Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Time to Keep Silence, by Patrick Leigh Fermor

Abbaye St Wandrille
A dear, bookish friend strongly recommended two of Patrick Leigh Fermor's travel books to me---A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water.  And I will read them one of these days, Mark, but in the meantime, I reached for this one, which is Fermor's reflections on his retreats in two French monasteries, St Wandrille (Benedictine) and La Grande Trappe (Cistercian), and his visit to the ancient rock-cut monasteries of Cappadocia.

I genuinely appreciate Fermor's astute descriptions of the silent, contemplative life and the struggles to both enter and leave it. I appreciated less his lengthy passages in Latin and French; they exceeded the skill of a reader with only a passing knowledge of either language and taxed the limits of Google Translate. I'm sure any Englishman of Fermor's time (born in 1915) was fluent in both, but it would have been considerate of NYRB Classics, the publisher of this 2007 edition, to include glosses.  His English vocabulary is also extraordinary. Then again, if you're writing a book about the monastic life, it's best to have the rights words at hand:
Almost every single one of the major world traditions has developed some form of coenobitic life.
In one paragraph, he captures brilliantly the value and the challenge of cloistered existence.
Many of our problems spring from thwarted egotism. We resent the success of others; in our gloomiest, most self-pitying moments, we feel uniquely mistreated and undervalued; we are miserably aware of our shortcomings. In the world outside the cloister, it is always possible to escape such self-dissatisfaction: we can phone a friend, pour a drink, or turn on the television. But the religious has to face his or her pettiness twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. If properly and wholeheartedly pursued, the monastic life liberates us from ourselves—incrementally, slowly, and imperceptibly.
As I read, it occurred to me that the aims of monastic life in the Buddhist and Catholic traditions have much in common. I think this sentiment, for example, applies equally to both, though I suppose many readers would be surprised to hear it applied to Catholic monasticism.
Once a monk has transcended his ego, he will experience an alternative mode of being. It is an ekstasis, a “stepping outside” the confines of self.
I went on a five-day silent retreat at a Jesuit Centre in Malaysia a few years ago. Although that can hardly compare to a full-time vocation, I loved it. The absence of conversation freed me from any social anxiety; the other retreatants were simply there, following their own, silent paths. During the introduction, one woman asked if we might nod and smile at each other in passing, and the retreat leader discouraged it, saying it created an obligation to respond. "Respect each other's silence," he said. I've never spent a more peaceful five days in the company of strangers.
But here, in the Abbey’s boreal shadows, there was never a smile or a frown. No seismic shock of hilarity or anger or fear could ever, I felt, have disturbed the tranquil geography of those monastic features. Their eyelids were always downcast; and, if now and then they were raised, no treacherous glint appeared, nothing but a sedulously cultivated calmness, withdrawal and mansuetude and occasionally an expression of remote and burnt-out melancholy.
European monasteries' history has, of course, been far from unabated, er, mansuetude, as Fermor would have it. He discusses the various secular intrusions into the French monastic life, ranging from vexing to deadly (during the French Revolution). Still, the monks' sanctity and devotion continued, undeterred.
In 1502 the blight of Commendation, an evil whose effects on monastic life of France were as drastic as the phylloxera that centuries later ravaged her vineyards, fell upon St. Wandrille. By this system commendatory abbots—courtiers who were never monks and often not even in holy orders—received abbeys and priories as rewards for service to the State or as the fruits of intrigue or nepotism, swallowing two-thirds of the monastic revenues, and seldom approaching their conventual fiefs nearer than Versailles. St. Wandrille became the chattel of a series of absent grandees; yet somehow the monks succeeded in keeping their life and discipline intact.
In the last century, the monks were forced to vacate St Wandrille and all the other French abbeys. When Fermor was writing this book in the late 1940s, the monks had returned to their silent cloister, but it's disconcerting to read about its inhabitants in the interim.
But in 1901, the anti-monastic legislation of the Waldeck-Rousseau Government, launched by the politician derisively known as le Petit Père Combe, again emptied the abbeys of France. The monks of St. Wandrille found refuge in Belgium, and the Abbey was once more in the hands of strangers. Its last secular inhabitants were Maurice Maeterlinck and Georgette Leblanc, and during their tenancy it became the background for elaborate semi-amateur theatricals. Macbeth and Pelléas et Melisande were performed by torchlight in the cloisters and refectory, and Maeterlinck, in pursuit of inspiration, smoking furiously and followed by a cascade of barking terriers, would career all morning long round the cloisters on roller-skates….
I think there's a lot of confusion (or just plain ignorance) about the differences between monastic orders, not to mention the differences between contemplative and intercessionary prayer. I suspect most people think that cloistered religious sit (or kneel) all day, asking God for favours. Fermor doesn't deal so much with the particularities of prayer, but he does at least make an effort to distinguish between the cloistered and active orders.
... the dominating factor of monastic existence is a belief in the necessity and efficacy of prayer; and it is only by attempting to grasp the importance of this principle—a principle so utterly remote from every tendency of modern secular thought—to the monks who practise it, that one can hope to understand the basis of monasticism.This is especially true of the contemplative orders, like the Benedictines, Carthusians, Carmelites, Cistercians, Camaldulese and Sylvestrines; for the others—like the Franciscans, Dominicans or the Jesuits—are brotherhoods organised for action. They travel, teach, preach, convert, organise, plan, heal and nurse; and the material results they achieve make them, if not automatically admirable, at least comprehensible to the Time-Spirit. They get results; they deliver the goods.
Why become a monk at all?
I asked one of the monks how he could sum up, in a couple of words, his way of life. He paused a moment and said, “Have you ever been in love?” I said, “Yes.” A large Fernandel smile spread across his face. “Eh bien,” he said, “c’est exactement pareil…
After spending much of the book talking about the difficulty in adapting to the monks' way of life, to the silence, the rigorous discipline, the hours of prayer and reflection, Fermor finds the outside world a most unpleasant shock when he leaves the abbey.
The Abbey was at first a graveyard; the outer world seemed afterwards, by contrast, an inferno of noise and vulgarity entirely populated by bounders and sluts and crooks...
From the train which took me back to Paris, even the advertisements for Byrrh and Cinzano seen from the window, usually such jubilant emblems of freedom and escape, had acquired the impact of personal insults. The process of adaptation—in reverse—had painfully to begin again.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

