Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor review

Traditionally the West's dominant view of Mithradates came from his Roman enemies, and in recent times there has been virtually no view of the forgotten king. Adrienne Mayor does history a great service by countering that imbalanced knowledge. In The Poison King Mayor strips the skewed Roman accounts to present a story closer to the truth. Her story is supported with alternate contemporary sources and modern archaeology. As a result, the reader views Pontus' royal family and Rome's Mithridatic Wars from the probable perspective of the king. Mithradates' intelligence and personality shine through Adrienne Mayor's text. Her writing is highly engaging, appropriate for such a dynamic character.

Regrettably several descriptions of military equipment were in error. Roman swords were not at all like machetes, as the author described them. Armenian and Parthian Cataphracti were more typically armored in lamellar or scale, not chain mail. As annoying as these mistakes are to someone knowledgeable of ancient arms and armor, they have little bearing on the thrust of this book. Mayor intends to convey the general events of Mithradates' battles and their effects on his life. Although I would love to read a detailed description of his troops' armor, weapons, unit types, training, tactics, etc., this specialized subject is outside the scope of The Poison King.
P.S. For a military account of Mithradates' reign I plan on reading Mithradates The Great, by Philip Matyszak.
P.P.S. And what a brilliant book jacket design! You have to see it in person. I love the shimmering metallic ink, the coin's embossed hair is a great effect, and the overall classical imagery contrasted with modern typography is appealing. The book was a finalist for the National Book Award. That's lovely for the author, but the large ugly seal on the cover is an unfortunate distraction.


Thanos said...

There is always sth you can learn from history. Especially the ancient ages!


Vinnie said...

I have just recently read the book myself and was inspired to raise a Pontic Army from the hoards of pike I have stashed in my gaming room. But enjoyed the book neitherless. Not sure if you know but Sword & Pen books also have just released a book on the same period..also a good read.

Andrew said...

Vinnie, is that the Matyszak book? I'm going to check it out. It would be fun to build a Pontic army for wargaming—so many different unit types! Makes me wish I hadn't sold off my box of Hat 1/72 Macedonian hoplites. I'll just have to buy it again.