Archive for June 17th, 2010

Plaudits for Nietzsche, Mithradates, Yalom & Mayor

Thursday, June 17th, 2010
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Marilyn Yalom writes to say Irv Yalom’s When Nietzsche Wept just won the “Saint-Maur en Poche” prize administered by l’Académie Française for the best paperback of the year.  Nice touch:  The award came on June 13, psychiatrist Irv Yalom’s birthday.  Article in Le Point here.  The book was the toast of Vienna last year — we wrote about it here and here.

Adrienne Mayor’s acclaimed The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, was a finalist for the National Book Award last fall.  Now it’s received the Independent Publisher Book Awards (IPPY Awards) — a gold medal for biography.  The book was also one of The Washington Post critics’ Holiday Guide’s “Best Books of 2009.”

Her subject is a fascinating one:  Mithradates VI (134-63 BC), an historical figure most of us know shockingly little about — and won’t learn much about from the few scattered reviews that have appeared.

He claimed Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia as ancestors.  He inherited a wealthy Black Sea kingdom at 14, after his mother poisoned his father. His mother favored his kid brother — hence, the ruler-to-be fled into exile and returned in triumph to become a leader of daunting intelligence (according to Pliny the Elder, he spoke the 22 languages of the nations he ruled) and relentless ambition.

He was one of the few foreign leaders genuinely feared by Rome.  After massacring 80,000 Roman citizens in 88 BC, he seized Greece and Anatolia. He fought  some of the most spectacular battles in ancient history with Rome’s foremost generals, before he was finally defeated by Pompey the Great.  He was the original Comeback Kid: his uncanny knack for eluding capture and bouncing back after devastating losses rattled the Romans.  And he was a chip off the old block:  he knew his poisons, which allowed him to thwart assassination attempts and snuff his rivals — a group of Scythian shamans were constantly by his side to  advise about poisons.  (Perhaps his best protection was that he kept his mother and brother under lock and key.)

Like Cleopatra VII, one of the most calumnied figures in history, Mithradates the Great seems to have had as his life’s aim the consolidation and continuance of his substantial kingdom in the face of a devouring Empire to the West.  Cleopatra lost Egypt —  rather than relaunching the Ptolemies, the Greek ruler became the last of the pharoahs forever.  Egypt became a Roman province after her suicide … or perhaps murder.  And Mithradates?

He too committed suicide, but he had a hard time of it.  Thanks to systematically building his immunity, he survived his attempt at self-poisoning, and appealed to his bodyguard to kill him by the sword.

I like this story the best: At night, Mithadates’s most reliable bodyguards were a horse, a bull, and a stag, which would whinny, bellow, and bleat whenever anyone approached the royal bed.  I wouldn’t have liked to clean up that bedroom — or try to get much sleep in it.