The Girls, by Emma Cline

Susan Atkins, Patricia Krenwinkel, and Leslie Van Houten
after their 1971 conviction in the Manson murders.
The Girls is a coming-of-age novel on steroids. Its protagonist, Evie Boyd, is as malleable, impressionable, and affection-seeking as any adolescent girl. Evie, however, falls in with the slightly older group of girls who hover around Russell Hadrick. In 1960s California, that might be the beginning of a hippy, trippy tale of teenage abandon, but this rapidly turns dark when we realise that Russell is a dead ringer for Charles Manson and the young women for his "family."

I found this book gripping and chilling. I remember my own adolescence---my alienation from my parents, my rebelliousness and isolation, my almost desperate hunger for affirmation and camaraderie. As I look at Evie, I see a 14-year-old who is relatively bright, self-aware, from a decent enough (if broken) family---and utterly vulnerable (and that vulnerability escapes her self-awareness until she's telling the story, in retrospect).

To compound matters, she's fallen in with a cult that drifts around a charismatic man, whose followers see him as all but mythical.
Donna said Russell was unlike any other human. That he could receive messages from animals. That he could heal a man with his hands, pull the rot out of you as cleanly as a tumor. “He sees every part of you,” Roos added. As if that were a good thing.
When one believes that Russell is practically superhuman, of course his opinion carries a lot of weight. In retrospect, Evie can see the power dynamics.
The possibility of judgment being passed on me supplanted any worries or questions I might have about Russell. At that age, I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.
Evie's hindsight is beyond acute, and what she sees is painful. The cult's male members, led by Russell, treat the women as little better than livestock (and of course the story's version of Sharon Tate fares even worse). I found myself wondering if the real Manson family women ever looked back on events with this much clarity.
We had been with the men, we had let them do what they wanted. But they would never know the parts of ourselves that we hid from them—they would never sense the lack or even know there was something more they should be looking for.
I love books that delve into the territory of "What on earth was s/he thinking?" We Need to Talk about Kevin comes to mind, plunking us right into the centre of a high-school mass-killer's family. The Girls is an astute and stylishly written look inside the dynamics of the Manson cult, or perhaps any cult.

Monday, August 21, 2017

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet



This novel came to my attention when it made it onto the 2016 Man Booker Prize short list. As I was planning my first visit to Scotland in the spring of 2017, I reached for it. An excellent read (if not exactly excellent tourism brochure copy).

Burnet uses a series of historical documents that he ostensibly found in an Inverness library to tell the story of a 1869 Highlands murder in Calduie, a tiny, poor Ross-shire village. The accused is 17-year-old Roddy Macrae.

This story has it all: The hard life of the Highland crofters, educated but clueless jurists, and a whacking good mystery. The court records and news reports are a wonderfully indirect way to piece the story together---the excerpts (and the gaps) tell as much about the writers as they do about the subject.  No one, not even Roddy, feels like a reliable narrator. Nothing looks quite right.

‘Roderick John Macrae, you are charged under this indictment with the crime of murder. How say you: are you guilty or not guilty?’
Roddy stood with his hands at his sides, and after glancing towards his counsel replied in a clear, but quiet voice, ‘Not guilty, my lord.’ He resumed his seat and Andrew Sinclair rose to submit the Special Defence of Insanity.
This was read by the Clerk of the Court: ‘The panel pleads generally not guilty. He further pleads specially that at the time at which the acts set forth in the indictment are alleged to have been committed he was labouring under insanity.’
Mr Philby wrote, ‘For a young man who had never previously ventured more than a few miles from his village, he did not seem unduly unsettled by the array of learned faces which now scrutinised him from the bench. Whether this was due to the insanity claimed by the defence or merely spoke of a certain sang-froid, it was not at this point possible to venture an opinion.’ 
The news reports of the trial do not give the reader a feeling of confidence in either the jurists or the witnesses, paying more attention to their appearance than to their competence or reliability. Then again, in 1869, how competent might a mortician reasonably be expected to be?
The first witness to be called was Dr Charles MacLennan, who had carried out the post-mortem examination of the bodies. The practitioner was dressed in a tweed suit and yellow waistcoat, and boasted drooping moustaches, which leant him a suitably sombre air.
And trustworthy? Well...
The next witness was Carmina Murchison. She wore a green taffeta dress and would not, The Scotsman noted, ‘have looked out of place in the salons of George Street’. Not a single newspaper omitted mention of Mrs Murchison’s striking appearance and Mr Philby was even moved to note that ‘no juryman with blood in his veins could doubt a word which emerged from such lips’.
The chasm between the British-aligned Scottish Lowlanders and the Highlanders rings clearly throughout the book, the latter being painted as barbarians and peasants, fully to blame for their own poverty.
The Scotsman noted that Mr Murchison ‘seemed a fine fellow, but his baffling adherence to the idea that land should be allocated on the basis of tradition rather than utility was yet another example of how the intransigence of the Highland tribes is bringing about their own demise’.
The expert doctor who gives his opinion of Roddy's mental state to the court mentions that some of the madmen he encounters all but speak in tongues.
‘I have encountered prisoners who spout incomprehensible gibberish; whose speech is nothing more than a stream of unintelligible, unconnected words, or is not even recognisable as language.'
(A mischievous sketch in The Scotsman suggested that the prisoners to whom Dr Munro referred might merely have been speaking Gaelic...)
I've always said that historical fiction can be as enlightening, or even more so, and Graeme Burnet joins my list of authors that I trot out to illustrate that.

