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

3.85  ·  Rating Details  ·  1,008 Ratings  ·  151 Reviews
Machiavelli praised his military genius. European royalty sought out his secret elixir against poison. His life inspired Mozart's first opera, while for centuries poets and playwrights recited bloody, romantic tales of his victories, defeats, intrigues, concubines, and mysterious death. But until now no modern historian has recounted the full story of Mithradates, the ruth ...more
Paperback, 448 pages
Published March 27th 2011 by Princeton University Press (first published January 1st 2009)
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Jun 26, 2016 Darwin8u rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2013
"I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old."

- A. E Housman, Terence, 'This is Stupid Stuff'


A fascinating piece of Persian/Roman/Asia Minor history. Mithradates makes almost every other challenger to the status quo seem inept, uncreative and not really committed. He isn't a king or leader you can completely admire. His methods for removing Romans from Asia Minor were not even remotely reasonable (Kill them all and let Zeus sort them out wasn't reasonable even in 88 BC). However,
Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: ancient-history
Of all historic topics, ancient history holds my interest the least. The things I know about the ancient world could fit comfortably in the chest pocket of a pair of overalls. They also fit comfortably in my head, along with all the other neat stuff I got going on in there.

Most of what I know about Rome I learned from the movies. Thanks to Stanley Kubrick, I know that Kirk Douglas led a slave revolt that nearly toppled Laurence Olivier. But he was crucified along with all his men, and only Jean
When Adrienne Mayor remains within the limits of her sources (both literary and archaeological), The Poison King is a solid, readable biography of a now little-known figure of the Ancient world. Unfortunately, she allows herself some wild flights of fancy better suited for a historical novel and neglects any serious analysis of the reign of Mithradates VI of Pontus, the last serious foe of Roman hegemony in what would become the eastern half of the empire.

And it is a fascinating story without ne
Very complete, detailed and readable biography of Mithradates, King of Pontus, during the time of the Roman Republic. The book covers from his boyhood until his death in his 70s, still a fighter till the last. Raised among court intrigue: 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], ...more
Dec 17, 2014 Kyle rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
There are very few books on Mithridates, and even fewer dedicated biograpies; in fact, The Poison King is the only one written in over a century, which was part of the reason I was so excited to read it. Unfortunately, the book failed to contribute too much more to the literature of the ancient Near-East; this might not have disappointed me too much, except for the length of the book, which was not brimming with unique historical insights but instead brimming with Adrienne Mayor's Mithradates fa ...more
Rebecca Huston
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. Four stars overall.

Aug 27, 2016 Ed rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: classics
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 ...more
May 25, 2011 Matt rated it liked it
Shelves: history-ancient
"Beavers abound in Armenia's lakes and streams - perhaps their testicles contributed to Mithradates' celebrated vigor."

There is something about that quote that sums up the Poison King for me and emblematic of the my feelings towards the book. 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. Her answer: milita
Thomas T
Jun 04, 2014 Thomas T rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
What is this book? its not a history book, its not a fiction book its some sort of speculative mishmash of the both, i actually became quite irritated by the "lets imagine what could have happened" "this probably happened" "some think this was what happened" "Mithridates probably did this" my god it was like reading the ramblings of a 5 year old making it up as they go-along,

The book just keeps rehashing the same crap over and over, Mithridates was the scourge of Rome, the new Hannibal, a proud
Andrew Brozyna
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. In The Poison King Mayor strips the skewed Roman accounts to present a story closer to the truth. 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 ...more
Sep 17, 2012 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
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 ...more
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. 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
Jan 31, 2013 Louise rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Sep 05, 2011 Shannon rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: audio, history
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 ...more
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. "We can imagine," or "I think." Nope, if you are writing a history book, a biography, stick with the facts. You can interpret them in various ways if you like, but not using flights of fancy.
Jan 16, 2015 Paul rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Mar 23, 2014 Drakaina rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: general readership, ancient history fans
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.

