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2009 National Book Award Finalist,

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Adrienne Mayor
The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates
Princeton University Press

Video from the 2009 National Book Awards Finalist Reading

Photo credit: Josiah Ober


With narrative sweep and riveting detail, Adrienne Mayor brings Mithradates to life. Her powerful recreation of an ancient clash of civilizations is interwoven with striking parallels to current events in the Middle East. She brings history, geography, mythology, art, psychology, and science to bear in a lively, accessible mix. The Poison King brilliantly demonstrates how learned scholarship can still reach and move a general audience.


Claiming Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia as ancestors, Mithradates inherited a wealthy Black Sea kingdom at age 14 after his mother poisoned his father. He fled into exile and returned in triumph to become a ruler of superb intelligence and fierce ambition. Hailed as a savior by his followers and feared as a second Hannibal by his enemies, he envisioned a grand Eastern empire to rival Rome. After massacring 80,000 Roman citizens in 88 BC, he dragged Rome into a long round of wars. His uncanny ability to elude capture and surge back after devastating losses unnerved the Romans, while his mastery of poisons allowed him to foil assassination attempts and eliminate rivals. The Poison King is a gripping account of one of Rome’s most relentless but least understood foes.


Adrienne Mayor is the author of Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World and The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times. She is a visiting scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University.


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November 4, 2009 @ 7:30 PM
Getty Museum and Villa

January 26, 2010
University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

March 31, 2010
Smithsonian Resident Associates Lecture Series
Washington, DC


Chapter 1 - Kill Them All, and Let the Gods Sort Them Out

In spring of 88 BC, in dozens of cities across Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern Turkey), sworn enemies of Rome joined a secret plot. On an appointed day in one month’s time, they vowed to kill every Roman man, woman, and child in their territories.

The conspiracy was masterminded by King Mithradates the Great, who communicated secretly with numerous local leaders in Rome’s new Province of Asia. (“Asia” at this time referred to lands from the eastern Aegean to India; Rome’s Province of Asia encompassed western Turkey.) How Mithradates kept the plot secret remains one of the great intelligence mysteries of antiquity. The conspirators promised to round up and slay all the Romans and Italians living in their towns, including women and children and slaves of Italian descent. They agreed to confiscate the Romans’ property and throw the bodies out to the dogs and crows. Anyone who tried to warn or protect Romans or bury their bodies was to be harshly punished. Slaves who spoke languages other than Latin would be spared, and those who joined in the killing of their masters would be rewarded. People who murdered Roman moneylenders would have their debts canceled. Bounties were offered to informers and killers of Romans in hiding.

The deadly plot worked perfectly. According to several ancient historians, at least 80,000—perhaps as many as 150,000—Roman and Italian residents of Anatolia and Aegean islands were massacred on that day. The figures are shocking—perhaps exaggerated—but not unrealistic. Exact population figures for the first century BC are not known. But great numbers of Italian merchants and new Roman citizens had swarmed to recently conquered lands as Rome expanded its empire in the late Republic […] Ancient statistics often represent guesswork or exaggeration. Even if the lower death toll of 80,000 was inflated, as some scholars believe, and if we reduce the count of the dead by half, the slaughter of unsuspecting innocents was staggering. The extent of the massacre is not in doubt: modern historians agree with the ancient sources that virtually all Roman and Italian residents of Provincia Asia were wiped out.


The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates is currently available at your local library or for sale through most major retailers, including:

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