Friday, August 11, 2017

May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

This is a bit mortifying, but it reinforces why I started this blog in the first place. A couple of weeks before I took off on a two-month trip, I went to my local arts cinema, which has a book swap. I was looking for a novel to take with me, something with literary substance yet physically lightweight. I carried this book with me and read it in Portugal, Spain, Scotland, and the Republic of Georgia. As I sat here to write about it, I could not recall the author's name, the book's title, nor anything about the plot. I vaguely recalled admiring it and having enjoyed reading it. Years ago, my mother, then in her 70s, told me that sometimes she'd come home with a library book and wonder, halfway through it, if she'd read it before. I found that mind-boggling. Suddenly I can commiserate, drawing a total blank on a book I finished only two months ago.

Finally, the author's name came back, and from that I could look up the title. When I read the synopsis, I wondered, Seriously, how could you forget a plot line like that?!  

Harold Silver, a middle-aged, somewhat dweebish Nixon scholar, has a brief affair with his sister-in-law, who is suddenly and gruesomely murdered by her husband (Howard's older brother), who has "anger issues."  Read: he's mad as a hatter. Harold, reeling from his own loss, tries to parent their two children, navigate his own divorce, jump-start his stalled Nixon biography, and deal with his brother's commitment in an increasingly bizarre series of institutions. Harold gives the impression of being numbly pliable, just drifting along as life throws him one curve-ball after the next, and that pliability proves to be his salvation.

May I be forgiven for letting this book slip my mind briefly. It deserves to be remembered. It is, as the Independent noted in the cover blurb, "a huge-hearted, expansive book."  I wonder, are we more prone to forget books that we read while travelling, when there are so many other things overwhelming our senses?

Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen

I bought this paperback in Prospero's Bookshop in Tbilisi, Georgia. English-language books are expensive there, and their selection of used books was paltry. The Penguin Classic edition had the twin benefits of being light on my wallet and light on my luggage allowances.  A pathetic way to select a book, but I'd not read any Jane Austen since my schooldays, and never Northanger Abbey.

I know people who count Austen as one of the greats of English literature. Much as I enjoyed this novel, I'm not one of them.  I fall into the camp with those who say her writing gets high marks for style but lacks substance.  That said, it's still great fun to read, and her character sketches are possibly up there with Dickens'.  The older chaperone who is obsessive about her gowns. The friend's brother whose mind races about as maniacally as he drives his horse and carriage around the countryside. And the heroine, 17-year-old Catherine Morley, whose imagination---especially the darker corners of it---is fuelled by a steady stream of romance novels. (One of the men tells her that such books have no redeeming value, and I could picture the author giggling as she wrote that line.)

That was possibly the biggest surprise to me; I had never thought of Jane Austen as funny. It's an understated, wry humour, but it is there, and it saves the books from being the sort of vapid romance her characters deplore.

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

When I read (and loved) The Monsters of Templeton, I didn't entirely trust my objectivity, because Templeton is based upon Cooperstown, NY, a place with powerful childhood memories for me. Had Ms. Groff simply taken me on a nostalgic joyride in her first novel?  No. I was even more impressed with Fates and Furies, her fourth book. She's a fine writer.

Some critics say that the realisation of this novel didn't live up to its architectural plans, that the second half is weaker than the first. It may or may not be the first novel to attempt this structure, but it's the first I've run across, and I was enthralled. It's the story of a marriage, narrated by an anonymous third person but from the vantage point of the husband in the first half and the wife in the second.

