A Mithradatum


They put arsenic in his meat 
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared, as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
–I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates*, he died old.
~A. E. Housman

In what might have been the first recorded account of biological warfare, the Roman army of Pompey the Great succumbed to intentional poisoning due to ingestion of “mad honey” – wild honey contaminated with grayanotoxin, a toxic substance found in the pollen and nectar of some rhododendron species. The sinister sweet, hidden in honeycombs placed along the soldiers’ route, produced a sudden drop in blood pressure, slowed heart rate, and impaired vision in those who ate. So weakened, the Romans were easy prey.

The perpetrator of the crime was Mithradates VI, king of Pontus on the Black Sea – now present-day Turkey – from 119 to 63 BC. Mithradates was a brilliant ruler, warrior, orator, and, by some accounts, a psychopath. Better known as “The Poison King,” Mithradates was also a phytochemist – a student of the chemical and medicinal properties of plants – and an early visionary in the field of clinical toxicology. Unfortunately, the concept of research ethics had not yet reached Pontus, and many a death row prisoner died in the name of scientific exploration, involuntary subjects in Mithradates’ laboratory.

Mithradates lived in constant fear of poisoning by his enemies. In a brilliant preemptive measure, the king concocted a special potion – now referred to as a mithradatum – of nearly three-dozen edible plants mixed with honey that would inure him to toxic harm. He took an almond-sized portion of the mithradatum daily, with a little wine. According to legend, Mithradates’ shrewd precautionary measures were so successful that when he attempted suicide by poisoning, no toxin was equal to the task. The last line of an A. E. Housman poem describes the outcome: “I tell the tale that I heard told. Mithridates, he died old.”

The upshot suggests that Mithradates had found the ultimate antidote: the inherent value of fighting poison with poison. Modern chemical analysis and medical practice have since confirmed the therapeutic, preventive effects of many of the compounds in Mithradates’ self-prescribed remedy.

Much of Mithradates’ tale is the stuff of legends and poetry. His mithradatum – his daily challenge to his body’s defense mechanisms – fulfilled the Nietzschean philosophy that suggests what doesn’t kill you really can make you stronger.

This blog is a mithradatum. An antidote. A challenge to your brain to read and learn about the world of science that is in, on, and around us. If science is presented poorly, boringly, or inaccurately, we run the risk of being poisoned by the piles of non-scientific discussion that surround us. Let’s engage in a discussion of the amazing, scary, thrilling, wacky, bizarre, logical, paradoxical world of science.

*Pronounced “mith-ruh-DAY-teez,” two spellings of the king’s name appear in ancient writings: Mithridates (Greek) and Mithradates (Roman).