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An important and interesting biography - sometimes borders on fiction on the part of the Author.,
This review is from: The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy (Paperback)
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. It is quite impossible for instance to forgive Mithridates for his crime of brutally giving the order to massacre 80,000 (or possibly 150,000 - the number is unknown) Roman civilians throughout the Greek cities however at the same-time his heroism in giving the once great Athen's back it's democratic assembly and popularly elected leaders which Rome snatched away from them helps to balance out his character a little.
Mayor speculates that Mithridates may have been a physcopath and compares him to Osama Bin Laden - because of the massacre this is understandable but still it's a little counter-productive to compare a 2nd/1st century BC King to a 20th/21st century Islamic militant. Mayor also tells us that while in his crib as an infant a bolt of lighting fell on his head and left him with a scar 'like Harry Potter' a painfully jarring moment in the book. This leads us into the main flaw with the book which unfortunately costs what would have been a great book 2 stars thus turning it into a good book.
As anyone who study's ancient classics or ancient/medevil/old history knows sometimes sources are limited (to put it lightly) almost everything we know about Mithridates comes from Roman sources - Appian, Cassius Dio, Cicero, Plutarch, Justin et al. This is unfortunate as it gives us very little information as to what Mithridates or his associates or even his subjects thought and what their letters or state documents were like and we have to rely on primarily hostile, western sources about the King. This understandably makes it more difficult for Mayor or any modern historian to properly assess the ancient world as we are relying on extremely partisan, fractured, damaged and fragmented evidence so that means that there will evidently be holes within the narrative... The problem is Mayor often tries to get around these holes by using stuff I would describe as borderline historical-fiction.
Let me just give a few quick examples...When faced with a situation in which it is unknown exactly what Mithridates did (as the sources do not report it and other information is tragically lost) Mayor tends to imply the dangerous 'what if?' tactic for instance when discussing the King's suicide after been defeated by Pompey in 63BC Mayor imagines a scenario in which the King never actually killed himself but actually escaped into exile and lived among a tribe of wild 'barbarians' who he had managed to convince to support his war against Rome. Mayor insists that this theory is plausible - 'though admittedly romantic' and says that Mithridates may have died in combat amongst the tribes or died at a (very) old age - he was already 70 in 63BC the year of his death. Mayor does not give any (convincing) evidence as to why this might be the case except that the body that was delivered to Pompey's camp may not have been Mithridates but someone who looked like him and wore his garments..........While it is true that the evidence surrounding the King's fall is murky - we know his son deposed him in a coup and declared himself King as he was afraid that his father would get them destroyed by trying to invade Italy and take down Rome and we know that the last time the King was seen was in his tower looking out at his people who were cheering his son and offering him support as the new King of Ponthus.
Most of the Roman sources at this point (something Mayor event points out) suggest that the King either convinced his loyal bodyguard to kill him or he was attacked by some of his sons soldiers who stabbed him to death in his chambers after breaking down the door. Which of these situations seems more realistic and likely? That Mithridates managed to elaborately escape and live out the rest of his live in blissful exile with his Amazonian wife or that he met his fate at the hands of his loyal bodyguard or treacherous soldiers? We know for a fact that Mithridates gave poisons out to his relatives, close friends and children encase they should need to take their life to avoid been captured by Romans (and most likely executed after a Roman triumph) the King knew all too well about 'triumphs' after meeting Gaius Marius in 99BC who had recently defeated the African Prince Jugurta in the "Jugurthan War" where the Prince was strangled afterwords - Mayor suggest Mithridates wanted to avoid this fate. Therefore the suggestion that he somehow made a deal with his son to allow him to fake his death and send a fake corpse to Pompey while he fled into exile is a little obscene. If Pompey suspected the corpse was fake he would have gone after Mithridates or gone back to Ponthus to demand answers from his son - who was now masquerading as a Roman ally.
When not speculating like this Mayor puts in sentence such as ...'Mithridates probably thought' ... or 'Mithridates most likely did' to try and fill in blanks within the historical sources that have come down to us...This makes the biography seem a little fictional sometimes and somewhat damages it's historical credibility...
However that said and done the book is genuinely important as it suggests an alternative view of ancient history that isn't simply Western. Despite Mayor's tendency to fictionalize and exaggerate the book is still full of facts for instance it was interesting to learn that shortly before Mithridates' birth in the 130sBC a comet or 'falling star' was seen over the night sky...Mayor researched this claim and discovered - using Chinese sources that a comet was seen in the sky the night of the King's birth as it was spotted in China as well and it foretold that a great ruler would be born in the East who would stand up to Imperial Rome. The sections dealing with Mithridates experimentation with poisons to try and make himself immune to assisnation by poison (which he seems to have done so) are also hugely interesting along with the struggle between Mithridates and his power-crazed mother who murdered his father (Mithridates V) so that she could take the throne of Ponthus and place Mithridates younger brother (also named Mithridates) on it are also memorable and the King's obsessions with the Greeks & Persians (Alexander and Darius) make this figure and extremely interesting one to read about.
Despite it's flaws and the fact it sometimes reads like historical fiction Mayor's "The Poison King" is an enthralling book, it could be a masterful book but because of it's weakness it is slightly less however if you want to get another perspective on ancient history and learn about a thoroughly 3 dimensional individual then this is definitely a good place to start.