The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (2009) was written by Dr. Adrienne Mayor, a Research Scholar at Stanford University. Examining the tumultuous life of this most tantalizing of ancient kings, Mayor contextualizes Mithradates VI’s political importance, intellectual brilliance, and complex character.

Divided into 15 chapters, Mayor's work describes the life of a man "brimming with spectacle and excitement." Born in Pontus, the geographical buffer between the rising powers of late republican Rome and imperial Parthia, Mithradates VI of Pontus (r. 120-63 BCE) was loathed by Rome for his massacre of 80,000 Roman civilians in 88 BCE, but hailed by Greeks and Persians as a "savior" from oppressive Roman misrule. In this new biography, Mayor seeks to uncover the ways in which Mithradates VI of Pontus inspired fear, romance, courage, and intrigue across the Near East during the first century BCE.

Given the challenges of researching and writing such a book--documented history of Mithradates VI is rather limited and many written sources come only from his innumerable of enemies--Mayor manages to recreate the world of Mithradates VI via the "the realm of educated guesswork" or counterfactual history. Many readers and scholars may take issue here with her approach, and understandably so. Mayor does succeed in offering countless alternative views to how history might have unfolded, and also what could have motivated other important historical figures like Tigranes II of Armenia (r. 95-55 BCE), but we urge caution and individual contemplation. One area where Mayor excels is her analysis of why Mithradates VI has been circumscribed in recent historiography, and why there are strong geopolitical parallels between the ancient and modern worlds. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with Mayor's conclusions, her style and execution is sharp and engaging.

The Poison King includes an extensive bibliographical reference with titles in English, French, German, Italian, and Ukrainian (divided between ancient and modern sources). Other useful features include a timeline, a dramatis personae of important persons, illustrations (in black and white and color), and detailed maps of present-day Turkey, Greece, Armenia, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus.

The Our Site recommends this interesting work to historians and folklorists in particular. The Poison King was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Awards and was published by Princeton University Press (448 pages, hardback). It has since been translated into many languages. It is widely available and listed

About the Reviewer

James is a writer and former Professor of History. He holds an MA in World History with a particular interest in cross-cultural exchange and world history. He is a co-founder of Our Site and formerly was its Communications Director.


Mithridates VI Eupator

Mithridates or Mithradates VI Eupator (Greek: Μιθραδάτης [2] 135–63 BC) was a ruler of the Hellenistic Kingdom of Pontus in northern Anatolia from 120 to 63 BC, and one of the Roman Republic's most formidable and determined opponents. He was an effective, ambitious and ruthless ruler who sought to dominate Asia Minor and the Black Sea region, waging several hard-fought but ultimately unsuccessful wars (the Mithridatic Wars) to break Roman dominion over Asia and the Hellenic world. [3] He has been called the greatest ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus. [4] After his death he became known as Mithridates the Great. Due to his affinity for poison he has also been called The Poison King.


Contents

From 1980 to 1996, she worked as a copy editor, and printmaker. [1]

Since 2006, Mayor has been a research scholar in the Classics Department and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at Stanford University. [2]

Mayor has published books and articles on the history of automatons, Amazons, unconventional warfare, ancient automatons, toxic honey, tattoos in antiquity, smallpox blankets in history and legend, assassination by poisoned garments in Mughal India, fossil-related legends, fossil-related place names, and other topics in scholarly journals and popular magazines, including History Today, Journal of American Folklore, Archaeology, "Natural History," MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History, Gizmodo, and Foreign Affairs. Her books The First Fossil Hunters and Fossil Legends of the First Americans were both praised in Central Connecticut State anthropology department member Kenneth L. Feder's book Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology—a book dedicated to debunking pseudoarcheological claims. [3]

Her books have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Italian, Russian, and Greek and have been featured in documentaries on the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and the BBC. She has lectured at the American Museum of Natural History, Boston Museum of Fine Art, Smithsonian, Art Institute of Chicago, Getty Museum, among other venues, and has been interviewed on NPR, BBC, and Coast to Coast AM. Her biography of Mithradates VI Eupator, The Poison King, was a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award 2009. [4]

From 2011 to 2017, Mayor was a regular contributor to the history of science website Wonders and Marvels. [5]

From 2009 to 2015, Mayor maintained a Facebook profile under the name Mithradates Eupator, which became an active network for more than 2,500 people, including international scholars, classicists, archaeologists, linguists, ancient historians, authors, novelists, museum curators, and others who engaged in valuable research and educational conversation. This unique crowd-sourcing site was eliminated by Facebook on May 26, 2015.

In 2018–19, she was a Berggruen Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, Stanford, her research dedicated to the impulse to create artificial life, whether that be today's artificial intelligence or the animated statues of myth. The fruits of this research are contained in her latest book, Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology.

The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times (2000, reissued with new Introduction 2011) Edit

Mayor's first book investigated discoveries and interpretations of dinosaur and other large vertebrate fossils in classical antiquity, and proposed that ancient observations of the fossilized remains of mammoths, mastodons, dinosaurs, and other extinct species influenced belief in giants, heroes, the griffin and some other fabulous beings of myth and legend. [6] This book is the basis for the popular History Channel show "Ancient Monster Hunters" and the BBC show Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters and several museum exhibits. A National Geographic children's book by Marc Aronson, The Griffin and the Dinosaur (2014) describes Mayor's hypothesis that ancient observations of Protoceratops dinosaur fossils influenced ancient images and tales of Griffins.

Reception Edit

In American Journal of Archaeology, Deborah Ruscillo, Washington University St. Louis, writes that this multidisciplinary book is written so that a layperson not well-versed in the topics it delves into may understand it. While Ruscillo does disagree with some of the assertions Mayor makes, she recommends the book to anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike. [7] In Isis: A Journal of the History of Science, Liliane Bodson, University of Liege, writes that “Mayor’s thought-provoking book will mark a watershed in the approach to griffins and giants.” While she found some of Mayor's views one-sided, she still recommended the book to “every historian of natural sciences.” [8]

Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World (2003, revised edition with new Introduction 2009) Edit

Mayor's second book uncovers the earliest examples of biochemical weapons in the ancient world, to demonstrate that the concept and practice of biochemical warfare occurred much earlier than was previously thought. One of the book's purposes is to dispel the idea that ancient warfare was inherently more honorable than modern warfare. She presents ancient Greek, Roman, Chinese, African, and Indian historical accounts of the practice of biochemical warfare, using animal, bacterial, poison, and chemical weaponry, including Greek fire. "An illuminating revision of early military history," [9] this book has become a favorite of ancient war gamers and was featured in the History Channel show "Ancient Greek WMDs."

Reception Edit

Classicist Richard Stoneman praises the book, stating that it should be “widely read”, and specifically praises the wide range of sources used, especially her employment of sources from India. [10] In Library Journal, Brian DeLuca feels that the use of modern terminology in relation to ancient methods of warfare is “anachronistic” and finds Mayor's arguments for ancient biowarfare unconvincing. Even so, he recommends the book for “larger public libraries, specialized collections, and academic libraries.” [11] In Naval War College Review, author and lieutenant colonel Zygmunt Dembek highly recommends the book because of its unique point of view. [12]

Fossil Legends of the First Americans (2005) Edit

Mayor's third book gathers Native American accounts of discoveries of dinosaur and other fossils and oral traditions about their meaning, from pre-Columbian times to the present. Much of the focus of the book is in challenging the idea put forth by paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson that precolonial indigenous peoples of the Americas did not take notice of the many fossils found on the continent. The book is organized by geographic location of fossils. It has been featured in History Channel MonsterQuest videos.

Reception Edit

According to Bryce Christianson, for the American Library Association, Mayor "illuminates the surprisingly relevant views of early peoples confronting evidence of prehistoric life" in a "pioneering work [that] replaces cultural estrangement with belated understanding." [13] Norman MacLeod (Natural History Museum, London), writes in Paleontologia Electronica that he was “disappointed” in the book, although Mayor "has done a great service to Native Americans by collecting together many of their legends, including many that had previously been unrecorded." [14] In his review for Geological Magazine, Paul D. Taylor (Natural History Museum, London) writes that the book will appeal to palaeontologists, anthropologists, and folklorists,” as well as geologists. [15]

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (2009) Edit

Mayor's fourth book details the story of the life of Mithradates, leader of the ancient Black Sea kingdom of Pontus, who, in the 1st century B.C., did everything he could to overthrow the Roman Empire. The book attempts to relay events from the Pontic point of view, as opposed to the Roman point of view. The Poison King was one of five nonfiction finalists in the National Book Awards, 2009, and has been translated into Italian, German, Russian, Turkish, and Spanish.

Reception Edit

Peter Stothard, author and editor of TLS Times Literary Supplement, praises Mayor's "fascinating" biographical account, noting that she "aims to rescue [Mithradates'] reputation from biographical accounts that have come mostly from his enemies" by "making full imaginative use both of her own broad knowledge and the often frail ancient source material." [16] In Melbourne Historical Journal, Jeroen W.P. Wijnendaele writes that Mayor has crafted an entertaining book about Mithradates's life, but felt that the passages about the use of poison are “repetitive.” [17] In Isis: Journal of the History of Science Society, Laurence Totelin remarks on small errors but approved of the good bibliography and deems the book a good introduction to the story of Mithradates. [18] Author Carolyn See's review in The Washington Post, calls The Poison King a "wonderful reading experience, bracing as a tonic," providing a perspective that is "thrilling" while providing "calm and distance" on a terrifying age. [19]

The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014) Edit

Mayor's fifth book surveys ancient myths, legends, folklore, art, and archaeology related to warlike women known to the classical Greeks as Amazons. This is the first comprehensive account of warrior women in myth and history from the Mediterranean world to China. It also includes information on the linguistic origins of the word “Amazon" and details how nomadic horsewomen-archers of the steppes influenced ideas of warrior women.

