The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Romes Deadliest Enemy


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It was the closest thing to genocide recorded in the Western world up to that time. Mithradates' reputation rested on that historic massacre -- and upon his extraordinary knowledge of poisons.

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He wasn't a very savory person, unless, perhaps, you hated the Roman Empire with all your heart. That's why this book seems so terrific to me. What would it even mean to hate the Roman Empire with all your heart? The passion here is breathtaking. The author tells us that Mithradates was portrayed as a monster by Roman historians, but to the people of what is now Turkey and surrounding areas, he was, at times, seen as a beloved hero. The author indirectly compares Mithradates to Osama bin Laden, and later, more surprisingly, to Christ. Mithradates was also born under an auspicious star of the East and visited by wise men.

And Christ himself, lest we forget, was executed by the Romans as a seditious troublemaker. Mithradates' universal antidote, a substance he worked on for years so that he would never be poisoned, is a dream that lingers on in the modern world. A complicated potion called Mithridatium "became the most popular and longest-lived prescription in history, available in Rome as recently as So reading about all the corpses and catastrophes, the flocks of poisoned ducks and the hives of poisoned honey, the monarch's botched sacrifice of a virgin stymied by bursts of supernatural laughter , the meteors and omens, and most of all the wretched death that finally caught up with this headstrong despot, can be as peaceful as it is thrilling.

Things haven't improved all that much in 2, years, but they haven't gotten much worse, either. Persian and Greek, he early on began a lifelong study of poisons and their antidotes, testing them on criminals and each day of his life ingesting a bit, to render himself immune to their effects. He supposedly came up with a theriac [also called Mithridatium ], Very complete, detailed and readable biography of Mithradates, King of Pontus, during the time of the Roman Republic. He supposedly came up with a theriac [also called Mithridatium ], a universal antidote; the formula for that has been lost.

So far there has been no comprehensive biography of this man who led an amazing life: Successful at first against Aquillius, Sulla and Lucullus, he finally succumbed to Pompey. His life was a series of highs and lows, victories and defeats, betrayals and loyalties. Cicero called him "the greatest king since Alexander. The man was also a lover of the arts and a polyglot, so he was not ONLY a warrior.

My only quibble was the amount of speculation: But this work seemed well researched as far as it went, with incomplete primary sources. All in all, a fascinating dip into history of the late Roman Republic. You might think that quote makes more sense in context, but it really doesn't. The context is that Mayor is trying to fill the gap in our sources and hypothesizing what Mithradetes' did for two years in Armenia while on the run from Rome.

In general, I liked the book. It was well-written and covered a subject too often left on the sidelines of Rome's civil wars of the 1st century BC. However, every time I would start to get sucked in, I would quickly get frustrated by the narrative methodology of the book. Mayor uses techniques to "flesh out" missing details of the historical record with "what-if" scenarios and hypotheticals.

Book World: Carolyn See reviews 'The Poison King'

Maybe I am just not used to those techniques, but they drove me nuts for a couple of reasons. First, it leads to situations like the above where there are actually hypothetical scenarios to hypothetical scenarios to hypothetical scenarios that, in the end, seem twisted to the original point and unnecessary. Does the postulation that perhaps Mithradates ate beaver testicles while hypothetically visiting temples of love in Armenia really give much insight into Mithradates?

I would say not The second issue was that it led to some odd narrative choices. There are whole chapters devoted to hypotheticals, let I found myself lost in some of the main threads of the Mithradatic Wars. I still can't, with any confidence, define the beginning or end of the Second Mithradatic War. I am assuming there are gaps in the sources to skip over at times years of Mithradates life. But because she usually filled those in with hypotheticals and other times just left the narrative run, blithely skipping over the gaps.

It led to confusion.

The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor

In the end, I would tepidly recommend the book. As I mentioned, the prose is nice and maybe my dislike of the narrative techniques used by Mayor are not universally shared. Be warned, however, that I was not able to answer a fundamental paradox raised by the book: Mithradates seemed to lose badly every battle he fought with Rome; Mithradates ranked with Hannibal on the list of enemies who terrified Rome.

Nov 27, Thomas T rated it did not like it. What is this book? I really don't know what point the author was trying to make with this book, for all the repetitive babble Mithridates was really nothing more than a somewhat interesting character on the fringes of the Roman World, hardly the New Alexander that the author seems to imply, Romes deadliest enemy?

I got sucked right into this story from the start, and finally, I got to find out what happened between two of Colleen McCullough's novels. There's war, love, poisoning, treachery, murder on a mass scale, and all sorts of things that make history fun. While the writing style is a bit light in spots, I found this to be a great read, and worth it to find. Those who enjoy history won't need any further urging to read this one, and it's one that I can happily recommend at all.

