Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Poison King

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

Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 480
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Poison King
    Book Description:

    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 book--the first biography of Mithradates in fifty years--Adrienne 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 Kingdescribes 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 Kingis a gripping account of one of Rome's most relentless but least understood foes.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-3342-9
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xviii)
    (pp. xix-xx)
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    It sounds like a fairy tale.¹ But add the documented facts and it’s history. In about 120 BC, Mithradates VI Eupator the Great, king of Pontus, inherited a small but wealthy kingdom on the Black sea (northeastern turkey). Mithradates (Mithra-d AY-tees) is a Persian name meaning “sent by Mithra,” the ancient Iranian sun god. two variant spellings were used in antiquity—Greek inscriptions favoredMithradates; the Romans preferredMithridates. As a descendant of Persian royalty and of Alexander the Great, Mithradates saw himself bridging East and West and as the defender of the East against Roman domination. A complex leader...

  8. 1 Kill ἀ em All, and Let the Gods Sort ἀ em Out
    (pp. 13-26)

    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.

    ἀ e 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...

  9. 2 A Savior Is Born in a Castle by the Sea
    (pp. 27-42)

    The STAr appeared in the east, so brilliant that it seemed to rival the sun and set the night sky aflame. The luminous tail curved across a quarter of the heavens, as long as the Milky Way. The year was 135 BC.

    Across Anatolia, and from the Caucasus to Persia, the comet was greeted with rejoicing. According to well-known prophecies, a bright new light in the sky would announce the coming of a savior-king, a messiah or great leader who would triumph over enemies. Four generations later, another marvelous star in the east would lead the Magi to the little...

  10. 3 Education of a Young Hero
    (pp. 43-72)

    They mounted the boy on the wide back of the high-strung stallion. Whirling and bucking, the horse galloped away with the little rider gripping the reins and his child-size javelin. ἀ e prince was only ten, but husky and tall for his age. He’d been riding horses since age five. But this steed, fresh from the high pastures of Cappadocia, was not yet broken. As the horse raced across the field, Mithradates seemed in peril of being thrown—but somehow he hung on. He managed to control the horse and hurl his spear with force and skill surprising in someone...

  11. 4 ἀ e Lost Boys
    (pp. 73-95)

    Dreading that his enemies in the palace would succeed with the sword what they had failed to accomplish with poison,” Mithradates was compelled to protect himself.¹ ά ere were only two choices. Young Mithradates could remain in Sinope dominated by his treacherous mother, hoping to survive until he was old enough to wrest power away from her. Or he could take decisive action, the sort of path advocated by Sinope’s philosopher, diogenes. Mithradates’ destiny, promised by oracles and comets, demanded that he seize the second option.

    in devising a plan, Mithradates could consider the experiences of Cyrus of Persia, a...

  12. 5 Return of the King
    (pp. 96-122)

    As Mithradates and his friends ride toward sinope, they reap the rewards of their years in the countryside. A self-assured young man now, Mithradates has cultivated the trust of the commanders of forts, local leaders, and the people of Pontus, as well as warlike groups in the hinterlands.

    ἀ e ancient sources say only that Mithradates returned to sinope and took back his throne, leaving us to imagine how these events actually came to pass. As Mithradates headed home, in about 115/114 BC, garrison soldiers and armed bands probably joined his original company, fired by the young king’s mission to...

  13. 6 Storm Clouds
    (pp. 123-146)

    One day, without warning, Mithradates and his companions suddenly reappeared at the gates of Sinope— to the shock and distress of Laodice and her lovers. But the citizens of Pontus joyfully welcomed their king home aάer such a long absence. except for a few significant details, we are leά in the dark about Mithradates’ homecoming. Here is a reconstruction of how things may have gone, based on the facts recorded by Justin.¹

    Someone, neglecting to do the arithmetic, tactlessly congratulated the king on the birth of another son by Queen Laodice during his absence. He had been gone too long...

  14. 7 Victory
    (pp. 147-168)

    Aquillius ordered Nicomedes iV to lead his army into Pontus, ravaging the countryside as they advanced. ἀ ey were unaware that Mithradates could call on an overwhelming force, far beyond what the Romans could have anticipated. According to Appian, Mithradates commanded 250,000 soldiers and 50,000 cavalry (including all the reserves and commitments that Mithradates could count on from allies around the Black sea and Armenia). According to Memnon, Mithradates had 190,000 infantry, 10,000 cavalry.¹

    Mithradates, in his mid-forties, had little combat experience. For this first crucial battle of his career, Appian says that Mithradates personally took charge of the troops...

  15. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  16. 8 Terror
    (pp. 169-187)

    In The palace at pergamon, Mithradates was enjoying two honeymoons, one political and the other personal. Between romantic interludes with his new love Monime, the king reveled in his victories and devised a public punishment for a quillius. ἀ e Roman deserved to die for invading pontus and preying on a natolia. ἀ e king’s heralds summoned the populace to the ἀ eater of Dionysus, perched on a steep hillside of the a cropolis, where Mithradates had recently delivered his speech declaring war on Rome.