Reception Edit

Jasmin W. Cyril writes in Kadin/Woman 2000 that “any reader or researcher will be well rewarded through a perusal of this monograph and will find immeasurable advantage in the notes and bibliography.” [20] In American Journal of Philology, classicist Alison Keith criticizes Mayor's tendency to make unsubstantiated assertions, treat folklore as fact, and neglect context for some sources Keith feels that the book is “rich in research but weak in accepted methods of scholarship.” [21] In New Statesman classics professor Edith Hall, Kings College London, says the book is more than "an important contribution to ancient history," opening "up new horizons in world storytelling and feminist iconography [with] rigorous scholarship and poetic charm." By "painstaking research into the literature, folklore and ancient traditions of the myriad peoples between Greece, Russia and China, especially the Kyrgyz, the Azerbaijanis and the Circassians of Caucasia, she has broken down the often impenetrable walls dividing western cultural history from its eastern equivalents." [22]

Gods and Robots: Myths, Machines, and Ancient Dreams of Technology (2018) Edit

Mayor's sixth book (translations in simple and traditional Chinese, Spanish, German, and Korean) analyzes classical Greek myths and other ancient cultures' tales about fabricating artificial life, automatons, self-moving devices, and Artificial Intelligence. The final chapter describes real robots, animated statues, and self-propelled machines that were actually designed and constructed in the classical and Hellenistic eras.

Reception Edit

Kirkus reviews describes the book as “a collection of wondrous tales that present ancient myths as the proto-science fiction stories they are.” [23] Classicist Peter Thonemann calls the book "absorbing" and "accessible and engaging," but feels that the ancient quest for eternal youth should not be included as an example of "artificial life" and wishes for deeper analysis of direct lines from Aristotle to modern AI. [24] Mayor's book is "a thought-provoking account" of "how ancient Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese myths expressed hopes and fears about human-made life," according to Bruce Bower in Science News [25] while The Economist review praises the "entertaining" examination of "ancient mythology. . . chock-full of robots, androids and mechanical creatures . . . that survive in written and visual form." [26]


Military History Book Review: The Poison King

This is an enjoyable but strange book. The introduction claims it is “the first full-scale biography of Mithradates, from birth to death and beyond, in well over a century,” ignoring Philip Matyszak’s 2009 volume Mithradates the Great: Rome’s Indomitable Enemy, which the author cites in her bibliography.

The subject of this book is Mithradates VI, king of Pontus from 119 to 63 BC, who fought three wars against the Romans, almost driving them from their Asian and Greek provinces. Mithradates is most familiar to history as a student of poisons, which he employed against enemies, his own family and even on himself in an effort to immunize his body against being poisoned.

To deter Rome from moving against him, Mithradates carried out one of the most successful terrorist acts in history. He secretly recruited agents in most of the towns in Greece and southern Anatolia in which Romans and their families lived. In the spring of 88 BC, those agents killed from 80,000 to 150,000 Roman men, women and children in only a few days. Defeated by Pompey, Mithradates escaped over the Caucuses and sought to regain his crown, raise an army and invade Italy. All three plans failed, and Mithradates killed himself rather than fall captive to the Romans, whom he had harassed for almost half a century.

Mayor has solid research credentials, and her command of the ancient and modern sources is extensive and impressive. The digressions offered in footnotes are enjoyable and valuable, as are the appendices offering a modern checklist for evaluating Mithradates’ psychological condition. Good maps at key points in the narrative are very helpful, and the text is well written and organized chronologically. The author’s interest in ancient poisons, chemicals, explosives technology, geography and regional flora and fauna allow her to expound on these subjects while telling her story. From the poison honey of the mountain bees to the condition of Sulla’s corpse to Lucullus’ introduction of the cherry tree to Italy, this aspect of the book is a real treat.

What gives one pause is the author’s approach to her subject. Mayor employs what is called “disciplined alternative history,” an approach made acceptable in academia by Niall Fergusson and John Lewis Gaddis that permits the historian to fill in or even imagine (the author’s words) what might have happened as long as “the details are probable or plausible for the time and place and they match contemporary experiences, derived from ancient literature, art, and history or archaeology.” This is dangerous stuff, especially in a field in which the ancient sources—in this case Justin, Appian, Strabo and Plutarch—can hardly be taken at face value.

It is one thing to offer an occasional educated guess regarding the details of a person’s life or to fill in elements of a battle or campaign to present a coherent account, something all historians of antiquity are forced to do precisely because the sources are often unreliable or incomplete. But it is quite another to offer whole chapters about what might have occurred. For example, in Chapter 4, “The Lost Boys,” the author invents a seven-year tale about what might have occurred when Mithradates and his loyal boy comrades fled Sinope for the countryside, even imagining their first sexual experiences with the temple prostitutes at Comana, noting that “what happened in Comana stayed in Comana.” In Chapter 5, “The Return of the King,” Mayor admits that sources are silent about how Mithradates regained his throne from his mother (also a poisoner), but then goes on to offer an account of how this might have occurred, including a “velvet coup” in which the mother simply gives up her royal claims.

In the end, Mayor’s approach to the material blurs the line between history and historical fiction one can easily imagine the narrative being turned into a television or movie script. That said, the book is an interesting story told in an interesting way. It is full of interesting facts about Mithradates and the world in which he lived and offers much for the general reader to learn and enjoy.

Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.


The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

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.

Awards and Recognition

  • Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, Nonfiction
  • Winner of the 2010 Gold Medal in Biography, Independent Publisher Book Awards
  • One of The Washington Post critics' Holiday Guide's "Best Books of 2009"
  • Honorable Mention for the 2010 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

"I can say without reservation that it's a wonderful reading experience, as bracing as a tonic, the perfect holiday gift for adventure-loving men and women. A finalist for [the 2009] National Book Award, it's drenched in imaginative violence and disaster, but it also wears the blameless vestments of culture and antiquity. You can have all the fun of reading about a greedy villain being put to death by being made to 'drink' molten gold, but still hide safe behind the excuse that you're just brushing up on your classics."—Carolyn See, Washington Post

"Mayor gives us a more nuanced view of the so-called Poison King, placing him in his proper context as a Greco-Persian ruler following in the footsteps of his purported ancestor Alexander the Great. The most compelling aspect of this story is Mayor's engaging style. A true storyteller, she makes Mithradates's world come alive. This distinctive and compelling book is sure to fascinate all readers interested in the ancient world or in understanding the historical politics of the Caucasus region."Library Journal

"Mayor gives us a more nuanced view of the so-called Poison King, placing him in his proper context as a Greco-Persian ruler following in the footsteps of his purported ancestor Alexander the Great. The most compelling aspect of this story is Mayor's engaging style. A true storyteller, she makes Mithradates's world come alive. This distinctive and compelling book is sure to fascinate all readers interested in the ancient world or in understanding the historical politics of the Caucasus region."Library Journal

"Thanks be to Adrienne Mayor for a definitive biography, blazing with color, presenting a magnificent cast headed by a hero who caused Rome to tremble for a quarter-century. . . . [H]is splendidly produced book is a cavalcade of intrigue, action, and slaughter. Danger, hope, fear, and love and lust are never absent."ForeWord Reviews

"Mayor has specialized in writing well-researched, readable scholarship in the history of ancient science and technology, including the pre-eminent work on ancient chemical and biological warfare. It is fitting, therefore, that her first major biography tackles the life of Mithridates VI of Pontus, known for his knowledge of poisons. It is difficult to weave personal anecdotes (the lifeblood of good biography) with the technical tidbits of science, but Mayor carries it off brilliantly, as evidenced by sections describing Mithridates' youth and early scientific education in Sinope, and his extraordinary chemical knowledge at the peark of his reign. . . . The work is a marvel: part biography, part campaign history, and part scientific exploration, written in a style that makes the book a true page-turner."Choice

"Mayor has done an extraordinary job of filling many gaps in the history of this contentious and foggy period. Rightly so, The Poison King was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and is an effort worthy of any student of history."—Lee Scott, Florida Times-Union

"Mayor has done an extraordinary job of filling many gaps in the history of this contentious and foggy period. Rightly so, The Poison King was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and is an effort worthy of any student of history."—Lee Scott, Florida Times-Union

"Mayor has solid research credentials, and her command of the ancient and modern sources is extensive and impressive. The digressions offered in footnotes are enjoyable and valuable, as are the appendices offering a modern checklist for evaluating Mithradates' psychological condition. Good maps at key points in the narrative are very helpful, and the text is well written and organized chronologically. The author's interest in ancient poisons, chemicals, explosives technology, geography and regional flora and fauna allow her to expound on these subjects while telling her story. . . . Mayor's approach to the material blurs the line between history and historical fiction one can easily imagine the narrative being turned into a television or movie script."—Richard Gabriel, Military History

