The Enigmatic Poison King: Mithradates VI of Pontus (120-63 BCE)

coverWhile relatively unknown today, Mithradates VI of Pontus inspired fear, romance, courage, and intrigue across the Near East during the first century BCE. Claiming descent from Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia, Mithradates challenged the might of late Republican Rome, creating an empire that stretched from the northern reaches of the Black Sea to Syria and Armenia. While loathed by Rome for his massacre of 80,000 Roman civilians in 88 BCE, Mithradates was hailed by Greeks and Persians as a “savior” from oppressive Roman misrule. Mithradates’ ambition, coupled with his advanced knowledge of poisons, make him one of the most intriguing personalities in antiquity.

In this exclusive interview, James Blake Wiener of the Ancient History Encyclopedia speaks to Dr. Adrienne Mayor, a Research Scholar at Stanford University, who examines the tumultuous life of this most tantalizing of ancient kings in The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates. Contextualizing his political importance, intellectual brilliance, and complex character, Mayor also shares insights as to why Mithradates has been largely ignored in recent scholarship.

JW: Dr. Adrienne Mayor, it is a privilege to welcome you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia and discuss your biography, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates.

My first question is two-fold; why has such a colorful historical figure like Mithradates VI of Pontus (r. 120-63 BCE) retreated from the historical imagination in the West, and why is his decades-long rivalry with late Republican Rome worth pondering today?

“I was enthralled by the fairy tale character of the king’s remarkable life story: a descendent of Alexander the Great and Persian royalty; a brilliant toxicologist; a master escape artist; a bold rebel leader, who rode into battle with an Amazon-like companion who became his lover and last queen.”

AM: Thank you, James. I am honored to be invited to talk about King Mithradates, who challenged Roman imperialism more than 2,000 years ago. It is true that except for a few literary souls who recall the old Housman poem (“Mithradates, he died old.”), not many people recognize his name these days. However, in antiquity and the Middle Ages, and even into the 20th century CE, Mithradates was as famous as Hannibal (247-183/182 BCE), Spartacus (c. 109-71 BCE), Cleopatra VII of Egypt (r. 51-30 BCE), and other illustrious enemies of the Roman Republic. His life inspired Machiavelli (1469-1527 CE) and Racine (1639-1699 CE), and one of Mozart’s first operas: Mitridate, re di Ponto (1770). Why did his memory fade? Well, at four syllables Mithradates’ name is a bit of a mouthful, but everyone remembers Cleopatra VII of Egypt. I am tempted to blame Shakespeare for neglecting to pen a tragedy about Mithradates, myself. Moreover, why did Karl Marx (1818-1883 CE) favor the gladiator Spartacus over Mithradates, even though they were allies and shared noble, anti-Roman values? In truth, I suspect the real reason for Mithradates’ disappearance from popular consciousness in the West can be linked to geopolitics; in the 19th and 20th centuries, pro-Roman European historians typecast Mithradates as a cruel barbarian despot, comparing him to decadent Ottoman sultans. When the Ottoman Empire imploded, Mithradates’ name fell into relative obscurity.

There are signs that Rome’s most relentless rival — feared as “the Hannibal of the East” — is swaggering out of the shadows. In recent years, there have been revivals of Mozart’s opera, but instead of 18th century CE French court costumes, Mithradates is dressed as an insurgent commander of some unnamed Middle Eastern state and the set is an ultra-modern war room. The king’s amazing exploits and fascinating personality are attracting modern fans. Geopolitics has played a role in Mithradates’ resurgence–many of the lands that once made up Mithradates’ Black Sea kingdom of Pontus are suddenly prominent in the news, usually associated with strife and terrorism. These parallels make his story worth pondering today. Mithradates’ wars against Rome lasted four decades, engulfing three continents.