The husband, Lotto (short for Lancelot) Satterwhite is a struggling playwright when the story opens, gradually becoming financially successful, with what appears to be the unwavering support of his wife, Mathilde. Lotto is the golden boy whose mother cut him off when he married Mathilde. In a conversation with Leo Sen, a composer, he contrasts his married life with Leo's celibate one, especially in terms of creativity.
“I hated my violin as a boy,” he said, “until my father made me compose a score as a match was happening on the telly. Tottenham, Manchester, our boys losing. And suddenly, as I was playing, everything that I had felt so deeply without music deepened even more. The dread, the joy. And that was it for me, re-creating that moment was all I wanted to do. I called the composition Audere Est Facere.” He laughed.
“To dare is to do?'” Lotto said.
“Tottenham’s motto. Not a bad way to be an artist, in fact.”
“Your life seems simple,” Lancelot said.
Leo Sen said, “My life is beautiful.” Lancelot saw that it was. He was enough of a lover of forms to understand the allure of such a strict life, how much internal wildness it could release. Leo waking to dawn over the cold seabird ocean, the fresh berries and goat-milk yogurt for breakfast, the tisanes of his own herbs, blue crabs in the black tide pools, going to bed with the whipping winds and rhythm of waves against hard rock. Lettuce shoots glowing in the south-facing windows. The celibacy, the temperate, moderate life that Leo lived, at least on the outside, in his state of constant cold. And the feverish musical life within.
“I knew you’d be an ascetic,” Lancelot said. “I just thought you’d be a wild-bearded one who speared fish and wore a loincloth. In a saffron-colored turban.” He smiled.
“On the other hand, you,” Leo said, “were always dissolute. It’s clear in your work. Privilege is what lets you take risks. Life of oysters and champagne and houses on the beach. Coddled. Like the precious egg you are.”
Lancelot felt stung, but said, “True. If I had my druthers, I’d be three hundred fifty pounds of jollity and fun. But my wife keeps me to heel. Makes me exercise every day. Keeps me from drinking in the morning.”
“Ah,” said Leo, gazing at his own enormous hands. “So, there’s a wife.” The way he said it. Well. It made the ideas Lancelot had about Leo reshuffle themselves once more in his head.
“There’s a wife,” Lancelot said.
Mathilde, we later find out, is concealing much about her past, including her childhood in France, when her name was not Mathilde at all but Aurélie. The sensual imagery in this passage is stupendous.
Aurélie’s father was quiet, loved few things. Putting stone on stone, the wine he made in his garage, his hunting dog he called Bibiche, his mother who’d survived World War II by black-marketing blood sausages, and his daughter. She was spoiled, a happy and singing girl. But when Aurélie was three, the new baby came. He was a fretful and screaming creature. Still, he was cooed over, that wizened turnip in blankets. Aurélie watched from under a chair, burning. Colic arrived in the baby, and the house went piebald with vomit. Aurélie’s mother walked around as if shattered. Four aunts, smelling of butter, came to help. They gossiped viciously and their brother showed them his grapes and the aunts chased Bibiche from the house with a broom. When the baby at last began to crawl, he got into everything, and the father had to build a gate at the top of the stairs. Aurélie’s mother cried during the day in her bed when the children were supposed to be asleep. She was so tired. She smelled of fish. The baby liked best to crawl into Aurélie’s bed and suck his thumb and twirl her hair, the snot in his nose catching so it sounded as if he were purring.
Groff writes for the nose. There are so many olfactory descriptions in this book, congruous and not.
There were thousands of people at Lotto’s funeral. She knew he’d been loved, and by strangers, too. But not this excess. All these people she didn’t know were lining the sidewalk, keening. O! great man. O! playwright of the bougie.
She rode at the head of a shining line of black limos like the head raven in a convocation of blackbirds. Her husband had moved people and, in so moving, had become their Lancelot Satterwhite, too. Something of him lived in them. Was not hers. Was now theirs. It felt unhygienic, this flood of snot...
Too much coffee breath in her face. All that assaultive perfume. She hated perfume. It was a cover for poor hygiene or for body shame. Clean people never aspired to the floral.
It's Mathilde who is the novel's nose. As an anosmic reader, I find her associations fascinating.
Funny, she thought, looking over the banks of snapdragons to the river. Her mother had smelled of cold and scales, her father of stone dust and dog. She imagined her husband’s mother, whom she had never met, had a whiff of rotting apples, although her stationery had stunk of baby powder and rose perfume. Sallie was starch, cedar. Her dead grandmother, sandalwood. Her uncle, Swiss cheese. People told her that she smelled like garlic, like chalk, like nothing at all. Lotto, clean as camphor at his neck and belly, like electrified pennies at the armpit, like chlorine at the groin. She swallowed. Such things, details noticed only on the edges of thought, would not return.
The jacket copy for this book says, "...the key to a great marriage is not its truths but its secrets." I think maybe the key to a great novel about a marriage is its secrets. I don't see Lotto and Mathilde as poster children for matrimony, but they are the stuff of marvellous fiction. A bit like the late John F. Kennedy, Jr and his ethereal golden wife, Carolyn Bessette, I imagine. Stunning to look at, but don't ask too many questions.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates, by Adrienne Mayor

I read this book as I was preparing for a trip to the Republic of Georgia, in the Caucasus. Georgia, much like neighbouring Turkey, is an historical palimpsest, and this was a wonderfully readable history of the region, which certainly reached one of its golden ages under Mithridates VI (135–63 BC), also known as Mithridates Eupator and Mithridates the Great. (His name is alternately spelled Mithridates and Mithradates.) Under his reign, the kingdom of Pontus expanded from a region along the southern coast of the Black Sea to include all of modern-day Turkey, Armenia, the western half of Georgia, the southern shore of the Ukraine, and more.

 And the book's title? Poison was a popular assassination method at the time, and it took Mithridates' father's life. Reasonably paranoid, the young prince developed immunity to many poisons and spent much of his life developing a "universal antidote." The exact recipe for it, and its effectiveness, are still debated, but he was at any rate an avid and skillful toxicologist.

