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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a legendary cure-all; an antidote to all poisons and venoms

A handful of words for panaceas and cure-alls have popped up on HH over the years, including the panchreston and the purgative diacatholicon. But of all these legendary all-healing medicines, the one with perhaps the most extraordinary story behind it is the mithridatium.

That might look like the name of some legendary chemical element, but it’s actually an eponym (a word derived from a person’s name) honouring the ancient king, Mithridates VI.

Mithridates was a king of Pontus, a northern region of Anatolia (on the Black Sea coast of Turkey) in the first century BC. Being king back then was a risking business, and his father Mithridates V was assassinated in 120 BC by consuming poisoned food at a lavish banquet given in his honour at Sinope. The king’s sudden death prematurely passed control of his kingdom over to his two young sons, Mithridates and his brother Mithridates Chrestus. Both were too young to rule at the time, so their mother took control as their regent, becoming Queen Laodice VI.

Laodice, however, had a favourite among her two sons: Chrestus was the apple of her eye, and she wanted him to rule solo, without the need to share neither his kingdom nor his powers with his brother. While queen, she arranged several plots against Mithridates, and in an attempt to engineer her other son’s sole path to the throne. Realising what his mother was trying to achieve, Mithridates fled the palace as soon as he was old enough, and went into hiding in the Pontic wilderness.

After some years in exile, in 113BC Mithridates summoned the courage to return to Pontus and claim his kingdom. By now a strapping and powerful young man, he was instantly hailed as a king on his return, was restored to the throne, and had his mother and brother imprisoned for their attempts upon his life. Laodice later died in prison, while Chrestus is said to have been executed for treason, leaving Mithridates to rule his kingdom unchallenged.

But his family’s plots against him—and the murder of his father several years earlier—had made Mithridates wary of further attempts on his life. Fearing that he too may be poisoned just as his father was, he began a long process of gradually administering himself incrementally-larger doses of all the poisons, toxins and venoms he could find, in the hopes of slowly building up his immunity against them (a process still known as mithridatism). But assuming that he was now invulnerable to all threats transformed the young king from a returning hero to a belligerent and power-drunk despot—and in 88BC, he launched a brutal and ultimately flawed campaign that thrust his kingdom into war against the entire Roman Empire.

Mithridates saw fit to annex the neighbouring Roman-controlled territory of Asia (corresponding to much of the west and northwest of Turkey today), and ordered the Roman population living there to be massacred—an event known as the Asiatic Vespers. This genocidal annexation proved a cassus belli to the Romans, and sparked a bitter and long-lasting series of conflicts that became known as the three Mithridatic Wars.

For the next 25 years the kingdom of Pontus fought a war with Rome, with each side narrowly and alternately defeating one another other in a prolonged chain of exhausting battles. Finally, the Third Mithridatic War proved the decider. Sometime around 69 BC, Mithridates led his forces east into the neighbouring Armenian Empire (at the time under the leadership of his father-in-law, Tigranes II) in an attempt to see off yet another threat from Rome. The ensuring battle proved a failure, and when the Armenian Empire collapsed and was adopted into the Roman Empire, both Mithridates and the kingdom of Pontus itself lost a crucial neighbour and ally.

Now facing capture and imprisonment—which would secure Rome’s takeover of his kingdom by default—Mithridates fled into the Armenian countryside with one of his guards, Bituitus. Knowing that if the Romans found him alive his kingdom would fall, Mithridates reportedly attempted to poison himself, to no avail. Instead, he was forced to demand Bituitus stab him to death. In attempting to ensure he could not be killed by poison, Mithridates had apparently guaranteed himself a bloody and violent death instead.

As eventful as Mithridates’ life was, it is his (apparently successful) attempt to ensure his invulnerability from all poisons that has led to his name living on in our language. Not only is the process of gradual invulnerability by exposure to harmful elements known as mithridatism, but a mithridatium or mithridaticon is a cure-all, effective against all poisons, toxins, venoms and similar compounds. Both those words first appeared in the English language in the 1500s, thanks to Latin and Greek tales from antiquity passing the legendary story of Mithridates of Pontus on down the centuries.

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