In the end, of course, Rome was victorious and Mithradates lost his kingdom and his life, but the Mithradatic Wars pushed the Roman Republic, already reeling from slave revolts and domestic violence, over the brink into self-destruction and forced reinvention. How did this charismatic leader, considered a long-awaited “savior-king” by his supporters in the Near East, come to power? How did he secretly orchestrate such a carefully coordinated terror attack on 80,000 Roman civilians in 88 BCE? How was he able to surge back with fresh armies even after devastating military defeats? How did he manage to elude capture for nearly 40 years? Inevitable comparisons to recent and current events leap to mind. It seems worth investigating how Mithradates plunged the Romans into financial chaos and lured them into a series of costly wars in the Near East, from which the Republic never recovered. Many Romans sympathized with his ideals and Mithradates’ Black Sea Empire and new policies offered  a genuine alternative to oppressive Roman rule. After the Mithradatic Wars, Rome altered and softened its harsh colonial policies of taxation and tribute. Until now, his story has been told from the victors’ point of view. It seems a valuable exercise to try to grasp the perspective of Mithradates and his followers in their challenge to an ancient Western superpower that they considered a force of evil, in order to enhance our understanding of the past as well as the present.

JW: What was it that first attracted you to this complicated yet enigmatic king of Hellenistic Asia? Given your previous research with regard to ancient technology, warfare, and poison, I would suspect that it was only a matter of time before Mithradates captured your attention.

PonticKingdomAM: I first came across Mithradates more than a decade ago, when I was gathering research for my book on the roots and practice of unconventional weapons and tactics in antiquity, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. It was Mithradates’ knowledge of poisons and his scientific experiments to perfect a “universal antidote” to protect himself from all toxins, which initially piqued my curiosity. My interest was also sparked by his allies’ use of unquenchable flames, poison arrows, and even toxic honey against the Roman armies sent to defeat him.

As I delved deeper into the ancient literary sources, I was enthralled by the fairy tale character of the king’s remarkable life story: a descendent of Alexander the Great and Persian royalty; a brilliant toxicologist; a master escape artist; a bold rebel leader, who rode into battle with an Amazon-like companion who became his lover and last queen. (A close friend, alarmed at my sympathy for Mithradates, referred to the king as “a mass murderer from a small Black Sea kingdom who got rich and famous by making a monkey out of a great empire, and lived to a ripe old age while having too much fun with women and drugs.”)

I was very surprised to find that the most recent, modern biography of this intriguing figure had been published in 1890, by Theodore Reinach (1860-1928 CE) in French and German, but was never translated into English. Driven to understand Mithradates’ motivations, I scoured ancient sources for insights beyond Rome’s influence and looked for keys to Mithradates’ complex, paradoxical personality: Why did he and his followers loathe the Romans so deeply? What explained the widespread popular appeal of his revolutionary cause? How could one who saw himself as a “savior” perpetrate such vicious acts, yet also pursue humanistic ideals: freeing slaves and prisoners of war; sharing his wealth with his soldiers; cancelling debts; expanding citizen rights; and restoring Greek democratic ideals? And of course, his scientific experiments with plant, animal, and mineral poisons — and their antidotes — made for marvelous reading and turned out to contain several heretofore unrecognized milestones in the history of medicine and toxicology.

JW: While hailed by the Greeks as a liberator and hero, Mithradates was the primary obstacle to Roman hegemony in the Mediterranean and Black Sea. At one time, his empire stretched from the Aegean Sea to the Crimea. Apart from the Mithridatic Wars (88-84 BCE, 83-81 BCE, and 75-63 BCE), Mithradates is perhaps best known as the notorious instigator of massacres of Roman settlers in several Anatolian cities, which killed thousands in 88 BCE.

Could you comment as to the extent to which members of the non-Roman elite took part in this massacre? I am curious to understand a little more about the demographics behind the massacre. 

