The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemyby Adrienne Mayor
Machiavelli praised his military genius. European royalty sought out his secret elixir against poison. His life inspired Mozart's first opera, while for centuries poets and playwrights recited bloody, romantic tales of his victories, defeats, intrigues, concubines, and mysterious death. But until now no modern historian has recounted the full story of Mithradates,
Machiavelli praised his military genius. European royalty sought out his secret elixir against poison. His life inspired Mozart's first opera, while for centuries poets and playwrights recited bloody, romantic tales of his victories, defeats, intrigues, concubines, and mysterious death. But until now no modern historian has recounted the full story of Mithradates, the ruthless king and visionary rebel who challenged the power of Rome in the first century BC. In this richly illustrated bookthe first biography of Mithradates in fifty yearsAdrienne Mayor combines a storyteller's gifts with the most recent archaeological and scientific discoveries to tell the tale of Mithradates as it has never been told before.
The Poison King describes a life brimming with spectacle and excitement. Claiming Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia as ancestors, Mithradates inherited a wealthy Black Sea kingdom at age fourteen after his mother poisoned his father. He fled into exile and returned in triumph to become a ruler of superb intelligence and fierce ambition. Hailed as a savior by his followers and feared as a second Hannibal by his enemies, he envisioned a grand Eastern empire to rival Rome. After massacring eighty thousand Roman citizens in 88 BC, he seized Greece and modern-day Turkey. Fighting some of the most spectacular battles in ancient history, he dragged Rome into a long round of wars and threatened to invade Italy itself. His uncanny ability to elude capture and surge back after devastating losses unnerved the Romans, while his mastery of poisons allowed him to foil assassination attempts and eliminate rivals.
The Poison King is a gripping account of one of Rome's most relentless but least understood foes.
Luis Ballesteros Pastor
Mayor has done an extraordinary job of filling many gaps in the history of this contentious and foggy period. Rightly so, The Poison King was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and is an effort worthy of any student of history.
This is a highly coloured portrait and a very readable account of a complex individual with whom Mayor plainly has considerable empathy. The book therefore should find a wide audience and serve as an attractive introduction to its subject. . . . [Mayor] herself says, 'Mithridates' incredible saga is a rollicking good story' and she has narrated it with verve, panache and scholarly skill.
Winner of the 2010 Gold Medal in Biography, Independent Publisher Book Awards
One of The Washington Post critics' Holiday Guide's "Best Books of 2009"
Honorable Mention for the 2010 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers
"I can say without reservation that it's a wonderful reading experience, as bracing as a tonic, the perfect holiday gift for adventure-loving men and women. A finalist for [the 2009] National Book Award, it's drenched in imaginative violence and disaster, but it also wears the blameless vestments of culture and antiquity. You can have all the fun of reading about a greedy villain being put to death by being made to 'drink' molten gold, but still hide safe behind the excuse that you're just brushing up on your classics."Carolyn See, Washington Post
"Mayor gives us a more nuanced view of the so-called Poison King, placing him in his proper context as a Greco-Persian ruler following in the footsteps of his purported ancestor Alexander the Great. The most compelling aspect of this story is Mayor's engaging style. A true storyteller, she makes Mithradates's world come alive. This distinctive and compelling book is sure to fascinate all readers interested in the ancient world or in understanding the historical politics of the Caucasus region."Library Journal
"Thanks be to Adrienne Mayor for a definitive biography, blazing with color, presenting a magnificent cast headed by a hero who caused Rome to tremble for a quarter-century. . . . [H]is splendidly produced book is a cavalcade of intrigue, action, and slaughter. Danger, hope, fear, and love and lust are never absent."ForeWord Reviews
"Mayor has specialized in writing well-researched, readable scholarship in the history of ancient science and technology, including the pre-eminent work on ancient chemical and biological warfare. It is fitting, therefore, that her first major biography tackles the life of Mithridates VI of Pontus, known for his knowledge of poisons. It is difficult to weave personal anecdotes (the lifeblood of good biography) with the technical tidbits of science, but Mayor carries it off brilliantly, as evidenced by sections describing Mithridates' youth and early scientific education in Sinope, and his extraordinary chemical knowledge at the peark of his reign. . . . The work is a marvel: part biography, part campaign history, and part scientific exploration, written in a style that makes the book a true page-turner."Choice
