The Poison King

The Poison King

The Life and Legend of Mithridates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

Book - 2009
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Machiavelli praised his military genius. European royalty sought out his secret elixir against poison. His life inspired Mozart's first opera, while for centuries poets and playwrights recited bloody, romantic tales of his victories, defeats, intrigues, concubines, and mysterious death. But until now no modern historian has recounted the full story of Mithradates, the ruthless king and visionary rebel who challenged the power of Rome in the first century BC. In this richly illustrated book--the first biography of Mithradates in fifty years--Adrienne Mayor combines a storyteller's gifts with the most recent archaeological and scientific discoveries to tell the tale of Mithradates as it has never been told before.

The Poison King describes a life brimming with spectacle and excitement. Claiming Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia as ancestors, Mithradates inherited a wealthy Black Sea kingdom at age fourteen after his mother poisoned his father. He fled into exile and returned in triumph to become a ruler of superb intelligence and fierce ambition. Hailed as a savior by his followers and feared as a second Hannibal by his enemies, he envisioned a grand Eastern empire to rival Rome. After massacring eighty thousand Roman citizens in 88 BC, he seized Greece and modern-day Turkey. Fighting some of the most spectacular battles in ancient history, he dragged Rome into a long round of wars and threatened to invade Italy itself. His uncanny ability to elude capture and surge back after devastating losses unnerved the Romans, while his mastery of poisons allowed him to foil assassination attempts and eliminate rivals.

The Poison King is a gripping account of one of Rome's most relentless but least understood foes.

Publisher: Princeton : Princeton University Press, c2009.
ISBN: 9780691126838
Characteristics: p. cm.


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May 23, 2016

I heard a podcast of a talk given by the author and I was fascinated by this defiant ruler who evaded the Romans ruthlessly. I enjoyed learning about ancient civilizations because it is like travelling to another planet of beliefs with people that are such similar creatures to us. The Poison King really did a great job of taking me back to about 100 BCE and trotted along with a narrative version of what must have been tons of research. The story jumped off the page in my imagination and got my wheels turning about how this story could become a thrilling play.

I was most captivated by Mithradates research into poisons and his obsession with being immune to poison. His vigilance against being poisoned was grounded in the reality that kings are always prone to betrayal because of their power. He could not trust his own family and sometimes even had to beat them to the punch by killing a wife or a son before they killed him to obtain power. The description of his garden of poisons and his accumulation of poisonous venoms and the fact that into the middle ages people recorded knowledge of poisons in a Mithradatium made me imagine that his knowledge of poisons and antidotes was endless.

It was also thrilling to imagine that Mithradates fought against the unstoppable Roman empire. Not only that but Mithradates allied with amazon women fighters in battle and even had a relationship with one named Hypsecretea. They would even go to battle together side-by-side. This level of gender equality is very intriguing.

My Mithradates play would include a Middle-Eastern to Central-Asian setting where trust is always a challenge because of the nature of royal power. I would include the extensive knowledge of natural poisons and how poison was used as a not very well respected but effective battle tactic. I would imagine the relationship Mithradates had with Hypsecratea. And play on the idea that although he was a powerful ruler who may have done some underhanded things he was the underdog against the Romans. The story would be an allegory but I am not quite sure to what. Mayor brought new life to this history and developed new characters in my imagination.


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