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

4.1 out of 5 stars 62 customer reviews

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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 (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #945,764 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Hardcover
Literature on ancient Rome can overtly or subtly applaud the level of civilization it provided for its people. Little note is made that the beneficiaries were a small percentage of the population. The beneficiary proportion is smaller still when the people of conquered lands are counted. Rome's enemies skirmished and revolted, but Rome's strong aggressive armies fended them all off for centuries.

Adrienne Mayor provides an antidote (pun intended) to the genuine, and highly touted, accomplishments of Rome. Within the context of Mithradates' life you can see the point of view of Rome's enemies, slaves and clients. You see how they mocked Rome's cherished myth of being founded by orphans suckled by wolves. You see sympathy for Jugurtha and other royals humiliated by Rome's triumphs. You see resentment of a former middle class reduced to paupers by taxes and tributes. Feelings obviously ran deep such that thousands of coordinated guerilla attacks on Black Sea based Romans could kill perhaps 80,000 in one day in 88 BCE.

This book describes not only the complex character of Mithradates but also the complex world in which he lived. Mayor takes you through Mithradates life as a wandering youth, to his study and use of poisons, to his benign (for its times) rule, to his raising great armies, to his murder of relatives, to his marriages and mistresses (losing track of the children) to the death that is recorded for him. She also poses some alterntive history, worth considering, of later life for Mithradates and his warrior wife Hypsicratea.

At the end there is a discussion entitled "Hero or Deviant?" with an outline of how Mithradates meets and doesn't meet the criteria for each. I've long wondered psychology as an evolutionary trait.
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