She slid open a panel in the door of the limo. There was a whole bar in it.
“What’s your poison?” she asked, her eyelids heavy with mascara.
“Life,” I grunted, trying to look tough.
“Oh, that? It’ll kill you. Unless you live it the way I do,” she giggled and reached out and place her hand on my thigh…..
– Excerpt from “No orchids for Miss Blandish” (James Hadley Chase)
Mithridates VI, The Louvre, Paris
Don’t pay any attention to the blurb on top of the bust. It has nothing to do with the context of this post. I put it there because I used to love Hadley Chase’s writing. Put bluntly, inserting this kinda blurb is called jerking off the reader. I apologize but the temptation was too great. Besides, this is my blog and I’ll do what I want.
Perhaps there is a parallel. The guy this post is all about also did what he wanted. He was one of only a handful who had the chutzpah to thumb their noses at the mighty Roman Republic and bring it close to the brink of collapse. The great Carthagian general, Hannibal (247-182BC) was one and then there was the Thracian slave called Kirk Douglas….. I beg your pardon, I meant Spartacus (109-73 BC).
There was another man whom the world hardly speaks of today – ruler of a tiny state called Pontus on the southern banks of the Black Sea, in present-day Turkey.
Meet King Mithridates VI of Pontus (120-63BC).
Mithridates (I’ll call him Mitsy if you don’t have any objections) is an obscure figure in the history books. I bet you never heard of the guy before. That’s cool, because neither did I. The reason why he does not find prominent mention in history books could be due to the preferences of the historians of antiquity, like Plutarch, Pliny the Elder and others who Were members of the Roman elite and dismissed him as a minor brigand and despot who in the end got what was coming to him.
Another possible reason why Mitsy faded away into obscurity was Spartacus. Around the same point in time, the famous revolt of slaves under Spartacus was unfolding right there in the heart of the Italian peninsula. The slave revolt was a very big deal for the slave owning Romans and naturally, well documented. It was a big deal because at that point in time one out of three inhabitants of the Italian peninsula was a slave.
Imagine that. One outa three humans on the Italian peninsula was a slave. It must have been like today’s Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and those other oil-rich Arab countries with all those hordes of immigrant workers from Philippines, Bangladesh and other third world nations whom they just love to see as objects to treat like shit.
The fact that historians did not afford any prominence to Mitsy does not diminish his greatness in any way. There was a time when he was feared and hailed as the ‘Hannibal of the East’, a sobriquet that he earned by constantly launching lightning attacks on neighboring Roman satrapies and thereby challenging the hegemony of Rome.
Maybe instead of wasting his time writing about inconsequential medieval Germanic princes like Hamlet or treacherous sons like Brutus, if Shakespeare had penned a tragedy on Mitsy’s life, he would be a household name by now.
Mitsy is believed to have directly descended from both, Darius the Great of Persia and one of Alexander the Great’s three Generals, Seleucus I (founder of the Seleucid Empire after Alexander’s death). It’s possible. You have no idea how much fucking was going on among the elite in those days. If you conquered another kingdom, the first thing you did was fuck the king’s wife, his sisters, his daughters and his sisters’ daughters (and sons). Darius had 365 wives, one for each day of the year. So a mixed Persian and Greek ancestry is entirely possible.
When he was just 12, Mitsy’s mommy, Queen Laodice VI, had his dad Mithridates V killed by serving him wine with datura mixed in it. Datura is a deadly flowering plant that is otherwise known as ‘devil’s trumpet’.
The king dead, Laodice seized power as regent, since Mitsy and his younger bro, Chrestus, were still minors. Don’t be unduly alarmed. Treacherous queens were more common among the elite than cholesterol. If you don’t believe me, read my post The Power Moms of Ancient Rome (Part-1)
Unfortunately for Mitsy, Laodice favored Chrestus over him. Love for the youngest child is a sentiment that most parents have even today. Take me, I was the darling of my mom, being the youngest. I could do no wrong and I was one huge pain in the ass. But of course, my mother never plotted to poison my two elder bros (though sometimes after they’d beaten me up for being a pest, I wished she had).
Mitsy realized that his mother’s preference for his younger bro could not be a good thing. Being the oldest son, he was the heir apparent, but mommy wanted Chrestus to be king, so she decided that Mitsy had to be done away with. Aren’t you glad to be born in the modern age? Imagine growing up wondering if your bro was going to run an axe through the backa your head in your sleep or if your mummy was going to mix belladona in your birthday cake?
Turns out, Mitsy’s fears were justified. Laodice had indeed been plotting to poison him and word about her machinations somehow got to him. But before his mom could carry out her plan, Mitsy escaped into the wilderness and began living off the land.
After three years of living in exile – around 113 BC – word got to him that his mum was beginning to cozy up with the Roman general, Pompey’s forces. Remember Pompey? One of the famed triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Crassus? That Pompey.