Mithridates was also famous (or infamous, depending upon your perspective) as being a thorn in the side of the Romans. I am far from a classical scholar, but I must say, by the end of this book, my opinion of the Greeks was far higher than that of the Romans.
Slavery was salt in the wound. Although many Greeks kept slaves, the massive Roman demand for slave labor clashed with the inclusive melding of democratic traditions and indigenous monarchies of Anatolia. Slavery was forbidden by ancient Persian law and religion. The Romans preferred to enslave non-Italians, especially people from the Near East. There was a seemingly endless supply of prisoners of war from the empire’s advancing frontiers, and pirates prowled the Black Sea and eastern Aegean seeking human booty to sell to the masters of the Mediterranean world. It was said that as many as ten thousand captive people from around the Black Sea and the Near East might be traded in one day at the great Roman slave market on the once-sacred island of Delos. Crushing taxes were another form of servitude, forcing even the wealthy into debt and compelling some families to sell their children into slavery. A typical elite Roman owned several hundred slaves; a craftsman two or three. According to the latest estimates, there were roughly 1.5 million slaves in Italy at this time. The ratio of slaves was higher in the Roman Province of Asia. In Pergamon, for example, slaves made up about one-third of the population. Most of those held in bondage spoke non-Italian tongues, but even without the marker of language it was easy to recognize slaves. Many had Latin words crudely tattooed across their foreheads identifying them as Roman property. Slaves (and salt) were commodities subject to Roman duty taxes. According to a legal inscription of this period found in Ephesus, imported slaves were to be tattooed with the words “tax paid.” (During the later Empire, “Stop me, I’m a runaway” was another motto that Roman masters etched on the brows of slaves.)
When I lived in Turkey, on one trip through the eastern part of the country I visited (and loved) both Amasya, the home of Strabo, and Sinop, on the Black Sea coast.
Mithradates Eupator’s best friend was Dorylaus, raised in the palace as a brother. Dorylaus was the orphaned nephew of General Dorylaus, best friend and military adviser of Mithradates’ father. Dorylaus’s family was related to the historian Strabo, who was born in Amasia, Pontus, in 63 BC (the year of Mithradates’ death). Strabo wrote extensively and nostalgically about his homeland and the surrounding countries. He described Sinope’s impressive fortifications, beautiful gardens, old peach and olive orchards, handsome marble buildings, fine temples, lively market, and new gymnasium. Strabo’s narrative also tells us about the kind of education an aristocratic boy received in Pontus... Pontus also possessed plentiful gold, silver, copper, iron, rock salt, mercury, sulphur, and many other rare minerals used for pigments and medicine—or for poison.
Some of these cities, so grand at the time, have disappeared, and nothing significant has taken their place. Phanagoria stood in today's Russia, on the Black Sea coast, northwest of Georgia, for example.
Pontus had long-standing ties with Pantikapaion (Kerch, Ukraine), a city and fortress on the Chersonese (Crimea) guarding the Cimmerian Bosporus (Kerch Straits) connecting the turbulent, deep Black Sea to the shallow Sea of Asov. Across the strait on the Taman Peninsula was the citadel of Phanagoria. These two wealthy ports controlled the crucial salt-fish trade and grain from the Scythian steppes, bound for Mediterranean markets.
Oh, and how the mighty kingdom of Armenia has shrunk! At Mithridates' time, it was equal to Pontus.
To the east lay the rich mountain kingdom of Armenia, named after one of Jason’s Argonauts. Hannibal had designed Armenia’s heavily fortified royal capital, Artaxata (Artashat, “Joy of Truth”), after he lost the Second Punic War to the Romans (at Zama, 202 BC).
Farther east battled an early scourge of the Romans, Hannibal. King Prusias, the Greek king of Bithynia, gave his name to the city of Bursa (now in western Turkey), where I used to live.
But Hannibal and Antiochus suffered a disastrous defeat at Thermopylae (191 BC). That battle held special meaning for Mithradates, because of the notorious prophecies of the Syrian ghost who rose from the dead and the raving Roman general, predicting that a savior-king would rise in the East to punish Rome. After another decisive defeat of Antiochus by the Romans at Magnesia (south of Pergamon) in 189 BC, Hannibal was welcomed to Bithynia by King Prusias.
Mithridates' interest in poison was not limited to plant-based toxins.
In a naval battle, Hannibal was outnumbered by Rome’s client, King Eumenes II of Pergamon. Young Mithradates, with his interest in poison snakes and cunning tactics, would have appreciated Hannibal’s ploy. He sent his sailors ashore to collect venomous vipers, which they stuffed into clay jars. Hannibal won the day by catapulting the writhing snakes onto the decks of Eumenes’ ships.
If someone hasn't captured this scene in an historical novel, they should. A film would also do well.
As the Romans closed in, Hannibal—one-eyed since crossing the frozen Alps—holed up in his castle in Bithynia, fitted with secret doors on every side. But escape was impossible now. An ugly death at Roman hands loomed. Hannibal took control of his fate. He slipped off the golden ring he always wore, pried open the hidden compartment, and swallowed the dram of deadly poison. With that last defiant act, Rome’s first great enemy entered the realm of legend.
Although modern Bergama is not that far from Bursa, I never made the trip, and I regret that. It's Roman ruins are still magnificent.
Pergamon, with its great library, active scientific community, and the healing temple of Asclepius, was the center of medical learning.
I knew the myth of Jason and the Golden Fleece was based in contemporary Georgia, but this was news to me. I'd always assumed it was set in Greece, perhaps even Mt Olympus.
In Greek myth, Zeus had chained Prometheus, the rebel Titan who brought fire to mortals, on the highest peak in the Caucasus, sending an eagle to tear out his liver for eternity.
Speaking of Jason and the Argo... In Tbilisi's National Museum, I learned that the early Georgians of Mithridates' time were already famously skillful goldsmiths. And the golden fleece? They dipped fleeces into the rivers and withdrew them, and they found workable amounts of gold dust stuck to the wool, which they then combed out.
In the epic poem about Jason and the Argonauts and their quest for the Golden Fleece, the Argo sailed east toward the “Sun’s golden treasure house,” along the southern shore of the Black Sea, stopping for adventures and founding towns. In Sinope, Mithradates might have played near the marble statue of his city’s founder, the Argonaut Autolycus. The Argonauts had marveled at Pontus’s iron mines and its weird towers of salt on the Halys River. Pressing on to Themiscrya, the great Amazon stronghold on the Thermodon River, the Argonauts sailed to far Colchis under the forbidding Caucasus Mountains. There Jason fell in love with Medea, the beautiful barbarian sorceress...
Mistress of poisons and magic, granddaughter of the Sun god, Medea could tame mysterious fire from the black oil pools of Baku on the Caspian Sea, to create unquenchable flames. Her potions bestowed superhuman strength or deathlike sleep and made one invulnerable to fire or sword. Medea knew the secrets of deadly dragon’s blood and all the antidotes for serpent venom. It is easy to picture young Mithradates, future toxicologist, enthralled by the description of Medea alighting from her Sun-chariot to gather pharmaka.
Mayor draws many comparisons between Mithridates and Alexander, beginning with the poisonings of their fathers.
Comparisons to the assassination of Alexander’s father, Philip of Macedon, were inevitable, and the parallels must have been chilling for Mithradates. Philip was murdered at a wedding banquet. Alexander had blamed his father’s great enemies, the Persians, but many suspected his mother Olympias. Characterized by ancient historians as a jealous, murderous witch, Olympias terrified men with the huge, tame snakes she bred for Dionysian orgies. Mithradates had heard the ghastly stories about what happened after Philip’s violent death. Olympias had burned Alexander’s infant half brother to death and poisoned Alexander’s other half brother with drugs that destroyed his mind.
The cave tombs in the cliff walls in Amasya are still there, far above the river.
After his father was buried in the royal mausoleum at Amasia (the old Pontic capital), young Mithradates was crowned king of Pontus, in 120 or 119 BC.
Apparently this part of the world is rich in choices for would-be poisoners. Animal, vegetable and mineral poisons abound. Poison ducks, no less!
In Armenia’s remote lakes lurked venomous fish, and Pontus boasted its own poisons. Wild honey, distilled by bees from the nectar of poisonous rhododendrons and oleander so profuse on the coast, could kill a man. Even the flesh of Pontic ducks was poisonous. The ducks thrived on hellebore and other baneful plants, and the bees enjoyed a strange immunity to poison. Did these mysterious facts inspire Mithradates to search for ways to inure himself to poisons? Nefarious, rare minerals were mined in Pontus. Sinope was the center for processing and exporting Sinopic red earth, realgar, orpiment, and other glittering dark red and yellow crystals surrounded by magical and ominous folklore. Known by many different names, these minerals occurred in association with quicksilver (mercury), lead, sulphur, iron ore, cobalt, nickel, and gold. The mines exhaled vapors so noxious that they were said to be worked only by slaves who had been sentenced to death for terrible crimes. One of the most infamous of the mines was Sandarakurgion Dag (Mount Realgar), described by the geographer Strabo. On the Halys River near Pimolisa, gangs of two hundred slaves labored to hollow out the entire mountain. Strabo notes that Mount Realgar Mine was finally abandoned as unprofitable, because it was too expensive to continually replace the slaves as they dropped dead from the toxic fumes.
Although I remember seeing the mausoleum, I missed this temple and altar. Damn it. Still, Amasya was and is a glorious spot.
Near Amasia, they ascended the hilltop Temple of Zeus Stratios (leader of armies), where Mithradates had often watched his father perform fire sacrifices at the high altar (Mithradatids worshipped Zeus as a form of Ahuramazda/ Mithra). Perhaps Mithradates himself now performed the ceremony for the first time. The ruins of this altar, with inscriptions dedicated to Zeus, are still visible today...
The historian Strabo lavished praise on the beauty and strategic position of his native Amasia, the former capital (the royal residence was moved to Sinope in about 183 BC)...
Amasia was guarded by an impregnable fortress perched on twin peaks connected by a natural rock bridge. Subterranean staircases and several secret reservoirs enabled the fort to withstand long sieges (these features can be seen today in the ruins at Amasia).
Another ruin nearby that I missed. The castle must have been stupendously beautiful in its day.