"This is a highly coloured portrait and a very readable account of a complex individual with whom Mayor plainly has considerable empathy. The book therefore should find a wide audience and serve as an attractive introduction to its subject. . . . [Mayor] herself says, 'Mithridates' incredible saga is a rollicking good story' and she has narrated it with verve, panache and scholarly skill."—Arthur Keaveney, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Newcomers to the field will fall in love with Mayor's Mithradates. For more sober-if less compelling-accounts, they will turn to the recent studies listed in the very good, up-to-date bibliography included in The Poison King."—Laurence Totelin, Isis

"The prose is brilliant. . . . [W]e must regard this work as representing an important step in encouraging interest in the history of this Pontic king."—Luis Ballesteros Pastor, Ancient West & East

"Mayor is without doubt a masterful narrator with an ability to create vivid descriptions of past events and to bring historical characters alive."—Jasmin Lukkari, Arctos

"Mayor is without doubt a masterful narrator with an ability to create vivid descriptions of past events and to bring historical characters alive."—Jasmin Lukkari, Arctos

"The author has read widely and shares her information with such gusto that one is easily swept up in her obvious enthusiasm."—Philip Matyszak, UNRV

"The author has read widely and shares her information with such gusto that one is easily swept up in her obvious enthusiasm."—Philip Matyszak, UNRV

"Mithradates should be a household name alongside his fellow rebels Hannibal, Cleopatra, Spartacus, and Attila. This detailed, juicy, entertaining, yet painstaking work of superb scholarship should finally give Mithradates the recognition he deserves."—Margaret George, author of Helen of Troy: A Novel

"Meticulous in its research, exciting in its narration, ambitious in its conception, The Poison King re-creates an era when much of the Mediterranean world rebelled against Rome. At the center of it all is the fascinating and frightening king who rallied the resistance: Mithradates. Mayor has written a terrific book."—Barry Strauss, author of The Spartacus War

"A fascination with the byways of ancient science, a wonderful eye for the telling detail, and a relish for floating theories that is almost buccaneering: these have always been the trademarks of Adrienne Mayor. Now, with this stirring biography of the toxicologist's favorite tyrant, she parades her gift for narrative as well. Thanks to Mayor, Mithradates has emerged from the shadows at last as one of Rome's most potent and remarkable enemies."—Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

"'He died old'—so A. E. Housman refers to the subject of Adrienne Mayor's latest enthralling book, Mithradates VI, king of Pontus. Pursuing her interest in deadly chemical and biological substances, she focuses here on the life and times of the hammer of the mighty Romans in the last century of the Republic, the hellenized oriental ruler finally nailed by Pompey the Great. Ruthless, aggressive, charming, manipulative, callous—was Mithradates a textbook sociopath? Read this exhilarating and penetrating biography to find out."—Paul Cartledge, author of Alexander the Great

"Adrienne Mayor's The Poison King is an intriguing and highly readable new biography of one of the most controversial figures of antiquity, Mithradates—ruthless Hellenistic king, genocidaire, terrorist, alchemist, implacable enemy of Rome. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the desperate measures some rulers were prepared to take to resist Rome's iron-fisted pursuit of empire."—R. Bruce Hitchner, Tufts University

Related Books


The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

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.

Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.

Awards and Recognition

  • Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, Nonfiction
  • Winner of the 2010 Gold Medal in Biography, Independent Publisher Book Awards
  • One of The Washington Post critics' Holiday Guide's "Best Books of 2009"
  • Honorable Mention for the 2010 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

"I can say without reservation that it's a wonderful reading experience, as bracing as a tonic, the perfect holiday gift for adventure-loving men and women. A finalist for [the 2009] National Book Award, it's drenched in imaginative violence and disaster, but it also wears the blameless vestments of culture and antiquity. You can have all the fun of reading about a greedy villain being put to death by being made to 'drink' molten gold, but still hide safe behind the excuse that you're just brushing up on your classics."—Carolyn See, Washington Post

"Mayor gives us a more nuanced view of the so-called Poison King, placing him in his proper context as a Greco-Persian ruler following in the footsteps of his purported ancestor Alexander the Great. The most compelling aspect of this story is Mayor's engaging style. A true storyteller, she makes Mithradates's world come alive. This distinctive and compelling book is sure to fascinate all readers interested in the ancient world or in understanding the historical politics of the Caucasus region."Library Journal

"Mayor gives us a more nuanced view of the so-called Poison King, placing him in his proper context as a Greco-Persian ruler following in the footsteps of his purported ancestor Alexander the Great. The most compelling aspect of this story is Mayor's engaging style. A true storyteller, she makes Mithradates's world come alive. This distinctive and compelling book is sure to fascinate all readers interested in the ancient world or in understanding the historical politics of the Caucasus region."Library Journal

"Thanks be to Adrienne Mayor for a definitive biography, blazing with color, presenting a magnificent cast headed by a hero who caused Rome to tremble for a quarter-century. . . . [H]is splendidly produced book is a cavalcade of intrigue, action, and slaughter. Danger, hope, fear, and love and lust are never absent."ForeWord Reviews

"Mayor has specialized in writing well-researched, readable scholarship in the history of ancient science and technology, including the pre-eminent work on ancient chemical and biological warfare. It is fitting, therefore, that her first major biography tackles the life of Mithridates VI of Pontus, known for his knowledge of poisons. It is difficult to weave personal anecdotes (the lifeblood of good biography) with the technical tidbits of science, but Mayor carries it off brilliantly, as evidenced by sections describing Mithridates' youth and early scientific education in Sinope, and his extraordinary chemical knowledge at the peark of his reign. . . . The work is a marvel: part biography, part campaign history, and part scientific exploration, written in a style that makes the book a true page-turner."Choice

"Mayor has specialized in writing well-researched, readable scholarship in the history of ancient science and technology, including the pre-eminent work on ancient chemical and biological warfare. It is fitting, therefore, that her first major biography tackles the life of Mithridates VI of Pontus, known for his knowledge of poisons. It is difficult to weave personal anecdotes (the lifeblood of good biography) with the technical tidbits of science, but Mayor carries it off brilliantly, as evidenced by sections describing Mithridates' youth and early scientific education in Sinope, and his extraordinary chemical knowledge at the peark of his reign. . . . The work is a marvel: part biography, part campaign history, and part scientific exploration, written in a style that makes the book a true page-turner."Choice

"Mayor has done an extraordinary job of filling many gaps in the history of this contentious and foggy period. Rightly so, The Poison King was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and is an effort worthy of any student of history."—Lee Scott, Florida Times-Union

"Mayor has done an extraordinary job of filling many gaps in the history of this contentious and foggy period. Rightly so, The Poison King was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and is an effort worthy of any student of history."—Lee Scott, Florida Times-Union

"Mayor has solid research credentials, and her command of the ancient and modern sources is extensive and impressive. The digressions offered in footnotes are enjoyable and valuable, as are the appendices offering a modern checklist for evaluating Mithradates' psychological condition. Good maps at key points in the narrative are very helpful, and the text is well written and organized chronologically. The author's interest in ancient poisons, chemicals, explosives technology, geography and regional flora and fauna allow her to expound on these subjects while telling her story. . . . Mayor's approach to the material blurs the line between history and historical fiction one can easily imagine the narrative being turned into a television or movie script."—Richard Gabriel, Military History

"Mayor has solid research credentials, and her command of the ancient and modern sources is extensive and impressive. The digressions offered in footnotes are enjoyable and valuable, as are the appendices offering a modern checklist for evaluating Mithradates' psychological condition. Good maps at key points in the narrative are very helpful, and the text is well written and organized chronologically. The author's interest in ancient poisons, chemicals, explosives technology, geography and regional flora and fauna allow her to expound on these subjects while telling her story. . . . Mayor's approach to the material blurs the line between history and historical fiction one can easily imagine the narrative being turned into a television or movie script."—Richard Gabriel, Military History

"This is a highly coloured portrait and a very readable account of a complex individual with whom Mayor plainly has considerable empathy. The book therefore should find a wide audience and serve as an attractive introduction to its subject. . . . [Mayor] herself says, 'Mithridates' incredible saga is a rollicking good story' and she has narrated it with verve, panache and scholarly skill."—Arthur Keaveney, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Newcomers to the field will fall in love with Mayor's Mithradates. For more sober-if less compelling-accounts, they will turn to the recent studies listed in the very good, up-to-date bibliography included in The Poison King."—Laurence Totelin, Isis

"Newcomers to the field will fall in love with Mayor's Mithradates. For more sober-if less compelling-accounts, they will turn to the recent studies listed in the very good, up-to-date bibliography included in The Poison King."—Laurence Totelin, Isis

"The prose is brilliant. . . . [W]e must regard this work as representing an important step in encouraging interest in the history of this Pontic king."—Luis Ballesteros Pastor, Ancient West & East

"The prose is brilliant. . . . [W]e must regard this work as representing an important step in encouraging interest in the history of this Pontic king."—Luis Ballesteros Pastor, Ancient West & East

"Mayor is without doubt a masterful narrator with an ability to create vivid descriptions of past events and to bring historical characters alive."—Jasmin Lukkari, Arctos

"Mayor is without doubt a masterful narrator with an ability to create vivid descriptions of past events and to bring historical characters alive."—Jasmin Lukkari, Arctos

"The author has read widely and shares her information with such gusto that one is easily swept up in her obvious enthusiasm."—Philip Matyszak, UNRV

"The author has read widely and shares her information with such gusto that one is easily swept up in her obvious enthusiasm."—Philip Matyszak, UNRV

"Mithradates should be a household name alongside his fellow rebels Hannibal, Cleopatra, Spartacus, and Attila. This detailed, juicy, entertaining, yet painstaking work of superb scholarship should finally give Mithradates the recognition he deserves."—Margaret George, author of Helen of Troy: A Novel

