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Peter Stothard on ‘The Poison King’
Posted on Jan 15, 2010
Her opening chapter retells the story of the massacres of 88 B.C. To give her readers the context of her case, she neatly sketches the regional balance of power and forces at that time—when Julius Caesar was 12, Pompey 18 and Rome had just begun its first round of civil war between the generals Marius and Sulla. Pontus was then a wealthy kingdom, but it was only one of at least eight shifting rivals within even the area of modern Turkey. It faced much greater powers and civilizations to its east and much wilder powers of nomads and forest dwellers to its north. To the west lay Greece, then controlled by the Romans but still a target for any king who claimed the mantle of Alexander; and behind Greece lay Roman Italy itself, an aggressive foe, as seen from Pontus, but one whose divisions between different classes and regions might, with care, be used to others’ advantage. Mithradates, as seen in Mayor’s portrait, had a love of political intelligence and a close knowledge of the aims of his adversaries Marius and Sulla, the first of these identified with the more popular interest at Rome, the second with the more aristocratic. It was Sulla who eventually checked Mithradates in Greece at the high point of his first Roman war in 85 B.C., but, in what became a common pattern, he had immediately to make peace terms and a hasty retreat to Rome before his supporters at home suffered the same assault and massacre he had just delivered to the population of Athens.
Roman eyes looked no less carefully at the politics of Pontus and its neighbors. Rome had not developed its empire by blitzkrieg alone but by diplomatic engagement, the backing of sides in disputed successions and boundaries around the Mediterranean. Bythynia, Cappadocia, Pergamum and Pontus, Paphlagonia and Galatia were perfect subjects for this art, places which in a perfect Roman world might be made to intimidate one another while being all of them, in all important respects, politically and financially subject to a city two seas away. But if Rome were threatened by a revolt by one of its own generals in Spain or its own slaves in Italy, there might be an opportunity for an adversary like Mithradates to turn the tables. How much each side genuinely knew about the other is hard to say. Then, as now, there was sometimes an advantage in pretending both knowledge and ignorance to the chroniclers of a war. Mayor suggests that Mithradates would have eagerly helped Spartacus the slave leader and Sertorius the rebel general if he could. She is probably right, at least about Sertorius, who, after the death of Marius, was based in Spain as the charismatic commander of the popular party’s forces.
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy
By Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press, 472 pages
As for linking with Spartacus, Mithradates’ attitude to slavery has long been stressed positively by his literary and political supporters. Although the king and his subjects kept tens of thousands of their own slaves and although Pontic naval power was based heavily on Black Sea pirates who captured and traded slaves for Rome’s Italian farms and Spanish mines, opposition to enslavement could still be a convenient claim to make. If Spartacus had truly planned a new order without slavery—which itself is highly unlikely—any alliance with Mithradates would have lasted no more than the king deemed it convenient. But there was a useful propaganda line to be drawn between keeping a reasonable quantity of slave labor, in the Pontic way, and running a massive agricultural and industrial economy on slavery, which Mithradates could portray as the Roman vice. In speeches to the Greeks of the Aegean shore, he offered himself as liberator, not conqueror. By a theatrical strike against the slave-trading citizens of Chios, whom he dispatched to enslavement in his mines after a disagreement over money and a disputed accident at sea, he even won a place in the pantheon of anti-slavery campaigners nineteen hundred years later. Whittier’s American Civil War poem, “Mithridates at Chios,” repeats the satisfying irony of the slavers shipped away in chains: “the fisher in his net his caught, the Chian hath his master bought.”
Before boosting the productivity of his mineral interests, Mithradates chose an especially appealing Chian woman called Berenice to be his concubine, a crowded category of the women in his life and one which, like being the potentate’s sisters or wives, was a mixed blessing for those who occupied it. Mayor creates detailed accounts of Mithradates’ experience with women, from the mother who allegedly poisoned his father and to whom he meted out the same fate as soon as he was old enough to do so, the elder sister whom he married, who took a lover and whom he also killed, and an assortment of other sisters, wives, mistresses and daughters who were variously imprisoned, exchanged as diplomatic pawns and hidden away for having unsightly sets of teeth. One sister had the eventual distinction of being marched in chains through the streets of Rome at two different generals’ triumphs over her father.
Mithradates’ early sexual education, we are told in one of Mayor’s “thought experiments,” took place on a regional tour after the death of his father. While fuming at his regent mother’s coziness with Roman visitors, it seems that he “may have” tested the aphrodisiac powers of salamanders, a reputedly fireproof reptile, and enjoyed “sacred sex” at temples of love, and even experimented with whether beaver testicles packed with willow bark were as potent an aid to a young man’s performance as they would later turn out to be for headaches. While facts are few for this formative period in the young prince’s life, the scientific possibilities of Pontic herbs and rocks are always given in detail. Had his father died from corrosive acidic bacteria found in calcium carbonate rock crusts, or from hemlock, hellebore or other delicacies, or, more mundanely, from the local red arsenic sulfate, produce of the country’s Realgar mines, where no slaves worked for very long? It is impossible to decide but fascinating to consider. The fireproof reputation of the salamander (though not its aphrodisiac properties) may come, we discover, from the habit of Tajik asbestos traders selling their wares as giant salamander skins from India.
Mayor’s narrative of the military campaigns in which Pompey’s armies finally disposed of Mithradates is detailed and dramatic, a fine achievement of story telling. Some Roman reputations are modified, not least that of Pompey’s predecessor, Lucullus, often remembered in his later years for sybaritic excess on the bay of Naples but here recalled for his tactical triumph on the Tigris against a massed Armenian army many times larger than his own. The death of Mithradates himself is best left to poetry and opera. Cornered and facing capture, had he inured himself to poison so well that he could not poison himself? He would have to have been a very bad poisoner if that were so. Was his death story, like that of Cleopatra, a useful Roman yarn of the adversary who prefers to die by one’s own hand rather than face the music of a Triumph? Or did he selflessly share his lethal dose among too many daughters? Mayor thinks that a possibility. At least one of his sons survived—and reigned as Pharnaces II over a rather reduced patch of his father’s former domain until Julius Caesar came, saw and conquered him.
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