The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy 
by Adrienne Mayor.
Princeton, 448 pp., £20.95, November 2009, 978 0 691 12683 8
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To cheat one’s enemy of victory can be a victory in itself, at least when any hope of actually winning a war has disappeared. So it was with one of Rome’s most flamboyant enemies, Mithridates VI Eupator, King of Pontus. He had cheated death for decades, at the hands of family, of ostensible friends, of many a declared enemy. Time and again he had checkmated Rome’s most formidable generals, or at least those who were not too busy checkmating one another in their struggles for power and status at Rome. Finally, in 63 BCE, his luck ran out. Age had taken its toll. Nearly 70 years old, no longer the young Alexander of his coins and his portraits, Mithridates had long since lost his aura of invincibility. Stranded in the Crimea, the farthest corner of an empire that had once stretched from the Caucasus to mainland Greece, he was powerless: his treasuries were empty, his fortresses in enemy hands, his surviving son estranged and hostile. So he took poison, hoping it would kill him, and for the first time his years of caution and cunning served him ill. He had by now so accustomed himself to every toxin in nature’s killing store that whatever it was that he now ingested failed to kill him. After watching two loyal daughters die by the poison draught that left him unharmed, he prevailed on his trusty slave Bituitus to kill him by the sword.

It had, in the end, been the Roman general Pompey who forced Mithridates to this final impasse, and it was Pompey who allowed the dead king’s remains to be moved from the desolate backwater where he had died to Pontic Sinope, where he could be interred among his ancestors in the royal mausoleum. This was Pompeius Magnus in the full flow of his magnanimity, honouring a fallen enemy as enemies could be honoured once safely dead – and as Caesar would one day honour him. Pompey now stood at the centre of the Roman political map, no longer the ‘little butcher boy’ he had been in youth. The general and dictator Sulla Felix, Mithridates’ first real Roman equal, had coined that immortal term, ‘adulescentulus carnifex’, to describe the future Pompey the Great, and it is somehow fitting that Sulla and Pompey should bookend the career of Mithridates: the first had foreseen and tried to avert the fall of the Roman Republic; the second, though Sulla’s loyal protégé, so subverted his reforms in the pursuit of limitless glory as to ensure that the Republic would never be saved. Between them, Sulla’s failure and Pompey’s unprecedented conquests not only destroyed the Republic for ever, but also created a new world in which a king like Mithridates could not possibly have existed.

Things had been different in 120 BCE when Mithridates’ father died: poisoned, it was thought, by his mother, who aspired to rule as regent for Mithridates’ younger brother. The rightful heir, fearing for his life, fled into the wilds of the Pontic kingdom for a suspiciously mythic seven years (four years is far more likely, but our sources are bad), whence he emerged strong enough to challenge, imprison and eventually do away with his mother and brother. Mithridates’ subjects had every reason to welcome him. It was recalled that a miraculous comet with a scimitar-shaped tail had been seen before his birth. That same comet, so it was rumoured, reappeared to announce his assumption of his inheritance. The Pontus that Mithridates took over was exceptionally rich in the minerals needed to forge good steel and in the timber from which ancient navies were built, but it had long been a kingdom between two worlds, its rulers facing both the Persian east and the Hellenised west. In the brutal aftermath of Alexander’s conquests in Asia Minor, local dynasts who had once been subject to Persia were able to carve out kingdoms of their own and, at the start of the third century BCE, the first of six Pontic rulers to bear the name Mithridates had welded the Greek cities of the Black Sea coast to the Persian and Anatolian lands of the interior to create one of the most successful such mini-states.

Mithridates Eupator could likewise face in both directions, a cultured Greek on the one hand, with a fabricated ancestry stretching back to Alexander himself, and a Persian shah on the other, with a marginally more plausible claim to distant kinship with the great Cyrus and Darius. The whole of Mithridates’ life was wrapped in a finely woven cloth of publicity and propaganda, and he attracted mythologising stories to himself like iron filings to a magnet. Yet the archaeological remains – coins and statues, but larger buildings too – disclose the care he took to maintain this dual image, while the men he counted as his closest supporters were a heterogeneous mix of Greeks, Persians and native Anatolians. The empire he created stretched beyond Pontus around the coasts of the Black Sea, taking both Greek cities and semi-barbarous Scythian chiefdoms into the royal protectorate. All that held such disparate places together – apart from the wealth and the charisma of Mithridates himself – was the fear of Rome’s ever encroaching power.

