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The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy [Hardcover]

Adrienne Mayor
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

18 Oct 2009

Machiavelli praised his military genius. European royalty sought out his secret elixir against poison. His life inspired Mozart's first opera, while for centuries poets and playwrights recited bloody, romantic tales of his victories, defeats, intrigues, concubines, and mysterious death. But until now no modern historian has recounted the full story of Mithradates, the ruthless king and visionary rebel who challenged the power of Rome in the first century BC. In this richly illustrated book--the first biography of Mithradates in fifty years--Adrienne Mayor combines a storyteller's gifts with the most recent archaeological and scientific discoveries to tell the tale of Mithradates as it has never been told before.

The Poison King describes a life brimming with spectacle and excitement. Claiming Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia as ancestors, Mithradates inherited a wealthy Black Sea kingdom at age fourteen after his mother poisoned his father. He fled into exile and returned in triumph to become a ruler of superb intelligence and fierce ambition. Hailed as a savior by his followers and feared as a second Hannibal by his enemies, he envisioned a grand Eastern empire to rival Rome. After massacring eighty thousand Roman citizens in 88 BC, he seized Greece and modern-day Turkey. Fighting some of the most spectacular battles in ancient history, he dragged Rome into a long round of wars and threatened to invade Italy itself. His uncanny ability to elude capture and surge back after devastating losses unnerved the Romans, while his mastery of poisons allowed him to foil assassination attempts and eliminate rivals.

The Poison King is a gripping account of one of Rome's most relentless but least understood foes.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (18 Oct 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691126836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691126838
  • Product Dimensions: 3.7 x 17.1 x 24.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 445,139 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

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Product Description


Finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, Nonfiction

Winner of the 2010 Gold Medal in Biography, Independent Publisher Book Awards

One of The Washington Post critics' Holiday Guide's "Best Books of 2009"

Honorable Mention for the 2010 PROSE Award in Biography & Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

"I can say without reservation that it's a wonderful reading experience, as bracing as a tonic, the perfect holiday gift for adventure-loving men and women. A finalist for [the 2009] National Book Award, it's drenched in imaginative violence and disaster, but it also wears the blameless vestments of culture and antiquity. You can have all the fun of reading about a greedy villain being put to death by being made to 'drink' molten gold, but still hide safe behind the excuse that you're just brushing up on your classics."--Carolyn See, Washington Post

"Mayor gives us a more nuanced view of the so-called Poison King, placing him in his proper context as a Greco-Persian ruler following in the footsteps of his purported ancestor Alexander the Great. The most compelling aspect of this story is Mayor's engaging style. A true storyteller, she makes Mithradates's world come alive. This distinctive and compelling book is sure to fascinate all readers interested in the ancient world or in understanding the historical politics of the Caucasus region."--Library Journal

"Thanks be to Adrienne Mayor for a definitive biography, blazing with color, presenting a magnificent cast headed by a hero who caused Rome to tremble for a quarter-century. . . . [H]is splendidly produced book is a cavalcade of intrigue, action, and slaughter. Danger, hope, fear, and love and lust are never absent."--ForeWord Reviews

"Mayor has specialized in writing well-researched, readable scholarship in the history of ancient science and technology, including the pre-eminent work on ancient chemical and biological warfare. It is fitting, therefore, that her first major biography tackles the life of Mithridates VI of Pontus, known for his knowledge of poisons. It is difficult to weave personal anecdotes (the lifeblood of good biography) with the technical tidbits of science, but Mayor carries it off brilliantly, as evidenced by sections describing Mithridates' youth and early scientific education in Sinope, and his extraordinary chemical knowledge at the peark of his reign. . . . The work is a marvel: part biography, part campaign history, and part scientific exploration, written in a style that makes the book a true page-turner."--Choice

"Mayor has done an extraordinary job of filling many gaps in the history of this contentious and foggy period. Rightly so, The Poison King was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award and is an effort worthy of any student of history."--Lee Scott, Florida Times-Union

"Mayor has solid research credentials, and her command of the ancient and modern sources is extensive and impressive. The digressions offered in footnotes are enjoyable and valuable, as are the appendices offering a modern checklist for evaluating Mithradates' psychological condition. Good maps at key points in the narrative are very helpful, and the text is well written and organized chronologically. The author's interest in ancient poisons, chemicals, explosives technology, geography and regional flora and fauna allow her to expound on these subjects while telling her story. . . . Mayor's approach to the material blurs the line between history and historical fiction; one can easily imagine the narrative being turned into a television or movie script."--Richard Gabriel, Military History

"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. . . . [Mayor] herself says, 'Mithridates' incredible saga is a rollicking good story' and she has narrated it with verve, panache and scholarly skill."--Arthur Keaveney, Bryn Mawr Classical Review

"Newcomers to the field will fall in love with Mayor's Mithradates. For more sober-if less compelling-accounts, they will turn to the recent studies listed in the very good, up-to-date bibliography included in The Poison King."--Laurence Totelin, Isis

"The prose is brilliant. . . . [W]e must regard this work as representing an important step in encouraging interest in the history of this Pontic king."--Luis Ballesteros Pastor, Ancient West & East

From the Inside Flap

"Mithradates should be a household name alongside his fellow rebels Hannibal, Cleopatra, Spartacus, and Attila. This detailed, juicy, entertaining, yet painstaking work of superb scholarship should finally give Mithradates the recognition he deserves."--Margaret George, author of Helen of Troy: A Novel

