Photo credit: Josiah
The Poison King: The Life
and Legend of Mithradates
Princeton University Press
Meehan Crist: What
questions drove you as worked on The Poison King?
In other words, what was it that you hoped to better
understand by writing it?
In 88 BC, Mithradates orchestrated the
most devastating terror attack in ancient history, the
massacre of 80,000 Roman settlers in Anatolia (Turkey).
Remarkably, this shocking genocide has been neglected
by modern historians. Driven to comprehend Mithradates’
motivations, I scoured ancient sources for insights
beyond Rome’s influence and sought keys to Mithradates’
complex, paradoxical personality. Why did he and his
followers loathe the Romans so deeply? Could I explain
the widespread popular appeal of this charismatic leader’s
revolutionary cause? How could one who saw himself as
a savior-king perpetrate such vicious acts, yet pursue
humanistic ideals—freeing slaves and prisoners
of war, sharing wealth with soldiers, canceling debts,
expanding citizen rights, and restoring Greek democracy?
occurred after a rogue Roman commander seeking personal
glory and plunder invaded his kingdom. The long Mithradatic
Wars, so costly in blood and treasure, lasted until
Mithradates’ son betrayed him. Ultimately, Rome
was victorious, and history is written by the victors.
No one has ever told the story from Mithradates’
perspective. That is what I aimed to do in The Poison
Other questions spurred me
on, as well. How did Mithradates’ boyhood mold
the man? Who were his heroes? What scientific principles
underlay his celebrated “universal antidote,”
which could supposedly counteract all poisons? How did
the secret recipe fall into Roman emperors’ hands?
How did Mithradates accomplish the incredible feat of
trekking over the Caucasus Mountains?
MC: What was the most
unexpected thing you learned in the course of writing
The Poison King?
As the world’s first experimental toxicologist,
Mithradates gathered an international team of doctors
to test all known poisons and antidotes, seeking to
make himself immune to poison. After his death, versions
of his antidote were eagerly swallowed by Roman emperors
and European royalty. The mithridatium was the most
popular prescription of all time, but I was taken aback
to hear it could be purchased in Rome as recently as
I was surprised to learn of
new advances in medicine that reveal what Mithradates
discovered 2,000 years ago, that miniscule amounts of
deadly plant, mineral, and animal toxins can protect
against poisoning and pathogens. Mithradates’
dream of the perfect antidote lives on. I met the former
head of the Soviet biochemical warfare program, who
defected to the US and now seeks to create a “universal
antidote” against bioweapons.
recovery from a grievous battle wound held another surprise.
Thanks to the arcane knowledge of shamans from what
is now Azerbaijan, Mithradates’ uncontrollable
bleeding was stopped by snake venom. This was the first
documented instance of “venomics”—cutting-edge
studies of the medical uses of viper venom. Delving
further, I learned that viper venom from Azerbaijan
is now exported to hospitals around the globe, used
as a blood coagulant that stops hemorrhage.
Yet another surprise was the
realization that the famous Antikythera Mechanism, discovered
in a Roman shipwreck, likely belonged to Mithradates
or one of his friends. This sophisticated bronze treasure—the
world’s first computer—was plundered by
the Romans during the Mithradatic Wars. It sank, along
with a cargo of fabulous loot from his kingdom, on the
way to Rome.
MC: Are there any books
you held in your peripheral vision as models while you
The last complete biography of Mithradates was written
in French and published more than 100 years ago, in
1890, by the historian Theodore Reinach. Magisterial
in scope but quite old-fashioned, it was always in mind
as I strove to match Reinach’s impressive scholarship.
MC: What was the most
difficult decision you had to make while writing
The Poison King, and why was it so hard?
I began research in the shadow of Osama bin Laden’s
attack of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq War, begun
in 2003. Striking parallels between Mithradates’
conflicts with a Western superpower and contemporary
circumstances in the Mideast were obvious. It was tempting
to draw comparisons at many points in the book, but
modern comparisons and relevance shift over time and
I wanted Mithradates’ biography to stand on its
own, for future readers as well as today’s readers,
without anachronistic distractions. I decided to confine
references to current events to the Introduction. Readers
can choose to draw their own parallels—or not.
MC: What part of
The Poison King was the most thrilling to write,
It’s impossible to single out the most electrifying
episode. I was swept away by the sheer audacity, the
epic defiance, and the chiaroscuro effect of nightmarish
cruelty set against idealistic dreams. It was exciting
to describe Mithradates’ nomad-style tactics,
his numerous narrow escapes, and ability to slip away
and melt in to the hinterlands.
One of the most thrilling episodes
is Mithradates’ love for his “Amazon”
companion, the nomad horsewoman Hypsicratea. After a
crushing defeat, they escaped in the nick of time and
led Pompey on a wild goose chase. Against all odds,
they crossed the Causasus range in winter and continued
to defy Rome, planning an overland invasion of Italy
over the Alps.
I found it moving to recount
the speeches of the last independent king left standing
against the Roman juggernaut. Eloquent and timeless,
they urge fierce resistance to the rapacious, predatory
Roman Republic, in the last bloody decades before its
MC: What is one moment
from the process of working on this book that you’ll
In spring 2008, I was trying to figure out exactly how
Mithradates managed to elude Pompey, in what is now
the former Soviet Republic of Georgia. Somehow Mithradates
escaped Pompey’s legions blocking the major route
over the Caucasus through a narrow pass, the so-called
Scythian Gates. Poring over maps of this little-known
region, I spotted what looked like potential—but
daunting—back ways to that pass. But I wasn’t
certain they would work for Mithradates and his ragtag
army of 3,000.
I was excited to find photographs
of the Caucasus online. I emailed the photographer in
Tbilisi, Georgia, who turned out to be a mountaineer
familiar with all the trails and passes. Together we
figured out how Mithradates must have sneaked over precipitous
paths to reach the Scythian Gates, right under Pompey’s
nose. But all of a sudden, we lost email contact in
August 2008. The Russians had invaded Georgia with tanks,
bombers, and troops. It was an eerie feeling to know
that modern invaders and refugees were now streaming
over the same mountain trails that Mithradates had traveled
more than two millennia ago.
Some months later, Russian
archaeologists announced their stunning discovery of
Mithradates’ castle in Ukraine, where he made
his last stand. A hoard of silver coins with his portrait
was unearthed, along with an inscription dedicated to
his lover Hypsicratea. It was exciting events like these
that really made his story come alive for me.
MC: Are there any questions
you asked while working on The Poison King
that remain unanswered? What effect does this lingering
uncertainty have on you, or perhaps on the book?
many mysteries swirl around Mithradates’ death.
His body was never identified; the location of his grave
is disputed. What really happened in the stone tower
in the Crimea, where Mithradates’ life ended?
Did he really poison his two little daughters? How did
he die? Was it the poison hidden in his dagger, the
sword of his loyal bodyguard, or the soldiers sent by
his treacherous son? Did he strike a bargain with his
son for safe passage to the steppes? Was it really Mithradates’
corpse found in the tower—or an imposter’s?
What became of his true love, the brave horsewoman of
the steppes? This last question, and the Roman reports
that real Amazons fought as Mithradates’ allies,
led me to envision my next book, about ancient women
Meehan Crist is
reviews editor at The Believer. She holds an
Columbia University, and her work has recently appeared
in publications such
as The Believer and Lapham's Quarterly.
Her nonfiction book, Everything
After, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.