Why do we know so little about Mithradates the Great, king of Pontos, who reigned from 120 to 63BC and was one of Rome's deadliest enemies? He seems to have dropped off history's radar. While Racine could opine, in his 1673 tragedy Mithridate, "Il n'y a guere de nom plus connu que celui de Mithridate", today even a well-educated person is likely to draw a blank. True, Mithradates fought the Romans in Anatolia and around the Black Sea, areas about which we know little and care less. Our awareness is rapidly increasing, however, stirred by the Danish National Research Foundation's Centre for Black Sea Studies, whose publications remove any excuse for ignorance other than stubborn parochialism.
Not everyone wants the full academic works, of course, and now, thanks to Adrienne Mayor's provocative book, we can add Mithradates to our list of heroes - or devils, depending whose side you are on. The Poison King is the first full life since Alfred Duggan's flawed 1958 study He Died Old (whose title was taken from lines by A.E. Housman, "I tell the tale that I heard told/Mithridates, he died old"). Otherwise, you'd have to go back to the 1890 work Mithridates Eupator, roi de Pont by Theodore Reinach, for whom Mithradates was not just an enemy of Rome but of European culture; an Ottoman sultan, really.
Who else but an Asian barbarian would have ordered the massacre of at least 80,000 Italian men, women and children living in western Anatolia, as Mithradates indubitably did in the spring of 88BC? This discreditable war crime clouds the start of Mayor's book, which otherwise begins as almost a fairytale. An expert folklorist, Mayor well knows that Mithradates' history is entwined with legend and heroic archetypes, or simply propaganda. Yet she writes: "Even if something reported in the past had small odds of occurring, that doesn't mean it didn't happen." Perhaps not.
So she takes us on an unlikely romp through Mithradates' omen-filled birth and early years, often relying solely on the say-so of Justin (c AD200), who famously announced that he would leave out events that "did not make pleasurable reading or serve to provide a moral". Taking Justin's word for it, Mayor has Mithradates and a band of companions escape Sinope, the capital of Pontos, after his father's assassination and, to thwart his regicidal mother, travel incognito in the kingdom, "living like Robin Hood in the wilderness for seven years" - a standard mythic-hero theme. But what of the statues and inscriptions honouring Mithradates and his younger brother erected in Delos (BC115-116)? A cunning move by his treacherous mother to counter rumours that she had poisoned the prince as well. Of course, we don't know that she killed her husband, but it lets Mithradates off the hook for undoubted matricide, one of his first acts after a triumphal "return" to Sinope.
Mayor's "thought experiment" goes too far for my taste. Admittedly, it allows the author to take us through the mountains, temples and strongholds of the Pontic kingdom as Mithradates and his merry band travel on. This pays off later when he battles Romans and enemy kings over now-familiar terrain.
The book truly takes off when Mithradates begins his reign. Battles, intrigues, murder, treachery and "loot and love" follow in rapid succession. After every staggering loss, Mithradates slips away and starts again. Now we can understand why no fewer than 25 operas about Mithradates were composed in the 17th and 18th centuries (including Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto).The very stuff of drama, here it is carefully researched and narrated with verve. Even if it's overdone to condemn every convenient death as murder by poison (when all we really know are the accusations), Mithradates is indeed the "Poison King". His obsession with plant and animal poisons was notorious, and a universal antidote was still sold as Mithridatium into the 19th century.
Mayor's explanations are almost always plausible and the characters wonderfully drawn. She handily rehabilitates Mithradates as "the Great". No longer a "wily Oriental", the king liberates Greek cities from the blood-soaked greed of Roman oppression. No doubt he was a brilliant ruler, although perhaps not wise. His polyglot Asian armies never matched the Roman legions. I was glad, though, that the Roman generals who beat him time and again - Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey - all came to sticky ends. For the Romans killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers and civilians in the three Mithradatic Wars, far more than Mithradates had slaughtered in the spring of 88BC. Some Anatolian cities didn't recover from Roman revenge until Byzantine times. Others thrived. History is like that.
This is not a book for the classroom, but I enthusiastically recommend it as a Christmas gift for any history-minded friends or kin. The Poison King was a finalist for the US National Book Award, announced on 18 November - I hoped she'd won.
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy
By Adrienne Mayor
Princeton University Press
Published 16 November 2009