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.

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