"Meticulous in its research, exciting in its narration, ambitious in its conception, The Poison King re-creates an era when much of the Mediterranean world rebelled against Rome. At the center of it all is the fascinating and frightening king who rallied the resistance: Mithradates. Mayor has written a terrific book."—Barry Strauss, author of The Spartacus War

"A fascination with the byways of ancient science, a wonderful eye for the telling detail, and a relish for floating theories that is almost buccaneering: these have always been the trademarks of Adrienne Mayor. Now, with this stirring biography of the toxicologist's favorite tyrant, she parades her gift for narrative as well. Thanks to Mayor, Mithradates has emerged from the shadows at last as one of Rome's most potent and remarkable enemies."—Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

"'He died old'—so A. E. Housman refers to the subject of Adrienne Mayor's latest enthralling book, Mithradates VI, king of Pontus. Pursuing her interest in deadly chemical and biological substances, she focuses here on the life and times of the hammer of the mighty Romans in the last century of the Republic, the hellenized oriental ruler finally nailed by Pompey the Great. Ruthless, aggressive, charming, manipulative, callous—was Mithradates a textbook sociopath? Read this exhilarating and penetrating biography to find out."—Paul Cartledge, author of Alexander the Great

"Adrienne Mayor's The Poison King is an intriguing and highly readable new biography of one of the most controversial figures of antiquity, Mithradates—ruthless Hellenistic king, genocidaire, terrorist, alchemist, implacable enemy of Rome. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the desperate measures some rulers were prepared to take to resist Rome's iron-fisted pursuit of empire."—R. Bruce Hitchner, Tufts University

Related Books


The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy

Mithridates VI Eupator (120-63 B.C.) was a famous king of Pontus—a region on the Black Sea—who in the last century of the republic long defied the power of Rome. In a series of three wars, fought between the 80s and the 60s B.C., he engaged with such great soldiers of the day as Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey. In modern times this resourceful and energetic monarch was the subject of a classic study by Théodore Reinach which appeared first in French (1890) and subsequently in German (1895) and later of important works by B. McGing (1986) and J. Ballesteros Pastor (1996). Now Adrienne Mayor has given us this detailed biography here under review. Although for the most part grounded on the ancient sources and modern scholarly literature, this work differs from its predecessors in its bold epic sweep. This is a highly coloured portrait and a very readable account of a complex individual with whom Mayor plainly has considerable empathy. The book therefore should find a wide audience and serve as an attractive introduction to its subject. The title Poison King would seem to suggest that perhaps Mayor, who is a noted authority in the field of ancient poisons, was first drawn to Mithridates because he, too, was a very great expert in such matters. However, Mayor goes far beyond such specialised interests and presents us with a richly detailed narrative of the king and his doings in which she constantly strives to put before us Mithridates’ view of events.

There are, of course, gaps in our knowledge of Mithridates due to the state of our sources and Mayor attempts to fill them by imaginative reconstructions. Not so much a case of how things really were as how they might have been. This is not a course which will commend itself to all. For instance, however splendid the evocation of the landscape in pp.73-95 we may legitimately enquire if Mithridates’ ‘exile’ from court was as Mayor describes it. Again we may wonder if there is any profit in describing what Sulla’s fingers may have looked like (p.212). Moreover, I think we may attribute to that empathy we noted earlier the rather wistful attempt (pp.362-365) to suggest what might have happened at the end of the Third Mithridatic War if the King, instead of committing suicide, simply rode off into the sunset. Indeed I would add that I found far more fascinating than this speculation the few pages (pp.373-376) Mayor devotes to considering if Mithridates had a personality disorder.

Leaving aside now the problems posed by imaginative reconstruction it should be noted that there are a few instances of error or, at least, of questionable statements. Herodotus does not say the Persians learned from the Greeks to accept homosexuality, rather they learned of pederasty from them (p.89). Sulla and his army were not in Rome in the 90s B.C. when Marius met Mithridates (p.132). Marius was not a consul in 88 B.C. (p.165). I doubt if the Asiatic Vespers can be seen as a gesture of solidarity with the Social War rebels (p.174). Sulla did not destroy Athens (p.203). It is at least questionable whether the siege of Cyzicus began in 73 B.C. (p.270). In both the original (1992) and the revised version (forthcoming) of my biography of Lucullus I have argued in detail for 74 B.C. The writer was Sidonius not Sidonis Apollonaris (p.262).

But such reservations as I might have should not be seen as taking from what Mayor has undoubtedly achieved. She herself (p.11) says, ‘Mithridates’ incredible saga is a rollicking good story’ and she has narrated it with verve, panache and scholarly skill.


The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy

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.

Some images inside the book are unavailable due to digital copyright restrictions.


15In the Tower

WHAT happened in the tower after Pharnaces was acclaimed king? There was apparently only one witness, Mithradates&rsquo bodyguard Bituitus, and it is not clear that he lived to tell the story. What we do know comes from Roman historians who pieced together the scene from the contradictory reports of people in Pantikapaion at the time, interpretations of the evidence found in the tower, and hearsay and popular traditions about Mithradates&rsquo last hours. Let us look first at what the ancient writers tell us, and then consider how to read between the lines to reconstruct events and make sense of incomplete evidence.

THE MOST DEADLY OF ALL POISONS

Mithradates&rsquo worst fear was that he would be turned over to Pompey for a degrading public display and death in Rome. He understood that he had lost the goodwill of his people he acknowledged that his son was the new king. His only hope was to go into exile. He sent several messages to Pharnaces, requesting safe passage out of Pantikapaion. Not one of his messengers returned. Next Mithradates sent old friends to petition his son, but either they were killed by Pharnaces&rsquo followers (according to Appian), or they were convinced to turn against the king (Cassius Dio&rsquos report). 1

His entreaties for safe passage unanswered, Mithradates found himself in the same straits as Hannibal had been in 182 BC, trapped in his palace in Bithynia. Like Hannibal, Mithradates had prepared for this situation. Mithradates thanked his bodyguard and other companions who had remained faithful. As in previous catastrophes, Mithradates directed his eunuchs to distribute poison to the courtesans and children in the seraglio. The two youngest princesses, Mithradatis and Nyssa, were being raised in the palace with their father, which explains how they came to be in the tower with him. (They were betrothed but had not yet reached the age of marriage, so they were perhaps between nine and thirteen.) According to the literary traditions, the king and his daughters took poison, while Bituitus stood guard.

FIG. 15.1. Mithradates poisons his young daughters (right) and requests his bodyguard Bituitus (left) to stab him. Illustration by Adrien Marie, in Church 1885.

FIG. 15.2. Mithridates, His Rash Act. An unsympathetic caricature by Punch artist John Leech, depicting the suicide pact of Mithradates and his daughters as a drawing room comedy. The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A Beckett, 1852

Mithradates uncapped the secret compartment in the hilt of his dagger and tipped out the little golden vial, beautifully crafted by Scythian artists. The two girls entreated their father to share his poison with them, begging him to stay alive until they died. He held them in his arms while they sipped from the vial. The drug took immediate effect. 2

When the girls were dead, Mithradates drank the rest. But the poison did not kill him. He paced energetically, to propel the toxin through his body. He became very weak, but death did not come. In the oft-repeated legend&mdashheavy with irony and recounted in nearly every ancient version of Mithradates&rsquo death&mdashthe king who had made himself invulnerable to poisoning by ingesting infinitesimal doses of poisons all his life, was in the end unable to poison himself. Mithradates&rsquo last words were widely reported: &ldquoI&mdashthe absolute monarch of so great a kingdom&mdasham now unable to die by poison because I foolishly used other drugs as antidotes. Although I have kept watch and guarded against all poisons, I neglected to take precautions against that most deadly of all poisons, which lurks in every king&rsquos household, the faithlessness of army, friends, and children.&rdquo 3

This pithy parable was taken up by medieval chroniclers and repeated by modern historians, because the moral seemed so poetically apt for the Poison King.

But logic raises objections. If the Mithridatium regimen was effective through what is now known as the process of hormesis&mdashas Mithradates certainly believed&mdashwhat would be the point of his lifelong precaution of carrying poison for suicide, unless it was a carefully calculated lethal dose of some special, fast-acting poison that was not included in his daily antidote? Over his lifetime, Mithradates had tested numerous poisons on human subjects and knew exactly how much he would require for a quick, private, dignified death. 4 On the other hand, if the Mithridatium did not actually shield against poison, then why was the precisely measured dose ineffective?

There is a natural explanation that addresses both questions, overlooked by modern scholars but evident in the ancient reports. The king had shared his single dose with two others, at least halving the amount. There was not enough left to kill a man of Mithradates&rsquo size and constitution. Like his unexpected mercy for his traitorous son Pharnaces, Mithradates&rsquo compassion for his innocent daughters brought harm to himself. The true irony is that his sacrifice was repaid with his own suffering. Perhaps this was a fitting mythic ending after all, for one who had been hailed as a savior.

FIG. 15.3. Bituitus stabbing Mithradates, who was unable to poison himself because of his lifelong ingestion of antidotes. The illustration on this ornate sixteenth-century Mithridatium vessel was meant to advertise the potency of the theriac within&mdashso strong that even self-poisoning fails. Annibale Fontana, 1570. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

FIG. 15.4. Tragic neoclassical view of Mithradates&rsquo death, showing Pharnaces&rsquo soldiers bursting into the tower, as described by Cassius Dio. The artist, Augustyn Mirys (1700&ndash1790) depicts three dead daughters.

