The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy
by Adrienne Mayor, Princeton University Press, 2009, $29.95
This is an enjoyable but strange book. The introduction claims it is “the first full-scale biography of Mithradates, from birth to death and beyond, in well over a century,” ignoring Philip Matyszak’s 2009 volume Mithradates the Great: Rome’s Indomitable Enemy, which the author cites in her bibliography.
The subject of this book is Mithradates VI, king of Pontus from 119 to 63 BC, who fought three wars against the Romans, almost driving them from their Asian and Greek provinces. Mithradates is most familiar to history as a student of poisons, which he employed against enemies, his own family and even on himself in an effort to immunize his body against being poisoned.
To deter Rome from moving against him, Mithradates carried out one of the most successful terrorist acts in history. He secretly recruited agents in most of the towns in Greece and southern Anatolia in which Romans and their families lived. In the spring of 88 BC, those agents killed from 80,000 to 150,000 Roman men, women and children in only a few days. Defeated by Pompey, Mithradates escaped over the Caucuses and sought to regain his crown, raise an army and invade Italy. All three plans failed, and Mithradates killed himself rather than fall captive to the Romans, whom he had harassed for almost half a century.
Mayor has solid research credentials, and her command of the ancient and modern sources is extensive and impressive. The digressions offered in footnotes are enjoyable and valuable, as are the appendices offering a modern checklist for evaluating Mithradates’ psychological condition. Good maps at key points in the narrative are very helpful, and the text is well written and organized chronologically. The author’s interest in ancient poisons, chemicals, explosives technology, geography and regional flora and fauna allow her to expound on these subjects while telling her story. From the poison honey of the mountain bees to the condition of Sulla’s corpse to Lucullus’ introduction of the cherry tree to Italy, this aspect of the book is a real treat.
What gives one pause is the author’s approach to her subject. Mayor employs what is called “disciplined alternative history,” an approach made acceptable in academia by Niall Fergusson and John Lewis Gaddis that permits the historian to fill in or even imagine (the author’s words) what might have happened as long as “the details are probable or plausible for the time and place and they match contemporary experiences, derived from ancient literature, art, and history or archaeology.” This is dangerous stuff, especially in a field in which the ancient sources—in this case Justin, Appian, Strabo and Plutarch—can hardly be taken at face value.
It is one thing to offer an occasional educated guess regarding the details of a person’s life or to fill in elements of a battle or campaign to present a coherent account, something all historians of antiquity are forced to do precisely because the sources are often unreliable or incomplete. But it is quite another to offer whole chapters about what might have occurred. For example, in Chapter 4, “The Lost Boys,” the author invents a seven-year tale about what might have occurred when Mithradates and his loyal boy comrades fled Sinope for the countryside, even imagining their first sexual experiences with the temple prostitutes at Comana, noting that “what happened in Comana stayed in Comana.” In Chapter 5, “The Return of the King,” Mayor admits that sources are silent about how Mithradates regained his throne from his mother (also a poisoner), but then goes on to offer an account of how this might have occurred, including a “velvet coup” in which the mother simply gives up her royal claims.
In the end, Mayor’s approach to the material blurs the line between history and historical fiction; one can easily imagine the narrative being turned into a television or movie script. That said, the book is an interesting story told in an interesting way. It is full of interesting facts about Mithradates and the world in which he lived and offers much for the general reader to learn and enjoy.
Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.