secret communication and routes of escape. Thus Mithradates may be readily now likened to Osama bin Laden (a small-time Oriental with a big-time antipathy to the West and a mystical ability to avoid capture) or Saddam Hussein (a paranoid despot with a penchant for chemistry and theatrical murders whose enemies gave him too many chances) and to others besides.
Mayor’s chief aim, however, is not to demonize Mithradates. At a time when the problems of the West in the East, both for those exporting their culture and for those receiving it, are high on the general agenda, she wants to see the first century B.C. from her hero’s point of view. She aims to rescue his reputation from biographical accounts that have come mostly from his enemies. Mithradates was much the most successful opponent of Roman superpower domination in the uncertain era before the success of Caesar and his heirs made opposition much harder. Mayor places her Poison King squarely in the tradition of the autocrats he claimed as his ancestors, Alexander of Macedon and Darius of Persia, representatives of an Eastern monarchic heritage which, it can be argued, was at least as legitimate and beneficial to its foreign subjects as any alternative offered by Republican Rome. She stresses the horrors wrought by Roman tax collectors on local populations and the requirement of this incipient imperialism that taxes should be ever more widely and brutally extorted.
Her technique is to make full imaginative use both of her own broad knowledge and the often frail ancient source material. Thus, when a Roman general poisons a besieged town’s water supply, it seems almost right that his son be punished by a fatal mouthful of Mithradates’ molten gold in front of an invited theatrical audience. And when the king of Pontus deploys killer bees or tests arsenic varieties on a parade of prisoners, he seems to be acting partly as a desperate defender of his realms and, almost as much, as a medical pioneer of the Enlightenment. Mayor is author of “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs” and an authority on the use of chemical and biological weapons in ancient times. Mithradates’ secret formula for long life, much sought after in later times, remains a mystery even now, but there is unlikely to be a more thorough weighing of the possibilities: The most practical message that this reviewer took away with him was “beware St. John’s wort,” a natural replacement for Prozac which, it seems, does stimulate resistance to toxins but does other bad things besides. There are fascinating pages too on the fate of slaves in arsenic mines, the use and sources of naphtha and the advantage to be gained from eating the testicles of bark-chewing beavers that had made an early discovery of aspirin.
Mithradates, like many figures in ancient history who failed to win the celebrity status of a Caesar or Cleopatra, was better known a century ago than he is today. In the past 200 years he has enjoyed the attention of poets and playwrights and of opera librettists most of all: Racine liked the idea of a hero bringing Rome to its knees; Mozart luxuriated in the love rivalries of father and sons; there was the popular idea that the great escaper had cheated his Roman conquerors one last time and lived on beyond their triumphs to enjoy himself with his Amazon mistress; Wordsworth, in his own mood of anti-imperialism, imagined him siring the very Gothic heirs that eventually destroyed the empire of Rome; A.E. Housman left behind the best known testament, “I tell the tale that I heard told, Mithradates, he died old”; and Ralph Waldo Emerson also celebrated the seductive power of bad things that do good, “Hemlock for my sherbert cull me, And the prussic juice to lull me.” Mayor quotes a variety of those who, like her, found inspiration in the great king of Pontus. But her aim is more biographical than metaphysical, more to challenge our political preconceptions than problems of mortality or morality.
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