AM: Historians have long assumed that only mobs of the lowest sort of “rabble” must have carried out the slaughter of unsuspecting Roman men, women, children, merchants, slave traders, in addition to tax and tribute collectors, in several cities, including Pergamum, Ephesus, Tralles, Caunus, Chios, and Adramytteum. Recently, however, scholars have revisited the ancient accounts in numerous sources and now conclude that ordinary people of all classes and ethnic groups — native Anatolians, Greeks, Jews, and Persians — participated in the plot to kill the Romans. All of these groups harbored strong reasons to detest Rome’s harsh rule and corrupt taxation system, which were driving individuals, families, and even entire cities into deep debt or bankruptcy. So Mithradates’ order to kill the Romans appealed to persons of all social and economic classes.

Keep in mind that many of the Roman settlers had obtained their houses and land from local citizens who lost their property to rapacious Roman tax collectors. Moreover, many local families had lost their own children to the insatiable Roman demand for slaves from the Province of Asia. Finally, in the eyes of the Persian-influenced cultures of Anatolia, slavery and debt were vicious weapons of the forces of darkness and deceit — represented by Rome — in contrast to the Zoroastrian ideals of free will, truth, and light.

TigrantheGreatJW: In reading The Poison King, I was most intrigued by Mithradates’ strong relationships with Armenians; namely that with his friend, ally, and son-in-law, Tigranes II of Armenia (r. 95-55 BCE). Could you perhaps share with our readers how and why these two men — with dissimilar personalities and styles of governance — became such close political partners in the ancient Near East?

AM: I have given their friendship some further thought since being asked to contribute a chapter to a volume on the history of Turkish-Armenian relations to be published in Turkey, an important milestone given the modern history of animosities between the two nations. Pontus bordered the rugged frontier of Armenia and both lands had once been part of the Persian Empire. Mithradates, like Tigranes, inherited ancient Iranian religious responsibilities in the fire worship of Ahura Mazda and Mithra. Both kings served as the chief Magus of the Zoroastrian Magi in their empires, carrying out traditional fire ceremonies on mountaintops. Half Greek and a descendant of Darius I of Persia (r. 550-486 BCE), Mithradates also shared important Persian cultural values with Tigranes — riding fine horses, shooting, hunting, loyalty, honesty, and autonomy — and both men maintained large harems as well as official queens. Mithradates was more sophisticated, worldly, and cunning in his dealings with Rome; in contrast, the more traditional and Persian-educated Tigranes spent most of his life as a royal hostage in remote regions of Parthia.

Seeking a strong, dependable alliance in the Black Sea region, Mithradates turned his attention east to Armenia, which was  far removed from Rome’s notice. Armenia was a natural ally; Tigranes was consolidating his own separate empire to the south, from Armenia to Parthia, so their ambitions did not collide. To seal their alliance, Tigranes married Mithradates’ favorite daughter, Cleopatra (b. 110 BCE), and she became his queen and steadfast companion for the rest of his life. By all accounts,  although their characters and governing styles differed, both men were strong-willed, energetic, and ambitious, but not rivals, which allowed them to become good friends as well as allies. They enjoyed staying at Tigranes’ hunting lodges in his forest and mountain estates. They probably conversed in Greek, the language of Hellenistic courts, although Mithradates also knew Parthian and Armenian. I think it is likely that Mithradates shared his secret “universal antidote” with Tigranes, his loyal friend who twice offered him refuge in Armenia during the Mithradatic Wars and even agreed to combine forces under Mithradates’ command to confront the Romans.

JW: Why do you share the Italian historian Attilio Mastrocinque’s opinion that the famous Antikythera mechanism might have originated in the Kingdom of Pontus during Mithradates’ reign? You briefly touch upon this theory in your biography.

AM: I am convinced by Mastrocinque’s argument that the celebrated Antikythera mechanism or “device” — often hailed as the world’s first computer — was plundered from Mithradates’ kingdom by Lucullus (118-57/56 BCE), the Roman commander who pursued Mithradates in the Third Mithradatic War until he was replaced by Pompey. Historians continue to suggest that the mechanism must have belonged to a Roman who lived in Rhodes but cannot explain why it was found in a ship loaded with heaps of treasures plundered from Mithradates’ cities, which sank on its way to Rome.

