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The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy Paperback – March 27, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 193 ratings

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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." ―

"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 &amp; 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

"The author has read widely and shares her information with such gusto that one is easily swept up in her obvious enthusiasm."
---Philip Matyszak, UNRV


"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

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Princeton University Press (March 27, 2011)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 480 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 0691150265
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-0691150260
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 1.54 pounds
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.75 x 1.26 x 9.02 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.4 out of 5 stars 193 ratings

About the author

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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 French, German, 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 &amp; 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

4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5
193 global ratings

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Djilly L.
5.0 out of 5 stars Rome’s most notorious but least understood opponent
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 1, 2019
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Djilly L.
5.0 out of 5 stars Rome’s most notorious but least understood opponent
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on March 1, 2019
Mass murderer, freedom fighter, opportunist, comeback kid, serial escapee, poison mixer.

The Romans and their taxmen, the publicani’s, weren’t well known for a gentile approach in their conquered territories. This set the stage for Mithradates rise that eventually required the involvement of Rome’s most brilliant generals Sulla and Pompey to contain the drawn-out conflict.

I simply love it when an ancient history expert digs out a not so obvious specific area / person in great detail. And that is what happened in this book while it lifts the veil of fiction and propaganda around Mithradates’ character. While covering Mithradates' boyhood until his dramatic last stand in his 70s, the book narrative takes you through the intrigue of Hellenistic kingdoms of Asian Minor, the court mechanics and perhaps most of all the splendour.

Obviously the book is based on sparse and incomplete records and there are large parts of Mithradates life that have remained undocumented. As such there is a level of subjective interpretation by the author. I have no doubt this angers academics. But to me it works well, the author is not presenting her narrative as fact. And it is very refreshing to magnify this late Roman Republican period from the Asian Minor point of view rather than the umpteenth book modern scholar based on interpretations of Livy and Cicero.

So I really enjoyed this fascinating account of the period and conflict. The narrative is simply engaging and it reads very well.

I would however point to the limited amount of illustrations. The is a relatively large amount of illustrations, even scattered through the book. The coloured centrefold photos and geographic maps are a helpful visual aid, but it remains pretty limited in my view. Books like these would massively benefit from timeline graphs, dress examples, schematics of cities, buildings and art - just to bring the imagination to life even more. Pictures and graphs often say more than a 1000 words. Yet, this appears to remain a taboo in academic circles even in this digital age where digital books defy costly and complex printing restrictions.
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Ralph Blumenau
4.0 out of 5 stars A history of Mithradates VI, with much speculation
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on February 24, 2020
5.0 out of 5 stars Superb
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 9, 2013
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Kelly-Marie Grey
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing, One of my favourite Biographies
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on May 5, 2014
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5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on August 23, 2017