THE STAR appeared in the East, so brilliant that it seemed to rival the sun and set the night sky aflame. The luminous tail curved across a quarter of the heavens, as long as the Milky Way. The year was 135 BC.
Across Anatolia, and from the Caucasus to Persia, the comet was greeted with rejoicing. According to well-known prophecies, a bright new light in the sky would announce the coming of a savior-king, a messiah or great leader who would triumph over enemies. Four generations later, another marvelous star in the East would lead the Magi to the little town of Bethlehem to honor the humble birth of another savior. But before the Star of Bethlehem there was the Star of Sinope. The comet of 135 BC coincided with the birth of Mithradates VI Eupator Dionysus, in Sinope, capital of Pontus on the Black Sea.
The infant’s family name, Mithradates (Old Persian Mithradatha, “sent by Mithra”), commemorated the ancient Iranian (Persian) god of Sun, Light, and Truth. In ancient Persian traditions, a great fire or light from the heavens had accompanied Mithra’s birth. According to the Roman historian Justin, two heavenly portents foretold the future greatness of the newborn prince of Pontus. “In the year that Mithradates was begotten, and again when he first began to rule, comets blazed forth with such splendor that the whole sky seemed to be on fire.”1
Justin’s account of the two comets was based on a now-lost history by Pompeius Trogus. Trogus drew on eyewitness reports of his uncle, a cavalry officer from the Vocontian tribe of Gaul who fought in the Mithradatic Wars. The ancient sources for the life of Mithradates are fragmentary. Except for some of the king’s speeches, remarks, inscriptions, and correspondence, what survives of Mithradates’ story was written from the standpoint of imperial Rome, the ultimate victor after his death in 63 BC.
Much of the legendary and popular lore surrounding Mithradates’ birth and early years was subject to ancient spin and counterspin. But contemporary and later Greek and Roman authors preserved what was known about Mithradates’ life and described the historical events before, during, and after his long reign. If we combine what has come down to us from antiquity with what is known about royal Persian, Anatolian, and Macedonian-Greek customs in the Hellenistic age—the era after the conquests of Alexander the Great—we can piece together a realistic picture of Mithradates’ birth, childhood, education, and early reign. And we can try to understand his appeal to followers.
Were the comets simply grandiose propaganda, invented by Mithradates’ supporters after the great king’s death? Were they just another fantastic tale “concocted in antiquity to add luster to Mithradates’ reputation”? This has been the generally accepted opinion of modern historians. The view was first advanced in 1890 by Théodore Reinach, the great authority on the king of Pontus, who was unaware that European astronomers had recognized the reality of the two comets as early as 1783. Most classical historians continue to view the story of the comets as a politically motivated “myth” based on ancient Iranian (Persian) legends. To learn the truth, we need to look beyond classical scholarship.2
In fact, the comets were not simply a fiction created to glorify the memory of Mithradates. Two spectacular comets really did appear exactly as described by Justin. Proof comes from the other side of the world. In China, royal astronomers of the Han dynasty observed this same pair of distinctive comets. Archaeologists have discovered their remarkably detailed astronomical records and drawings on ancient silk manuscripts in Han tombs.
The Han records reported that two extremely rare “war banner”–type stars appeared for about two months in late summer and fall of 135 BC and again in 119 BC. Trailing fiery tails like battle pennants, the pair of comets caused great excitement in China. According to the Han soothsayers, “war banner” comets predicted massacres, terrible wars, and the rise of a great conqueror. The Chinese astronomers’ descriptions and diagrams match the unique features of the comets described by Justin. Extraordinarily brilliant, with very long, curving dust tails filling much of the sky, each comet took four hours to rise and set, and was visible for seventy days.3
John T. Ramsey, a historian who studies ancient observations of celestial events, recently reexamined these independent Chinese observations of the comets to determine the years of Mithradates’ birth and the beginning of his reign. Ancient Greek and Latin sources are inconsistent about the chronology of this period; the only secure date is the year of Mithradates’ death in 63 BC. Ramsey’s comparison of the Roman and Chinese astronomical details indicates that Mithradates was probably born in the spring of 134 BC (conceived in summer or autumn of 135) and was crowned king in about 119, when he was fourteen or fifteen. At least two Roman sources agree with the birthdate of 135/134.4
The comets also solve a numismatic mystery. A series of tiny, small-denomination coins was issued in the early years of Mithradates’ reign. These little bronze “pennies,” with a star and the winged horse Pegasus on one side and a comet on the other, circulated in outlying territories of Mithradates’ kingdom. They were intended for ordinary people around the eastern Black Sea—Colchis (modern Republic of Georgia) and Crimea (Ukraine)—who would use them to buy food and other necessities.