As best I can tell, nothing remains of what sounds like a gorgeous castle and villa
From the bracing heights north of Amasia, they could gaze down on the treeless plain around Lake Stephane some miles away. By the lake, one could make out Laodicea, founded by Mithradates’ mother after his father’s murder. She had accepted Roman loans—money from slavery and taxes bled from Anatolia—to build an extravagant lakeside villa and Castle Icizari on a limestone bluff. As he surveyed the scene, Mithradates could not suppress a grin. His mother had located her castle based on proximity to the hot springs and the pretty lake. She was thinking of ease of travel and entertaining, instead of a defensible location...
Today one can still see Castle Icizari (Kizari) near the village that retains her name in Turkish, Ladik. 
Colchis was an ancient kingdom, now western Georgia.
To the northeast lay Colchis, “legendary land of gold, poisons and witchcraft.”
Colchis was also famous for its deadly flora, as well as its goldcraft.
The shamans must know rare toxins and arcane antidotes. Would the archers reveal secret recipes for poison arrows? Toxic hellebore, belladonna, and blue monkshood flourished in the meadows and mountainsides. The travelers had to make sure their horses did not eat these lethal plants. Mithradates carefully collected specimens, keeping notes on their properties and antidotes.
Another classic "myth" had its origins here---the fierce warrior women, the Amazons.
Mithradates’ own lands were replete with romantic Amazon lore. Amazon grave mounds marked the countryside; Amazons were believed to have founded many Anatolian cities, including Sinope, Amasia, Amastris, and Themiscrya in Pontus, and Ephesus, Mytilene on Lesbos, Smyrna, Priene, Cyme, Pitane, Magnesia, Thyatira, Amazonion, and Myrina. The greatest Greek heroes of myth had fought and loved warrior women from the East. Even Cyrus and Alexander had encountered strong-willed Amazon queens. Mithradates would have known all these tales by heart. Such independent women were foreign to the ancient Greeks, but in Mithradates’ world, queens were powerful rulers, like his mother and sister. Fierce women warriors were not imaginary, but real. Among the war-loving Sarmatians, Alans, Scythians, Sirginni, Massagetae, and other nomads around the Black Sea, men and women dueled before marrying, and the women rode into battle with the men. As they traveled deeper into Eastern lands, Mithradates and his friends teased each other with the possibility of meeting a party of young, independent horsewomen. Perhaps they would agree to go on together as a tribe of equals, like the romantic story of the young Scythian hunters and the Amazon warriors who joined forces and became the Sarmatians, recounted by Herodotus and Justin.
Mithridates didn't limit himself to local poisons, plentiful though they were.
The most prized Indian poison was the mysterious dikairon, said to be excreted by a tiny orange “bird” that nested in the Himalayas. A few grains of dikairon, it was said, would bring a dreamy death in a few hours, ideal for suicide. I have suggested elsewhere that dikairon might have been pederin, exuded by large orange blister beetles of Asia, often found in bird nests. It is one of the most powerful biotoxins known to modern science, more potent than cobra venom. According to Aelian, this precious substance was “given exclusively by the kings of India to the kings of Persia.” Mithradates may have acquired some for his own pharmacy.
Imagine being able to say the Silk Road opened during one's childhood!
Mithradates also profited from overland trade with India and China. The Silk Route had opened during Mithradates’ childhood; the first camel caravans arrived in Parthia bearing Chinese silk in exchange for fine Parthian horses in 106 BC.
It never occurred to me to form an opinion on a body of water because of its shape, and it seems Mithridates was a bit more pragmatic about it, too.
Before Mithradates, the Greeks and Romans held a negative notion of the Black Sea. They compared its shape to a fearsome Scythian bow, with its distinctive double curve—a particularly ominous image, since Scythian archers were dreaded for their unholy skill at shooting poison arrows. Before Mithradates, the Black Sea was seen as an obstacle instead of an opportunity. His decision to control and develop the entire Black Sea region was a creative, brilliant new strategy.
He did earn that "the Great" sobriquet.
After three seasons of ferocious fighting, Colchis, a strategic land on the remote eastern Black Sea, also pledged allegiance to Mithradates. He annexed the rugged western part of Armenia as well, forging good relations with independent Anatolian and Persian chieftains there. On the western Black Sea, Mithradates allied with the war-loving Thracians and the powerful Iranian-influenced Bastarnae and Roxolani, again after tough fighting. The Germanic Gauls (Celts) who strongly resisted Roman military advances also supported Mithradates. The king now ruled or was allied with all the lands around the Black Sea, except for northwest Anatolia and the mountainous coast north of Colchis.
It sounds, though, as if he was indeed a great ruler, provided you willingly joined his confederation.
Mithradates could recruit Black Sea pirate sailors to join his legitimate navy for regular pay, and reward others to prey on the rich ships of holdout states that declined to join his coprosperity plan. Mithradates, as organizer, enforcer, and duty collector of this Black Sea Empire, would profit greatly, of course. But he could promise that everyone else would grow rich too. Indeed, the immense and surprising wealth that archaeologists are uncovering in the northern Black Sea region—not just in urban areas but in the chora—reveals the great success of Mithradates’ concept. Mithradates’ farsighted vision offered a positive alternative to Rome’s rapacious greed and violent resource extraction in its early period of conquest. Instead of continual war, Mithradates offered peace. Instead of imposing bloodsucking taxes and debt, Mithradates would tax moderately and reinvest taxes in military measures to ensure security. Mithradates stood for a new vision of mutual prosperity, while the Romans of the late Republic pursued corruption, selfish profit, and plunder. It is easy to see the strong attraction of such a strategy and the deep loyalty it could generate. Mithradates’ Black Sea would become the central pivot, the benevolent middleman in a grand Eurasian trading community. As long as Mithradates Eupator (the “Good Father”) ruled, all could expect to live long and prosper. 
Gordium, AKA Gordion, the modern Yassıhüyük, is about 80km south of Ankara.
Gordium in Phrygia was another venerated landmark: here the brash young Alexander had slashed his sword through the Gordian Knot.
Pessinus, the present modern Turkish village of Ballıhisar, is 120km southwest of Ankara. It looks like scant ruins of the temple remain.
Marius claimed he had come to fulfill a sacred vow, to consult the oracle of the great Anatolian mother goddess Cybele in her sanctuary at Pessinus.
Tigranes II (also Tigranes the Great) of Armenia, allied his kingdom with Pontus; he married one of Mithridates' daughters, deepening their ties.
Tigranes would begin building his fabulous new city, Tigranocerta. Intended to rival the magnificence of Susa and Babylon, the city was populated with the displaced citizens of towns that Tigranes leveled. Encouraged by his victories—and perhaps by the appearance of Halley’s Comet later during his reign—Tigranes would even begin referring to himself as “King of Kings.” 
Mayor imagines Mithridates' own autobiographical profile. He had indeed been bred for greatness.
My family can be traced back on my father’s side to Cyrus and Darius, the founders of the Persian Empire. On my mother’s side, I am related to Alexander the Great and Seleucus Nicator, founders of the Macedonian Empire. Moreover, not one of the peoples in my new kingdom has ever fallen under foreign domination or been ruled by foreign kings. Even Alexander the Great never ruled Pontus, Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, Bithynia, or Armenia—not to mention Scythia! Before me, only two other kings, Darius and Philip, had ventured to even enter Scythia, much less subdue it. Any campaign beyond the Black Sea means extreme hardship and great risk. Not only are the nomads fierce and courageous, but they have no towns or property and their land is protected by desert wastes and freezing mountains. Those great kings barely escaped alive from Scythia! When I went to Scythia, I was just a raw novice at war. Yet now, I draw most of my strength against the Romans from my allies in Scythia!
Ah, yes, the Persian-Zoroastrian fire worship. Ruins of fire temples exist throughout the region. Zoroastrianism is, some say, the oldest monotheistic religion; it's certainly among the oldest. The New Testament Magi were Zoroastrians.