A very good recreation of the famous king and his life-long struggle against Rome; indomitable in spirit but a mediocre general, Mithridates long reign was due as much to Rome's internal troubles as to his skill and the book only partially reflects that since in pretty much any direct encounter the roman legions trounced the mithridatic armies only for the king to wiggle free due to the internal struggles of the Republic; still a good account of the poison king, though the deadliest enemy is an ...more
Bart Boge
Aug 18, 2016 Bart Boge rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I stumbled upon this book while doing research for a novel I am writing. My story involves a scene in which a city has its main cistern poisoned by Romans during a siege. As I was studying poisons of the ancient world (my story is set in First Century BCE Pontus), I saw a book on the subject, Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs: Biological & Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World, by Stanford research professor Adrienne Mayor. I noted that she had also written a biography on Mithrad ...more
Katy Wood
Oct 03, 2015 Katy Wood rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Katy by: DMNS Museum Curator
I picked this one up because my local museum is having an exhibit on Poisons and they’re having the author come in to do a lecture, and damn am I glad I picked it up. The book was an incredibly fascinating look into a major part of history that was, surprise surprise, never even mentioned during my time in school. It is a comprehensive biography of King Mithradates of Pontus who waged war against the Roman Empire for most of his life and established a huge empire encompassing the Black Sea. It b ...more
Apr 22, 2015 Cody rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Connie Mckissack
It is often difficult to understand contemporary world conflicts and how easily humans flock to warfare. This volume brings home the reality that ultimately we haven't changed much and the violent ways in which men, and even women, fought face first in some of the ugliest battles that ever occurred, reminds me of it. Mithradates lived a long, colorful, and very fruitful life even though he murdered some of his own family - or had them murdered. He was calculated and practically undefeatable as h ...more
Sep 15, 2015 David rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
An earlier review gave this book two stars, partly because of the large amounts of speculation behind many parts of the text. I also found some of the speculation extremely annoying, especially in the chapter dedicated to Mithradates' youthful years abroad. For that chapter, although I appreciated the description of the landscape, tribes, and towns that Mithradates might have visited during this time, I disliked the attempts to portray in detail what Mithradates himself might have done or learne ...more
Matthew Jobin
May 12, 2014 Matthew Jobin rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite its length and erudition, this book is worth reading if just to see the gold old Romans from the outside. The author makes a good case for the Greco-Persian-Anatolian Hellenistic kingdoms of which Mithridates was just one able ruler saw Rome as a rapacious, greedy, expansionistic bunch of thugs bent on destroying civilization and enslaving the peoples of western Asia. Mithridates himself, as she points out, is on of the most fascinatingly contradictory people in history—kind and cruel by ...more
A king born amidst myth and legend, prophesied as a saviour, born under an Eastern star, destined to make war on the mightiest empire the world had known. No, not Jesus, he came later. First there was Mithradates, born in what we now know as Turkey, king of Pontus and Anatolia, and one of the Roman Republic's most formidable opponents - hailed alongside Spartacus and Hannibal as one of the greatest threats to Rome's existence. He claimed descent from Darius the Great of Persia and Alexander the ...more
K.A.M. Boham
This is an excellent book for those interested in this period of history. I've read other books that have been written from the Roman point of view and, as this one is written from Mithradates' viewpoint, I liked being able to read another perspective.

I give this three stars because Ms. Mayor jumps through time periods a great deal and it's distracting. For example; one of Mithradates' prize possessions was (supposedly) the cloak of Alexander the Great. Ms. Mayor begins to list other important
Mar 21, 2016 djcb rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall, I liked the subject matter - a book dedicated to Mithradates, one of the big foes of the Romans during the final days of the republic. He's famous for becoming quite resistant to poisons, by accustoming himself to small dosages each day, as well as being somewhat of a second Hannibal, this time from Asia Minor and sans the invading Italy part. Mithradates is often mentioned (and in some detail) in books about the Roman side around this time, so it's nice to see a book dedicated to just ...more
Thomas Jr.
Jun 25, 2014 Thomas Jr. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an amazing story of an amazing man. I can't really say that he was a good man since he killed many people but a fascinating enemy of Rome.

This poem by Housman sums up the man quiet well.

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.

He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;

And easy, smiling, s
Paul Brent
Aug 31, 2015 Paul Brent rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
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“The rebels issued coins showing the Italian Bull goring the Roman Wolf. Archaeologists have also discovered gold Italian coins similar to Mithradates’ Pontic coins, showing Dionysus, an allusion to Mithradates’ nickname and a symbol of rebellion against Rome.17” 0 likes
“Mithradates began minting beautiful silver tetradrachms with his portrait in Pergamon, and the city of Smyrna also stamped bronze coins with his likeness. Other cities, including Ephesus, Miletus, Tralles, and Erythrae, issued new gold staters to trumpet their independence from Rome.19” 0 likes
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