The comet on these coins puzzled classical numismatists. At the time of Mithradates’ birth, Greeks and Romans dreaded comets as portents of doom. The word “disaster” comes from the Latin for “dire star” or comet—comets were traditional harbingers of war or the violent overthrow of rulers. Other coins of the Kingdom of Pontus usually displayed the king’s portrait with a crescent-and-star symbol. As far as the classical historians knew, no ancient coins depicted objects of ill omen—and no other coins of this period featured a comet.5 Why, the scholars wondered, would Mithradates risk minting coins stamped with such a sinister image?
FIG. 2.1. Comet coin. Small bronze coin minted early in Mithradates’ reign, showing star on neck of Pegasus (left). The reverse (right) depicts the comet of 135 BC, taken as a sign of the birth of a savior-king. Staatliche Museen, Berlin, photos by Roberta Dupuis-Devlin, courtesy of John T. Ramsey.
MAP 2.1. Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea region: Mithradates’ sphere of influence. Map by Michele Angel.
It turns out, however, that Mithradates’ comet coins were not unique—and comets were not a bad omen in his lands. Unknown to classical historians in the West, coins depicting a comet were also minted in Armenia during this period. In 2004, I came across a brief note in the journal Astronomy & Geophysics describing a comet image on silver and copper coins minted by the Armenian king Tigranes II between 83 and 69 BC. The Armenian coauthors, a physicist and a numismatist, were interested in identifying the comet, rather than its historical significance. Their note was unknown to Western historians of the Greco-Roman world, until I brought it to the attention of John Ramsey, who included this new evidence in his 2006–7 catalog of ancient comets.
The coins of Armenia ordinarily portrayed kings wearing a traditional tiara decorated with two eagles and an eight-rayed star. But these unusual coins show Tigranes II wearing a tiara decorated with a comet trailing a long, curved tail. The Armenian scholars speculated that the comet on the coin was one of the earliest artistic representations of Halley’s Comet, which appeared in 87 BC, during Tigranes’ reign.6
But who was Tigranes and why would he—of all ancient rulers of this time—also decide to place a comet on his coins? Of Persian-Alan ancestry, Tigranes the Great ruled the kingdom of Armenia. He was Mithradates’ most trusted ally; his queen was Mithradates’ favorite daughter. Tigranes extended his vast domains from the Caucasus Mountains to Mesopotamia. These two powerful monarchs were close friends, and as the story unfolds we’ll learn of their daring exploits together during their campaigns against the Romans.
Looking at the evidence from a Persian-influenced—rather than Roman or Greek—point of view, we can solve the “mystery” of the remarkable comet coins issued by Tigranes and Mithradates. Comets terrified the Greco-Romans, but in the Near East, a great blaze of light in the sky was a hopeful sign of the rise of a powerful leader. When Halley’s Comet appeared in 87 BC, the year after the great massacre of Romans by Mithradates’ allies, it sent shivers of fear through Italy, where comets were evil omens. But in the Near East, the spectacular pair of comets of 135 and 119 BC had already been interpreted as favorable omens associated with Mithradates’ birth and rise to power. So, when a third comet appeared in 87 BC, it would be seen as yet another guarantee of Mithradates’ grand destiny. In the East, Halley’s Comet seemed to signal divine approval of Mithradates’ and Tigranes’ victories thus far.
FIG. 2.2. Coin of Tigranes II of Armenia, large silver tetradrachm, 83–69 BC. Tigranes’ tiara is decorated with a comet with a curved tail, associating him with the rare comets of 135 and 119 BC, emblems of Mithradates’ cause. Courtesy Spink of London, drawing by Michele Angel.
