November 25, 2009


Mithradates: Scourge of Rome: The legendary ruler of Pontus and creator of a formidable Black Sea empire was, until recently, one of the most celebrated figures of the Classical world, a hero of opera, drama and poetry. Adrienne Mayor, author of a new study of the ‘Poison King’, explains why. (Adrienne Mayor, History Today)

[D]espite his savagery, Mithradates also pursued noble ideals: he freed thousands of slaves, pardoned prisoners of war, cancelled debts, granted broad citizenship rights and shared his royal treasure with his soldiers. Such contradictions were part of his legendary aura. As a young man, Mithradates (Old Persian for ‘sent by Mithra’) had received a classical Greek education and absorbed Zoroastrian ideals of free will, responsibility and honesty. He idolised Alexander the Great and dreamed of creating a new Greco-Persian empire. A complex leader of intelligence and ambition, a descendant of Darius I of Persia and Alexander’s Macedonian aristocracy, Mithradates saw himself bridging East and West, the defender of Persian and Greek cultures against Roman barbarism. Followers revered him as the long-awaited saviour-king of the East, prophesied in ancient oracles. The Romans feared him as the eastern Hannibal.

Greek culture flourished again under Mithradates’ rule and the Athenian democracy, suppressed by the Romans since 146 BC, revived for what would prove to be the last time. But Sulla’s highly trained legions eventually overpowered Mithradates’ forces in Greece in a series of brutal sieges and battles. Archaeologists recently unearthed the three marble victory monuments erected by Sulla, who looted Delphi’s treasures and utterly destroyed Athens, slaughtering the citizens trapped in the city and executing the last democratically elected leader, the philosopher Aristion, on the sacred Acropolis. Prematurely declaring his mission accomplished, Sulla rushed back to Rome where civil war raged.

Sulla’s hastily arranged, surprisingly lenient peace terms allowed Mithradates to recover and rebuild his armies. In 83 BC the Second Mithradatic War began when Licinius Murena, a Roman commander seeking glory, invaded Pontus without Senate approval. Mithradates, now recognised in Asia as ‘King of Kings’, crushed his forces.

In the peaceful decade that followed his victory, Mithradates built 70 new fortresses, amassed enormous armies, learned two dozen languages, pursued an obsessive interest in toxicology (earning him the name the ‘Poison King’) and patronised the arts and sciences. His engineers built the first water-powered mill and created advanced siege technologies. The cryptic Antikythera Mechanism, arguably the world’s first computer, may have been one of his prized possessions: it was discovered in a Roman shipwreck loaded with treasures looted near the end of the Mithradatic Wars.

He could count as his allies the rebel leaders of the Italian tribes: the gladiator-slave Spartacus; Sertorius, the rogue Roman senator heading the insurgency in Spain; Tigranes of Armenia, ruler of vast dominions from the Caspian to the Red Sea; powerful pirate admirals whose great fleets roamed the Mediterranean; exiled Roman commanders and rebel legionaires; and nomad chiefs of regions ranging from the Danube to Central Asia.

In 75 BC, as Rome reeled from Sulla’s savage proscriptions as well as slave revolts and wars in Gaul, Italy and Spain, the Third Mithradatic War broke out. The flashpoint was the death of Nicomedes, Rome’s puppet king of Bithynia. The Romans produced his phony last will and testament to justify their renewed attempt to take over Asia Minor. The Senate sent Lucullus to finish the ‘war on terror’ that Sulla and Murena had failed to complete, but he was hobbled by undisciplined, mutinous legions; Roman soldiers had to rely on looting for pay, while Mithradates always paid his multitudes in gold.

Combined force

Lucullus was unnerved by Mithradates’ ability to surge back after defeat and elude capture.Mithradates and his ally Tigranes combined forces and turned to guerrillastyle tactics after their crushing defeat by Lucullus’s legions at Tigranocerta in 69 BC. The pair of kings melted away into the highlands of Armenia, luring Lucullus deeper into hostile lands beyond the Euphrates. Unable to engage face to face with his quarry, a humiliated Lucullus was recalled to Rome, charged with mishandling, and profiteering from, the war.

Mithradates seized the unexpected gift of a year to recruit yet another fresh army. Sweeping back into Pontus, he won a magnificent triumph against the occupying Roman legions left by Lucullus. Against the odds, the supposedly defeated king recovered his kingdom.

The following year, the great Roman commander Pompey cleared out the pirates infesting the Mediterranean and became intent on winning the victory in Asia that had eluded his predecessors. In 66 BC, in a surprise night attack, Pompey routed Mithradates’ army, trapping them in a narrow ravine, inflicting terrible casualties. But the surprise was on Pompey, as the wily king escaped yet again, disappearing into pathless hills with his companion, the horsewoman Hypsicratea, and the remnants of his cavalry. Stopping only to gather up gold hidden in a secret treasure-house, Mithradates and his ragtag army led Pompey on a wild goose chase over mountainous terrain to Armenia and vanished into the wilderness of Colchis. Finally giving up the chase at the foot of the forbidding barrier of the Caucasus Mountains, Pompey assumed that Rome’s most deadly foe was neutralised, doomed to an icy death. Seeking more conquests, Pompey set off for Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, the ever-resourceful Mithradates persevered, trekking over the high Caucasus. Arriving in the Crimea, in his Black Sea empire, he vowed to continue the war on Rome. Defiant to the end, Mithradates, now in his 70s, was planning an audacious land invasion of Italy over the Alps when he was betrayed by his son Pharnaces.Holed up in a castle in Kerch, facing certain death, Mithradates poisoned his harem and daughters. Then he drank poison hidden in the hilt of his dagger.

The ‘Poison King’ was a fitting moniker for Mithradates. His father had been murdered with poison; Mithradates himself foiled poison plots by his own mother and sister. Obsessed with making himself immune to all poisons, Mithradates devised a remarkable project, collecting deadly plant, mineral and animal substances and testing them on condemned criminals, his friends and himself. After hundreds of experiments, Mithradates concocted a daily cocktail of minute doses of poisons mixed with antidotes. Many believed that the mysterious ‘mithridatium’ was the reason for his celebrated vigour and longevity. After his death, versions of Mithradates’ trademarked elixir were eagerly swallowed by Roman emperors, Chinese mandarins and European kings and queens, inspiring a flow of scientific treatises on the Poison King’s long-lost original recipe, said to contain more than 50 ingredients.

The Romans developed a grudging admiration for their archenemy. Pompey buried Mithradates with honours in his ancestral mausoleum; Roman historians praised his courage and endurance. Pliny the Elder marvelled at his linguistic skills and scientific knowledge. Cicero called him the greatest king since Alexander, a tribute that would have thrilled Mithradates.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 25, 2009 8:39 AM
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