Thursday, February 25, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Adrienne Mayor, The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy. Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pp. xxii, 448; 8 p. of plates. ISBN 9780691126838. $29.95.
Reviewed by Arthur Keaveney, University of Kent


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.


  1. Rather a brief review by BMCR standards, with not much comment on what actually Mayor does in this book.

  2. I agree with Anon- a book review should at least sketch out the book's arguments and thoughts and comment on whether the author acheives in making the case. Instead this just documents the odd error and says the book says what it says with verve- not good enough.

  3. As I make my way though a remaindered copy of Mayor's text, I thought to check BMCR for a review and found Keaveney's review a matter of "damning with faint praise." Contrary to the two earlier commentators, I would argue with Keaveney that the less said the better.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.