Butcher Boy

Michael Kulikowski

  • The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor
    Princeton, 448 pp, £20.95, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 691 12683 8

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.

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