BMCR 2010.02.76

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

, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. xxii, 448; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780691126838. $29.95.


Mithridates VI Eupator (120-63 B.C.) was a famous king of Pontus—a region on the Black Sea—who in the last century of the republic long defied the power of Rome. In a series of three wars, fought between the 80s and the 60s B.C., he engaged with such great soldiers of the day as Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey. In modern times this resourceful and energetic monarch was the subject of a classic study by Théodore Reinach which appeared first in French (1890) and subsequently in German (1895) and later of important works by B. McGing (1986) and J. Ballesteros Pastor (1996). Now Adrienne Mayor has given us this detailed biography here under review. Although for the most part grounded on the ancient sources and modern scholarly literature, this work differs from its predecessors in its bold epic sweep. 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. The title Poison King would seem to suggest that perhaps Mayor, who is a noted authority in the field of ancient poisons, was first drawn to Mithridates because he, too, was a very great expert in such matters. However, Mayor goes far beyond such specialised interests and presents us with a richly detailed narrative of the king and his doings in which she constantly strives to put before us Mithridates’ view of events.

There are, of course, gaps in our knowledge of Mithridates due to the state of our sources and Mayor attempts to fill them by imaginative reconstructions. Not so much a case of how things really were as how they might have been. This is not a course which will commend itself to all. For instance, however splendid the evocation of the landscape in pp.73-95 we may legitimately enquire if Mithridates’ ‘exile’ from court was as Mayor describes it. Again we may wonder if there is any profit in describing what Sulla’s fingers may have looked like (p.212). Moreover, I think we may attribute to that empathy we noted earlier the rather wistful attempt (pp.362-365) to suggest what might have happened at the end of the Third Mithridatic War if the King, instead of committing suicide, simply rode off into the sunset. Indeed I would add that I found far more fascinating than this speculation the few pages (pp.373-376) Mayor devotes to considering if Mithridates had a personality disorder.

Leaving aside now the problems posed by imaginative reconstruction it should be noted that there are a few instances of error or, at least, of questionable statements. Herodotus does not say the Persians learned from the Greeks to accept homosexuality, rather they learned of pederasty from them (p.89). Sulla and his army were not in Rome in the 90s B.C. when Marius met Mithridates (p.132). Marius was not a consul in 88 B.C. (p.165). I doubt if the Asiatic Vespers can be seen as a gesture of solidarity with the Social War rebels (p.174). Sulla did not destroy Athens (p.203). It is at least questionable whether the siege of Cyzicus began in 73 B.C. (p.270). In both the original (1992) and the revised version (forthcoming) of my biography of Lucullus I have argued in detail for 74 B.C. The writer was Sidonius not Sidonis Apollonaris (p.262).

But such reservations as I might have should not be seen as taking from what Mayor has undoubtedly achieved. She herself (p.11) says, ‘Mithridates’ incredible saga is a rollicking good story’ and she has narrated it with verve, panache and scholarly skill.