Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Mithridates - the ancient Doctor Evil




Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero and Cleopatra get just about all the glory when it comes to acknowledging the great minds of the 1st-century BC. But there was at least one other chap who deserves an  honourable mention, even though he slots into the stereotypical role as that century's 'evil genius'. His name was Mithridates the Sixth, the last king of Pontus. Born in 134BC, he claimed to be a direct descendant of the Persian king Darius I as well as some of Alexander the Great's generals. In 113BC he did the normal kinds of things most eastern potentates made when coming to power - like murdering his siblings, his mother and anyone else who might have tried to claim his throne. After this he settled down to various conquests around the rim of the Black Sea and Greece which eventually brought him into the line of fire of Rome. Once this happened he would spend the last thirty years of his life trying to bring down the Roman Republic - through the kind of direct and indirect methods that would make Dr No and Professor Moriarty proud.

But enough of the humdrum...what made this guy such a stand out in intellect?

Well, for starters, Pliny claims Mithridates could speak twenty-two languages (that's right, 22), a record our Roman historian believed unequalled. Through-out his 56-year reign, it is said that Mithridates never once used an interpreter. So the guy was a linguist, what else? For one thing, he was very interested in chemistry - poisons in particular - since he considered this the most likely method for his ultimate doom. Self-guided he began drinking small doses of various poisons to increase his resistance, but he also set out to find as many antidotes as he could - in fact, he was a pioneer in this field. He continued research into more mundane medicines as well, gathering a vast collection of chemicals and medicinal specimens from across the known world, a collection so large that when it was captured by Pompey it became an important resource for Roman pharmacists.

Mithridates VI - 134BC-63BC,
you've got to dig those sideburns

So how did it all end for Mithridates? Well, with Pompey's invading army close at hand, he decided to poison himself so as to avoid being paraded in a Roman Triumph. Unfortunately, his anti-poison regime worked a treat and he remained unaffected by the same draught that had quickly killed his wife and youngest daughters. Depending on which story you believe he died by a sword blow he had ordered from his body-guard, or by the first Roman soldiers to get to him. For more about Mithridates, read 'The Hitherto Unknown' - available from Amazon now, just follow the links