About Mithradates the Great of Pontus

 

Mithradates, “Gift of Mithra”, even more so than his forefather Alexander the Great, strove to fulfill Plato’s idea of the enlightened ruler, the “philosopher king”. Combining in himself the mystical traditions of ancient Greece and Persia and all the East, his Black Sea kingdom was fiercely opposed to the growing shadow of Roman conquest.

His wars against the late Republic threatened its very existence, and influenced its desperate political shift from Republican rule toward Empire. These were the days of civil war in Rome. Sulla, Pompey, and Caesar led armies against Mithridates; Spartacus and the Senator Sertorius were among his allies. Ingenious in victory, inspired even in defeat and exile, he was a complex and tragic figure on the world stage.

Monumental events took place during his wars: scenes of his battles are among the most marvelous of history. Comets and meteors fell around him throughout his life: at his birth and coronation, and even in the middle of one of his battles with the legions in the plains of Cappadocia. For this alone, legends grew around him even in his lifetime. Greeks and Persians, enemies for centuries, joined around his figure in hope that he was the divine savior-king, promised by Zoroastrian prophecies, to deliver their lands and ancient cultures from the brutal enslavement of Rome.

 

Mithridates is most famous for his experiments with antidotes against poison. His pharmacological texts were the most precious of all the tremendous treasures Rome captured from his defeat in Asia Minor. They were studied by the best Roman minds, but at some point in antiquity were lost. Speculation on their nature filled the annals of alchemical and magical lore in the Middle Ages.

Although Mithridates the Great is less known today, his name and legend have persisted in literature, on stage and in opera. The story of his life is compelling told in The Poison King by historian Adrienne Mayor.

My purpose is telling his story is a bit different.

 

The Academy of Athens, the philosophical school founded by Plato and Aristotle, was already a venerable institution when it was destroyed during Sulla’s sack of Athens, during the First Mithridatic War. Among its refugees was Antiochus of Ascalon. This Antiochus became the teacher and advisor of Sulla’s successor, Lucullus, who chased Mithidates throughout Asia Minor at the close of the Mithridatic Wars.

It was an age when men believed in the divine. The Romans and all peoples of their age were inherently religious, even superstitious. Skepticism was new and radical, the thought of a small group of philosophers.

Yet even the Skeptics believed in the gods. What they were skeptical about was man’s ability to know truth.

Antiochus rejected the absolute skepticism toward knowledge of truth that became the intellectual fashion of Cicero and Roman thinkers of his time. Antiochus’ thought was closer to the moral idealism of the Stoics. Man as a noble creature, acting in harmony with the will of the gods, could in fact become illumined by divine truth.

This, Antiochus believed, was closer to the original thought of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, than was the more radical interpretation of the Skeptics.

If we could imagine man as a naturally religious being, would his anxieties differ substantially from the angst of our own age? What are the gods, and what is the meaning of man’s life? These were questions that humanity desired to answer.

What hopes would men would turn toward a savior-king, prophesied in so many ancient mythologies? Is it possible that man could be a god, at least in part, like so many heroes of old? There were times when it seemed to the folk of his time, the first century before Christ, that Mithridates the Great might indeed be such a one.

Would not this give a deeper meaning to the sense of tragedy in human disappointment and failure? This makes a story that has not been told, I think.

It was when Pompey the Great defeated him at last, and he saw for himself the corpse of this god-man, that he turned south toward Syria. It was then that Rome first sacked Jerusalem. Pompey himself entered the Holy of Holies. Whatever he saw or experienced there induced him not to destroy the Temple, but to leave it alone.

 

“The Gift of the Gods” is written in an experimental narrative style, combining epic prose with vignettes in dramatic verse. The latter are modeled on the stark beauty of Greek dramatic masterpieces – simple lines in simple language translucent with theological depth. Divine hope, the yearning and despair of Greek idealism juxtaposed to the savagery of world war, portray the human condition in the age before Christ.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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