When it became obvious that the poison was inadequate, Mithradates drew his sword and attempted to stab himself, but physical weakness and mental distress interfered with his ability to drive the sword home. At that point, he called upon his faithful guard, Bituitus, who faltered before his king&rsquos &ldquomajestic countenance.&rdquo According to Appian&rsquos version of the tradition, Mithradates encouraged Bituitus: &ldquoYour strong right arm has kept me safe from my enemies many times in the past. Now, I shall benefit most of all if you will kill me, to save me&mdashfor so many years the ruler of so great a kingdom&mdashfrom being a captive led in a Roman triumph.&rdquo Deeply moved, Bituitus &ldquorendered the king the service he desired.&rdquo Cassius Dio gives an alternate version: Pharnaces&rsquo soldiers &ldquohastened his end with their swords and spears.&rdquo But Reinach reasonably suggested that Pharnaces&rsquo soldiers burst into the tower too late to capture the king alive and in frustration mutilated his body. 5

The ancient historians agree that after the bodies were discovered in the tower, Pharnaces sent a message to Pompey, now far away in Petra (Jordan), requesting permission to rule his father&rsquos kingdom as a Friend of Rome. Pharnaces embalmed his father&rsquos corpse, clothed it in Mithradates&rsquo kingly raiment and armor, and sent it, along with the royal weapons, scepter, and other treasures, across the Black Sea to Pontus. Other triremes carried the dead bodies of the royal family (including Nyssa and Mithradatis) and the surviving children (Artaphernes, Eupatra, Orsabaris, and little Darius, Oxathres, Xerxes, and Cyrus). Pharnaces also turned over numerous Greeks and barbarians who had served Mithradates&mdashincluding the men responsible for capturing Manius Aquillius, executed by molten gold for starting the Mithradatic Wars twenty-five years earlier. The presence of these men with their king, after such a tumultuous quarter century, is a testament to the remarkable loyalty of some of Mithradates&rsquo followers. 6

POMPEY&rsquoS VICTORY

Months later, Pompey received the news in camp somewhere between Petra and Jericho. Messengers flourishing javelins wrapped in victory laurels arrived, exulting that Mithradates had been forced by his son Pharnaces to commit suicide in Pantikapaion. Pompey clambered to the top of a hastily constructed mound of packsaddles to announce the tidings to his troops. Great feasts and sacrifices followed&mdashjust as though they had won a great battle and killed huge numbers of the enemy.

Pompey&rsquos biographer Plutarch hints at a whiff of resentment and annoyance in Pompey&rsquos awkward situation. Indeed, what in the world was Pompey doing nearly a thousand miles south of the Black Sea? He had been sent to kill or capture Mithradates in 66 BC&mdashyet Mithradates not only had escaped but had ruled the Bosporan Kingdom in peace for the past three years, and had been preparing to invade Italy. Now, the elimination of Mithradates terminated Pompey&rsquos legal justification for continuing to win personal glory in the Near East. Pompey sent an official letter to the Senate in Rome. The news was greeted with great relief and joy, and Cicero, as consul, proclaimed ten days of thanksgiving. Meanwhile, Pompey took his time traveling to Pontus to receive the remains of his adversary. 7

But when Pompey&rsquos soldiers opened the royal coffin on the beach, the dead man&rsquos face was totally unrecognizable! Everyone knew, from widely publicized portraits on coins and statues, what Mithradates looked like&mdashbut decomposition made identification of the corpse impossible. According to Plutarch, the embalming was poorly done: the face had rotted because the brain had not been removed. But the long, damp sea voyage and exposure at Amisus in summertime, the effects of poison, the ravages of Mithradates&rsquo recent facial ulcerations, and any mutilations by Pharnaces&rsquo soldiers would also have done their work. 8

The obliterated face immediately raised suspicion: was this really the body of Mithradates the Great? Had Mithradates&rsquo brilliant halo of xvarnah (spirit or luck) truly been extinguished at last?

&ldquoFor superstitious reasons,&rdquo Pompey averted his eyes (or perhaps did not care to look on the corpse after hearing that the face was not worth seeing). Those who did examine the corpse claimed to recognize it &ldquoby the scars.&rdquo Modern scholars have accepted this claim without careful analysis. Mithradates&rsquo most distinguishing scar, of course, was the mark on his forehead from the lightning strike in infancy, but that would not have been visible on the decomposed face. For the same reason, the scar from his cheek wound in the battle of 67 BC could not be seen. That leaves the scar from the sword gash on his thigh, from the same battle, and the recent fatal stabbing wound dealt by Bituitus (with no witnesses). If the body had been mutilated by soldiers, as Cassius Dio reported, old scars would be difficult to read. A former friend of Mithradates, Gaius, was part of Pharnaces&rsquo delegation, according to Plutarch. Perhaps he was one of those who identified the body by the thigh scar. But thigh wounds were commonplace for anyone who rode a horse in battle, and Mithradates&rsquo distinctive facial scars were obliterated. This means that the royal paraphernalia in the coffin was the only physical evidence that the dead man was King Mithradates (see plate 9).

The armor, cuirass, and greaves matched Mithradates&rsquo reputedly large proportions the helmet was ornate (perhaps with a hyacinth-dyed plume like that of Cyrus the Great). There were other rich trappings of royalty: the purple cloak, Mithradates&rsquo opulent sword&mdashthe scabbard alone worth four hundred talents&mdashhis gem-encrusted scepter, a golden crown. Plutarch says Pompey admired these marvelously wrought things and was &ldquoamazed at the size and splendor of the arms and raiment that Mithradates used to wear.&rdquo After Pompey left the scene, the Roman officers and some men who had once served Mithradates circled the loot like jackals&mdashgrabbing up the scabbard, haggling over the crown and other treasures. 9

Pompey&rsquos true feelings are unknown. Foremost must have been awe at this momentous occasion, the end of an era, the passing of a charismatic, grandly ambitious and independent monarch who had been Rome&rsquos relentless, elusive enemy for as long as Pompey had been alive. But Plutarch also suggested there was a sense of anticlimax at the &ldquounexpectedly easy completion&rdquo of Pompey&rsquos campaign, which he had been prolonging to great advantage. Frustration, too: Mithradates had slipped away yet again, ever defiant and now forever immune to revenge, denying Pompey the glory of personally delivering to the Roman People and Senate the perpetrator of so many outrages and decades of warfare. Suicide, in antiquity as in modern times, could be a noble escape from tyranny or capture by the enemy. It also robs the victor of the satisfaction of killing his enemy or bringing him to justice. 10

The historian Cassius Dio stressed that Pompey did not subject the body of Mithradates to any indignities or desecration. Instead, Pompey consciously copied Alexander&rsquos chivalrous treatment of the remains of his Persian enemy King Darius. Treating the corpse with respect, Pompey commended Mithradates&rsquo bold exploits and declared him the greatest king of his time. He paid for a royal funeral and ordered that the body be placed with Mithradates&rsquo forefathers. No other enemy of Rome had ever been accorded such honors. As historian Jakob Munk Høtje points out, by treating Mithradates as Darius had been treated, Pompey contrived to demote &ldquothe philhellene king to an oriental despot&rdquo while he himself appeared as the new Roman Alexander. 11

MORE QUESTIONS

Where was the body buried? According to Cassius Dio, Mithradates was placed &ldquoin the tombs of his ancestors.&rdquo Plutarch and Appian believed that he was laid to rest &ldquoin the tombs of the kings at Sinope,&rdquo because that had become the royal residence of Pontus. In 1890, Reinach assumed that a new royal necropolis must have existed in Sinope. But the traditional mausoleum of Mithradates&rsquo forefathers was the set of rock-cut tombs at Amasia, above the Iris River (see fig. 4.4). Extensive modern archaeology in Sinope has failed to turn up any tombs that would qualify as those of Mithradates or his royal ancestors. So the ambiguity surrounding the identity of Mithradates&rsquo body is further compounded by uncertainty about his gravesite. Ambiguity over a venerated figure&rsquos final resting place is one of the hallmarks of a mythic hero, a sure sign that Mithradates had passed into the realm of legend (see appendix 1). 12

The legendary aura and mystery surrounding Mithradates&rsquo demise raises other questions unanswered in the ancient histories. What, for example, became of his devoted Amazon companion Hypsicratea?

Fig. 15.5. Mithradates and Hypsicratea take poison together, with Mithradates&rsquo daughters and Bituitus. Boccaccio, Des cleres et nobles femmes, ca. 1450. Spencer Collection, New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

If it was known or even rumored that Hypsicratea had been poisoned, killed, or captured, one would expect this to be included in the accounts of the fates of other members of Mithradates&rsquo family and entourage. The disappearance from the historical record of this appealing figure, the brave horsewoman who was so intimately involved with Mithradates in his last years, leaves a blank page too tempting to ignore. &ldquoQueen Hypsicratea&rsquos love for Mithradates knew no bounds,&rdquo declared Valerius Maximus she was devoted to him &ldquobody and soul.&rdquo Her &ldquoextraordinary fidelity was Mithradates&rsquo greatest solace and comfort in the most bitter and difficult conditions, for he considered that he was &lsquoat home&rsquo even when wandering in defeat, because she was in exile with him.&rdquo Even Théodore Reinach fell under the spell of this romantic &ldquopassion sincère.&rdquo Reinach pictured Hypsicratea, &ldquothe last living embodiment of his lost kingdom,&rdquo tenderly comforting Mithradates in defeat. 13

The novelist Michael Curtis Ford accounted for Hypsicratea&rsquos disappearance by imagining that she had been swallowed by a crevasse in the ice during the Caucasus crossing, leaving Mithradates in true mourning for the first time in his life. Medieval and Renaissance authors also speculated about Hypsicratea&rsquos fate. In an illustrated manuscript (ca. 1450) of Boccaccio&rsquos Famous Women, the artist depicted Mithradates and Hypsicratea drinking chalices of poison together with the king&rsquos two daughters and their retainer Bituitus. Some French dramas of the 1600s about Mithradates also placed Hypsicratea in the tower, succumbing to poison with the king and princesses.