Fortune favors the brave. Resentment at the sellout to the Romans was growing against Laodice and Mitsy chose the day and threw the dice. He returned and the first thing he did was to have his mom and younger bro executed and claim his rightful status as king.
The second thing that Mitsy did upon becoming King was to marry his 16-year old sister, also named Laodice, probably Laodice VII. Marrying sisters was common among kings those days, done to preserve the bloodline and ensure that there wouldn’t be any succession issues anytime, since there wouldn’t be any in-laws. In a weird way, it was taken as being quite normal because the match was made at birth.
This can be another ‘imagine that’ moment but marrying one’s sister is so out of the pale nowadays that I think I’ll just sigh and leave it that.
On second thoughts, I can see that you need an explanation, so I’ll say it anyway – imagine that you have a sister who just got out of rehab, is tens of thousands of dollars in debt, has zero cash on hand, no home, no car, no job and just told you she’s pregnant. Imagine she wants to move in with you and imagine marrying her. In those days back in the Roman times, it would still be okay to marry her, is what I’m saying. Capisce?
What Mitsy’s mom did was well understood among the elite of the ancient dog-eat-dog world. She had very little choice. She could either be ambitious and ruthless and live a short but spectacular life or she could be passive and be relegated to her chambers to live out a boring ceremonial life and/or be invaded, raped and enslaved and lead a short and torturous life. Either way, life was short in those days. You could consider yourself fortunate if you reached the age of forty unscathed. It is difficult for us in the 21st century to imagine just how much aggression and treachery, subjugation and misery was around in those days.
Obviously Misty’s mom chose short but spectacular. And so did Mitsy. Almost immediately after gaining the throne, he set about expanding his empire. Around him was a vast region of tiny states barely managing to survive against the threat of invasion from Rome as well as those vicious horsemen from the plains. At any given point in time, someone was planning to invade you. The land surrounding Pontus encompassed Anatolia and Asia Minor (today’s Bulgaria, Turkey, Syria, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia).
The kingdom of Pontus, superimposed on a region of present-day Turkey on the southern shore of the Black Sea.
Mitsy began a long series of battles with the neighboring states of Bythnia, Cappadocia, Armenia and Colchis, some of which, like Bythnia, wanted to align themselves with Rome. And he won them all.
Alarmed at Mitry’s empire-building ambitions, Rome declared war on Pontus, throwing into battle three of it’s greatest generals – Sulla, Lucullus and Marius and sparking off the two and half decade long Mithridatic Wars (88-63BC).
Initially Mitsy was on a roll, winning battle after battle against the Roman legions. In the neighboring Roman protectorate of Anatolia, he set about ethnically cleansing the whole population, of all Roman inhabitants, men, women and children, as retribution for Rome’s aggression. The bloodbath lasted a week and in total, 80,000 innocents died at his hands, as per the historian, Clesus. Mitsy was lucky there were no such things as international war crimes tribunals in those days.
Mitsy was, like many rulers of his genre, a creature of the times. He thought nothing of slaughtering civilians, took countless slaves and was particularly brutal toward his enemies, a typical take-no-prisoners kind of guy. On the other hand, he was hailed by Greeks and Persians and the other small states that felt threatened by Rome, as a savior from Roman occupation.
Mitsy likened himself to his illustrious ancestor, Alexander the Great. He had the same ethos as the great Macedonian. While he enslaved when he felt like it, he also freed folk that had been slaves under the Romans and often freed prisoners of war who swore allegiance. He shared his wealth with his troops, cancelled debts, expanded citizens’ rights and tried to bring in the kind of justice system that Alexander had established.
Eventually however, the Romans got to Mitsy. Betrayed by his own son, Pharnesces II, facing certain defeat at the hands of the legendary Pompey’s forces, he took his own life. (Pharnesces had been promised the keys to Pontus if he turned it into a satrapy, a promise that was not kept in the end).
Mitsy’s first suicide attempt- by poisoning- failed. Through the course of his extensive research on poisons (details in Part-2), he had been consuming all sorts of toxic stuff as a self-appointed test subject and had gradually developed a solid immunity.
Writhing in pain, his immune body refusing to shut down, Mitsy ordered his personal bodyguard to run him through with his pearl-handled stiletto.
Mithridates VI was a great rebel and fighter but he is remembered the most for the body of research that he carried out throughout his reign on the art of killing by poison as well as finding antidotes to prevent death from poisons.
The 15th century Swiss-German chemist, Paracelsus, is widely believed to be the father of toxicology, but it is actually Mithridates’ scientific experiments with plant, animal, and mineral poisons (and their antidotes) that became a sort of gold standard in the science of toxicology for more than 2000 years.
You won’t believe this but an all-in-one antidote called Mithridatium that Mitsy had perfected around 66BC, is still available at some naturopathy and apothecary outlets in Rome.
ps : There’s a Part-2 coming up. It’s all about MitridatesVI’s poisonous life. So if you want a Phd in toxicology, hang on, watch this space.