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2009 National Book Award Finalist Nonfiction Interview with Adrienne Mayor

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Photo credit: Josiah Ober
Adrienne Mayor
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates
Princeton University Press

Interview Conducted by Meehan Crist

Meehan Crist: What questions drove you as worked on The Poison King? In other words, what was it that you hoped to better understand by writing it?

Adrienne Mayor: In 88 BC, Mithradates orchestrated the most devastating terror attack in ancient history, the massacre of 80,000 Roman settlers in Anatolia (Turkey). Remarkably, this shocking genocide has been neglected by modern historians. Driven to comprehend Mithradates’ motivations, I scoured ancient sources for insights beyond Rome’s influence and sought keys to Mithradates’ complex, paradoxical personality. Why did he and his followers loathe the Romans so deeply? Could I explain the widespread popular appeal of this charismatic leader’s revolutionary cause? How could one who saw himself as a savior-king perpetrate such vicious acts, yet pursue humanistic ideals—freeing slaves and prisoners of war, sharing wealth with soldiers, canceling debts, expanding citizen rights, and restoring Greek democracy?

Mithradates’ massacre occurred after a rogue Roman commander seeking personal glory and plunder invaded his kingdom. The long Mithradatic Wars, so costly in blood and treasure, lasted until Mithradates’ son betrayed him. Ultimately, Rome was victorious, and history is written by the victors. No one has ever told the story from Mithradates’ perspective. That is what I aimed to do in The Poison King.

Other questions spurred me on, as well. How did Mithradates’ boyhood mold the man? Who were his heroes? What scientific principles underlay his celebrated “universal antidote,” which could supposedly counteract all poisons? How did the secret recipe fall into Roman emperors’ hands? How did Mithradates accomplish the incredible feat of trekking over the Caucasus Mountains?

MC: What was the most unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing The Poison King?

AM: As the world’s first experimental toxicologist, Mithradates gathered an international team of doctors to test all known poisons and antidotes, seeking to make himself immune to poison. After his death, versions of his antidote were eagerly swallowed by Roman emperors and European royalty. The mithridatium was the most popular prescription of all time, but I was taken aback to hear it could be purchased in Rome as recently as the 1980s.

I was surprised to learn of new advances in medicine that reveal what Mithradates discovered 2,000 years ago, that miniscule amounts of deadly plant, mineral, and animal toxins can protect against poisoning and pathogens. Mithradates’ dream of the perfect antidote lives on. I met the former head of the Soviet biochemical warfare program, who defected to the US and now seeks to create a “universal antidote” against bioweapons.

Mithradates’ miraculous recovery from a grievous battle wound held another surprise. Thanks to the arcane knowledge of shamans from what is now Azerbaijan, Mithradates’ uncontrollable bleeding was stopped by snake venom. This was the first documented instance of “venomics”—cutting-edge studies of the medical uses of viper venom. Delving further, I learned that viper venom from Azerbaijan is now exported to hospitals around the globe, used as a blood coagulant that stops hemorrhage.

Yet another surprise was the realization that the famous Antikythera Mechanism, discovered in a Roman shipwreck, likely belonged to Mithradates or one of his friends. This sophisticated bronze treasure—the world’s first computer—was plundered by the Romans during the Mithradatic Wars. It sank, along with a cargo of fabulous loot from his kingdom, on the way to Rome.

MC: Are there any books you held in your peripheral vision as models while you worked?

AM: The last complete biography of Mithradates was written in French and published more than 100 years ago, in 1890, by the historian Theodore Reinach. Magisterial in scope but quite old-fashioned, it was always in mind as I strove to match Reinach’s impressive scholarship.

MC: What was the most difficult decision you had to make while writing The Poison King, and why was it so hard?

AM: I began research in the shadow of Osama bin Laden’s attack of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq War, begun in 2003. Striking parallels between Mithradates’ conflicts with a Western superpower and contemporary circumstances in the Mideast were obvious. It was tempting to draw comparisons at many points in the book, but modern comparisons and relevance shift over time and I wanted Mithradates’ biography to stand on its own, for future readers as well as today’s readers, without anachronistic distractions. I decided to confine references to current events to the Introduction. Readers can choose to draw their own parallels—or not.

MC: What part of The Poison King was the most thrilling to write, and why?

AM: It’s impossible to single out the most electrifying episode. I was swept away by the sheer audacity, the epic defiance, and the chiaroscuro effect of nightmarish cruelty set against idealistic dreams. It was exciting to describe Mithradates’ nomad-style tactics, his numerous narrow escapes, and ability to slip away and melt in to the hinterlands.

One of the most thrilling episodes is Mithradates’ love for his “Amazon” companion, the nomad horsewoman Hypsicratea. After a crushing defeat, they escaped in the nick of time and led Pompey on a wild goose chase. Against all odds, they crossed the Causasus range in winter and continued to defy Rome, planning an overland invasion of Italy over the Alps.

I found it moving to recount the speeches of the last independent king left standing against the Roman juggernaut. Eloquent and timeless, they urge fierce resistance to the rapacious, predatory Roman Republic, in the last bloody decades before its demise.

MC: What is one moment from the process of working on this book that you’ll never forget?

AM: In spring 2008, I was trying to figure out exactly how Mithradates managed to elude Pompey, in what is now the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Somehow Mithradates escaped Pompey’s legions blocking the major route over the Caucasus through a narrow pass, the so-called Scythian Gates. Poring over maps of this little-known region, I spotted what looked like potential—but daunting—back ways to that pass. But I wasn’t certain they would work for Mithradates and his ragtag army of 3,000.

I was excited to find photographs of the Caucasus online. I emailed the photographer in Tbilisi, Georgia, who turned out to be a mountaineer familiar with all the trails and passes. Together we figured out how Mithradates must have sneaked over precipitous paths to reach the Scythian Gates, right under Pompey’s nose. But all of a sudden, we lost email contact in August 2008. The Russians had invaded Georgia with tanks, bombers, and troops. It was an eerie feeling to know that modern invaders and refugees were now streaming over the same mountain trails that Mithradates had traveled more than two millennia ago.

Some months later, Russian archaeologists announced their stunning discovery of Mithradates’ castle in Ukraine, where he made his last stand. A hoard of silver coins with his portrait was unearthed, along with an inscription dedicated to his lover Hypsicratea. It was exciting events like these that really made his story come alive for me.

MC: Are there any questions you asked while working on The Poison King that remain unanswered? What effect does this lingering uncertainty have on you, or perhaps on the book?

AM: So many mysteries swirl around Mithradates’ death. His body was never identified; the location of his grave is disputed. What really happened in the stone tower in the Crimea, where Mithradates’ life ended? Did he really poison his two little daughters? How did he die? Was it the poison hidden in his dagger, the sword of his loyal bodyguard, or the soldiers sent by his treacherous son? Did he strike a bargain with his son for safe passage to the steppes? Was it really Mithradates’ corpse found in the tower—or an imposter’s? What became of his true love, the brave horsewoman of the steppes? This last question, and the Roman reports that real Amazons fought as Mithradates’ allies, led me to envision my next book, about ancient women warriors.

Meehan Crist is reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an MFA from
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared in publications such
as The Believer and Lapham's Quarterly. Her nonfiction book, Everything
, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.


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