King Mithridates and Poisoning

Mirthradates VI
            Mithridates VI, Louvre Museum

MithrIdates VI (reigned c. 120-63 BC), called Mithridates the Great, was one of the richest rulers and strongest foes of the Romans in the late Republic. From 88-63 BC four Roman generals, Sulla, Lucinius, Lucullus and Pompey, were sent against him.  After 25 years of war, Pompey finally defeated Mithridates and threatened to take him to Rome as the prime trophy in his triumphal parade:

Pompey The Great
                                       Pompey the Great, c. 50 BC
Mithridates shaking hands with Hercules
Mithridates shaking hands with Hercules

“Mithridates tried to make away with himself and after first removing his wives and remaining children by poison, he swallowed all that was left; yet neither by that means nor by the sword was he able to perish by his own hands. For the poison, although deadly, did not prevail over him since he had inured his constitution to it, taking precautionary antidotes in large doses every day; and the force of blow from his sword was lessened on account of the weakness of his hand caused by his age (71) and present misfortunes, and as a result of taking the poison….When therefore he failed to take his own life through his own efforts and seemed to linger beyond the proper time, those whom he had sent against his son fell upon him and hastened his end with their swords and spears. Thus Mithridates, who had experienced the most varied and remarkable fortune, had not even an ordinary end to his life. For he desired to die, albeit unwillingly, and though eager to kill himself was unable to do so; but partly by poison and partly by the sword he was at once self-slain and murdered by his foes.” Cassius Dio, Roman History 37.13

No doubt the prime reason Mithridates took regular antidotes against poisoning is because his mother, Laodice VI, had poisoned his father. His mother preferred his younger brother, so Mithridates went into hiding after his father’s death. He finally came forward, claimed the throne and threw his mother and brother into prison. But he could never be sure she did not have palace sympathizers who were trying to poison him.

French pharmacy jar, c. 1725-1775
       French pharmacy jar, c. 1725-1775
Illustration from the Tacuinum Sanitatis
          Illustration from the Tacuinum Sanitatis

For almost 2,000 years after his death, a potion called Antidotum Mithridaticum, later called Theriac, was used as a panacea for serious ailments. It contained up to 60 ingredients and was guaranteed to cause immunity to most diseases. Galen (129-c.200 AD), the Greek physician, wrote a book entitled Therike and his patient Emperor Marcus Aurelius took it daily. In the Middle Ages there were shops that made and sold Theriac. Even after the age of Enlightenment, people believed in the principle of ingesting poison to combat diseases.

The first person in history who actually took Mithridates’ principle to a useful place was Edward Jenner (1749-1823), a  devout Christian. As a young medical student, he had noticed that milkmaids who tended cows who had cowpox did not get cowpox. He took fluid from a cowpox blister and scratched it into the skin of an 8-year-old boy named James Phipps. A blister arose, formed a scab and Phipps suffered no after effects. About six weeks later on May 14, 1796, Jenner injected fluid from small pox blisters into the boy. No disease occurred.

This was world-shattering. Jenner had developed the first vaccine. Since then, scientists and doctors have followed Jenner’s principle and have developed vaccines for polio, measles, typhoid fever and other diseases.

Edward Jenner
                                                                       Edward Jenner, 1749 – 1823

Mithridates’ daily dose of poison worked on the same principle as our modern vaccines. To combat smallpox, inject some smallpox virus and the body will produce anti-bodies that cause immunity to smallpox. The Asian King Mithridates’ daily dose of poison to ward off death by poisoning worked—and still works.

“I am not surprised that men are thankful to me; but I wonder if they be grateful to God for the good which He has made me the instrument of conveying to my fellow-creatures.” Edward Jenner—Article by Sandra Sweeny Silver