Hypsicratea did possess the poison that Mithradates had given her after the defeat in the Moonlight Battle, and she could have committed suicide. But she was young, strong, resourceful, and free, not compelled to accept death like a courtesan trapped in the harem. An alternative story, in which Hypsicratea survived, is just as plausible.

No ancient account speaks of Hypsicratea after the winter of 63 BC. But an exciting recent discovery by Russian archaeologists in Phanagoria proves that Hypsicratea did survive the Caucasus crossing and was with Mithradates after he regained the Kingdom of the Bosporus. An inscription, on the base for a statue of Hypsicratea, honors her as the wife of King Mithradates Eupator Dionysus. Unfortunately, the statue itself is missing, but the inscription tells us that Hypsicratea was commemorated as Mithradates&rsquo queen in the Bosporan Kingdom. The inscription holds another extraordinary surprise, as we will see. 14

So Hypsicratea was in the Bosporus before Pharnaces&rsquo revolt. But an idle life at Mithradates&rsquo court in Pantikapaion might not have suited the independent horsewoman-warrior. It would not be unreasonable for Mithradates to assign her military duties associated with his war preparations. Perhaps she was away during Pharnaces&rsquo revolt, carrying out some mission on his majesty&rsquos service. Mithradates often employed close friends as envoys. Hypsicratea could have been dispatched to visit the nomads of the north or west, to prepare for the invasion of Italy. She and Mithradates might have expected to be reunited on the march.

If Hypsicratea was in Pantikapaion in 63 BC, one would suppose that Mithradates arranged for her safety at the first signs of Pharnaces&rsquo revolt. Was she among the soldiers escorting the princesses to Scythia? The only escape route would have been into Scythia she and Mithradates might have hoped to meet there in triumph&mdashor in exile if he received safe passage.

Could Hypsicratea have been captured by Pharnaces and delivered to Pompey? If so, such a prize would have been displayed prominently in Pompey&rsquos Triumph. But that is implausible, since her name is not included in the very detailed records of that celebration.

REMEMBER YOU ARE MORTAL

Pompey&rsquos Triumph took place in 61 BC, two years after his victory. For two days, all Rome marveled at a spectacle of such magnitude and extravagance that it surpassed all previous triumphs. As Appian pointed out, no Roman had ever vanquished so powerful an enemy as Mithradates the Great nor conquered so many nations, extending Roman rule to the Euphrates and the Black Sea.

There were 700 captured ships on view in the harbor and countless wagons loaded with barbarian armor and weaponry and bronze ship prows. Banners and inscriptions lauded Pompey&rsquos capture of 1,000 castles and 900 cities. There were carts laden with an astounding 20,000 talents&rsquo worth of silver and gold coins, vessels, and jewelry. Litters heaped with millions of coins, chests of carved gems&mdashtruly, the official records of Pompey&rsquos incredible plunder were exhaustive and too exhausting to catalog in full here. It had taken Pompey&rsquos secretaries 30 days just to make an inventory of the 2,000 onyx and gold chalices from Mithradates&rsquo hoard at Talaura and only a fraction of the loot was actually included in the procession. Not to be outdone by Lucullus&rsquos lone cherry tree, Pompey even paraded two exotic trees from Judea, ebony and balsam.

A host of 324 captives marched in the parade, among them Mithradates&rsquo grandson Tigranes, the son of Tigranes the Great, with his wife and daughters and Zosimé, Tigranes&rsquo courtesan. Poor Nyssa, Mithradates&rsquo sister, was trotted out again to walk in shame beside five of Mithradates&rsquo sons, Artaphernes, Cyrus, Oxathres, Darius, Xerxes, and Princesses Eupatra and Orsabaris. There were various kings and royal families of Mithradates&rsquo allies, followed by Aristobulus, king of the Jews. A troop of Amazons captured by Pompey in the Caucasus was led past the crowd. Only Aristobulus and Tigranes the Younger were strangled after the parade.

As in Lucullus&rsquos Triumph, King Mithradates himself was conspicuously absent. In his place, his throne and scepter were carried aloft, followed by litters of antique Persian divans and old silver and gold chariots, treasures passed down to Mithradates from Darius I. Next came a large silver statue of Mithradates&rsquo grandfather, Pharnaces I, and the marble statue of Hercules holding his little son Telephus, modeled on Mithradates (fig. 3.7). Surpassing Lucullus&rsquos life-sized golden statue of Mithradates, a colossal ten-foot-tall solid gold statue of the king was displayed by Pompey.

Pompey also commissioned large painted portraits of Mithradates and his family. Another series of giant paintings illustrated key scenes from the Mithradatic Wars. For a spectator, this narrative sequence of images would have produced the effect of the frames of a stop-motion animation film or the panels of a graphic novel (for a medieval version of a similar narrative effect, see plate 3). Here were Mithradates and his barbarian multitudes attacking here was Mithradates losing ground, and Mithradates besieged. There were Tigranes and Mithradates leading their magnificent hordes, followed by images of these great armies in defeat, and finally Mithradates&rsquo &ldquosecret flight by night.&rdquo Next came a series of emotionally gripping paintings showing how Mithradates had died in his tower, drinking poison with &ldquothe daughters who chose to perish with him.&rdquo These, of course, were scenes that no Roman had witnessed. They were based on artistic license and second- and thirdhand reports.

Taking credit for Pharnaces&rsquo revolt, Pompey boasted that he had accomplished what Sulla and Lucullus had failed to do, bring about the death of &ldquothe untamed king&rdquo of Pontus. The inscription on his dedication of war spoils announced, &ldquoPompey the Great [had] completed a thirty years&rsquo war [and] routed, scattered, slew, or received the surrender of 12,183,000 people sank or captured 846 ships [and] subdued the lands from the Sea of Azov to the Red Sea&rdquo to the Atlantic Ocean. Pompey &ldquorestored to the Roman People the command of the seas [and] triumphed over Asia, Pontus, Armenia, Paphlagonia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Syria, the Scythians, Jews, Albanoi, Iberi, Arabs, Cretans, Bastarnae, and, in addition to these, over Kings Mithradates and Tigranes.&rdquo 15

For Rome, commented Plutarch, the death of Mithradates was like the destruction of ten thousand enemies in one fell swoop. Emphasizing the greatness of Mithradates and his ultimate defeat served to aggrandize Pompey&rsquos own accomplishments. And after four decades of conflict, a certain admiration and awe surrounded this king who eclipsed all other kings, a noble ruler who had reigned fifty-seven years, who had subdued the barbarians, who took over Asia and Greece, and who resisted Rome&rsquos greatest commanders and shrugged off what should have been crushing defeats a warrior who never gave up but renewed his struggle again and again, and then&mdashagainst all odds&mdashhad died an old man by his own choice, in the kingdom of his fathers.

Mithradates&rsquo life had been a roller-coaster of sublime victories and harrowing losses, loyalties corrupted into betrayals, moments of divine happiness and terrible revenge, as players both East and West jockeyed to choose the winning side, to make the best investment in a volatile market of alliances. The risks Mithradates took were never for mere riches or fame&mdashthough those stakes could be high&mdashbut for the very survival of his Greco-Persian-Anatolian ideals and for freedom from Roman domination. Indomitable even in defeat, marveled Appian, Mithradates &ldquoleft no avenue of attack untried.&rdquo Pliny praised him as &ldquoThe greatest king of his era.&rdquo Velleius eulogized Mithradates as &ldquoever eager for war,&rdquo a man of &ldquoexceptional courage, always great in spirit . . . in strategy a general, in bodily prowess a soldier, in hatred to the Romans a Hannibal.&rdquo He was the greatest king since Alexander, declared Cicero&mdasha compliment that would have thrilled Mithradates. 16

Pompey identified with Alexander too. Now he assumed Alexander&rsquos mantle, in a symbolic and literal sense. Pompey the Great was borne along the triumphal route in a golden chariot studded with glittering gems of every hue. Across his shoulders lay the fragile, faded purple cloak of Alexander the Great, once the cherished possession of Mithradates the Great, the &ldquoHellenized Iranian Alexander.&rdquo Appian was dubious about that cloak, but belief had imbued the ancient garment with reverence whatever its true provenance. As Pompey lovingly arranged the fabled robe for maximum visibility, the slave standing behind him began to murmur the traditional caution in the victor&rsquos ear: &ldquoRemember you are mortal.&rdquo 17

Did this memento mori send a ripple through Pompey&rsquos mood? Did it revive a lingering doubt, suppressed ever since he had declined to examine that ravaged body in the magnificent armor? It had been two years since the corpse had been laid in the tomb of the Pontic kings. Yet Mithradates had made fools of both Sulla and Lucullus by popping back after everyone assumed he was demolished. One can imagine Pompey&rsquos fleeting thought, Yes, I am surely mortal. . . . but is Mithradates?