Mithradates and his entourage ascended Buyuk Evliya Dag, to the sanctuary of Zeus the Warrior. Archaeologists have discovered many inscriptions in this important site of native Anatolian and Iranian- influenced worship. At this and many other similar shrines in Cappadocia, Zoroastrian priests, called “Fire-keepers,” tended an eternal flame (the source was petroleum) on the altar. Mithradates’ Magi, wearing high felt turbans, murmuring incantations, and waving their barsoms (myrtle wands), sacrificed white animals to fire, earth, wind, and water. Then, following old Persian custom, the chief Magus Mithradates himself dragged logs to the hilltop, creating an immense woodpile. Around the altar, he arranged trestles made of logs and branches and laid out a feast of meat and bread for the celebrants. Mithradates donned a purple headdress...
Theriac: an antidote to poison.
The key principle of Mithradates’ theriac was the combination of beneficial drugs and antitoxins with tiny amounts of poisons, the approach followed by Attalus and Hindu doctors.
Not surprisingly, Mithridates' universal antidote was named after him, and it had a long, illustrious history.
For more than two millennia after the death of Mithradates, aristocrats and royalty, from Charlemagne and Alfred the Great to Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, swallowed some version of the Mithridatium faithfully every day of their lives. The royal mixture was kept in ornate apothecary jars illustrating scenes from the life of Mithradates (see fig. 15.3, plate 4). There were also cheaper versions of Mithridatium for the poor. The Poison King’s universal antidote became the most popular and longest-lived prescription in history, available in Rome as recently as 1984.
Kabeira is the modern-day Sivas, in central Turkey.