    ἀ e crowd watches as a super-hot bonfire is stoked in the center of the...

  17. 9 Battle for Greece
    (pp. 188-213)

    While he eagerly awaited the news from Greece, Mithradates was also following developments in italy. his takeover of Provincia Asia appeared to be the least of Rome’s problems now. Roman legions were battling the italian insurgents in the countryside, and civil war had broken out in Rome. Sulla, Marius’s rival, had been elected to a consulship. Gangs of Sulla’s Oligarch faction were at war with Popular party mobs loyal to Marius. Sulla was driven out of the city by the Populars; he took command of a Roman legion ἀghting Marsi rebels. encouraged by a dream in which Cybele, the great...

  18. 10 Killers’ Kiss
    (pp. 214-235)

    How long could Mithradates’ “honeymoon of absolute power and freedom” last? ἀ at question was answered by the gods of war in 86/85 BC. ἀ e heartbreaking loss of Mithradates’ favorite son Arcathius was followed by inexplicable losses in greece. How on earth could Sulla’s five legions have destroyed so many multitudes?

    Mithradates’ friends encouraged the king to suspect treachery. Dorylaus had voiced his own suspicions after the defeats in greece. Traitors were a genuine threat—betrayals were involved in the greek losses, and there were others who conspired with the Romans. Mithradates feared that his Anatolian allies would withdraw...

  19. 11 Living Like a King
    (pp. 236-261)

    LiKe a wrestler ready for another bout,” marveled Plutarch, Mithradates “had risen to his feet, despite the blow Sulla had dealt him.” And now, wrote Appian, aἀer his resounding victory over Murena, Mithradates “was at leisure.”

    The war for Greece had ended in disaster, with terrible casualties and the destruction of Athens. Yet in a way, the result was an ancient forerunner of what modern military strategists call the “Tet Offensive effect.” The phenomenon was named aἀer a massive assault by the North Vietnamese in 1968 during the Vietnam War. The offensive failed on a grand scale—but the nominally...

  20. 12 Falling Star
    (pp. 262-287)

    Four snow-white horses pulled the golden chariot, encrusted with gems ἀashing in the sun’s first rays. There was no driver. The beautiful horses galloped at full speed across the windswept cliff and plunged into the sparkling sea below.

    It was dawn, the first day of spring, 74 BC. Mithradates’ magnificent sacrifice, reported by Appian, to the Sun gods Mithra and Helios, and to Poseidon god of sea and earthquakes, was performed to ensure success in the new war on rome. The vivid image of the majestic white horses plunging into the sea persisted in the later roman, Byzantine, medieval, and...

  21. 13 Renegade Kings
    (pp. 288-314)

    When we last saw Mithradates, he was swept away by a desperate mob, ἀeeing Kabeira. The ancient sources tell us what happened next, but we can only imagine the king’s emotions. no doubt his mind was replaying an anguished panorama of his disasters on land and sea. Anxiety for his companions and kingdom mingled with images of the deaths he himself had ordered for his family, queen, lovers, children. But there can be no doubt that Mithradates also forced himself to think ahead, to calculate options for survival. If only he had a horse. . . . Suddenly he hears...

  22. 14 End Game
    (pp. 315-346)

    From their tree houses in the rhododendron forests, the Turret-Folk observed Pompey’s army on the march across mithradates’ kingdom. As a young prince, mithradates had befriended this ἀerce tribe. They knew the secrets of the local wild honey, the powerful neurotoxin that had felled Xenophon’s Greek army in 401 BC. After tasting the honey, his soldiers had collapsed, open to attack in hostile territory. To Xenophon’s great relief, his men eventually recovered.

    In 66 BC, however, the poison honey would be deployed as a deliberate biological weapon against the roman invaders, ignorant of Xenophon’s experience. The Turret-Folk placed tempting honeycombs...

  23. 15 In the Tower
    (pp. 347-370)

    WhaT happened in the tower aἀer Pharnaces was acclaimed king? There was apparently only one witness, Mithradates’ bodyguard Bituitus, and it is not clear that he lived to tell the story. What we do know comes from Roman historians who pieced together the scene from the contradictory reports of people in Pantikapaion at the time, interpretations of the evidence found in the tower, and hearsay and popular traditions about Mithradates’ last hours. Let us look first at what the ancient writers tell us, and then consider how to read between the lines to reconstruct events and make sense of incomplete...

  24. appendix one Mythic Hero or Deviant Personality?
    (pp. 371-376)
  25. aPPendix two Mithradates’ Aἀerlife in the Arts and Popular Culture
    (pp. 377-379)
  26. NoTES
    (pp. 380-419)
    (pp. 420-433)
  28. InDEx
    (pp. 434-447)