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The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy Hardcover – October 18, 2009

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Editorial Reviews


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

"Mayor is without doubt a masterful narrator with an ability to create vivid descriptions of past events and to bring historical characters alive."--Jasmin Lukkari, Arctos

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

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 472 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press (October 18, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691126836
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691126838
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (54 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #568,241 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Adrienne Mayor @amayor is a research scholar in Classics and the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology Program at Stanford. Her work is often featured on NPR and BBC, Discovery and History TV channels, and other popular media, including the New York Times and National Geographic, and her books are translated into Spanish, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, Turkish, Italian, Russian, and Greek. In college during the Vietnam War, she received special permission to take ROTC courses in the history of war; 20 years later she began writing articles for "MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History." Mayor is especially interested in the history of science (the history of human curiosity) and she investigates natural knowledge embedded in classcial Greek and Roman literature and other "pre-scientific" myths and oral traditions.

"The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World" (2014) is the result of Mayor's long interest in the realities behind myths, legends, and ancient historical accounts of women warriors. "The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithridates" is the first full biography in half a century of one of Rome's deadliest enemies and the world's first experimental toxicologist. "The Poison King" was a finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, nonfiction and won top honors in Biography in the Independent Book Publishers Awards, 2010.

Mayor's two books on pre-Darwinian fossil traditions in classical antiquity and in Native America ("The First Fossil Hunters" and "Fossil Legends of the First Americans") opened new windows in the emerging field of Geomythology. "First Fossil Hunters" is featured in the popular History Channel show "Ancient Monster Hunters," about Mayor's discovery of the links between ancient observations of dinosaur fossils and the gold-guarding Griffin of mythology. "First Fossil Hunters" and "Fossil Legends of the First Americans" also inspired the BBC documentary "Dinosaurs, Monsters, and Myths" and the popular traveling exhibit "Mythic Creatures" (launched at the American Museum of Natural History, 2007-17).

Her book "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs," about the origins and early use of biological weapons, uncovered the surprisingly ancient roots of biochemical warfare. This book was featured in National Geographic, New York Times, and the History Channel's "Ancient Greek WMDs" --and it has become a favorite resource for diabolical, unconventional weaponry among ancient war-gamers.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Naga on March 1, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This book combines two qualities that I find essential in a history work: It is extensively, indeed exhaustively researched, and it is eminently readable and accessible.

I have been primarily a student of Roman/Byzantine history, while naturally developing a fair amount of knowledge about the history of the Gauls/Franks, Persians, Carthaginians, and Persians, among others. I know Hannibal because I know Fabian (and Scipio), Vercengetorix because I know Caesar, and so on, but I knew little about Mithradates prior to reading this work. I was particularly interested to learn that Mithradates was a historical character of considerable fame throughout the middle ages and renaissance. While I have of course previously read of the campaigns of Sulla and Pompey in Asia, this had always been from the Roman point of view, with little effort to provide insight into Mithradates, their primary opponent, and his realm. Apparently the old boy has fallen out of fashion for a hundred years or so.

As I read "The Poison King", I found myself constantly amazed at the wealth, activity, cultures, and leadership in Pontus. While many of the detailed records of his life are lost or colored by their Roman filter, Mithradates remains a compelling and fascinating character based upon what we know and may reasonably infer or surmise. It is surely not overstatement to say that he was Rome's most feared enemy for fifty years. If you are interested in the Eastern theater of Rome's empire prior to the fall of the Republic, I think you have to regard this as a must-read.

Regarding some of the negative reviews: I almost have believe we didn't read the same book.
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22 of 23 people found the following review helpful By K. Kehler on August 19, 2012
Format: Paperback
I admit that I had high hopes for this book. It has garnered significant and compelling praise. The author has a good reputation. The book is well written and interesting to read, especially on ancient warfare and the use of poison. The introduction is convincing, what with some smart comments on historiography and historical methodology. There are some less convincing parallels drawn between that age and our own but it's not too annoying. (Superpower gets drawn into guerrilla warfare against insurgents in far-off lands with inhospitable terrain. You get the picture.)

Let me begin by throwing out a couple of hasty questions: Was Mithradates really Rome's deadliest enemy? Were the seeds of Rome's decline -- such as it was -- really sown as a result of changes to the military structure of the army, in the conflicts in Anatolia, etc., against Mithradates? These questions serve to give a sense of some of the other problems. But the biggest problem with the book is the naive and persistent veneration of Mithradates: behaviour that is condemned in others (generally Rome, but also Mithradates' family and local enemies, like Nicomedes) is celebrated as canny and shrewd when done by Mithradates. These include piracy, exploitation, poisoning, incest, infanticide, fratricide, betrayal, assassination, and general colonization etc. If you think I'm exaggerating about the veneration of M., consider that when Rome arrives, it exploits ruthlessly, but M. is described as inventing "co-prosperity" (!) plans (p. 119). When Major writes of Mithradates, she writes (in anodyne language intended to illustrate his benign benevolence) of those who (foolishly) decline to join his co-prosperity plan; whereas when she writes of Rome, she speaks of brutal oppression and exploitation.
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38 of 47 people found the following review helpful By lordhoot on January 5, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I found The Poison King by Adrienne Mayor to be a highly interesting book, well written and quite informative. Having written that, I would say that she wrote a very strongly biased spin toward King Mithradates VI of Pontus. First of all, she like to compared Mithradates to Alexander the Great, I am sure that this mindset was made to compliment Mithradates although bit insulting to poor Alexander. So how biased was the book in favor of Mithradates? Here is a good example, on page 183 when she wrote "Undefeated but displeased, he (Mithradates) sailed away to the coast of Lycia......" Of course, Mithradates won't have sail away if he was victorious and took the city of Rhodes but since that siege was a total failure on his part, he "sailed away" undefeated according to the book. The book also revealed that Mithradates spent most of his early years preparing for war with Rome but when the wars came, he was constantly defeated, over and over again. Only time he was successful were when Rome were seriously distracted from other crises nearer to their home base. Mithradates appears to be more successful in killing helpless Roman civilians then Roman legionaries.

But despite of what I have written, make no mistake that this is a highly informative book but it would really help if you have some foreknowledge of time period involved. Mithradates, despite of the book's best efforts to paint him as knight in shinning armor against Rome's imperial designs, proves to be another despot ruler who had too much money and time on his hand. Book revealed ironically that Mithradates also had imperial designs of his own and that made him no better then Rome.
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