Fo I got sucked right into this story from the start, and finally, I got to find out what happened between two of Colleen McCullough's novels. For the longer review, please go here: Mar 09, Ed rated it really liked it Shelves: Mithradates VI of Pontus did nothing by half measures.

In the spring of 88 BC he organized the slaughter of essentially all the Roman and Italian residents of the Province of Asia which encompassed western Turkey. Men, women and children, masters and slaves were rounded up and killed without mercy. Those who attempted to gain sanctuary in the temples were murdered and the temples burned. Their property was confiscated; people who killed Roman moneylenders had their debts cancelled; bounties were Mithradates VI of Pontus did nothing by half measures.

Their property was confiscated; people who killed Roman moneylenders had their debts cancelled; bounties were offered for informers and the killers of Romans in hiding. As least 80, Romans and Italians living in Anatolia and the Aegean islands massacred—thousands of merchants and tax collectors with their slaves and families had emigrated from Italy to the newly conquered Asian province of the Roman Republic. In addition to the number of people killed, that the plot was kept secret from the Romans was one of the great intelligence coups and mysteries of the ancient world.

Ordinary people from all ethnic groups and social classes were part of the poplar alliance to wipe out the Romans. Mithradates appealed to the wealthy and the poor because all had felt the sting of the Roman lash and suffered under its yoke. The events of 88 BC were extreme, even in that ultra-sanguine era. It was explicitly designed to eliminate and entire ethnic and linguistic group. While the first century BC was rife with state-sponsored, collective and private acts of violence, nothing was as cold-blooded and of such a large scale.

Like all kings, Mithradates wanted to keep his dynasty intact. He claimed to be descended from the generals of Alexander the Great through his father and Darius I of Persia through his mother and since there was no other examples of such impeccable breeding he made on of his sisters his wife. While this was not uncommon in the eastern Mediterranean in the classical period—Egypt was rife with brothers who were their own brothers-in-law for example—he went even further, imprisoning his remaining sisters in enforced virginity in case a substitute breeder was necessary. He was a symbol of cruelty and a hero confronting the unstoppable merciless expansion of empire.

He freed thousands of slaves, pardoned prisoners of war and enemy captives, granted democratic rights throughout the lands he ruled and shared the spoils of war widely among his followers. At the same time Mithradates was cruel, unscrupulous; his tactics were both successful and devastating. For Rome he was the most feared enemy general since Hannibal.

Adrienne Mayor has spent years reading the sources in several ancient and modern languages and obviously knows her stuff. Jan 28, Ilana rated it liked it Shelves: History is a lot more fun to make than I thought. Jan 31, Louise rated it it was amazing Shelves: 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 Literature on ancient Rome can overtly or subtly applaud the level of civilization it provided for its people. 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 guerrilla attacks on Black Sea based Romans could kill perhaps 80, 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 alternative history, worth considering, of later life for Mithradates and his warrior wife Hypsicratea.

At the end there is a discussion entitled "Hero or Deviant? I've long wondered psychology as an evolutionary trait. What would be the psychology of the thousands of people vulnerable to total loss of home and family in wars to say nothing of earthquakes and diseases for which they know very little about? Are there specific psychological traits that result from being in line for succession to a throne in a world where the winner takes all leadership and wealth?

What of the psychology of the soldier who marches thousands of miles sometimes foraging for food before the fight even begins? This is an excellent book and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in this period. Sep 05, Shannon rated it liked it Shelves: There have been several reviews lamenting the amount of conjecture regarding the historically undocumented parts of the life of Mithradates. I find that kind of funny since the thing I love most about ancient history are the spaces between what has been recorded, where you can use what you already know to imagine what might have happened.

I guess I'm just more of a writer than a strict historian, but it always bugs me in these kinds of books when the author says "We won't speculate on this perio There have been several reviews lamenting the amount of conjecture regarding the historically undocumented parts of the life of Mithradates.

I guess I'm just more of a writer than a strict historian, but it always bugs me in these kinds of books when the author says "We won't speculate on this period since no record exists. Give us a few potential scenarios based on what you know of the person in question, the time period, etc. As long as the reader knows when an author is speculating and when they are following a historical record, I don't see the problem. I appreciated that about this book. Granted, wiping out thousands of Roman men women and children in 88 BC probably had a lot to do with it.

And sure he was a troublemaker, and a ruthless, brutal one after that. But aside from a scant handful of victories most of them due to lumbering Roman bureaucracy and internal conflict or sheer good luck , he was soundly defeated time and again.

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Maybe because he managed to escape every time and keep coming back for more, dodging capture until he was an old man. Either way, it's a testament to the author's writing that I found myself rooting for him despite the accounts of his brutality. In fact it was a little disappointing to realize as the book progressed that he had so few real victories, and none were due to any sort of brilliance on his part.

