Mithridates (foreground center) experimenting with his poisons and antidotes on a condemned prisoner
Just as present-day governments commission geological surveys for oil and other essential minerals, Mithridates VI (a.k.a. ‘Mitsy’ in this blog) had his physicians scour the countryside for poisonous plants and minerals. He had a research and production trial facility going, with only one assistant – a rootcutter and herbalist by the name of Crataeus. So guarded was he about the stuff he was concocting that Crataeus’s family, while they lived in luxury, were under permanent house arrest, hostages to be executed in case Crataeus betrayed him.
Mitsy researched on all sorts of poisonous herbs, like hemlock, aconite, deadly nightshade (belladonna), castor, hellebore, azalea, rhododendron, realgar (arsenic), mercury and sulphur, to name just a few. He had Crataeus blend and mix the powders and pastes and feed the concoctions to captured prisoners. And then, while some of those unfortunate suckers were monitored for symptoms and duration of survival prior to death, others were put on an antidote regimen, to test the efficacy of the antidotes that he engineered. Countless prisoners and slaves died horrible deaths as a result of Mitsy’s experimentations.
By today’s sensibilities, Mithridates was a heinous criminal, on par with the Nazi bio-weapons expert, Walter Schreiber and endurance medicine researcher, Josef Mengele, physicians who practiced a similar craft during the Second World War.
But hey, those were the times that Mitsy was living in. His own mother’s treachery (she poisoned his father) was just one indication of the suspicion, conspiracies and intrigue and the all-pervading paranoia, that Mitsy lived amidst. Poisoning was the preferred method of assassination in his milieu.
Perhaps the three centuries before Christ, Europe began a phase of transition, from an age of heightened consciousness of virtue and the rule of law that used to be in discourse in Greece and Rome, to the onset of a new age of decadence and greed, that began in the 1st century AD with the Julio-Claudian Emperors (Augustus – Tiberius – Caligula – Claudius – Nero) when everyone who was anyone was either poisoning or being poisoned, making this form of killing a sort of status symbol. You were a nobody if you simply died of old age.
During this period, women gained some notoriety as poisoners. Wives were getting rid of husbands to ensure that the inheritance went to their favorite son and Queens did likewise, to see that their little Billy Bob got the throne. Emperor Augustus’s wife, Livia Drusila was a piece of work. She not only poisoned a number of Augustus’s grandchildren but even tried to poison Augustus himself, in her single-minded and successful effort to get her son, Tiberius, from a previous marriage, to the throne. Likewise, all across the Roman nobility, mothers were killing stepsons and even encouraging their sons to poison their fathers if they lived too long.
Then there was the infamous trio, Canidia, Martina and Locusta, who poisoned their way through the entire Julio-Claudian dynasty. Canidia killed hundreds of Roman noblemen for cash and is thought to have helped Livia in her attempt to kill Augustus. Martina killed Tiberius’s nephew and heir Germanicus, while Locusta killed Claudius’s son, Britannicus, on the orders of Claudius’s wife, Agrippina, so that her own son, Nero, could be emperor. Nero later signed Locusta up on a lifetime contract as court-appointed poisoner and if you were a Roman nobleman at that time, you knew better than to f—k with women like Locusta and the other two.
The spread of Christianity did not seem to slow greed down even a bit. By 400AD, the Dark Ages (a period of moral recession) had set in, wiping out every bit of enlightenment that had been attained through the Greco-Roman civilization. The Dark Ages seem to us now as if civilization had pressed a reset button and gone back to 5000BC. This period lasted right up until the Renaissance in the mid-17th century.
Christianity could do nothing to arrest the onset of the Dark Ages. Religion in fact is credited by some, to have been the catalyst which fueled the Dark Ages, rather than being the provider of enlightenment. Christianity brought with it religious bigotry and officially sanctioned oppression and even wholesale genocide by the Catholic Church, all in the name of God, in much the same way as Islamic extremism goes about it’s business today.
Through all the chaos, poisons and poisoning played a central role in the mayhem. Hey, a whole dynasty of Catholic Popes, the infamous Borgias of the 15th century, thrived on the art of poisoning. The murderous patriarch of the family, Rodrigo Borgia, battered and slammed his way to the Papacy, becoming Pope Alexander VI. In time, he made his equally murderous son, Cesare, who was running an organized crime family by then, a Cardinal.
The Borgias entertained frequently. With word having already spread about their prowess with poisons, folk who were invited to dinner at the Borgia residence considered it a death sentence.