Mastrocinque suggests that a mysterious astronomical mechanism — a prized trophy looted from Mithradates’ capital Sinope by Lucullus and referred to by the Greek philosopher Strabo (64/63 BCE-c. 24 CE) as “the globe of Billarus” — was in fact the famous scientific instrument now known as the Antikythera mechanism (named for the Greek island near the site of the shipwreck). We know that Mithradates attracted the finest engineers, philosophers, and inventors to his court and that he had a strong interest in technological innovations and machines, collecting all sorts of precious things. I think there is little doubt that the Antikythera mechanism belonged to Mithradates himself or to someone within the king’s circle.

Anticythere1JW: The Poison King includes counterfactual histories, which permit you to fill in the gap between surviving accounts and contextual facts with a variety of sources.

Is alternate or counterfactual history an approach that you believe a historian should utilize with caution? Also, did you ever worry that you were casting too “wide of a net” when it came to researching the life of such a fascinating historical figure?

AM: Historical figures who become legendary in their own time attract narratives that attempt to fill in or ask “what if” questions about missing portions of their lives. With Mithradates, the impulse became evident in the Middle Ages, when many artists and writers speculated about the details of Mithradates’ life and his manner of death; Boccaccio (1313-1375 CE) and Christine de Pizan (1364-c. 1430 CE), for example, mused about Mithradates’ tantalizing relationship with the brave woman warrior named Hypsicratea, who is briefly described in two surviving historical works from antiquity by Valerius Maximus (fl. 14-37 CE) and Plutarch (46-120 CE). The incomplete nature of the ancient historical record forces good historian-detectives — especially biographers — to use speculation and guesswork to present a coherent account of what happened. Many historians draw on what is known or taken for granted about ancient economics, geography, topography, cultural influences, political alliances, and so on to reconstruct the elements lacking in the ancient record, making sure to inform readers when they are filling in gaps.

The historical thought experiments known as “counterfactuals” are a related approach, exploring alternative scenarios as tools for gaining more understanding of the meanings and consequences of historical events. Both approaches do, as you suggest, require prudence and caution to balance “the scientific use of the imagination” with fidelity to what was possible, plausible, and probable within the conditions that existed in a certain time and place. In my biography of Mithradates, I endeavored to flag for the reader each instance when I fleshed out the story drawing on known facts, literary sources, and archaeological evidence both before and after the relevant passages. I also clearly identified instances where I described logical scenarios for how certain events documented in ancient sources might have unfolded. I wanted to cast as wide a net as possible, following the rules established by other respected historians, such as John Lewis Gaddis, to present a holistic and engaging picture of Mithradates in his time and place.

JW: I cannot complete our interview without at least one question related to poison, Dr. Mayor! Why was Mithradates so interested in poison, and what is “Mithradates’ antidote”?

AM: Why was Mithridates so obsessed with poisons? Several reasons come to mind:

  1. Mithradates’ kingdom of Pontus (located in northeastern Turkey) was curiously “blessed” with an abundance of poisonous plants, animals, and minerals. These toxic agents were all well known in antiquity and put to nefarious uses. Poisonous plants included aconite (monkshood), hellebore, deadly nightshade (belladonna), yew trees, hemlock, azalea, and rhododendron. There were numerous venomous snakes. Important minerals mined in his homeland included gold, silver, copper, mercury, sulphur, and realgar (arsenic), and other rare minerals used for pigments and medicine.
  2. The ancient sources report that Mithradates began at a young age to experiment with poisons–one historian (Memnon) even claims that he began poisoning people in his childhood. That is an exaggeration, but Mithradates’ childhood was certainly suffused with real poisonings and threats of murder by poison. When he was about 12, his own father was poisoned at a banquet, and his own mother, as regent, attempted to poison her older son in order to secure power through her younger, more malleable son. Mithradates lived in an era of treachery, suspicion, conspiracies, and justified paranoia about poisoning, which was a common method of assassination in his milieu. Arsenic was the favored “drug of succession,” easily available and hard to detect.
  3. Mithradates not only feared for his life from a very early age, but he was a scientist fascinated with the principle that toxic substances, pharmaka, could be used for good or ill, depending on the dose. I think this fascination and interest in experimental toxicology may have been inspired by the work of two royal predecessors. Mithradates’ grandfather, Pharnaces (fl. 190 BCE-c. 155 BCE), had discovered a panacea, or cure-all plant. “Mad” King Attalus III of nearby Pergamon (who died 133 BCE just before Mithradates’ birth) may also have been a model. Like many Hellenistic kings of this era, Attalus III took a keen interest in scientific pursuits, especially plant toxicology. He cultivated healthful and beneficial plants and mixed them with all the poisonous ones mentioned above. This practice led observers to think him insane, but I believe Attalus III was carrying out experiments with antidotes.

