Review: The Poison King by Adrienne Mayor

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest EnemyThe Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Adrienne Mayor’s book on Mithridates VI of Pontus is somewhat uneven in places, but interesting reading. Of all the enemies of the Roman Republic — Hannibal, Q. Surtorius, Spartacus, Parthia, et. al, Mithridates certainly deserves credit as being in the top three enemies of the state, and the one who survived longest and was the most successful. The book was presented in two parts– the childhood and foundation of the character and personality of Mithradates, then the preparation for war and actual Mithridatic Wars against Sulla, Lucullus and Pompey.

As the title indicates, Adrienne Mayor ofttimes takes a side trip into speculation about Mithridates famous predilection for studying and using poisons– not just as a swift form of assassination, but also the beneficial effects of limited doses of poison over long periods of time. The “Mitrhidatum” of the king.. the alleged recipe he had concocted that contributed to his legendary vigor and health over seven decades, is a major sidetrack for this book and an object of endless speculation by the author. Speculation is a device that Mayor resorts to on several occasions during the narrative, but the author does make the effort to identify what is speculation based on the facts available and what is pure cloud-cuckoo land.

I am interested in this period of Roman history, as many are.. the last decades of the Roman Republic are a pageant of interesting characters and events, and Mithridates strode broadly across that stage. I’m glad this book was written, even if I found it a bit patchy and uneven in places. As we all know, history tends to be written by the “winners”, and Rome was the big winner for centuries. It’s invaluable that someone has taken the time to write a decent treatment of the life of one of Rome’s greatest enemies, and presents the other side of the story. I liked THE POISON KING quite a bit for that reason. If you like Roman history, you really must read this book.

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One comment

  1. Another great book on this is “mithradates the Great” by Philip Matyszak. He is very good in filling in some of the gaps of our knowledge.

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