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Interview with Adrienne Mayor

Interviewed by Philip Matyszak

Adrienne Mayor is an independent folklorist/historian of science who investigates natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions. Adrienne Mayor is currently a visiting scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University. She is the author of The First Fossil Hunters, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs and The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates.

Philip Matyszak, aka "Maty":
Can you briefly tell us something about yourself?
Adrienne Mayor, aka "Adrienne":
I love researching obscure, misunderstood, and neglected topics in ancient history and early science. My books and articles range from fossil hunters in togas and murder by poison garments to Amazon myths, ancient tattooing, and biochemical warfare in the ancient world. Until 2006, I wrote as an independent scholar unaffiliated with any university; now I’m a Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science at Stanford University. I have enjoyed giving illustrated talks about my research in North America and Europe, and it is my great good fortune to divide my time between the Rockies of Montana and northern California.

Maty: Why choose Mithridates as a topic?
Adrienne:I began gathering material on Mithradates about eight years ago, when I was writing “Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World” (2003). Not only did Mithradates’ allies use toxic honey, envenomed arrows, and flaming naphtha against the Romans, but Mithradates was the first to attempt to create a universal antidote against poisons based on experimental toxicology. I discovered that the only full-scale, completely documented biography of this dread enemy of Rome—feared as the Eastern Hannibal—came out in 1890, and was never translated into English. Alfred Duggan’s popular biography of 1958 was also very out of date. It was astounding to me that such an important, fascinating figure had somehow fallen into obscurity. Maty, you must have had the same reaction! Together our two books have brought Mithradates out of the shadows and onto the historical stage where he belongs.

Maty: What do you find most attractive/repellent about Mithridates as a person?
Adrienne: Mithradates must have presented a charming charismatic personality to his friends, soldiers, and allies, and there are numerous reports of his gallantry, mercy to enemies, and noble ideals. He offered a genuine alternative to the Roman Republic’s predatory approach to conquest in the first century BC. Some of his appeal lies in his chivalrous nature; his sense of humor, fears, and doubts; his curiosity and love of art and science; and his generosity. His respect for intelligent women as equals is another likeable quality. I admire Mithradates’ sincere attempts to negotiate and reason with the Romans, before he realized that war was inevitable. I’m also struck by the man’s perseverance, his optimism against all odds, and irrepressible zest for life.

Of course, the most repellent aspect of Mithradates is his resort to genocidal terror against innocent non-combatants, ordering the massacre of tens of thousands of Roman and Italian families in 88 BC. It is interesting that Michael Curtis Ford, in his 2005 novel “The Last King,” could not bring himself to blame his sympathetic character Mithradates for this slaughter. Instead he has the ruthless Greek botanist Krateuas persuade the reluctant king that the massacre is the only option. Other unsympathetic features of Mithradates’ character flow from his paranoia and periodic purges of suspected traitors, but perhaps that was an occupational hazard for many ancient leaders—consider the treachery encountered by Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

Maty: How did you do your research on poisons?
Adrienne: Besides reading widely on the plant, mineral, and animal poisons available in antiquity, I also consult with archaeologists, botanists, toxicologists, venomics researchers, and medical scientists about the interactions of toxins and antidotes. One of the surprising scientific milestones I discovered in Mithradates’ life is the first documented instance of using viper venom to stop profuse bleeding from grievous wounds. Twice in his life, Mithradates’ mysterious team of Agari (Scythian) shamans saved his life on the battlefield using venom, probably of local steppe or Caucasus viper. Today, that venom is a valuable export from Azerbaijan, used to halt severe hemorrhage in emergency rooms.

Maty: You have described an alternative 'afterlife' for Mithridates – how have readers reacted to that?
Adrienne: One of my goals was to try to tell Mithradates’ story from the perspective of the man himself and that of his allies. I present his sympathetic qualities as well as his ruthless, atrocious behavior. As the subtitle of my book indicates, I also explore the legends that arose during and after his reign. Mithradates’ death is shrouded in mystery, leaving open several unsolved puzzles that invite speculation. My editors at Princeton overcame their initial doubts about my plan to imagine plausible scenarios to address some of the mysteries of his last days, and it is gratifying to find that most reviewers and fans enjoy alternative “afterlife” scenarios as thought-provoking, entertaining, and stimulating historical exercises. The existence of old Scandinavian legends about Mithradates’ legacy shows that I’m not the first to imagine an “afterlife” for this indomitable rebel leader!

Maty: How do you think the world of antiquity is seen in North America today?
Adrienne: From my experiences giving lectures about my books in museums, libraries, and universities around the US, I see a growing, highly enthusiastic audience of readers (and war-gamers and battle re-enactors) eager for both nonfiction and fiction about Greece, Rome, and other ancient cultures. I think the excitement is partly due to realistic and/or imaginative portrayals in movies, cable TV, and games, and partly inspired by the recent spate of excellent and very popular books about ancient history by authors on both sides of the Atlantic. This body of work is creating an increasingly sophisticated readership. Meanwhile, Internet groups, such as Facebook, are great aggregators of the burgeoning international interest in the ancient world—for example, Mithradates Eupator’s profile on Facebook has more than 1,100 friends from all over the political spectrum and from around the globe.

Maty: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
Adrienne: My next book will be about ancient women warriors and their way of life in legend and history. Currently I’m co-authoring, with a toxicologist, an article investigating the science underlying the poisonous reputation of the River Styx. This was the poison suspected by the friends of Alexander the Great after he died in Babylon in 323 BC. They believed that Cassander brought the poison from the Styx to Babylon sealed in a horse’s hoof, the only container able to withstand the corrosive substance. We identified a candidate for a naturally occurring deadly toxin at the Mavroneri (“Black Water”) River in the Peloponnese, once known as the Styx, and presented our theory at the International Congress of Toxicology in Barcelona, July 2010. You can read the full paper here:

Maty: Thank you for your time!

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Interview with Adrienne Mayor - Related Topic: Mithridatic War


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