I wonder what kind of invitations were sent out by the Borgias. Their galas were definitely not bring-your-own-wine dinners, for sure. Maybe bring-your-own-coffin?
As for Mitsy, he was a paranoiac. Fearing for his life, after he had gained the throne, he set out to concoct a “universal” theriac or antidote, testing poisons and remedies on condemned criminals, his friends, and even himself. He called the concoction that he finally perfected Mithridatium. But the more he solidified his position on the throne, the more paranoid Mitsy got.
Still insecure and not satisfied with having the all-in-one antidote, he began consuming sub-lethal doses of all kinds of poisons with the belief that this would build up his immunity against them. As to how far he was successful is debatable, though the concept itself is an infallible one. Mitsy’s work in toxicology gave birth to a new kind of practice, called Mithridatism – protecting oneself against a poison by gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts.
Mithridatism had been in vogue in other parts of the world as well. In ancient India, legend has it that, during the rule of the king Chandragupta Maurya (320–298 BCE), there was this practice of regularly administering poison in small amounts to pubescent young girls until they grew up, gradually making them immune to poison. These maidens were called vishakanyas (visha – poison, kanya – maiden). It was believed that having sex with vishakanyas could result in the death of their partners and hence they found employment as assassins.
As a kid I remember watching in awe while a snake charmer nonchalantly shoved his hand inside a sack filled with cobras, drawing one out and toying with it, even pissing it off with tight slaps on it’s head, making the snake repeatedly lash out. I used to wonder why nothing ever happened to the guy.
Ultimately as the saying goes, one who lives by the sword, dies by the sword. In 63 BC, betrayed to the forces of the Roman general, Pompey, by his own son and cornered inside a Crimean castle, Mitsy consumed poison and ended his life before Pompey’s men could get their hands on him.
Mitsy must have known that the poison he took was not going to be sufficient to kill him, given his lifelong immunization through his own practice of mithridatism and also since he had only about half the potion left, after giving the other half to his daughters who were with him at the time of his suicide. But he took it anyway and he died in the arms of his bodyguard, Bruticus.
This gives rise to a number of possibilities – one, that his antidote, Mithridatium, didn’t work, either because it had a shelf life or because it just wasn’t a good antidote. Two, his couldn’t find the bloody antidote bottle in that stressful moment. Three, he had developed in secret a deadly fast-acting ‘poison-x’ for which he had deliberately not made an antidote. He had tested hundreds of poisons on human subjects, and so he would know which drug, in what dosage, would bring a speedy death in an emergency.
I would go with possibility-3. Historians acknowledge the likelihood that Mitsy did have a ‘magic bullet’. Legend has it that two thousand years after Mithridates VI took his own life, when Crimea became a part of the Soviet Union, Russian archeologists unearthed a jar that was filled with some kind of a powder, from the site where Mitsy is believed to have taken his life.
When archeologist, Prof Gennady Chuchukin left the jar on top of a table and went out for lunch, his cat Nicky, came in and sniffed around.
On his return, Chuchukin found Nicky dead under the table and the jar lying on it’s side, open, with a little of the powder spilt, out on the table. Minute amounts of the powder were tested extensively and found to contain a mix of the some of the most deadly herbs known to mankind, such as aconite, hellebore, belladonna, thorn apple and hemlock, but 86% by weight was an unknown substance that later on proved to be highly toxic thallium, a substance that is known as the “poisoner’s poison”, since it is colorless, odorless and tasteless.
The jar was taken to the Kamera (Russian for ‘chamber’), a highly secretive facility within the Active Measures section of the KGB’s First Chief Directorate, where research was being undertaken to find a poison that could kill quickly and without a trace. This highly innovative research institution began work in 1921, under Lenin’s Cheka, the Soviet secret police agency which would later be known as the KGB and now as the FSB.
The lab report on the ingredients of the powder was prepared when one of the technicians, the man who had gathered up the spilled powder from the table, collapsed from a heart attack. Later on, a pinch the size of a pin head, when administered to an otherwise healthy Siberian gulag inmate who was serving a life sentence without parole, killed him within six minutes. A regular autopsy showed no signs other than that of a heart attack.
Little could Mithridates known how useful his ‘magic bullet’ would turn out to be, 2000 years later, or even that his body of work would be so ably pursued by the Russian Cheka-NKVD-KGB-FSB dynasty, who would take it even further into more exotic agents like Polonium-210.
If Mithridates had founded a ‘poisoners’ fraternity’, he would surely have reserved a seat on it’s board for one man –
Ex-Kamera administrator, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.