Adrienne Mayor was a 2009 National Book Award finalist for her nonfiction book The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy. Mayor, a visiting scholar at Stanford University, has made a career of writing about monsters, myth, and dirty fighting in antiquity. In this interview, she dishes with us on building a page-turning narrative, compares academic research to investigative reporting, and explains why a king who’s been dead for two millennia has more than 800 friends on Facebook.
When did you first hear about Mithradates?
He was in the back of my mind because I was always interested in marginal figures and events in antiquity. But he really came to the fore when I was researching biological and chemical warfare in the ancient world. He was a master of these techniques, and he systematically tried to make himself immune to poison.
The more I found out the more I was drawn to his story. It astounded me that no one had really done a biography on him in a long time.
What other accounts are there?
The magisterial work on Mithradates was written by Théodore Reinach, a French author, in 1890. There was another one done in 1958 called He Died Old, by Alfred Duggan, a historical novelist. It’s a light treatment, but he doesn’t have any documentation.
And of course, Reinach was living in the late Victorian era, so his story is very dated. He’s comparing Mithradates to decadent Ottoman sultans. There are a lot of racial issues. In fact, there are a surprising number of those in Dugan’s account as well.
What made you decide to write a book?
Six years ago, when I was working on Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs, I started a file on Mithradates. That’s when I realized how much material was gathered by his enemies. The Romans get so fascinated by their dread enemy that they just keep collecting information. They fought him for 40 years. I cited more than 30 ancient authors, some very well known, some less so. The info was out there, but it took a lot of research to find it.
You’re an unconventional academic but have managed to become a visiting professor at Stanford, right? How did you bring yourself out of academia and academic language to write a popular nonfiction account?
I’m not a professor—I’m a visiting scholar in the Classics department and the History of Science program, solely on the basis of my scholarship. I don’t have a Ph.D.—a Ph.D. requires a kind of specialization I never wanted to commit to.
Still, it’s a struggle to avoid writing like an academic, because I love research and footnotes. At the same time, I think that’s why my work is respected. I usually pick topics that no one else has worked on, and I work to document my material to make sure my arguments are supported.
While I was hoping to write a book that was accessible and even cinematic, I do admire specialists. I can’t pursue my work without their work. I don’t read Greek or Latin.
You’re a classics scholar with no Greek or Latin?
I have a friend here who has known me for a long time, and she refers to me as a “stealth scholar.” But sometimes I get referred to as a “guerrilla scholar.”
I was really worried about it with the first book, The First Fossil Hunters. I was bold enough to present it to Princeton University Press. At that point, I was really concerned about trespassing on other people’s specialties.
At the time, I really thought of myself as an investigative reporter. I had to do a lot of research before I could even approach people to talk about my ideas. But then I found researchers were thrilled to share information on esoteric topics. They had run across material but weren’t necessarily going to use it. They were happy to talk with someone who might do something constructive with it.
How did you approach the idea of making The Poison King narrative engrossing?
In a biography, chronological structure is usually best, of course—especially since that’s how the Romans thought of Mithradates. Their fascination with his changes in battle strategy, how he responded to losing so many battles to them, and how he began to follow more nomadic tactics.
One of the problems I faced was how could I talk about his patronage of arts and science, and his work on toxicology. He was involved with these things for a long time, but I didn’t want to just have them appear in bits in pieces, tucked in around the battles. Luckily, I realized there was a period of about 10 years where he was at peace, and I could plug the material in that slot.
I made many, many different outlines thinking about how I was going to organize the book. I had a contract with Princeton, and at first, we were talking about 80,000 words. Then I realized I had a lot more story than that. It ended up working out anyway—apparently people tend to want a large, meaty biography, so they asked for more words.
So you plotted a lot ahead of time. Did you make a lot of revisions once you completed your draft?
A huge number of revisions. I had three or four friends read various chapters and tell me when they got bored, and that was very helpful. I did have to prune—I had a lot more material than would be of interest to everyone, and I wanted it to be a page turner.
My friends were worried about me. Here I was getting a crush on this historical figure who did some pretty awful things. But I think you have to fall in love just a little with your subject if you’re going to do a biography. I hoped other people would find him as interesting.
You’ve created a Facebook feed for him.
I started the Facebook personality, because I used to have websites for all of my books on AOL, and then AOL stopped hosting sites. I actually thought this book wasn’t going to sell, because no one had ever heard of Mithradates. But I thought if I could just publicize it a little, maybe it would help introduce him.
Who has more friends—Mithradates or you?
He’s got four times as many as me—more than 800 friends now, from every part of the political spectrum and around the world. It’s amazing, because he has international friends. The publisher of Forbes magazine asked to be his friend. Bush’s speechwriter. It’s amazing. I’ve really been thinking about what Mithradates might mean to them, especially those who asked to be his friend before the book came out.
You mentioned to me that one whole chapter is mostly speculation. Journalism has pretty strict rules about inventing part of the story. What kind of rules did you set for yourself in writing about these less documented points in Mithradates’ life?
Obviously, I had to be really careful and maintained everything within the bounds of possibility. Nothing could be anachronistic or outside the real geography and topology. I think in my introduction, I refer to Sherlock Holmes. You have to “balance the probabilities and choose the most likely.” I tried to signpost whenever I made “scientific use of the imagination to fill in the spaces.” It helped that all historians agree that Mithradates was atypical.
At the end, I do lots of speculation about his last hours, and what happened to his Amazon lover, and whether his body given to the Romans. Virtual history sort of gives some of the rules. I talked with Ian Morris; he likes to use hypotheticals in his work. We discussed it a god deal.
When people are writing historical fiction or novels, they can make anything happen, even create new characters. I couldn’t.
Mithradates was part Persian. He was not exactly a family man. He dabbled in poisons and was inclined toward brutality. Did you worry about exoticizing him or furthering stereotypes?
Well, I wanted to update his story and tell it from his point of view. It’s always recounted from the Roman point of view. Yet the Romans were incredibly brutal and savage. They referred to Mithradates and his allies as barbarians. But from Mithradates’ point of view, the Romans were the barbarians, driven by lust for gold and slaves. That really captured my attention.
But I didn’t worry that I would be typecasting, because I knew I would be telling it more from his perspective, from outside the Roman view of things.
As you were writing it, what did you hope the book would do?
If I possibly could, I wanted to explain some of the stereotypes that have been accepted in the past. Even though he used dubious tactics, he was the alternative to the new Roman Empire. I wanted to point out that he was not fighting or challenging the Roman Empire that most people know, but the last days of the Roman republic. He saw himself as the defender of Greek and Persian civilization, what he saw as the greatest civilizations in history.
I just wanted to revive the story, really—a marvelous story. I thought of trying to keep people’s attention, and I feel I’ve done that. Being a finalist for the National Book Award was astounding to me—I don’t think there’s ever been a book on ancient history as a finalist.
Now that it’s already surpassed your expectations, is there anything else you hope to see come from it?
Not really—though I’d love to see a graphic novel based on his life. I’d get nothing from it, just pure enjoyment.
[See video of Adrienne Mayor reading from The Poison King at the 2009 National Book Awards Finalist Reading.]