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The Poison King by Adrienne Mayor

Book Review by Philip Matyszak

Two thousand years after his death, Mithridates VI of Pontus continues to generate strong feelings, and this will certainly continue to be the case for readers of Adrienne Mayor's latest book. I have a feeling that readers on this forum will either love it or hate it, but rather as with Mithridates himself, itís hard to be neutral. To make my own position clear, I'm a fan, both of this book and of the man himself. But with both I have reservations. With Mithridates, it is impossible to completely admire a man who cold-bloodedly arranged the execution of 80,000 men, women and children in a single day. With the book, the text contains invention and occasional misstatements which could easily give an unwary reader the wrong impression.

This is a history book, but it is history painted in bright, flamboyant colors. The writer's enjoyment of her topic leaps from every page. The life of Mithridates more than somewhat resembles an epic romance, and this exactly is how the author tells it. Mithridates is presented as a Hero - not a nice person - but a hero in the style of Beowulf, Achilles and Siegfried. The personality of the protagonist has substantial flaws, but the flaws, like the rest of the character, are larger than life and of huge consequence in the making of the legendary personality which the hero becomes. This book is very much about the legend of Mithridates, to the extent that we learn more about the myths than the man (and the book as a whole becomes more entertaining as a result).

The chapter headings consciously reflect the legend-building process with titles such as 'A Savior is born in a Castle by the Sea', 'Education of a young Hero' 'Renegade Kings' and 'In the Tower'. Every folk story known about Mithridates is presented to the audience, and one quibble is that these legends are presented too uncritically. One sometimes has to pause and check whether a portion of the text is reliable fact or wild fantasy. The more traditional academic approach of McGing in his ground-breaking study 'The Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus' examines most of these tales with a skeptical eye and explains his reasons for discounting many of them. However this book is at least as much about the legends as about Mithridates, and the degree which they reflect reality is less important to the author. Her concern appears to be more focused on how folklore reflected contemporary popular sentiment and how these tales went into creating the overall legend of Mithridates. This is one reason why the majority of the illustrations show interpretations of the Mithridates myth in the Middle ages and Renaissance.

One of the appendices of the book is dedicated to an early 20th century academic study of the prototype of a mythical character, and the requirements for this type of hero. These range from being born of royal blood at the beginning to having an unknown tomb at the end, and the author shows how (with some vigorous shoe-horning in places) the legend of Mithridates fits all twenty-three of the criteria for a perfect score. It is because the author compares Mithridates with other characters about whom myths have grown or been deliberately constructed that this book has attracted the wrath of some readers. And indeed, it is perfectly valid, given the author's approach, which Mithridates should be compared with John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Harry Potter, but there are not many who would be brave enough to make the latter comparison. However, the process of building and examining the myth is something that takes place in the background as the story unfolds. The reader is free to ignore this process and instead luxuriate in the richness of the text, and the wealth of background material which covers everything from the Pontic flora and fauna to the poetry of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Where she can, the author has used the story of Mithridates as it has been passed down to us in the sources, which are referenced and indexed conscientiously. However, as Ms Mayor herself has later said 'It seems rather pedestrian, and unfair to readers given the book's title, to just cite Justinís terse sentences and then jump forward to Mís early reign. [For example with one chapter] I decided to use this clearly identified lacuna in Mís life to introduce the readers to his lands, its peoples, geography, and natural resources in an interesting way.' In other words, you have been warned. Such flights of fancy are clearly separated from the rest of the text, but a lot of the speculation is less well delineated. To chose an example at random, Bituitus 'a Celtic officer/ leader' (Hegemona Keltoi) only appears in a single paragraph of Appian, quite literally at the death, when Mithridates is looking for someone to kill him. The actual words on which the author has based a relationship are 'I have profited much from your strong arm against my enemiesí. Yet from this scanty base Bituitus appears in Mayor's chronology fifty years earlier and frequently thereafter as Mithridates 'friend and bodyguard, a strapping chieftain of the Allobroges, whose lands had been annexed by Rome'. (In fact - to indulge in a brief frenzy of nit-picking - the Allobroges were conquered in 121 BC, but their lands were not annexed, and even if he was a chieftain Bituitus was more likely to be either Galatian, or - as the author later suggests - of the Arverni tribe.)

Another danger for the unwary reader are statements which frequently causes one to pause and mentally clarify the author's meaning before continuing. The treatment of the battle of Thermopylae in 191 BC is a good example. When one reads 'Antiochus and Hannibal were defeated', it takes one a moment to realize that the author does not mean to say that Hannibal was present at the battle, or even involved in the strategy or planning. Rather it means that as Hannibal's fate was bound to that of Antiochus, a defeat for one was a defeat for the other. Also in connection with the battle of Thermopylae, the author recounts the diverting story of Publius and the wolf - a legend that a wolf chased the Roman general 'Publius' up a tree after the battle, and even after his head was severed it continued to utter dire prophesies about the fate of Rome. This is arrant nonsense, and every contemporary Greek or Roman knew it, but because the story was circulating in the East at the time of Mithridates, the author gives it considerable weight.

There is at times an element of hyperbole. As is to be expected in a myth, where Mithridates is heroic, the Romans are despicable scum of the darkest type. One can hardly object to this as firstly, this pretty much describes the Romans in Asia at the time and secondly, having clear-cut villains makes it all the easier to get behind Mithridates and sympathize with his struggle. The battles of the Mithridatic wars are called the 'greatest battles of antiquity' though most aficionados would probably only rate Tigranocerta near the top ten, and even some well-educated Romanists have never heard of Mithridates greatest triumph at Zela. Also Hannibal and Atilla the Hun - amongst others - might object to the book's sub-title 'Rome's deadliest enemy'.

Another issue is mis-translations. One winces to read the pilum described as 'a light throwing spear', or the Roman short sword as a 'machete'. Members of UNRV will know that cataphracts are not really 'knights', and so on. In fact anyone wanting to go nit-picking through this book will have a field day. However, nitpicking is a poor way to judge a book's overall worth, and especially so in this case. How the reader reacts to this book depends on expectations. Even assuming the academic accepts the speculative approach of the author, he nevertheless will find a series of minor errors and assumptions which are all the more irritating because a knowledgeable editor could and should have eliminated these without doing injury to the main text.

On the other hand anyone looking for a rip-roaring read packed with color, action and incident is not going to be disappointed. The author has read widely and shares her information with such gusto that one is easily swept up in her obvious enthusiasm. Mithridates is a swashbuckling tale, and Adrienne Mayor tells it in that spirit. If it goes on to the second edition which it deserves, and some of the issues described here are resolved, this will be a book I wholeheartedly recommend.

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Interview with Adrienne Mayor

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy - Related Topic: Mithridatic War


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