"Mayor has done an extraordinary job of filling many gaps in the history of this contentious and foggy period. Rightly so, The Poison King was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and is an effort worthy of any student of history."Lee Scott, Florida Times-Union
"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. . . . 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."Richard Gabriel, Military History
"This is a highly coloured portrait and a very readable account of a complex individual with whom Mayor plainly has considerable empathy. The book therefore should find a wide audience and serve as an attractive introduction to its subject. . . . [Mayor] herself says, 'Mithridates' incredible saga is a rollicking good story' and she has narrated it with verve, panache and scholarly skill."Arthur Keaveney, Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews
"Newcomers to the field will fall in love with Mayor's Mithradates. For more sober-if less compelling-accounts, they will turn to the recent studies listed in the very good, up-to-date bibliography included in The Poison King."Laurence Totelin, Isis
"The prose is brilliant. . . . [W]e must regard this work as representing an important step in encouraging interest in the history of this Pontic king."Luis Ballesteros Pastor, Ancient West & East
"Mayor is without doubt a masterful narrator with an ability to create vivid descriptions of past events and to bring historical characters alive."Jasmin Lukkari, Arctos
"The author has read widely and shares her information with such gusto that one is easily swept up in her obvious enthusiasm."Philip Matyszak, UNRV
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The Poison KingThe Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's deadliest enemy
By ADRIENNE MAYOR
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2010 Adrienne Mayor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneKill Them All, and Let the Gods Sort Them Out
In spring of 88 BC, in dozens of cities across Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern Turkey), sworn enemies of Rome joined a secret plot. On an appointed day in one month's time, they vowed to kill every Roman man, woman, and child in their territories.
The conspiracy was masterminded by King Mithradates the Great, who communicated secretly with numerous local leaders in Rome's new Province of Asia. ("Asia" at this time referred to lands from the eastern Aegean to India; Rome's Province of Asia encompassed western Turkey.) How Mithradates kept the plot secret remains one of the great intelligence mysteries of antiquity. The conspirators promised to round up and slay all the Romans and Italians living in their towns, including women and children and slaves of Italian descent. They agreed to confiscate the Romans' property and throw the bodies out to the dogs and crows. Anyone who tried to warn or protect Romans or bury their bodies was to be harshly punished. Slaves who spoke languages other than Latin would be spared, and those who joined in the killing of their masters would be rewarded. People who murdered Roman moneylenders would have their debts canceled. Bounties were offered to informers and killers of Romans in hiding.
The deadly plot worked perfectly. According to several ancient historians, at least 80,000-perhaps as many as 150,000-Roman and Italian residents of Anatolia and Aegean islands were massacred on that day. The figures are shocking-perhaps exaggerated-but not unrealistic. Exact population figures for the first century BC are not known. But great numbers of Italian merchants and new Roman citizens had swarmed to recently conquered lands as Rome expanded its empire in the late Republic. Details of the bloody attack were recorded by the Roman historian Appian, whose figures were based in part on the memoirs of Cornelius Sulla, the Roman general dispatched by the Senate to avenge the killings. Other details emerged from accounts of eyewitnesses and survivors, such as P. Rutilius Rufus, a Roman official who escaped and wrote a history of the attack and its aftermath. More facts came from enemy combatants and communiques captured by Sulla in the war that erupted after the massacre. Ancient statistics often represent guesswork or exaggeration. Even if the lower death toll of 80,000 was inflated, as some scholars believe, and if we reduce the count of the dead by half, the slaughter of unsuspecting innocents was staggering. The extent of the massacre is not in doubt: modern historians agree with the ancient sources that virtually all Roman and Italian residents of Provincia Asia were wiped out.
