VL: On “Fresh Eye,” we’re chatting further with Adrienne Mayor, author-researcher extraordinaire, and the mysterious world of long-ago toxins and its pioneering adepts.
VL: Adrienne, we’ve discussed your research style and methods, along with some of your startling finds. But what first triggered your curiosity about King Mithradates?
AM: Initially, I was mystified. Why had Mithradates and his deeds been forgotten? The man was once a household word, as famous as Spartacus or Caesar. After I read his 1890 biography (never translated into English), I gained more insight. Author Reinach, along with other scholars of his era, labeled the king a decadent Oriental despot, similar to the corrupt Ottoman sultans of the late 19th century. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled away, the memory of Mithradates was also swept into history’s dustbin—
Mithradates: (interrupting) Enough pedantic mush! It was the cursed Romans who painted me as a barbarian king. They hated independent monarchs who stood up to them. They only won because they turned my surviving son into a traitor. Victors always get to write the history and the Romans wrote me out!
AM: Thank you for sharing, O King.
VL: Adrienne, back to your interest in King Mithridates, and poison—
Mithradates: (interrupts again) It’s “Mithra-da-tes,” not Mithri-da-tes! My name means “gift of Mithra, god of truth and light!” I will not accept the latinization of my fine Greco-Persian name by my detested enemies, the Romans—
VL: (cuts into his tirade) OK, point taken, moving on. Adrienne, which came first, your interest in poisons, or his majesty here?
AM: I’d written previously on deadly topics, from Greek myths about spontaneously combustible garments to toxic honey as a weapon in antiquity. I became intrigued with Mithradates while writing my book on ancient biological and chemical warfare. After learning of his lifelong attempt to make himself immune to all poisons, I was hooked. Mithradates, Rome’s deadliest longterm enemy, was also the world’s first experimental toxicologist—yet no one had written a modern biography of this brilliant scientist.
VL: What were your goals in writing this book?
AM: First, to understand the scientific principles underlying his experiments. That took me into fascinating territory—I eagerly delved into the vast array of plant, animal, and mineral poisons known in antiquity—
Mithradates: (bursts in again) Now we’re in MY territory! I’m planning a fabulous banquet tonight—my Alexandrian physician friend has sent me a condemned murderer, along with an exotic new poison from Egypt. We’ll read out his crimes, then serve him a delicious last meal so we can observe the effects. My research goals are multiple—I’m searching for antidotes, of course. But I’m also after undetectable and rapid poisons, good for getting rid of underlings and inconvenient family members. Plus toxins that bring quick and painless death—ones I can hide in the hilt of my dagger, handy for those untoward situations…
VL: Now we’re getting to the good stuff. O King, don’t hold back.
Mithradates: To start with—I figured out how to make myself immune to normally lethal amounts of dragon’s blood or realgar. That’s the toxin you call arsenic. Starting in boyhood, I daily ingested small amounts of it. Once I was king, I invited guests at my banquets to sprinkle it onto my food and drink. Throughout my long reign, I astounded eyewitnesses by quaffing goblets of wine loaded with enough arsenic to kill a man twice my size. My lifetime regimen gave me a lovely translucent complexion, which naturally enhanced my divine aura.
VL: Any drawbacks to your daily dose of dragon’s blood?
Mithradates: Well, one. When my army and I trekked across the Caucasus Mountains, braving snow and ice to escape Pompey’s legions, many of us suffered frostbite. I was distraught to find that frostbite interacted with the arsenic in my system. The black blisters it made disfigured my face so much, I had to withdraw from public view.
VL: That definitely could put a damper on your social life. How about your other poisonous triumphs?
Mithradates: My toxicological secrets included another trick that invariably stunned my banquet guests. My snake handlers would milk venom from a viper’s fangs into a glass. Everyone fears viper venom, especially arrows dipped in the stuff. To everyone’s utter shock, I would swallow the venom with no ill effects. Few people realized that even the deadliest snake venom can be safely digested—it’s only dangerous if it enters the bloodstream.
AM: Vicki, here’s the science end. Tiny doses of arsenic cause the liver to create enzymes that mop up the toxic molecules. Longterm, low-grade arsenic poisoning stimulates the liver to produce more and more enzymes; thus the body is able to neutralize what would normally be a deadly dose. Mithradates’ experience with frostbite? It’s also confirmed by studies showing that longterm arsenic dosing plus frostbite results in gangrenous skin cancers.
VL: O King, since the statute of limitations on your murder victims is a moot point by now, can you tell us what you used to kill your sons and family?
Mithradates: Time and time again, my first choice was tasteless, odorless realgar or arsenic: the King of Poisons, the Poison of Kings. This valuable export was produced in my own kingdom by workers toiling in the infamous mines on Mt Realgar. Arsenic was a family tradition: my treacherous mother used it to murder my dear father. Of course, I devised more theatrical executions for enemies I particularly detested—such as the gullet full of molten gold that I administered to Aquillius, the greedy Roman officer who invaded my dominions.
VL: Any regrets?
Mithradates: Several times in my tumultuous life, I also had to poison my entire harem and start from scratch.
Mithradates: The Romans were closing in on my castles and it was my painful responsibility to save the women from fates worse than death. You know, rape and torture by brutish legionaries. For the woman under my protection—my own sisters, children, concubines—I ordered my eunuchs
to employ a gentle poison, such as opium mixed with hemlock.
AM: Vicki, no records exist to tell us exactly which poisons the King used to eliminate family, foes, girlfriends, and rivals. The opium-hemlock mixure, used by the Athenians to execute Socrates, reputedly brought about a calm demise. As for the rest—Mithradates’ experiments involved myriad poisons, some common and others arcane. Since he knew two dozen languages and could correspond easily with farflung allies and other experimenters, the King had access to toxicological treatises from India, Egypt, and other places. We do know that he carried out hundreds of experiments with poisons and antidotes on condemned criminals, on his friends, and on himself.
VL: O Great Poisoner of history, if you could write your own epitaph, what would it say?
Mithradates: “King of Kings, sent by the god Mithra to fight for Truth and Light against the forces of Darkness and Deceit. My spirit lives on.”
VL: Adrienne Mayor, how about your choice of an epitaph?
AM: “Historian of Human Curiosity.”
VL: To you both, myriad thanks for the dark secrets and science insights you’ve shared with us!