Mithradates&rsquo life story is incomplete in many crucial details, and much is suspended in the amber glow of legend, inviting the imagination to fill in what we long to know. In the introduction, I discussed how narrative history and historical reconstruction help make sense of imperfect evidence and flesh out missing details and dead ends in the sketchy ancient record, without violating known facts, probabilities, and possible outcomes. A related approach, counterfactual or &ldquowhat if&rdquo scenario building, allows us to reasonably suggest what might have happened under given conditions.

The mysterious circumstances surrounding the demise of a larger-than-life individual like Mithradates beckon historians to imagine what happened behind the scenes presented in the fragmentary sources. As we saw, the ancient historians themselves sometimes disagreed over facts and presented alternative versions of the same events, such as Mithradates&rsquo Caucasus crossing and his last hours. From the Middle Ages on, the uncertainty in the ancient record is reflected in the numerous artistic illustrations of alternative scenarios for Mithradates&rsquo death. Just as Hypsicratea&rsquos disappearance encouraged medieval and modern writers to write the rest of her story, there is ample justification to try to reconstruct a plausible alternative scenario for Mithradates. 18

By all ancient accounts, Mithradates&rsquo died in his palace in Pantikapaion in 63 BC, owing to a combination of self-administered poison and the sword of his bodyguard or the weapons of Pharnaces&rsquo men. The body retrieved from the tower should have provided incontrovertible evidence of this event. But, in fact, the decomposed body identified as that of Mithradates&mdashafter the passage of some months and far removed from the scene of death&mdashwas unrecognizable except for a commonplace scar and the royal insignia. Everyone involved&mdashfrom Mithradates&rsquo son Pharnaces and his old friends, to Pompey and the Romans&mdashagreed to assume that the dead man was Mithradates.

But the extraordinary situation raises a host of questions. Was Mithradates really dead? Was this really his body? Others have posed these questions. Notably, the great French playwright Jean Racine began his famous tragedy Mithridate (1673) with Mithradates&rsquo faked death. Mozart&rsquos opera of 1770 also opens with Mithradates&rsquo reappearance after rumors of his death. Historian Brian McGing suggested in 1998 that the story of Mithradates&rsquo suicide in the tower might have been invented by Pharnaces, perhaps to divert accusations of parricide (a strong taboo among Persian-influenced cultures). But other deceptions and motivations were also possible. What if Mithradates was still alive? 19

If anyone was capable of orchestrating a ruse to deceive the Romans into believing he was dead, it was Mithradates. He once substituted his son for the real king Ariathes. A brilliant escape artist, he had frequently eluded capture by stealth and trickery, and more than once he traveled incognito among his own subjects. Mithradates had cheated death repeatedly&mdashand on at least four occasions he had disappeared and was presumed dead.

Moreover, Mithradates was a connoisseur of Greek myths, and theatricality and dramatic allusions were his trademarks. Ancient tragedy as well as comedy often turned on mistaken identities, distinctive scars, birthmarks, gestures, favorite possessions. Mithradates&mdashand Pompey&mdashknew the story of how Alexander&rsquos corpse had been faked. Alexander&rsquos best friend, Ptolemy, had stolen the body from Babylon and transported it in secret to Alexandria, Egypt. To throw his rivals off his track, Ptolemy had sculptors fabricate a realistic wax model of Alexander and clothed it in his royal robes. This double was placed on a sumptuous bier of silver, gold, and ivory inside one of Alexander&rsquos own elaborate Persian carriages. Surrounded by Alexander&rsquos royal belongings, the replica fooled the pursuers, while the real corpse was taken in a nondescript wagon by an obscure route to Egypt. 20

Pharnaces could have sent Pompey a double, a corpse of a man of Mithradates&rsquo age and physique and displaying a cavalryman&rsquos scarred thigh, recent sword wounds, and a decomposed face. Such a deception would prevent the Romans from desecrating Mithradates&rsquo true remains if he had really died in the tower (no one expected Pompey to inter his enemy&rsquos corpse with honors in the Pontic royal tombs). According to the ancient historians, Mithradates had requested safe passage from Pantikapaion, to take refuge among his allies. A deception involving another&rsquos corpse could have been devised to cover Mithradates&rsquo last great escape.

What follows is a plausible&mdashadmittedly romantic&mdashalternative scenario, drawing on the ancient sources and curious medieval and Gothic legends, and turning on logical &ldquodecision forks,&rdquo but without venturing beyond the limits of the possible. 21

THE GREAT ESCAPE

In his long life, &ldquono conspiracy ever escaped Mithradates&rsquo notice,&rdquo wrote Appian, &ldquonot even the last one,&rdquo plotted by Pharnaces, &ldquowhich he voluntarily overlooked and perished in consequence of&mdashso ungrateful is wickedness once it is pardoned.&rdquo But what if Pharnaces actually had been &ldquograteful&rdquo? If a deception about Mithradates&rsquo death and remains were to be perpetuated, it would have begun at this point, upon Mithradates&rsquo discovery of Pharnaces&rsquo conspiracy. Pharnaces knew that his betrayal warranted death&mdashMithradates had never spared a proven traitor&rsquos life. He was especially harsh in punishing treachery within his family. His surprising pardon of Pharnaces was the opposite of what was expected, totally out of character for the practical, ruthless, unsentimental Mithradates. 22 The pardon guaranteed that Pharnaces would be king, if not now, then soon. What was Mithradates&rsquo true motivation?

When pressed to the wall, when all seemed lost, Mithradates had a long history of successfully slipping away and eluding pursuit. It is not difficult to imagine that, with the help of the old general Metrophanes, father and son might have negotiated a bargain. When the plot was first discovered, Mithradates still held the upper hand. The stakes were high for both men. For Pharnaces, it was life or death. Only by agreeing to Mithradates&rsquo conditions could he survive to inherit his father&rsquos kingdom. Mithradates, after a half century of dealing with Romans, knew Rome would never allow him to rule in peace. His plan to invade Italy lacked crucial support, and Pharnaces was his chosen successor. If he forgave his son, Mithradates could pass the crown to his designated heir and promise to disappear completely in exchange for safe passage and a ruse to convince Pompey that he was dead.

Pharnaces carried his great-grandfather&rsquos Persian name and had been raised within Persian culture. He named his son Darius, and the mother of his daughter Dynamis was probably a Sarmatian (later, as queen of the Bosporus, Dynamis wore an Amazon-Persian-style headdress decorated with Zoroastrian Sun symbols). Perhaps Mithradates discerned a strong strain of his own independent spirit in this son. Indeed, as king Pharnaces would retrace his father&rsquos path: after a peaceful early reign as a Friend of Rome, he would take advantage of the Roman civil war to suddenly rebel, marching a large army, with scythed chariots and a strong cavalry, across Colchis and into Pontus in a quixotic quest to recover his father&rsquos old kingdom. 23

Fig. 15.6. Queen Dynamis, bronze bust. As ruler of the Bosporan Kingdom, Mithradates&rsquo granddaughter wears a star-studded Persian-Phrygian cap like those of Amazons and Zoroastrians. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg. Photo, M. Rostovtzeff 1919.

So let us imagine that at the crisis of Pharnaces&rsquo attempted coup in 63 BC, father and son acknowledged each other as equals at the bargaining table, facilitated by Metrophanes. They would have sworn a sacred oath by the gods Men and Mithra that allowed them both to survive with honor. Then they could work out the details of the grand illusion.

Now let&rsquos replay the events according to the script that might have been composed by Pharnaces and Mithradates. A large, robust corpse that could pass as Mithradates had to be discovered in the tower and shipped to Pompey. Any veteran cavalryman was likely to have the requisite battle scar on the thigh the face could be easily obliterated beyond recognition with corrosive lime or acid. One cannot help wondering whether the faithful cavalry officer Bituitus volunteered for this supreme sacrifice. Mithradates&rsquo armor, scepter, crown, and other regalia would complete the illusion. Old retainers, perhaps Gaius or Metrophanes, could confirm the identification of the body for Pompey.

Keeping his part of the bargain, Mithradates dons ordinary traveling clothes and steals away by night, something he had done many times in the past (perhaps his castle had secret exits, like Hannibal&rsquos in Bithynia). The king takes his weapons and what treasures he can carry: gold coins, favorite agate rings, some valuable papers. Where would he go? Escape by sea was impossible. The only safe route was north.

