“In spring of 88 BC, in dozens of cities across Anatolia (Asia Minor, modern Turkey), sworn enemies of Rome joined a secret plot. On an appointed day in one month’s time, they vowed to kill every Roman man, woman, and child in their territories.
“The conspiracy was masterminded by King Mithradates the Great, who communicated secretly with numerous local leaders in Rome’s new Province of Asia. (“Asia” at this time referred to lands from the eastern Aegean to India; Rome’s Province of Asia encompassed western Turkey.) How Mithradates kept the plot secret remains one of the great intelligence mysteries of antiquity. The conspirators promised to round up and slay all the Romans and Italians living in their towns, including women and children and slaves of Italian descent. They agreed to confiscate the Romans’ property and throw the bodies out to the dogs and crows. Anyone who tried to warn or protect Romans or bury their bodies was to be harshly punished. Slaves who spoke languages other than Latin would be spared, and those who joined in the killing of their masters would be rewarded. People who murdered Roman moneylenders would have their debts canceled. Bounties were offered to informers and killers of Romans in hiding.
“The deadly plot worked perfectly. According to several ancient historians, at least 80,000 — perhaps as many as 150,000 — Roman and Italian residents of Anatolia and Aegean islands were massacred on that day. The figures are shocking — perhaps exaggerated — but not unrealistic. Exact population figures for the first century BC are not known. But great numbers of Italian merchants and new Roman citizens had swarmed to recently conquered lands as Rome expanded its empire in the late Republic . . . Ancient statistics often represent guesswork or exaggeration. Even if the lower death toll of 80,000 was inflated, as some scholars believe, and if we reduce the count of the dead by half, the slaughter of unsuspecting innocents was staggering. The extent of the massacre is not in doubt: modern historians agree with the ancient sources that virtually all Roman and Italian residents of Provincia Asia were wiped out.”
Adrienne Mayor’s tale of Mithridates, enemy of ancient Rome, The Poison King was one of five nonfiction finalists for this year’s National Book Award.
You’ll find a brief overview of The Poison King at the National Book Foundation site, along with a couple of related links, and a somewhat quirky review of the book in the Washington Post article The Potentate of Potions.
For more information on the last decade of National Book Awards, check here.