From the beginning of the second century BCE at the very latest, it had become impossible for anyone to ignore the Romans and the exacerbating effect their interventions had on the customary pointless skirmishing of cities and monarchs from one end of the Greek world to the other. Two hundred years later, to be sure, the Roman empire of Augustus and his successors created the framework of peace, prosperity and public munificence that prompted the great renaissance of Hellenism, but that would come only at a very heavy price, after centuries in which Rome was simply the most dangerous predator in a predatory landscape. For the politicians and generals of the middle and late Republic, the world was a stage on which to enact prodigies of rapacity, violence and extortion, all in aid of electoral triumphs at home. One can hardly exaggerate the damage Roman generals could do, supporting one petty dynast against another, making and unmaking ‘friends of the Roman people’, sucking up money and treasure in bribes, indemnities, tribute and fines with little warning or excuse. In 129 BCE, Rome annexed as the province of Asia the former kingdom of Pergamon, left to the Republic in the will of the last native dynast. Roman businessmen, slave-traders and opportunists of every sort followed in the wake of Roman armies, and it may have been Rome’s high-handed confiscation of part of the Pontic kingdom during the regency of Mithridates’ mother that first set him implacably against the rise of the western hegemon. From the beginning, Mithridates could play the typical local dynast, but at the same time his far-flung annexations built up a base from which he might plausibly challenge Rome, not least by turning the Black Sea into a Pontic lake. Famously admonished by the Roman Gaius Marius either to be greater than Rome or to obey her, Mithridates alone of his contemporaries attempted the former path. Secret treaties, open annexations, clandestine poisonings and one very public murder (a battlefield parley, Mithridates himself wielding the sword that killed his rival), were his methods. As his ambitions edged him ever closer to the young Roman province, conflict was inevitable.

It took a decade to materialise, however, as Rome collapsed first into the misery of protracted warfare with its Italian allies and then, in direct consequence, civil war between Marius and Sulla. In the meantime, relying on his alliance with the king of Armenia, Mithridates became the most powerful ruler in the East, quite able to contemplate the prospect of an Asia without Romans. He could count on wide support, for grievances against Rome were in endless supply across the region, but it took a new Roman provocation to spark the touch-paper. As was their normal practice, and in a manner that some might see as foreshadowing more recent imperialist ventures in the Middle East, Rome charged back the costs of military ventures it undertook on behalf of allies. If those allies were too impoverished to pay, they were encouraged to raise the price of intervention from the lands of their neighbours. When, in 90 BCE, Roman allies invaded Pontic territory to just such an end, Mithridates demolished them on the battlefield, before marching his army out in a campaign of conquest that shattered four full Roman armies. The luckier of the captured Roman generals was granted ostentatious hospitality in Mithridates’ entourage before being set free, humiliated; the less fortunate was paraded on an ass in mock triumph before molten gold was poured down his throat, an unsubtle indictment of Roman greed.

With Pontic overseers or friendly locals installed in cities across Asia Minor, the king was now master of the whole peninsula. To illustrate that point, and to ensure that former Roman allies could never go back on their new allegiance to him, Mithridates ordered a massacre: 80,000 Romans and Italians – every man, woman and child in the Asian cities – were butchered in a single day, slaves who had betrayed their foreign masters were freed, and the peninsula liberated from its foreign oppressors, in a skilfully organised slaughter that evidently enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the local populace. Styling himself the champion of Asia and the liberator of the Greeks, Mithridates needed no encouragement when the anti-Roman faction at Athens invited him to free Greece from its Roman yoke. Rome was crippled by the costs of war in Italy and was rapidly descending into a new orgy of violence between the partisans of Marius and Sulla, so Mithridates expected little opposition. Almost none was forthcoming, and for some time the mutual hostility of Roman commanders prevented any of them from dealing effectively with their Pontic enemy. Not until Sulla successfully extricated himself from Italy did Mithridates find an opponent who could best him.

As it happened, Sulla never met Mithridates himself on the battlefield, and we can’t know whether events might not have turned out quite differently had he done so. Instead, Sulla brought his squabbling subordinates to heel and overcame not just Mithridates’ Greek allies, but even a handpicked invading force, sent from Pontus under Mithridates’ most trusted general. By 85 BCE, the great king was forced to accept terms that returned the province of Asia to Rome and the neighbouring kingdoms to their evicted rulers. But his Black Sea empire was wholly intact and Pontus itself untouched, leaving Mithridates as the only foreign ruler of any stature to have challenged Rome so forcefully and emerged more or less unscathed. His Greek allies were not so lucky, Sulla showing the relish in exemplary punishment that Rome regularly meted out to the vanquished, and which he was shortly to import with terrifying ferocity into Rome’s own civil wars.

While those wars ticked on endlessly in the far-flung corners of empire, Mithridates had time to rebuild his forces, and even to secure military advisers from Roman commanders at war with the central government, which allowed him to mimic legionary tactics very effectively thereafter. Knowing full well that the most powerful men in Rome had no desire to honour the settlement he had made with Sulla, he kept relatively quiet, husbanding his strength, until provoked by Rome’s annexation of neighbouring Bithynia in 75. Thereafter, Mithridates was at war with Rome continuously until his suicide a decade later. For a time, diminished by defeat, he was forced to seek refuge in Armenia, but soon he confirmed his stature as Rome’s most irrepressible enemy and returned to Pontus, where the Roman administration was thoroughly reviled. Raising more Pontic troops, and again proving himself a master of the pitched land battle, he routed yet another Roman army and retook Pontus one final time.