imageMithradates continued these paths of experimentation in his attempt to concoct a “universal” theriac or antidote, testing poisons and remedies on condemned criminals, his friends, and even himself. Mithradates’ deep curiosity and intellect, his keen scientific curiosity, extensive knowledge of toxicology, and his long-term experiments not only gave him great power over his court and his enemies, but it also served to protect him and his friends from poison plots. He enjoyed robust health into his 70s before he was forced to commit suicide, and his friend Tigranes lived well into his 80s, this at a time when the average lifespan was only 35-40.

The so-called Mithradatium was the world’s most popular prescription for more than 2,000 years. It was last seen for sale in Rome in 1984 if you can believe it! What was the exact recipe? It is lost. However, we do have a good idea of some of the ingredients and modern scientific advances are revealing how the antidote may have worked–or at least some of the concepts behind Mithradates’ experimental toxicological investigations. Recently, archaeologists near Herculaneum — just outside of Naples, Italy — discovered a pot containing residue of what appears to be Mithridatium. For more details on the probable substances mixed in the king’s special recipe — there were reportedly more than 50 ingredients — and some historical details of how Mithradates’ secret formula could have come into the hands of the Roman emperors, I recommend Chapter 11 of The Poison King.

JW: How do you believe Mithradates died? Was it suicide or murder? The evidence comes from two sources, which conflict one another.

I think that when the revolt led by his treacherous son trapped Mithradates and his two young daughters, Mithradates realized it was the end. His worst fear was that he and his daughters would be captured alive and displayed in Pompey’s Triumph in Rome. This was a realistic fear. He admired Hannibal who committed suicide in a tower in Bithynia rather than be taken alive by the Romans. It would be in character for Mithradates to kill himself and to kill his daughters to save them from rape by Romans. So given his personality, I believe the account by the historian Appian of Alexandria (c. 95-165 CE) that Mithradates took poison and then his bodyguard Bituitus finished the job with a sword. Then, as the Roman historian Dio Cassius (c. 150 – 235 CE) reports, his son’s soldiers burst into the tower, hoping to capture him alive–in frustration they mutilated the king’s body.

The legend that arose about Mithradates’ failed attempt to kill himself with poison — because he had made himself immune to all toxins — is pithy, yet not believable. The story was probably devised by his enemies, the Romans, who enjoyed the poetic irony of the idea. But the scenario poses serious problems of logic. The ancient historians mention that Mithradates carried a suicide pill in the hilt of this dagger or sword, and that he supplied his commanding officers and friends with poison pills–and moreover that some of them successfully used these to kill themselves to avoid capture by the Romans. However, if his daily antidote regimen was effective against poisons — as Mithradates apparently believed — then what would be the point of his precaution of carrying poison for suicide with him at all times?

One way around the logical issue is that Mithradates knew of one deadly poison that he did not immunize himself against or include antidotes for in his daily “universal antidote.” In that case, it would be reasonable to suggest that he carried with him a carefully measured fatal dose of a fast-acting poison that was not part of his daily antidote. Mithradates had tested hundreds of poisons on human subjects, and so he would know which drug in which dosage would bring a speedy death in an emergency.