The plan was meticulously synchronized, and it was carried out with ferocity. As the fateful day dawned, mobs tore down Roman statues and inscriptions that had been erected in their public squares. We have vivid accounts of what happened next from five of the numerous cities where Romans were slain.
Pergamon, a prosperous city in western Anatolia, was fabled to have been founded by Hercules' son. Like many Hellenistic cities populated by Greeks who intermarried with indigenous people, Pergamon after Alexander the Great's death (323 BC) had evolved a hybrid of democracy and Persian-influenced monarchy. The cultural center of Asia Minor, Pergamon boasted a vast library of 200,000 scrolls, a spectacular 10,000-seat theater, and a monumental Great Altar decorated with sculptures of the Olympian gods defeating the Giants. People came from all around the Mediterranean seeking cures at the famous Temple of Asclepius, god of medicine. The Romans had chosen Pergamon to be the capital of their new province. But by 88 BC, most of western Asia was allied with King Mithradates, who had taken over the royal palace in Pergamon for his own headquarters.
When the violence began that day in Pergamon, thousands of terrified Roman families fled out of the city gates to the Temple of Asclepius. By ancient Greek custom, all temples were sacred, inviolable spaces, havens from war and violence, under the protection of the gods. Under the right of asylum (asylia), anyone-citizen, foreigner, slave, innocent or guilty-could find refuge inside a temple. Pursuers usually dared not commit the sacrilege of murder before the gods. But on this day, there was no mercy for the people crowding around the statues of the healing god. The Pergamenes burst into the sanctuary and shot down the trapped men, women, and children in cold blood, at close range with arrows.
Meanwhile, as night fell in Adramyttion, a shipbuilding port, the townspeople drove the Roman settlers down to the seashore. The desperate throng plunged into the dark water. The killers waded in after them, cutting down the men and women and drowning the children in the waves.
In Ephesus, a cosmopolitan city of nearly a quarter million, similar atrocities defiled the Temple of Artemis. The Ephesians took great pride in their temple, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Amazons had worshipped here, and the fabulously rich King Croesus built the original temple. It was said that the goddess herself had magically lifted the colossal lintel stone over the entrance. The sanctuary was filled with priceless treasures dedicated to Artemis, protector of supplicants. Known as Diana to the Romans, Cybele or Anahit in the Near East, Artemis was honored by Greeks and barbarians alike. When Paul preached in Ephesus a century after the massacre, he acknowledged that Artemis was still "the goddess worshipped by all Asia."
The Temple of Artemis claimed the most ancient tradition of asylum. The Ephesians liked to tell how Alexander the Great had visited their temple and, in a grand gesture, extended its radius of protection. Two centuries later, King Mithradates himself had climbed onto the roof of the temple and declared that the new boundary of asylum would now reach as far as he could shoot an arrow (his arrow flew a stade, about two hundred yards).
Everyone in the Greek world understood that murder in a sacred place was taboo. In fact, the citizens of at least one community allied with Mithradates, the island of Cos, spared the Roman families who huddled inside the temple on the day of the massacre. When townspeople began smashing statues in Ephesus, the Romans naturally fled to the great Temple of Artemis. But the Ephesians violated the hallowed tradition of sanctuary. Charging through the temple's carved cypress doors, they chopped down the suppliants as they clung to statues of the goddess.
Farther south, in the port of Caunus, the bloodbath continued. Famed for delicious figs, Caunus was also notorious for its unhealthy salt marshes. At the time of the massacre, Caunus's main exports were salt and slaves for the Romans. The town had long been the butt of jokes about the greenish skin of the malaria-ridden populace, whose summer fevers were attributed to their eating too many of the famous figs. The city's dismal reputation continued into the Byzantine era. "Those wretched Caunians!" railed an early Christian orator. "When did they ever produce a worthwhile citizen? All their misfortunes are due to their extreme folly and rascality." In 167 BC, the Romans had "liberated" Caunus from the powerful island of Rhodes. Yet in 88 BC, the citizens of Caunus were especially savage. On the day of the attack, the resident Italians clustered around a Roman statue of Vesta, the goddess who protected families and guaranteed Rome's survival. The Caunians pursued them, grabbed the children and killed them in front of their parents, then slaughtered the screaming women. They cut down the men last, heaping their bodies atop their families.
