Spotlight on…Ancient Times

The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor

The Poison King
by Adrienne Mayor

The ancient world presents formidable challenges for any biographer. In contrast to the wealth of documentation surrounding the careers of modern statesmen and thinkers, we often have only the most fragmentary information about their counterparts in the ancient world. The main sources are often writers who put pen to parchment decades or even centuries later. Our only knowledge of the words of Pericles come from three speeches recorded by Thucydides in his history of the Peloponnesian War, but Thucydides was working from memory, and it is often suggested that he sought to present Pericles’ oratory in a suitably heroic register rather than give a verbatim account. Despite the obstacles, an enduring fascination with ancient Greece and Rome has led many biographers to take up the challenge of putting a convincing picture together from the handful of pieces available.

Vincent Azoulay’s Pericles of Athens is a comprehensive reassessment of the life and influence of perhaps the greatest leader of the city-state that was the birthplace of democracy. Despite his success in steering the Athenians through two wars with Sparta, their rival for domination of the Greek world, even in his own time Pericles was a controversial figure. As leader of the Democratic faction in the Athenian assembly, Pericles pursued a policy of limiting the power of the elites and opening up public office to poorer sections of the citizenry. He has been accused of sowing the seed of the decline of Athenian democracy into populist demagogy and corruption, while others praise him for giving the state the broad base which allowed it to survive for another century after his death.

Aristotle. the leading philosopher of his age, left a substantial written legacy extending to nearly fifty volumes. Yet what survives is only a fraction of his work (perhaps as much as a third) and may largely derive from the notes of Aristotle’s students on his lectures. In Aristotle: His Life and School, Carlo Natali weighs up the often contradictory sources to give an account of a remarkable life that took Aristotle from his studies under Plato at the Academy to the court of Philip of Macedon where he was tutor to the young Alexander the Great.

Born in 120BC, two centuries after the death of Aristotle, Mithradates VI of Pontus was one of the most dangerous military opponents that the Roman Republic faced. In the course of three wars against Rome he expanded his Black Sea kingdom across modern Turkey to the Greek archipelago, before a Rome riven by faction and civil war ultimately defeated him through the brilliant generalship of Pompey. Adrienne Mayor’s gripping biography of Mithradates, The Poison King, takes its name from a practice that has become legendary. Having attained the throne of Pontus on the murder of his father through poisoning, Mithradates later built an immunity by consuming small doses of every known poison, and survived his own attempted assassination because of it.

“And now, my beauties, something with poison in it.” Cleopatra takes her cue from Mithradates?

Poppies will get them for sure.  At least one famous femme fatale (read: not Dorothy Gale from Kansas) probably succumbed to a lethal dose of opium and not the oft-mythologized serpent of legend.   According to Adrienne Mayor, author of National Book Award Nominee THE POISON KING, Cleopatra ingested poison before drawing her last breath.  New discussion over the Egyptian queen’s demise has stirred up some startling links to other great mixologists in history.  Whether there really was an asp involve remains to be seen but Cleopatra almost certainly took a page out of the Mithradates guide to toxins and most likely downed a potent potable on her way to eternal sleep.

Check out this Discovery News piece where PUP’s very own Mayor weighs in on the cocktail v. snake debate!  So what do you think happened?