But if his daily Mithradatium was not actually an effective shield against poisons, then why was the precisely calculated dosage ineffective when he took it in the tower to prevent the Romans taking him prisoner? There is a reasonable explanation, overlooked by ancient and modern historians, in my opinion: trapped in the tower with his two young daughters, Mithradates only carried a single dose of poison. The ancient historians report that he shared this single dose with his two daughters, and that it was enough to kill them. This action would have reduced the remaining dose by half at least. What was left was insufficient to kill an adult man. Mystery solved! But the Romans preferred to tell a story that mocked “the king of poisons” rather than acknowledge that he sacrificed his own certain suicide to protect his young daughters from capture.

JW: Dr. Adrienne Mayor, thank you for introducing us to Mithradates and his world of battles, power-politics, and poison. We cannot wait to see where your research takes you next!

AM: Thank you for the opportunity, James! It’s been a pleasure. I wish you and the Ancient History Encyclopedia all the best!

Be sure to see the Ancient History Encyclopedia’s review of  The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates.

Image Credits:

  1. Book cover of The Poison King. Image: courtesy of Dr. Adrienne Mayor.
  2. Map of the Kingdom of Pontus, Before the reign of Mithridates VI (darkest purple), after his conquests (purple), and his conquests in the first Mithridatic wars (pink). This is a file from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain because it has been released there by its author. Image created by Javierfv1212, 2009.
  3. Tigranes II of Armenia and Mithradates VI of Pontus sealing their alliance. Painting (and copyright) by Mr. Rubik Kocharian. Image: courtesy of Dr. Adrienne Mayor.
  4. The design of the Antikythera mechanism appears to follow the tradition of Archimedes’ planetarium, and may be related to sundials. His modus operandi is based on the use of gears. The machine is dated around 89 BCE and comes from the wreck found off the island of Antikythera. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, No. 15987. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts.
  5. Portrait of Mithridates VI as Heracles. Marble, Roman imperial period (1st century BCE). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Image created by: Eric Gaba (Sting), July 2005.

publicityimageDr. Adrienne Mayor is an independent folklorist and historian of science who investigates natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions. Her research looks at ancient “folk science” precursors, alternatives, and parallels to modern scientific methods. Mayor’s two books on pre-Darwinian fossil traditions in classical antiquity and in Native America have opened up a new field within geomythology, and her book on the origins of biological weapons traces the ancient roots of biochemical warfare. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy is Dr. Mayor’s latest book, which won top honors (Gold Medal) for Biography, Independent Publishers’ Book Award 2010. It was also a 2009 National Book Award Finalist. Her research has been featured on NPR, the BBC, the History Channel, and other popular media, most recently in the New York Times and National Geographic; her books are available in Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, and Modern Greek. Dr. Mayor is currently a Research Scholar, Classics and History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford University.

James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director of the Ancient History Encyclopedia, providing a continuous listing of must-read articles, exciting museum exhibitions, and interviews with experts in the field. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor of history, James is also a freelance writer who is keenly interested in cross-cultural exchange. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world, James welcomes you to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, and hopes that you find his news releases and interviews to be “illuminating.”

All images featured in this interview have been attributed to their respective owners. Images lent to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, by Dr. Adrienne Mayor, have been done so as a courtesy for the purposes of this interview and are copyrighted. Profile picture of Dr. Mayor is copyrighted by Mr. Josiah Ober. Special thanks is extended to Ms. Karen Barrett-Wilt. The views presented here are not necessarily those of the Ancient History Encyclopedia. All rights reserved. © AHE 2013. Please contact us for rights to republication.

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James Blake Wiener is the Communications Director at Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is chiefly interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history, and international relations. Aside from his work at AHE, James is an avid Arabist, devotee of romance languages (French, Portuguese, and Spanish), reggaetoñero, and fan of ice hockey.