Tralles, a wealthy trading town known for fields of colorful snapdragons and heliotrope, had long resisted Rome. In retaliation, the Roman Senate had taken away the city's privilege of minting coins. When the citizens received Mithradates' secret missive, they dithered, worried about bloodguilt. The assembly voted to hire someone else to do the dirty work, a thug named Theophilus from Paphlagonia, a region famed for fine horses but stereotyped as the home of truculent, superstitious rubes. On the appointed day, Theophilus and his gang rode into Tralles, wearing wicker helmets and high leather boots, armed with scimitars. They herded the Italians inside the Temple of Concord, built by the Romans themselves and dedicated to peace. Survivors were haunted by the image of the attackers slashing at the victims' hands, which were left clutching the sacred statues.
Similar scenes took place in many other towns allied with Mithradates. We know, for example, that Romans were killed on the island of Chios, because Mithradates later accused the Chians of not sharing confiscated Roman property with him. At Nysa, east of Tralles, ancient inscriptions indicate that resident Italians were murdered in the Temple of Zeus.
"Such was the awful fate that befell the Romans and Italians of Asia" wrote the historian Appian, "men, women, and children, their freedmen and slaves of Italian origin." Five hundred years later, the butchery was still an icon of horror. At the twilight of the Roman Empire, as Vandals and Goths swept across North Africa, Saint Augustine (b. AD 354 in what is now Algeria) described the terrible catastrophes that the Romans had suffered when they were still pagans. He recalled that "disastrous day when Mithradates, king of Asia, ordered that all Roman citizens residing anywhere in Asia-where great numbers were engaged in business-should be put to death." "Imagine the miserable spectacle" continued Augustine, "as each person was suddenly and treacherously murdered wherever he or she happened to be, in bed or at table, in the fields or in the streets, in markets or in temples! Think of the tears and groans of the dying." Indeed, Augustine exclaimed, "we should even pity the executioners themselves, for just as the slain were pierced in body, the killers were wounded in spirit. What cruel necessity," he asked, "compelled these ordinary people to suddenly change from bland neighbors into ruthless murderers?"
Who were the killers? Historians had long assumed that the lowest "rabble" must have carried out the slaughter. But a close reading of the ancient sources now leads scholars to conclude that ordinary people of all classes, ethnic groups, and walks of life participated in the popular coalition to wipe out Romans. The killers were indigenous Anatolians, Greeks, and Jews reacting to Rome's harsh rule and corrupt system of taxation, which threw individuals and entire cities into deep debt. In 88 BC, Mithradates' opposition to Rome appealed to wealthy and poor alike. Even if the death toll was lower than the 80,000 to 150,000 reported in antiquity, the massacre's message was stark. As Appian wrote in his account of the Mithradatic Wars, the atrocities made it very plain how deeply the Roman Republic was detested for its rapacious policies. Contemporary Romans acknowledged the reasons for the attack. In Asia, warned the great statesman Cicero, "the Roman name is held in loathing, and Roman tributes, tithes, and taxes are instruments of death"
The Italian settlers, with their households and slaves, "wove themselves into the fabric of these Anatolian cities, achieving economic power and political position." By 88 BC, a large population of Roman merchants, moneylenders, tax collectors, slave traders, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, and others lived among the Greco-Asians as neighbors. Many of the new settlers had acquired their land from native people bankrupted by Roman taxation. The Romans spoke Latin or Italian dialects among themselves but bargained in Greek in the marketplace. They bet on the cockfights, prayed in the temples, and laughed and cried in the theater. Yet they did not blend in. Their clothing and customs were different. Everyone knew who the Romans were. As historian Susan Alcock points out: "They knew where they lived. And they displayed every sign of hating their guts."
