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Mithridates the Great: Rome's Indomitable Enemy by Philip Matyszak

Book Review by Ursus

"Chronicling the life of Mithridates has been a fascinating experience, and I strongly suspect that, even after two millenia, the defiant Pontic battle king will still attract new followers," opines doctor Philip "Maty" Matyszak. If this prediction is borne out, it will be due to nothing less than the author's meticulous scholarship and enchanting prose, both of which vividly animate an unforgettable yet heretofore largely unknown persona in Roman history. With the grand politics of the late Republic, enthralling military clashes, and larger than life personalities sketched by an eloquent pen, this could very well be the book of the year for Romanophiles.

The author relates in his preface that biographies of great men have fallen by the wayside as current scholarship focuses more on broader economic and cultural trends. That is unfortunate, because the triumphs and failures of great men often make better reading than the dry prattling of economists. In any event, it seems unusual that such a bold and legendary figure as Mithridates is little known outside academic circles. Matyszak no doubt saw this as a grand opportunity - let's bring this interesting villain to the general reader! Why had no one thought of this before?

What prompted this grand endeavor, I suspect, is a certain resonance between Roman history that is always, for better or for worse, played against American domestic and foreign policy. Rome was an upstart military and economic giant, though cultural pygmy, whose perceived arrogance, corruption and bungling of foreign policy were resented by older, more culturally advanced nations that had lost center stage in the international arena. Many people griped, but Mithridates was one of the few Hellenistic dynasts to actually translate widespread anti-Roman sentiment into a plan for action. The wily and powerful king fought Rome in three devastating wars, and had some things gone differently Roman expansion into the Greek East might have come to an abrupt halt.

But Matyszak does not in any way redeem Mithridates into a heroic savior of those allegedly exploited by a malignant imperial power. He carefully documents Mithridates ruthlessness: the murder of relatives, the massacre of Roman civilians, the cruel tax exploitation of subjects (which ironically was his subjects' chief grievance against the Romans). Matyszak goes so far to say Mithridates was simply doing what his Roman opponents were doing - conquest for the sake of empire and personal glory.

The author points out that what is to be admired in the man is his audacious personality, his bold ambition, and his implacable will to triumph. That Mithridates made himself immune to poison by incrementally ingesting toxins is something fairly well known, and the author relays those episodes in great detail. But did you know that even on the brink of final defeat, Mithridates was building siege engines for a daring plan to invade Italy itself? Whether genius or lunacy, such details give us a sense of this remarkable man.

The book starts with a general introduction into the geopolitical background of Asia Minor and the surrounding regions. It then picks up pace with a revealing look at the Mithridates family tree: the Mithridates we all know and love to hate was the sixth of his line, and came from a family of reasonably successful and ruthlessly ambitious nobles in the Pontic area. Mithridates existed in a shadowy line between the Hellenic and Persian worlds, and he emphasized whichever part of his heritage was more politically expedient at the moment. How Mithridates managed to build his early kingdom from a wide array of post-Seleucid states and Black Sea barbarians is a fascinating tale, and the author receives high marks for clarifying this murky world of regional politics.

From there of course Mithridates' ambitions brought him into conflict with Roman expansion. The opening skirmishes and diplomatic move and counter-move between Rome and Mithridates, often using proxies, have something of the intriguing flavor of an ancient Cold War. But the shadow boxing explodes into direct military confrontation between the two powers, and the book becomes a spell binding excursion into politics, battles and personalities.

Much of the Roman viewpoint is seen through the eyes of first Sulla, then his lieutenant Lucullus, and finally ends with Pompei the Great. The author brings each of these personalities to life through his reading of the primary sources, and paints each of them with a biting, candid aura. I started to experience something the author probably had not intended: Lucullus began to steal the show from Mithridates in the later chapters. He is a fascinating and relatively unknown Roman figure whom the author has expertly revived, and poor unsung Lucullus and his military exploits deserves his own biography.

At this point I would like to compare the author to two other popular Roman historians. I am not usually one to enjoy the minutiae of military exploits, but Matyszak has enumerated the many military clashes in this epic with a clarity and vividness friendly to the general reader. On this level his writings are up there with Adrian Goldsworthy, that modern giant of Roman military history (except Matyszak is less verbose). In the author's acknowledgment he mentions Goldsworthy as having commented on some of the battles, and I think it shows.

Second, while I have always enjoyed Matyszak's wit and prose from his numerous previous books, I believe in this work he takes it to a new level. I had praised Tom Holland, author of "Rubicon," as the best historian around who can write for the general reader. I believe Matyszak begins to equal or exceed Holland in that regard with "Mithridates". While obviously grounded in scholarship, it felt much more like reading a good dramatic novel. I had it finished the same day it was delivered to me.

The book has plenty of first class maps of the Pontic area, as well as tactical maps used to recreate some of the more significant battles. There are four back-to-back pages of stunning photographs and illustrations, some done personally by the author. In the back is a convenient section of notes and sources, and a bibliography. Pen and Sword has made a sturdy book with a great dust cover.

In the sum of things, this will be a seminal book in bringing the Mithridatic Wars to the general reader. It should appeal to a wide variety of people: Romanophiles, military buffs, and general history enthusiasts.

Read Jeremy Baer's interview with Philip Matyszak.

Discuss and order this book online at Amazon

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Book Review of Mithridates the Great: Rome's Indomitable Enemy - Related Topic: Pontus


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