Interviewed by Jeremy J. Baer, aka Ursus
Philip Matyszak holds a doctorate in history from St. John's college of Oxford, and has written numerous books on Ancient Rome, and one on Ancient Athens.
"Maty," as he is known on the UNRV forums, consented to the following interview regarding his newest book, Mithridates the Great: Rome's Indomitable Enemy. The author generously donated a free copy of the book for purposes of the review.
UNRV: You told me in private this was your favorite book that you have written thus far. Why is that?
Maty: Because there was both a powerful story to tell – there's four major set-piece battles and a series of epic sieges – and a fascinating protagonist. The world's first experimental toxicologist fights against Rome for decades with a front line that goes from west of Athens to east of the Euphrates. There's devious political plots, murder, assassinations – its a wonderful story. But it was also very challenging to write. Very few books on Mithridates exist, and there are a mass of ancient documents to be disentangled and sorted into a narrative of events. At the end, reading the whole thing and deciding that I have made it into a coherent story was very satisfying.
UNRV: Was there any special motivation for writing this book?
Maty: This was one that the publisher approached me with. If I'd thought that I could sell the idea, I'd have done a proposal earlier – as it was I took up the offer as fast as I could, even though I had another writing project at the time. This meant giving up my job at Cambridge so that I could concentrate full-time on writing both. However, judging by the sales of Mithridates so far, it was the right decision.
UNRV: How did you manage to sort out all those confusing strands of politics between Pontus and its immediate neighbors?
Maty: I used charts – I've still got them, now folded up in a box. There is a large map with coloured time lines scrawled all over it, and sometimes I laid them on the table and actually drew lines showing where events were interconnected, and then put post-it notes with the details. Fortunately, it was one of those cases that the more you got to know, the more it made sense.
UNRV: While researching the book, what was the most unexpected or intriguing thing you discovered about Mithridates and his world?
Maty: This book involved using a lot of non-Roman material. What surprised me was the view of the Hellenistic kingdoms that Rome was not the centre of the known world, but rather a semi-barbarian and rabidly dangerous threat on the fringes. When I re-read the book after it appeared in paper form, I see that this view influenced me more than I had thought at the time I was writing.
UNRV: The Asian Vespers - the butchering of tens of thousands of Roman civilians throughout the East - is probably the most telling act of Mithridates career. Do you think it ultimately backfired insofar as irrevocably sealing Rome's hostility?
Maty: Rome was by nature an expansionist power. Whether kingdoms fought to the death as did Mithridates in Pontus or bent over backwards to be accommodating as Cleopatra (literally) did in Egypt made no difference. So Mithridates was correct that Rome could not be negotiated with, so he might as well commit his allies as irrevocably to his cause as possible. Where he went wrong, I think, is that by killing people who had sought sanctuary in temples, he caused his own people to think they had offended the gods. This was not good for morale.
UNRV: Even if Mithridates could have somehow defeated the Romans decisively, do you think his Black Sea empire would have been a viable state that could have endured? Or was it destined to self-destruct like the other Hellenistic realms?
Maty: Almost certainly it would have self-destructed. Mithridates was a powerful and charismatic personality who ruled by sheer force of character. I think he would have been a very hard act to follow. That said, I think the Pontic core of the state would have survived. The predecessors of Mithridates built their kingdom very solidly.
UNRV: How much did Adrian Goldsworthy contribute to the retelling of battles? Are you and he close colleagues?
Maty: Adrian is a good friend. He read through several of the battle accounts whilst sitting on my sofa, and we discussed the story whilst walking in the mountains and valleys around Innsbruck. There is always some amount of Goldsworthy input into my work, and this was even the case when we were students together in Oxford. As you will have noticed, he also contributed several photographs.
UNRV: Between the towering figures of Sulla and Pompei there stood the lesser known Lucullus. I became very much intrigued with his exploits. Do you think the part he played in this epic tale receives short shrift from history?
Maty: This is certainly the case. Lucullus was essentially the man who beat Mithridates, who was probably the most dangerous threat to the empire for the next two hundred years. He was humane (very much unlike Sulla and Mithridates) but very ambitious and far and away exceeded what he was supposed to do in his job. (Governing Cilicia and leading armies around Mesopotamia being very different things.) He was also an excellent general who deserves to be better remembered by history. Still, he did become fantastically rich, which must have been some compensation.
UNRV: Not to comment directly on modern politics, but is there a lesson to be learned from a rogue leader capitalizing on the widespread ill-will directed to the reigning superpower?
Maty: Mithridates would have disagreed with your basic premise here. He was a legitimate ruler, and Sulla and Lucullus were the rogue leaders of a bandit state. The lesson to be learned is that even if you feel superior militarily and culturally, the locals are going to strongly disagree unless you show that you are prepared to work with them and for them. Accepting other people's values is a two-way process, and whoever does it best will win over the neutrals.
UNRV: What is your next project?
Maty: I've always got several projects on the go – in fact, as I remarked on my blog, my wife has offered to start the season of peace and goodwill by killing me unless I leave off work for the festive period. The first thing will be to see 'Legionary – the unofficial manual' out of the door. (It's off to press at the start of 2009). Then I'm going to get stuck right into the Macedonian wars, and start thinking about another major biography. That said, preparing the Athens course has got me thinking about ancient philosophy and religion, so I might pitch something along these lines to an editor as well. I'm also in discussion with Pen and Sword on another book or two to make it a hat-trick of books with them. It's going to be a busy 2009.
UNRV: Thank you for your time, doctor. And thank you again for the book. We hope it becomes a best seller - and we understand it is well on its way to becoming just that!
...to the review of Mithridates the Great.