"Meticulous in its research, exciting in its narration, ambitious in its conception, The Poison King re-creates an era when much of the Mediterranean world rebelled against Rome. At the center of it all is the fascinating and frightening king who rallied the resistance: Mithradates. Mayor has written a terrific book."--Barry Strauss, author of The Spartacus War

"A fascination with the byways of ancient science, a wonderful eye for the telling detail, and a relish for floating theories that is almost buccaneering: these have always been the trademarks of Adrienne Mayor. Now, with this stirring biography of the toxicologist's favorite tyrant, she parades her gift for narrative as well. Thanks to Mayor, Mithradates has emerged from the shadows at last as one of Rome's most potent and remarkable enemies."--Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

"'He died old'--so A. E. Housman refers to the subject of Adrienne Mayor's latest enthralling book, Mithradates VI, king of Pontus. Pursuing her interest in deadly chemical and biological substances, she focuses here on the life and times of the hammer of the mighty Romans in the last century of the Republic, the hellenized oriental ruler finally nailed by Pompey the Great. Ruthless, aggressive, charming, manipulative, callous--was Mithradates a textbook sociopath? Read this exhilarating and penetrating biography to find out."--Paul Cartledge, author of Alexander the Great

"Adrienne Mayor's The Poison King is an intriguing and highly readable new biography of one of the most controversial figures of antiquity, Mithradates--ruthless Hellenistic king, genocidaire, terrorist, alchemist, implacable enemy of Rome. It is an important contribution to our understanding of the desperate measures some rulers were prepared to take to resist Rome's iron-fisted pursuit of empire."--R. Bruce Hitchner, Tufts University

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Customer Reviews

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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars There is good stuff in here, but ... 16 Mar 2010
By bookelephant TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Ok, let's start with the positives. It is a truly great story, and Mithradates deserves a biography of his own, rather than to "guest" in others'. After all, he survived assassination attempts by his own mother, lived wild in the country through his teenage years, returned to be a mighty King, lived a life of untold luxury, defied Rome for years, clashed with some of her greatest generals, and oh yes, lets not forget, made himself immune to all major known poisons. What's not to like? Also a positive is that Mayor is clearly enthused by her subject and tells the tale with great gusto (and it is the sort of story that needs that approach - understated would not really work with Mithradates!). She also has some good stuff to contribute in terms of some of the numismatic evidence, and on the poisons story (having written a book about early poison warfare). So reading the book is far from a waste of time. You will almost certainly learn something, and be entertained along the way.
But - definitely but! There are just too many comparisons. Mithrdates as the Romans' Osama Bin Laden I can see, but the parallels with Elvis and Harry Potter are really too much! Which reminds me of another but. Exclamation marks are fine in informal writing - or amazon reviews - but I really don't think they have a place in a quasi serious history. There good writing should convey all the emphasis that is required. Mayor disagrees. I also do not really like the drawings from historical novels about Mithradates - particularly when Mayor has gone out of her way to draw the distinction between virtual history and historical fiction.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
As an undergraduate student of Ancient Classic - which includes Greek & Roman history (along with poetry, theatre and philosophy) I was introduced to the towering figure of the Poison King - Mithridates VI of Ponthus last year in my 1st academic year at university - National University of Ireland Maynooth (NUIM) - recently renamed 'Maynooth University' (MU).

As is to be expected since we were studying things from the Greek+Roman perspective the portrait of the King we were shown was not that positive. He seemed to be a power-crazed tyrant who wanted to destroy the Roman Republic - going so far as to murder around 80,000 Roman citizens through several Greek cities. He was a barbarian who it took the Romans over 40 years to eventually defeat in battle and they still failed to kill him as he committed suicide.....That's pretty much how the Roman narrative went. But what about the "barbaric" king himself? Did he not have a point a view?

This is where Mayor's book comes in. Sadly I didn't read this book while covering this period of Roman history (as our course was general and aimed at Roman history from 753BC up until the death of Augustus in AD14). I read this biography this summer to try and broaden my mind about the ancient world and get the so-called 'bad guys' perspective.

For the most part Mayor succeeds in providing a straight-forward, logical and balanced accounted of the life of this intriguing monarch who was capable of both great cruelty and kindness.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb 9 May 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is a marvellous book!Not only is it excellently researched history but uses deep and sensitive imagination in the very best sense of the word,to convey the character of Mithridates and those around him.
Of course the word 'imagination' scares people but if history is to be understood and not to be just a few scraps pieced together from records and artefacts,then 'Imagination' in the way used here is an essential tool.(I mean Niall Fergusson would understand that statement)
So the book presents a full character of flesh ,blood and feeling ;certaily not the kind of person you would want to meet coming down the road ,but a hero and man of charisma ,daring ,hate and love.
Not only that ,the book is superbly written and very exciting.
What a shame Shakespeare didn't make a play about him!many others did.
One would like to imagine what sort of person Mithridates would be if he were born into our times.A sort of Thodore Roosvelt maybe?Or maybe his revolutionary ideas would rebel against the worlds of academic orthodoxies and scientific materialism ( the inheritance of the Roman mind) and become the discoverer of something like a spiritual form of medecine?
So you see ,the book also succeeds by being a great stimulus, which is the very best one can ask for.!
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars 12 July 2014
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Still waiting to read this - I think.
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