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Peter Stothard on ‘The Poison King’

Posted on Jan 15, 2010

By Peter Stothard

(Page 2)

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.


book cover


The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy


By Adrienne Mayor


Princeton University Press, 472 pages


Buy the book

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.

Peter Stothard is editor of the (London) Times Literary Supplement and the author of “On the Spartacus Road: A Journey Through Ancient Italy,” to be published in June by Overlook Press and currently available in the U.K. from HarperPress.

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By clxgid, January 23, 2010 at 6:42 am Link to this comment

When I scroll down to the bottom of Truthdig’s front page, and find gems like this, that is why I keep coming back.

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By truedigger3, January 17, 2010 at 2:56 pm Link to this comment

Re:By M Henri Day, January 16 at 2:53 pm #

I agree with you 100%.

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By prgill, January 17, 2010 at 5:54 am Link to this comment

M. Henri Day, good comments.

I have spent the day doing background reading on Lucius Cornellius Sulla simply because I couldn’t figure out who Mithridates was or why Pontus mattered. (Wikipedia lists some 30 different “Mithridates”). In a backhanded sort of way, I appreciate Stothard’s review for having piqued my interest.

That said, I would agree concerning the enduring interest in both the region and the period, and the disservice rendered by the editors of TruthDig in commissioning this particular reviewer to review this particular book.

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By johannes, January 17, 2010 at 3:43 am Link to this comment

To Alice de Tocqueville,

Nice old name, thank you, sometimes its very difficult to find the good words, you know who will give the good and just sentiment an your writing in English.

O La La, the Language de France is so full of fine sentimental, and précis words, in the English language you find most of the time one Saxon-Angles-Frisian word, and one Anglo- Normand word who means the same thing, makes it also an nice but difficult language.

The problem is the sentence structure, and some gram. pointless rules, who you find in all languages.

Well dear Alice, salutations, de France.

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By Alice de Tocqueville, January 17, 2010 at 1:15 am Link to this comment

Well, Johannes, if you don’t understand it, you aren’t the only one…but you have described it pretty beautifully.

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By LemuelG, January 16, 2010 at 3:13 pm Link to this comment

Hrmm, so it appears we have a book which is largely fictitious.

I damn-near crapped myself when I read about him using Salamanders and Beaver-testes as aphrodisiacs… LMFAO, where does the author find this stuff? Who publishes it?

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M Henri Day's avatar

By M Henri Day, January 16, 2010 at 10:53 am Link to this comment

Peter Stothard, who boldly flaunts his political prejudices/ignorance, «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 ...» - does Mr Stothard really believe that Mithradates «Western» counterparts, the Roman emperors, were less willing to employ poisioning, or for that matter, massacres as a tool of statecraft ? - seems an apt choice to review a book by an author who, he admits, makes «full imaginative use both of her own broad knowledge and the often frail ancient source material». Whether likening Mithradates «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)» is a conceit of the author of the book being reviewed, Adrienne Mayor, or that of Mr Stothard himself, if taken seriously it reveals a singular lack of knowledge of the historical figures concerned and if not is merely a tautology. The period and region at issue here - Southeastern Europe and Southwest Asia at a time corresponding to the latter days of the Roman Republic is of abiding interest, but Truthdig has done its readers no service by commissioning this reviewer to review this book….


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By johannes, January 16, 2010 at 4:18 am Link to this comment

To Gerard,

I do think that the ordinairy people did not created the Gods or the Religion, but that it started to be used as an so called danger warning, so as your mother did if you not behave the sint will not give you this an that, but you geth some with the roede.

And about slaves, as a young men, on highschool, we did do an research in our Europeên history about slavery, in principe all people where more or less slaves, but the humans who where sold and deported to the in that given time powerhouses, in the periode from 2000 bc to 1600ac, there are millions of humans as slaves sold, the most men or boys where castrated, the blond bleu eyed girls from the north where most in demand in small Asia.

So the slavery with black people from Africa was not the only one, humans where and are still an in expensive object, every where on this planet, and all religions have made their situation not bether, almost sure much bleeker.

Salutation, and thank you for your compliment.

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By stcfarms, January 16, 2010 at 3:29 am Link to this comment

Religion has been the opiate of choice for millennia, it is the most insidious
scourge that man has ever faced. It has become so ingrained in the culture
because it is transmitted from parent to child, a nearly perfect way to ensure
that it is not questioned on a conceptual level. Man had better kill god, or god
will most assuredly kill man.

“We have met the enemy and he is us” Pogo

By gerard, January 15 at 10:48 pm #

  As a result of feeling helpless. they will continue to create religions with gods
to make them feel protected if they just do this or that, say this or that, go
here or there regularly etc.  Ritual masks all sorrows and promises a kind of
other-worldly “love” that provides what humans refuse to provide for each

  There have been great moments of beauty and light created by human beings
in the past who believed in themselves.  The decision is ours.

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By gerard, January 15, 2010 at 6:48 pm Link to this comment

The more horrors humans experience themselves, and the more horrors are reported to them in gruesome detail and without explanation of contexts, assumed
rationales, etc., the less they will believe in human compassion, and in their own power to reason and to act based on the fact that they inwardly know better than to repeat mistakes. (conscience)
  As a result of feeling helpless. they will continue to create religions with gods to make them feel protected if they just do this or that, say this or that, go here or there regularly etc.  Ritual masks all sorrows and promises a kind of other-worldly “love” that provides what humans refuse to provide for each other.
  It is one bad thing to promise support and then fail to provide it.  It is quite another to lead people into despair. Things are dangerously out of balance when all we can think about is how terrible everything has always been and still is. 
  There have been great moments of beauty and light created by human beings in the past who believed in themselves.  The decision is ours.

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By stcfarms, January 15, 2010 at 5:10 pm Link to this comment

It is a good thing that god does not exist as it would punish mankind
severely. It is possible to escape the madness by living on the sea…

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By johannes, January 15, 2010 at 3:53 am Link to this comment

It all started when the humans started to settle some where and domicilisation started in villages and lather on city’s, they could not move away, all they had was there, so they became slaves of the system and the strong crimilal so called leaders.

Its the same to day, dont bye a house just rent it, no money on the bank but some gold and diamonds, so you can move, dont make a slave of your self, do not fall in their traps, about capitalisation, thats not for the working people, if you own something, thats the hook where they catch you with.

The whole history of the humankind is full of black ” blood” holes, millions and millions where slaughterd and killed, and wiped out
again and again, every thing you see or may know is build on human blood, and with all that killing, all the love and tenderness that was in humans, was killed on the same moment, and it never stopped, to day its the same.

And beleef me its not based on a mistake, but it is all done out of psychopathic power seeking, by on human out of balans things, NO NO HUMANS, things.

If there is a God, a Pantocrator, he has to weep all day, if he sees what we the humankind have done with his creation, and how we tread the most beautifull creation the humans, and the planet, and the psyche the feeling the tenderness the soul of this all, well I must say I can not understand this all.

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