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Sunday, November 20, 2011


– ADRIENNE MAYOR  (Princeton University Press – 2010)

               In the blurb on the back leaf of the cover it says: "The Poison King is a gripping account of one of Rome's most relentless but least understood foes." It should, i think, have added "...least understood that is by anyone after the 18th century." There are illustrations of busts preserved from the period of the last century BC, and apothecary ware from as late as the 18th century, and literary references to Mithridates from the Middle Ages onward that indicate great parts of the story of Mithridates were well understood by those literate in the Latin classics.
               The Autodidact has been increasingly astonished at the breadth of learning and the availability of ancient writings that survived and were widely taught among the literate classes of Europe for nearly 2,000 years (and that are still accessible if one has the perseverance and the desire).
               The Poison King is neither simply a resurrection of things already archived, nor is it an arcane revisionism published to advance a career. The author clearly has a passion for the subject and a democratic enthusiasm to spread the word. For Mithridates was something like a Peter the Great of his age; taller and immensely strong, broadly educated, endlessly curious, boundlessly energetic right to the end of his 70+ years of life; indefatigable and resolute, mercilessly ruthless and with equally, politically astute, qualities of mercy.
               In an age of horseback, dirt roads, and slow sailing ships, he managed a massacre of at least 100,000 Romans living and working around the Aegean basin on a single day, a feat achievable only by complete surprise to a Roman republic that was already the predominant political entity across the Mediterranean! He defeated two Roman generals and their legions sent to subdue him, and escaped the third, Pompey the Great, who had theretofore subdued Spain and went on to subdue virtually all of the Middle East to the edges of Iran thus virtually doubling the size of the Roman Empire.
               It was also because of his hatred of Rome, and its uncompromising response to him, that the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Parthia, were colored into the map of Rome's dominions. But it was not simply Mithridates' ambitions, nor his hatreds that the Autodidact comes to understand were the driving cause of Rome's acquisitions. The Mithridatic Wars were the final response of the Helenized world, the world that Alexander the Great created, to the Roman threat.
               The Helenic World reached into Italy itself with the Greek colonies that predated Alexander by several centuries. Mithridates' time was the last century BC, two centuries after Alexander and a time when upstart Rome was in the final decline of its Republic; before the Caesars, and after its titanic struggle across a century of war with Carthage for control of the western Mediterranean: the time when Hannibal roamed the length and breadth of Italy at will and massacred whole Roman armies sent against him, and Roman and Carthaginian navies fought battles the size of which would not be seen again until the Battle of Lepanto and the Spanish Armada more than thirteen centuries later.
               Mithridates' kingdom was Pontus on the Black Sea coast of what is now Turkey. It was part of an Helenic system of kingdoms in which murder by poison was a political norm and the ruling classes were perpetually in danger from their own kinsmen. Brother killed brother, wives killed husbands, mothers murdered their own sons. From a young age Mithridates was well aware of the rules of the game that had few rules and so he separated himself from the palace of his father, fearing his own mother's  hedonistic and greedy ambitions, and set out to explore the kingdom he would inherit if he lived. He and a tight circle of friends travelled the land, explored, slept on the ground and hunted for their food and made alliances with local commanders, mapped the treasure houses his father had built, and studied poisons the better to resist them. He went far afield. He made allies of the wild tribes of the Anatolian mountains, the Caucasus, and even the universally feared Scythian nomads of what is now the Don River basin of Russia.
               His kingdom and the Black Sea basin were a source of grain and metals, including gold, for the Mediterranean world. It had been rich in resources since the Greeks settled Ionia and the southern Black Sea coasts, and so his father's kingdom was immensely wealthy. Curious the matter of gold, which can be traced back to Egypt whose mines bribed foreign potentates across not only centuries, but millenia, and made of that land a place of fabled riches; and so too Pontus on the Black Sea. There may in fact still be hoards of treasure sitting in the blackness of undiscovered caves in Turkey that have escaped 2,000 years of robbers, adventurers and explorers.
               Mithridates was well educated and his life was marked it seems for greatness. He was born on the night of a great comet. A lightning bolt marked his forehead as an infant when it struck his cradle. In fact celestial events, including a white hot asteroid streaking into the ground between his army and that of a Roman general before they closed battle, make his life seem something preordained, a series of celestial events he capitalized upon in memorial coins and statues and carvings the better to legitimize himself with the common folk who were a political element he seems never to have forgot. These sorts of things happened throughout his life and while not scientifically verifiable, they are too often corroborated to be dismissed out of hand.
               His study of poisons was extensive and lifelong. He concocted 'Mithridatium", an antitoxin – for obvious reasons. There are stories of his taking the antitoxin every day of his life and stories of his entertaining dinner guests by taking deadly poisons and surviving them; not only a neat parlor trick, but an advertisement to anyone thinking of trying ot poison him. The existence of the concoction is well documented, but the recipe was lost – perhaps- in his final defeat (and whether he was finally defeated is also a point of argument)!
               Apothecaries in the Middle Ages, and even into the 18th Century, had only to provide jars embossed with pictures from Mithridates' storied life to advertise concoctions they sold.
               One of the Roman generals, Lucullus, who chased Mithridates futilely across the length and breadth of Anatolia, captured much of Mithridates' treasure as Mithridates continually retreated before him. One of these treasures was likely the Antikythera Mechanism: a device with gears for calculation of celestial time – including solar and lunar eclispes – which caused such a sensation in the 1990's for its very modern and accurate engineering (2,000 years after its manufacture!). The likelihood of its Mithridatic provenance is the location and age of the ship that went down in the Aegean in a storm mention of which is found in ancient sources.
               When Pompey returned to Rome for his triumph he paraded the Mithridatic wealth he had captured. The procession lasted four days and is estimated by scholarly estimates to have been about one thirtieth of the actual total wealth Pompey captured – and this after Lucullus had stripped Anatolia of everything he and his greedy legions could find years before.
               But the ultimate prize that Pompey wanted to parade before Rome was absent – Mithridates himself.
               Did he die as the stories say or was his death just another of Mithridates' brilliant ruses?
               Ms. Mayor adds a section in her book of her speculations which are exciting but still within the bounds of learned skepticism. Did Mithridates give his daughters poison in the tower of Pantikipaion and then have his trusted bodyguard slay him? There is good reason to believe that Pompey did not in fact find the proof of Mithridates' death he so badly wanted. What happened to Hypsicratea – his last and perhaps greatest love – an Amazon from the Russian steppe who went into battle with him?
            What is perhaps most remarkable is the list of sources for this story. Half the educated Roman world, the eastern half, did not speak Latin as the lingua franca, but Greek, much as the Europe of the 18th century spoke French as the language of civilization. And, whether in Greek or in Latin, the story of Mithridates was perpetuated across the centuries of Roman domination even though he was Rome's most feared enemy after Hannibal himself. Say what you will about that; that it was Rome's lack of complete censorship, or alternately that glorifying a great enemy was proof of Rome's greater greatness; there was still enough truth – and mystery – for centuries of accepted legend and now for discerning scholarship to dissect and reassemble. If history is written by the victors, it betrays itself, but the Autodidact does not subscribe to that gross misunderstanding of what history tells us.
               Throughout the book Ms. Mayor catalogs the texts that are still about for scholars to explore, and more intriguingly the texts to which those texts refer which no longer exist.
               The Autodidact, while essentially ignorant of the true scope of the loss of ancient texts – who regularly finds his blood pressure and sense of justice outrageously violated at the thought of Roman legions burning the Library of Alexandra 2,000 years ago -  is nonetheless ready to weep at the loss he does appreciate. But he also appreciates the perspicacity of disciplined scholars such as Ms. Mayor who can extrapolate from what we still have.
               And he owes Ms. Mayor a debt for opening more doors for the Autodidact to walk through when he chooses.