Open conflict among Roman commanders again played straight into his hands, but in Rome, Pompey’s supporters were always on the lookout for new ways to augment their patron’s glory. They now seized the opportunity to have the command against Mithridates transferred to Pompey, who might thereby continue a long history of winning credit for victory in wars largely fought by others. With rival generals dismissed, Pompey cornered Mithridates for the last time in 66. During a night battle in Armenia, Pompey’s troops seized the high ground and the last great Pontic army of antiquity was shattered. Mithridates fled with a tiny remnant of his forces, deprived of his last strongholds and all his treasures. Crossing the Caucasus in winter, through tribal lands too dangerous for anyone but himself to cross with impunity, he arrived in the Crimea in the last year of his life. Having marched all the way round the Sea of Azov, he seized this last Pontic outpost from his elder son, planning to recapture his kingdom as he had done so many times before. He would no doubt have been welcomed back to Pontus by his subjects, but his own family were less forgiving of his failures and the Roman punishment they evoked. His younger son engineered a coup that left him with no choice but suicide, after more than five decades of rule. As A Shropshire Lad instructs us, ‘Mithridates, he died old.’

He was as mesmerisingly charismatic in death as he had been in life. Only Hannibal occupied the same place in the Roman pantheon of heroic enemies. Adrienne Mayor’s book is very good on the mythic accretions to the historical figure of Mithridates, and on the way that an ancient monarch might actively seek to live out mythologising narratives in order to remind friend and enemy alike of his connections to the legendary heroes of the past. The sources for Mithridates are numerous by the standards of the period, but continuous narratives are patchy, rendering whole years of the king’s life empty or hopelessly obscure. What we have is contradictory, contaminated by ancient partis pris, and frequently no more than a series of tantalising fragments that allow speculation more than they do certainty. This material has been sorted magisterially twice before, by Théodore Reinach in 1890 and B.C. McGing in 1986, establishing the details of chronology and causation on which we all rely. To their painstaking deductions about Mithridates’ career, ambitions and motives, Mayor adds a great deal of speculative reconstruction and picturesque background. Her book is, in fact, a palmary example of a new phenomenon in scholarly publishing, the avowedly imaginative reconstruction of a historical figure’s life and world. The method is disarmingly simple: a scrap of authentic, but in itself unenlightening evidence becomes the peg on which to hang a speculative narrative, based on historical analogy, general knowledge of a period, and the kind of telling but general detail that puts flesh on the bones of the sources.

One example may stand for literally hundreds of others. The epitome history of Justin, which radically abbreviates a longer work by Pompeius Trogus, offers a single long sentence informing us that Mithridates so feared for his own life after his father’s murder that he disappeared into the wilderness for seven years, during which time he and his companions trained themselves to withstand every danger with superhuman courage and endurance. On the basis of that one statement, Mayor spins out a 22-page chapter (called, inevitably, ‘The Lost Boys’) with speculation, analogies from the childhoods of other Hellenistic and Persian princes, descriptions of Pontic cities and landscapes, and lurid descriptions of the countless local creatures, plants and minerals that can induce horrible deaths in humans. Mayor isn’t wrong. Mithridates might very well have spent several years hunting, riding, playing with scorpions and experimenting with toxic bacteria; but then he might not have done. We don’t know. Thus while there are no real errors here, and the whole thing will serve as a DIY-guide to concocting poisons in the ancient mode, far more often than not we are offered an imaginative reconstruction that is just one of several possibilities, each as plausible as the next.

We are, in other words, in territory that properly belongs to historical fiction, a medium that can, in the hands of Henry Treece, say, and occasionally even those of a journeyman writer like Bernard Cornwell, achieve insight into character, motive, gesture and scene, without the restraints that the non-fiction framework imposes. There is a commercial logic to offering work of this kind in a high-profile scholarly package, rather than leaving it to sink into the vast, trackless mire of mid-list fiction, but one has to ask what doing so actually achieves. As scholarship, a book like this one is insufficiently novel to advance on the dry-as-dust monographs on which it is based, yet is simultaneously too constrained by the conventions of the discipline to open revelatory new prospects onto Mithridates and his world. Indeed, to get inside the mind of Mithridates one can still do worse than read a fictional reconstruction of his greatest enemy’s memoirs: Peter Green’s Sword of Pleasure inhabits Cornelius Sulla’s patrician Roman mind in all its brilliant, terrible logic. In so doing, and freed from the academic trappings its author could just as easily have deployed, it tells us far more about what Mithridates faced, why his mere survival over so long a period was in itself a titanic achievement, and why, once he was dead, the Roman world would never tolerate his like again.

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