Mithradates could ride out and join any one of the Scythian or Sarmatian tribes on the steppes. Their ideals and physical prowess were compatible with his, and he could speak their languages. Mithradates had experienced a nomadic lifestyle in his youth and early reign, and during his evasions of Lucullus and Pompey. He had recently renewed his friendships with the nomad chieftains. Pharnaces had maintained good relations with these tribes. Two intriguing facts lend support to the idea of an escape into Scythia. Mithradates&rsquo son by Adobogiona, Mithradates of Pergamon, was ruler of the Bosporan Kingdom after Pharnaces. During an uprising, this Mithradates really did take refuge among the Scythians. Mithradates&rsquo granddaughter Dynamis, queen of the Bosporan Kingdom during the time of Augustus, also went into exile for a time&mdashshe was sheltered by a Sarmatian tribe, perhaps that of her mother. 24

Who would have accompanied Mithradates into secret exile? Perhaps Bituitus, if he survived (his fate is not recorded). And surely Hypsicratea&mdashor perhaps she and the king had already arranged a rendezvous (see plate 8). There are ancient precedents for imagining a &ldquoposthistorical&rdquo second life for Mithradates and Hypsicratea in the lands beyond the Black Sea. In romances about heroes and heroines of Greek myth, for example, Achilles and Helen of Troy were paired in an idyllic after-life. They never met in the Troy of Homer&rsquos Iliad, but in popular lore the couple enjoyed &ldquoan extraordinary post mortem existence&rdquo as lovers in a mythical Black Sea paradise. Notably, the 1707 opera Mitridate by Scarlatti offers an alternate history in which Mithradates and Hypsicratea disguise themselves as Egyptian envoys. 25

An obscure will-o&rsquo-the-wisp legend, mentioned by Edward Gibbon in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776&ndash88), even gives Mithradates his final revenge. I have traced this tradition back to medieval Norse saga, in which a barbarian tribe from the Sea of Azov, allied with Mithradates, carried on his dream of one day invading Italy. Led by their chieftain Odin, this tribe was said to have escaped Roman rule after Pompey&rsquos victory, by migrating to northern Europe and Scandinavia. They became the Goths, who, still inspired by Mithradates&rsquo old struggle, avenged his defeat by overwhelming the Roman Empire. In the vision of the poet William Wordsworth, this old tale tells

How vanquished Mithridates, northward passed,

And, hidden in the cloud of years, became

Odin, the Father of a Race by whom

Perished the Roman Empire. . . . 26

And so let us suppose that on a May morning in 63 BC, riding across the vast expanse of green grass carpeted with wild red peonies, Mithradates sheds his royal skin and chooses a nomad&rsquos life for the rest of his natural days. In this story, he and Hypsicratea would live among the &ldquountamed&rdquo men and women who loved to roam the boundless plains. In the vision limned by the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, the steppe nomads were &ldquotall, handsome, and robust people with piercing eyes,&rdquo who &ldquowandered like happy fugitives from place to place,&rdquo dressed in furs and wool leggings, with blue tattoos, &ldquoliving on the milk of their herds, wild cherries, and meat, never spending a night under a roof . . . eating and drinking, buying and selling, holding assemblies, and even sleeping on their steeds or in their wagons.&rdquo They were &ldquono one&rsquos subjects, none can even tell you where they are from, since they are conceived, born, and raised in faraway places.&rdquo Skilled warriors, &ldquothey delight in danger and warfare and do not know the meaning of slavery, since all are born of noble blood, and they choose as their chiefs those who are conspicuous for long experience as warriors.&rdquo 27

In this new life, our companions would have the leisure to share their life stories, Mithradates recounting the history of his kingdom, Hypsicratea telling of her free and equal people of Caucasia. Thanks to his Persian heredity and theriac, Mithradates could have lived another five, ten, or even twenty years had he not died in the tower in 63 BC. 28 In time, death might have come to Mithradates in battle, on a hunting expedition, or quietly in sleep. He would die in eleutheria, freedom, confident of his exalted place in history and myth. Mithradates&rsquo friends would have buried him in the nomads&rsquo traditional way, with his horse and a modest cache of golden treasures and cameo rings, in an anonymous kurgan on the steppes. 29

Mithradates&rsquo passing&mdashwhether it occurred in the tower as reported in 63 BC or later in secret exile&mdashwould have been mourned by the strong woman he liked to call by the masculine form of her name, Hypsicrates. Younger than Mithradates, perhaps in her forties, Hypsicratea still had good years ahead. How did she spend the rest of her life?

What follows is a further speculation, based on the conditions of possibility set out in the ancient sources&mdashand on new archaeological evidence. Let us begin with the name Hypsicratea/es. Only two instances of this name are known in the latter part of the first century BC. One is Mithradates&rsquo Amazon friend Hypsicratea. The other is a mysterious historian named Hypsicrates, who was also associated with Pontus and the Black Sea Kingdom. Coincidence? Or is there a more interesting explanation for this doubling of a very rare name?

FIG. 15.7 Julius Caesar. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria, photo by Andrew Bossi, Wikipedia Commons, cc-by-sa-2.5.

Little is known about the shadowy figure called Hypsicrates. The historian turns up after 47 BC, some sixteen years after Mithradates&rsquo death in 63 BC, when Julius Caesar crushed Pharnaces&rsquo attempt to regain his father&rsquos lost kingdom. Taking over Pontus, Caesar freed a prisoner of war named Hypsicrates at Amisus. This Hypsicrates accompanied Caesar as his historian on campaigns and wrote treatises on the history, geography, and military affairs of Pontus and the Bosporan Kingdom.

Hypsicrates&rsquo works have not survived, but they were quoted by other historians. Strabo of Pontus cited Hypsicrates as an authority on two highly significant topics: the military fortifications of the Bosporan Kingdom, and the lifestyle and customs of the Amazons of the Caucasus region. Notably, Strabo mentioned Hypsicrates along with another close friend of Mithradates, the philosopher Metrodorus. Josephus quoted Hypsicrates on the campaigns of Julius Caesar and on Mithradates of Pergamon. Lucian, a Syrian from Samosata (second century AD), described Hypsicrates as a &ldquohistorian from Amisus who mastered many sciences.&rdquo There is one more salient detail. Hypsicrates, he died old. According to Lucian&rsquos list of remarkably long lives, Hypsicrates lived to be ninety-two. 30

This set of striking coincidences linking Hypsicratea and Hypsicrates has been overlooked by modern scholars, apparently because of the gender difference. But we recall that Mithradates called Hypsicratea by the male form of her name. Mithradates&rsquo intellectual and athletic equal, she lived a manly life, riding, hunting, and making war. The name &ldquoHypsicratea&rdquo disappeared from the historical record after 63 BC, the year Mithradates&rsquo death was reported. Everything we know about the person known as Hypsicrates, especially the topics of expertise attributed to him&mdashAmazons and Mithradates&rsquo kingdom&mdashpoints to someone very close to Mithradates (and the notably long life could even hint at access to Mithridatium).

I suggest that the historian writing under the name Hypsicrates was none other than Mithradates&rsquo beloved companion, Hypsicratea.

The newfound inscription for the statue honoring Hypsicratea, described earlier, lends support to this idea. The statue was probably erected during the reign of Mithradates&rsquo granddaughter, Queen Dynamis, who knew Hypsicratea. Amazingly, the text of the inscription spells her name with es, Hypsicrates, the masculine form of Hypsicratea. We now know that this was not just a private nickname, but that Mithradates&rsquo companion was in fact publicly known as Hypsicrates.

FIG. 15.8. Inscription honoring Hypsicratea, discovered in Phanagoria. Her name is given in the masculine form: &ldquoHypsikrates wife of Mithradates.&rdquo Photo courtesy of Jakob Munk Højte, after V. Kuznetzov, &ldquoNovye nadpisi iz Fanagorii,&rdquo 2007.

FIG. 15.9. Portrait of Mithradates, seventeenth-century marble copy of ancient original. Racine&rsquos tragedy, Mithridate (1673) was a favorite of Louis XIV, the Sun King (1638&ndash1715). Amphitheater of the Grand Trianon garden, Grand Canal, Versailles, MR 2488, 85 cm/33 in high. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY.

So let us suppose that at some point after 63 BC, Hypsicratea returned to Pontus. Perhaps disguised as a man she took up a scholarly life at Amisus, and was captured by Caesar after the battle at Zela in 47 BC. Another possibility is that she was fighting on Pharnaces&rsquo side and was taken prisoner by Caesar&rsquos soldiers. The lot of a female captive was not enviable. A permanent male persona as Hypsicrates would be advantageous. Caesar, impressed by this person&rsquos unique knowledge of Mithradates&rsquo kingdom and recent history&mdashand possibly even aware of the gender switch and true identity&mdashmade Hypsicrates his personal historian. Even the politics of this association are fitting. Mithradates and his circle were pro-Marius, foes of Sulla and Pompey. Caesar was pro-Marius, and an enemy of Sulla and Pompey.

Who was more qualified than Hypsicratea to preserve the story of Mithradates and his kingdom? She had loved Mithradates and fought by his side. She knew the king&rsquos store of personal anecdotes, desires, and accomplishments. If Hypsicratea later wrote as the historian Hypsicrates, she may well have been the source of many of the details about Mithradates&rsquo character and reign that were preserved by other ancient historians. Mithradates, from the beginning, was the self-conscious author of his own life. Through Hypsicratea/es, he could also have been responsible for his own legend.

I have sketched a continuation of Mithradates&rsquo story as a historical thought experiment, but in reality Mithradates enjoyed a vital afterlife in history, science, and popular legend for more than two thousand years after his death (appendix 2). In his relentless resistance to Rome, Mithradates, the savior born under an Eastern star, represented a genuine alternative to Roman imperialism in the turbulent last days of the Republic. Some sixty years after Mithradates&rsquo death, another savior and champion of Truth and Light was born under a different Eastern star. In the turn of the millennium, in the new world that emerged from Mithradates&rsquo armed resistance and the Republic&rsquos military response, that new King of Kings would challenge and eventually win over the mighty Roman Empire, but not by force of arms.

Mithradates battled against the tide of history. This intrepid, complex, ideological leader ultimately failed to conquer Rome by violence and war. Yet, if we let Rome stand for tyranny, the grandeur of Racine&rsquos vision of Mithradates&rsquo legacy still rings true: