Book Review: The Poison King

Charismatic, brave and ruthless, the first century B.C. Persian king Mithradates was a master of warfare and toxicology who nearly brought the Roman Empire down. Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King is a stunning portrait of the greatest ruler time forgot. Mayor will discuss her book this Thursday, July 22, at the Central Library.

Mithradates was not the type to do anything small.

He had his armor made a size or two too big to intimidate enemies. He developed immunities to poison – by taking poison. He conducted not one but three wars against Rome, caused more than 80,000 civilians to be slaughtered in a single day, and publicly executed an enemy by pouring molten gold down his throat.

Even his birth was marked by a celestial event.

In the year he was either born or conceived, 135 or 134 BC, the “Star of Sinope” burned across the sky over Mithradates VI Eupator’s home in northwestern Turkey, on the coast of the Black Sea. Astronomic phenomena were hugely portentous in antiquity, usually signifying the arrival of a savior, as with Jesus and the Star of Bethlehem.

Then, soon after his birth, lightning struck Mithradates’ crib, leaving a crown-like scar on his forehead. This was not unheard of. As Mayor points out in The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, nonfatal lightning strikes forecasted fame. Darius I of Persia, Alexander of Macedon and, Mayor notes, Harry Potter of Hogwarts all had similar brushes with lightning.

But unlike J.K. Rowling’s young wizard, Mayor’s Poison King of Pontus was a bloodthirsty ruler of awesome power and boundless cunning.

In the first full-scale biography of Mithradates in over a century, Mayor, a scholar at Stanford University, allows her central character to reclaim his status as one of the great kings of antiquity. Mayor paints him both as a liberator of Eastern peoples who were enslaved by Roman tyranny and a psychopath who exhibited cruelty on an inhuman scale.

Though he ultimately fell to Rome in 63 BC, Mithradates put up one hell of a fight. He came close to uniting people of the present-day countries of Greece, Turkey, Armenia, Ukraine, Russia, Crimea, Georgie, Chechnya, Syrian, Iran, Iraq and others under his banner. He also pioneered astonishing advances in pharmacology – hence the book’s title. Yet, in a history written by Western victors, Mithradates is largely forgotten.

That’s surprising, too, given his track record for killing.

On a single day in 88 BC, using a secret communication method historians have yet to unlock, Mithridates engineered the wholesale butchering of nearly every Roman man, woman and child in Asia Minor – some 80,000 in number. The horrific details of this bloody act of genocide form the first chapter of The Poison King, serving as a caveat to readers that Mithradates was no Harry Potter.

Still, he did like his potions. Though her book is about much more than the first half of its title, Mayor relishes in describing her hero’s obsession with toxicology. In novelistic prose, Mayor portrays the countryside around the Black Sea as rich in killer plants and infernal, sulfurous springs. Archers dipped their arrows in viper venom. Bees spun toxic honey from poisonous flowers. Even the ducks around the Black Sea had poisonous flesh – perfect pets for Mithradates.

Mithradates’ greatest contribution to the science of toxicology came not through new recipes for killing (though he had plenty) but rather through his obsession with invincibility. Each morning, in search of a universal antidote, Mithradates would ingest his and his doctors’ latest mix of antidotes and poisons. For dinnertime entertainment, he would swallow snake venom and invite guests to sprinkle poison on his food, which he would then eat and also serve to prisoners condemned to death in order to test antidotes on them.

His most noteworthy scientific accomplishment was in discovering the “pharmacological paradox” – the principle that one can build up immunity to some poisons by ingesting small dosages of them. An example of this practice known as mithraditism can be seen in the character of Westley in the 1987 comedy The Princess Bride. Having built immunity to “iocaine” powder, Westley uses it to vanquish a loudmouthed foe.

Though this episode contains no direct reference to Mithradates, the Poison King has nonetheless enjoyed a long list of credits in the arts and popular culture in the centuries after his death. Mayor’s excellent book lists quite a few, including Racine’s 1673 Mithridate (Louis XIV’s favorite play); Mozart’s first opera, Mitridate re di Ponto, written at age 14; mentions in poems by Whittier, Housman and Emerson; and a starring role in the 2008 video game Rome: Total War, to name just a few.

All in all, The Poison King is a wonderful piece of historical storytelling: rich and comprehensive but also fast-paced and suspenseful. It’s simply dying for cinematic treatment.

Find out more about the would-be matinee idol Mithridates when Adrienne Mayor speaks at the Central Library on Thursday, July 22, at 6:30 p.m. A reception will precede the event, at 6 p.m., with free (and poison-free) beverages and snacks.

-- Jason Harper