Peter Stothard on ‘The Poison King’
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.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.
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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