Young Mithradates had been struck by the natural beauty and defensibility of Kabeira, surrounded by steep mountains and forests of beech, maple, walnut, pine, and spruce, on the Lycos River. There were important cinnabar mines... One of the most striking features of Kabeira was a very high waterfall. The prodigious force and volume of the waterfall inspired Mithradates and his engineers to harness the rushing water. They constructed the first water-powered mill. It was described by Strabo, who observed the mill or its ruins after the Mithradatic Wars. Until this invention of the water mill, humans and oxen had laboriously turned heavy grindstones to mill grain. After Strabo wrote his description of Mithradates’ mill at Kabeira, water-mill technology spread to Italy and Europe.
In addition to extending the Pontic empire, ruling it profitably, and battling the Romans, Mithridates found time to become an astonishing polyglot.
Mithradates far excelled Cyrus the Great, who knew the names of all his officers and satraps. Only one other individual in antiquity had linguistic abilities that even approached those of Mithradates. According to Plutarch, Queen Cleopatra of Egypt “spoke many languages and gave audiences to most foreign ambassadors without the help of interpreters.” She knew Greek and Latin, and some Ethiopian, Coptic, Hebrew, Median, Arabic, Syrian, and Persian. Mithradates was reportedly so fluent in the languages of his subjects and soldiers that he never required interpreters. Aulus Gellius remarked that “he was thoroughly conversant in the dialects of the 25 nations that he ruled, and spoke each language as if it were his native tongue.” Pliny, who personally studied Mithradates’ library and letters, declared, “Mithridates spoke or read the languages of 22 nations; he could address and listen to the petitions of all of his subject peoples without interpreters.” Valerius Maximus cited Mithradates’ linguistic proficiency as a shining example of “industrious study.”
Georgia, a land punctuated by the Caucasus mountain range, is still home to myriad isolates, languages that are unrelated to any others, simply by virtue of the people's geographical isolation.
Consider Colchis: this region was said to have more than 100 tribes, each with a different dialect—Roman traders in Colchis required the services of 130 interpreters, according to Pliny. In the lands south of Colchis, 26 different tongues were spoken. It is unlikely that Mithradates learned every single dialect of these remote places, but he could make himself understood by most of his subjects.
Mayor gives due credit to Tigranes, Mithridates' son-in-law and ally, and she also outlines the size of the Armenian kingdom at its peak. Today's Armenia is but a fraction of it.
Tigranes was powerful and imperious. After the Peace of Dardanus, the title “King of Kings” was up for grabs. Tigranes took it. He now ruled a kingdom that stretched from Syria to the Caspian Sea, from Artaxata to Mesopotamia. Tigranes’ armies swelled with divisions from Arabia, Caucasia, and central Asia, but Rome had paid little attention since Sulla turned Tigranes out of Cappadocia in 95 BC. The new King of Kings was building a magnificent fortified city for himself on the Tigris River, Tigranocerta, “City of Tigranes.”
I read the Kindle version of this book and longed for the paper copy, if only for the copious maps, illustrations and easier-to-read footnotes.