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It was an enjoyable, if occasionally frustrating read. May 29, Jen rated it liked it Shelves: This book is well out of my comfort zone of history. Only lately, thanks to History of Rome podcast, have I truly gotten into ancient history as a subject.

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And even this predates my own limited knowledge of Rome. As much as I have heard of the name Mithradates, I knew little about him. This book is a well researched guide into his life, his wars on Rome, and his eventual destruction from within. At times, the book delved almost too deeply into the various battles, but I think that's more a functi This book is well out of my comfort zone of history.

At times, the book delved almost too deeply into the various battles, but I think that's more a function of my own distaste for military history than an actual flaw. A real flaw is the author's love of "dramatization" when evidence is lacking. Although she gives warning that she's doing this, it's annoying when you find yourself reading a stage play where once you were getting an historical account.

She does this repeatedly through the book, showing how things "might have happened" It detracts substantially from the book and the story contained within. Also, the author seemed to love crowning each new fling of Mithradates with the "love of his life" moniker. I think when you have a bevy of wives and truckloads of mistresses all serving concurrently, one would be hard pressed to say that just because one woman was the last before he died automatically makes her the "love of his life.

All this aside, the book is a fascinating account of an oft-forgotten king, and given the limited books on him, probably the best book on the subject you'll easily find. Nov 27, Andrew Brozyna rated it liked it Shelves: Traditionally the West's dominant view of Mithradates came from his Roman enemies, and in recent times there has been virtually no view of the forgotten king. Adrienne Mayor does history a great service by countering that imbalanced knowledge. Her story is supported with alternate contemporary sources and modern archaeology. As a result, the reader views Pontus' royal family and Rome's Mithridatic W Traditionally the West's dominant view of Mithradates came from his Roman enemies, and in recent times there has been virtually no view of the forgotten king.

As a result, the reader views Pontus' royal family and Rome's Mithridatic Wars from the probable perspective of the king. Mithradates' intelligence and personality shine through Adrienne Mayor's text. Her writing is highly engaging, appropriate for such a dynamic character.

Regrettably several descriptions of military equipment were in error. Roman swords were not at all like machetes, as the author described them. Armenian and Parthian Cataphracti were more typically armored in lamellar or scale, not chain mail. As annoying as these mistakes are to someone knowledgeable of ancient arms and armor, they have little bearing on the thrust of this book. Mayor intends to convey the general events of Mithradates' battles and their effects on his life. Although I would love to read a detailed description of his troops' armor, weapons, unit types, training, tactics, etc.

Jul 07, Michael rated it really liked it. One of my college professors recommended this book to me after being able to only briefly cover Mithradates in class and, though it took me a while to become fully ensconced, I really enjoyed reading this book. Mixing mythology with reality and speculation with factuality, Adrienne Mayor amalgamates the many stories, myths, and facts about Rome's deadliest enemy into a thrilling story of divinity, power, war, perfidy, and eventual downfall.

Many times, I lost myself in the story as if I was read One of my college professors recommended this book to me after being able to only briefly cover Mithradates in class and, though it took me a while to become fully ensconced, I really enjoyed reading this book. Many times, I lost myself in the story as if I was reading a novel. Not your typical non-fiction work. That being said, if you go into to book looking for a traditionally structured piece, you may be disappointed.

Many times, Mayor gives her own take on events being played using a method called "historical reconstruction. But there are only a few instances of such. For the most part, her speculation is excellently argued, explained, and cited. All in all, this is an excellent work, and I recommend reading it like a novel rather than a non-fiction work.

Not as good as I was expecting, and definitely not as good as the author's Greek Fire book. A biography about Mithridates is a great idea, and the author managed to make him sound very, very awesome and interesting, and the pictures throughout are really nice -- but a large portion of the book is things Mayor just made up about what might have happened because there just isn't enough in the primary sources about the guy. This gets especially ridiculous toward the end when she starts speculating Not as good as I was expecting, and definitely not as good as the author's Greek Fire book.

This gets especially ridiculous toward the end when she starts speculating how Mithridates could have survived his supposed death and run off secretly with his lover, who would then have changed her name to the masculine form, lived as a man, and become Mithridates' historian. The whole thing is also really, really anti-Roman.

Not that I'm saying that the Romans weren't, you know, laying waste to various parts of Europe and Asia, but I'm not seeing how Mithridates did anything differently such that his behavior is defensible and, say, Sulla's and Pompey's isn't. Also the book seems to be pretty solidly against my favorite king of the region, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia. It's a fun read, but I wish it had been a little more with the history and a little less with the "everyone except Mithridates is evil. Jan 16, Paul rated it really liked it. This is a decent little read or listen. Well, not little; I've been at it for months off and on.