Slavery was salt in the wound. Although many Greeks kept slaves, the massive Roman demand for slave labor clashed with the inclusive melding of democratic traditions and indigenous monarchies of Anatolia. Slavery was forbidden by ancient Persian law and religion. The Romans preferred to enslave non-Italians, especially people from the Near East. There was a seemingly endless supply of prisoners of war from the empire's advancing frontiers, and pirates prowled the Black Sea and eastern Aegean seeking human booty to sell to the masters of the Mediterranean world. It was said that as many as ten thousand captive people from around the Black Sea and the Near East might be traded in one day at the great Roman slave market on the once-sacred island of Delos. Crushing taxes were another form of servitude, forcing even the wealthy into debt and compelling some families to sell their children into slavery. A typical elite Roman owned several hundred slaves; a craftsman two or three. According to the latest estimates, there were roughly 1.5 million slaves in Italy at this time. The ratio of slaves was higher in the Roman Province of Asia. In Pergamon, for example, slaves made up about one-third of the population.
Most of those held in bondage spoke non-Italian tongues, but even without the marker of language it was easy to recognize slaves. Many had Latin words crudely tattooed across their foreheads identifying them as Roman property. Slaves (and salt) were commodities subject to Roman duty taxes. According to a legal inscription of this period found in Ephesus, imported slaves were to be tattooed with the words "tax paid." (During the later Empire, "Stop me, I'm a runaway" was another motto that Roman masters etched on the brows of slaves.)
A few years before the massacre, the Romans had punished the Ephesians for protecting a fugitive slave who had taken refuge in the Temple of Artemis. The Ephesians (who believed they were the descendants of one thousand runaway Greek slaves) had prevented a Roman official from entering the temple to retrieve his property, perhaps a local man enslaved for debt. In the inscribed records of cures that people sought at temples of Asclepius, archaeologists have found the names of slaves who prayed to the healing god to remove their forehead tattoos. Runaways often wore pirate-style bandanas to hide the marks of their bondage; others attempted to remove the tattoos with caustic salves. After the massacre, about six thousand liberated slaves joined Mithradates' cause, swelling his army with highly motivated fighting men filled with hatred for Romans.
As word of the attacks of 88 BC spread, mercenary soldiers commanded by Roman officers in the East deserted en masse. The Roman navy, manned by Greek sailors stationed in the Black Sea, went over to Mithradates, bringing hundreds of warships to his cause. And the complicity of each murderous city-the entire populace-was now sealed in blood. Mithradates' master plan ensured what scholars of international relations call "credible commitment." In diplomatic stare-downs and in warfare, one side can reinforce its strategic position by deliberately cutting off its own options, thereby making its threats more believable. All Roman Asia was now credibly committed to war on Rome.
Back in Italy, the reaction was shock, outrage, fear. Mithradates' timing was unerring. Violent civil war was erupting in Italy; the Roman losses in Asia precipitated a massive financial crisis in Rome. A series of awful portents had terrified the city. Out of a clear blue sky, a celestial trumpet blared out a long, mournful note. Etruscan soothsayers (traditional interpreters of divine messages) declared that it heralded the end of an age and the advent of a new world order. Halley's Comet (as we now call it) appeared, another dreadful portent. The Senate declared Mithradates Rome's most dangerous enemy and dispatched the ruthless general Sulla on a search-and-destroy mission.
The massacre of 88 BC was unique, even in that blood-soaked era. It did not occur in towns at war, nor was it a rampage by soldiers in the aftershock of battle. In no other episode in antiquity was ordinary people's killing of so many specifically targeted civilians so painstakingly planned in advance. No other ancient terror attack featured simultaneous strikes in so many cities. The indigenous revolt in Roman Britain led by the warrior queen Boudicca is sometimes compared to the massacre of 88 BC. Her uprising in AD 59 culminated in the slaughter of about seventy thousand Romans and British sympathizers, but those killings were spontaneous, not planned and methodical. (See box 1.1 to compare mass killings and deaths in natural disasters in antiquity and modern times.)
Excerpted from The Poison King by ADRIENNE MAYOR Copyright © 2010 by Adrienne Mayor. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Adrienne Mayor is the author of "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World" (Overlook) and "The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times" (Princeton). She is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University.
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