The Poisons of Mithridates

(via Wikipedia)

During the reign of Hatshepsut (1479 to 1458 B.C.E.), one of the female Pharaoh’s of Egypt, a series of poisonings happened in Thebes. The queen had signed a peace agreement with Libyans and three scribes died during the ceremony. This was followed by the death of many others, which coincided with the escape of a known poisoner from prison. How Judge Amerotke, the Chief Judge from the Halls of Two Truths, solves the mystery is the story of P. C. Doherty’s excellent historical murder mystery – The Poisoner of Ptah
The author’s note at the end of the book has a section on known poisoners of the ancient world including the the most famous one — Mithridates VI of Pontus — who lived in the first century B.C.E. It is believed that he got his knowledge of poisons and antidotes from India, among other sources.
Mithridates VI who ruled the kingdom of Pontus from 119 to 63 B.C.E, was a contemporary of Julius Caesar, but he troubled Rome to no end. Between 89 B.C.E and 63 B.C.E, three Mithridatic wars were fought between Roman legions and Mithridates VI.
Though he was a brave warrior, Mithridates feared one thing: death by poisoning. So a team of doctors – Scythian shamans – always accompanied him. He also took preventive care by consuming a small amount of poisons with his food to give him immunity. This in fact resembles the plan that Chanakya devised for Chandragupta Maurya.
Even before Chanakya, preventive measures for poisoning was known in India. According to Manusmriti, a king was to eat food mixed with antidotes against poison. The king was also required to wear gems which destroy poison[1]. Both Charaka and Susruta had written about antidotes; one called Mahagandhahasti had sixty ingredients[2].
According to Chanakya  those who are cruel, lazy and devoid of any affection for their relatives shall be recruited as poisoners. These poisoners were to spy on the indoor activities of officials by getting jobs, adopting a disguise or working as entertainers. But poisoners, probably those not working for the state, who harmed others were considered anti-social elements. Such poisoners were to be exiled[3].
Chanakya also wrote about destroying an enemy army using poisons. A spy in the enemy camp, disguised as a wine seller, was allowed to poison the army. Chanakya discusses various strategies for this: first the poisoner was to distribute unadulterated wine, and when the army chiefs were drunk, given poisoned wine. Or cheap food could be sold to the aggressor with poison mixed or women could buy food from a merchant into a vessel which had poison, nag a bit about the high price and put the material back into the merchant’s ware[3].
The king was to eat only freshly cooked food only after physicians and helpers had tested it for poisons. Chanakya gives a list of poisons and various effects and ways by which poisons could be identified in food. To prevent poisoning, entertainers were forbidden from using poisons in their shows. He noted that “a single assassin could achieve with weapons, fire or poison, more than a fully mobilized army.[3]
Mithridates was erudite and read many texts. Also Indian medicine was well known and admired in Rome and it is possible that Mithridates came to know these details from them[2].
During those times people believed that there was a universal antidote — theriac — which could cure all poisons. To find this theriac, Mithridates experimented various concoctions;a painting by Robert Thorn shows Mithridates testing poisons on a prisoner. He finally came up with a mixture of fifty-four antidotes which was named mithridatium. The formula for this antidote was preserved by Pliny the Elder, Galen and Andromachus the Elder, the physician of Nero. Theriac was quite popular during even during the Middle ages till the 19th century, though it was not Mithridatic formula that was being used.
Mithridates’ last day on earth took an ironic turn when he wanted to die by poisoning and failed. Mithridates’ army was defeated by Pompey in 65 B.C.E, but the king escaped with this two daughters to his castle near the Bosphorous. As the Roman soldiers were closing in, he shared a vial of poison with his daughters, who died immediately. But Mithridates, who was conditioned by poison was unaffected. Finally he fell on the sword of one of his bodyguards and committed suicide[3].

  1. Manusmriti translated by G. Buhler
  2. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs by Adrienne Mayor (suggested by P.C. Doherty via e-mail)
  3. Kautilya – The Arthashastra
  4. University of California chronicle By University of California (1868-1952)

6 thoughts on “The Poisons of Mithridates

  1. Hi,
    I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts. Seeing the map and Armenia,I was reminded of the story of an Indian Hindu king who was exiled to Armenia few years before birth of christ. Could you share some details of it possibly in one of your posts?

  2. Srinath, Do you know the name of this king? There is a story of two Indian prices being expelled to Armenia in 149 BC.

  3. I was referring to that story only about the 2 princes not a king. I vaguely remember one of their names to be some Armenian version of Krishna.

  4. “The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy” (Princeton Univ. Press, 2009) by Adrienne Mayor, has in-depth, up-to-date discussions of Mithradates’ influences, experiments, and the scientific principles underlying his “universal antidote”
    Available for pre-order on

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.