The first chapter for me was hard to endure based on the laughable colloquial language, but I felt it settled down as the actual narrative started. The book does an excellent job of making you sympathetic to the subject character despite his being a genocidal despot who never won a significant battle against the Romans, and the historical speculations at the end are intriguing yet well-grounded and This is a decent little read or listen. The book does an excellent job of making you sympathetic to the subject character despite his being a genocidal despot who never won a significant battle against the Romans, and the historical speculations at the end are intriguing yet well-grounded and avoid wandering off into the weeds of the author's own wish-fulfillment, which was a clear danger given her?

It's a welcome complement to the Rome-centric or potentially Judea-centric worldview of my classics courses and most writing about Mediterranean antiquity. Mar 23, Drakaina rated it liked it Recommends it for: This is a fine, well readable book on one of the most fascinating episodes in ancient history, the story of an indomitable king who challenged the Roman expansion in Asia Minor and in the Hellenistic kingdoms. He became famous in history for his research and experiments concerning poisons and antidotes.

Racine wrote a tragedy about him, and Mozart an opera. Later he was quite forgotten but his story is one of those truly worth knowing, because it is adventure, mythology and history combined. The This is a fine, well readable book on one of the most fascinating episodes in ancient history, the story of an indomitable king who challenged the Roman expansion in Asia Minor and in the Hellenistic kingdoms. The book is well researched and makes a good read, but what I found annoying is that the author is non-critical towards the sources, especially the iconographic ones, and that she sees poison and poison plots everywhere.

Nov 04, Liviu rated it really liked it Shelves: Feb 04, Christina rated it liked it. An entertaining book for the most part. I'm not a fan of military history, so I admit to skimming over those pages as I just couldn't stand the long descriptions. One thing that made me not give this a better rating was her constant over-dramatization and the interjecting her own opinions. You can interpret them in various ways if you like, but not using flights of fancy. Aug 27, Rafael Alfredo rated it really liked it.

The Poison King succeeded in garnering newfound respect out of me for the rebellious king of Pontus. Despite his ruthlessness, he is portrayed positively in the book. Though the author relied on her own theories in some portions where the actual history is lost to us, her assumptions are reasonable and likely courses of action for Mithradates. Dec 19, Paul Brent rated it really liked it. I know nothing about this Important historical character before reading this book.

Very readable but a bit too much emphasis on the Poison King aspect. It happens that everyone is poisoning their enemies at this time. Mithradates is too important a leader to be forgotten in our time. Important lessons from a great king on challenging and succeeding for so long a time the ruling power of Rome. Jan 17, Bruce MacBain rated it it was amazing. A very readable popular history of the great Mithridates. It's not the book an academic historian would have written--but maybe that's a good thing. I can say this having been an academic historian. Oct 22, Clark rated it liked it.

Interesting book about one of Romes lesser known enemies.

The author occasionally gets caught up in her subject, as historians are apt to do, and loses objectivity. But still a good read about a historical figure that is not nearly known as he was, and perhaps should be. Nov 08, Jonathan rated it liked it Shelves: A good overall book but the author got bogged down in the what if's and hypothesizing. She states very clearly when she is simply hypothesizing but I found she did it too much for my taste.

Dec 23, Timothy Abbott rated it it was amazing. I was tuned into it after about 10 pages, and then glued to it until completion. I had heard, read the name plenty of times before, but I had no idea who Mithradates was, or what role he played in ancient history. He led thousands into battle against 3 major Roman conquerers, Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey the Great.

He had more lives than a black cat, escaping from numerous treacheries, betrayals, and close shaves. He knew poison and immunized himself to much of it around him. He developed guerrilla warfare as well as being one of the first to employ biological warfare. He was a Super- Bad Ass in a world full of bad-asses. Mithradates Eupator was the King of Pontus.

His domain early on was the Southern coast of the Black Sea in current Turkey. Rapacious and bold, the Romans were known for stripping entire kingdoms of their wealth. But who would deliver them from their masters? Who could unite the many tribes, who could speak in the many languages to communicate, who could be a general on the battlefield? For 78 years the great Poison King, the most feared enemy of Rome since Hannibal, conjured up descriptions such as; compassionate, vengeful, rebellious, cruel, fair, merciful, murderous, inspiring, lying, honorable, intriguing. He mastered the mysteries of pharmacopeia at an early age, studying plants, animals, minerals that could be used as poison to his enemies, as well as learning their respected antidotes.

For close to 40 years he was the center of the 3 Mithradatic Wars which see-sawed back and forth, swallowing the lives of countless cities, hordes of riches, and millions of unfortunate people. He frequently dressed in the clothing of Persian royalty and carried with him the famed Purple Cape of the late Alexander. So learned was he about poison, so well-read, that he wrote extensively on the matter in journals and was known to throw banquets full of poison food to eliminate rivals or usurpers.

In the matter of battle, he won, lost, won, lost, escaping by luck and happenstance.

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