The comet on Tigranes’ tiara has a prominent curve in its tail. This curve is a rare feature that was definitely present in the “war banner” comets of 135 and 119 BC. In contrast, Halley’s Comet always has a straight tail. These facts suggest that Tigranes’ tiara and his coins alluded to the two distinctive, curved-tail comets of 135 and 119 BC, linked to Mithradates, rather than to Halley’s Comet. Tigranes’ comet imagery not only confirms the positive meaning of comets in the East, but it may have been a public declaration of Tigranes’ commitment to Mithradates’ cause.7
Mithradates’ comets of 135 and 119 BC appeared in the constellation Pegasus. This position in the sky helps explain why he chose the winged horse as his personal emblem. Pegasus was a symbol that bridged East and West, like Mithradates himself. In Greek myth, Pegasus carried the god Zeus’s lightning, but the immortal flying horse originated in Mesopotamian mythology. Moreover, a comet in the horse constellation would have carried even deeper meaning for Mithradates and his Persian-influenced followers. The Sun god Mithra always recognized a new king by sending an omen via his sacred animal, the horse.8
The curved shape of the twin comets’ tails held special significance too. In Anatolia, the new stars’ crescent tails might have called to mind the crescent and star symbol of Pontus. But even more awe-inspiring was the resemblance to a distinctive weapon. In Mithradates’ world, comets were associated with war because they looked like great swords suspended in the sky. The rare comets of 135 and 119 had curved tails, reminding the Chinese of war banners. In the Near East, however, the crescent shape called to mind a particular kind of sword, the sickle-shaped harpe, the Persian scimitar, the signature weapon of Mithra himself.9
The indigenous populations of Anatolia, Armenia, Media, Syria, Scythia, and other lands of the old Persian Empire—unlike the Romans who feared comets—interpreted comets as signs of hope, not grounds for despair. The comet coins of Mithradates and Tigranes promised that a great king had come to fulfill the ancient predictions about a new star in the East and salvation from tyranny. Viewed from this Eastern perspective, the comets point to a startling, overlooked fact. Some 130 years before the Star of Bethlehem led the Wise Men to assign the savior’s role to another newborn, those hopes of salvation centered on Mithradates.
Mystical prophecies about the destruction of the world’s last empire were already swirling long before Mithradates’ birth. In antiquity, oracles, dreams, omens, and prodigies (wondrous, eerie events) were often interpreted to convey political messages, especially in times of crisis. As Rome’s power and brutality increased, so did the sense of impending doom. Many oracles were read by Romans and non-Romans alike as warnings about the ultimate fate of the Republic. Some poetic visions evoked the imagery of the sacred symbol of Rome—the she-wolf that nursed the infant twin founders Romulus and Remus. Some warned that the offspring of a wild predator would someday tear their own motherland to shreds.10
FIG. 2.3. Wolf, the sacred symbol of Rome, nursing the twin founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus. Silver didrachm, Italy, 269–266 BC, 1944.100.15, bequest of E. T. Newell, Courtesy of the American Numismatic Society.
After the defeat of Rome’s great enemy, Hannibal, in the Second Punic War (202 BC), the Romans took lands in Spain, North Africa, Greece, and the Near East. This early Roman expansion was not carried out according to an imperial master plan. Instead, the Senate conferred approval on ambitious commanders seeking personal glory and riches through foreign conquests. In conquered or threatened lands, the Romans were feared as bloodthirsty, driven by lust for gold and triumph. The historian Polybius described how Roman soldiers took special pride in a vicious way of war. Their orders, he claimed, were to systematically kill every living thing before beginning to loot. In the legions’ wake, said Polybius, lay smoldering battlegrounds and devastated towns, streets and fields strewn with the bodies of men, women, and children put to the sword, and even dogs, sheep, and cows chopped to pieces.11
In the East, hopes for salvation grew. The most famous apocalyptic revelation was an ancient Iranian prophecy known as the Oracle of Hystaspes, a Persian-Babylonian sage. This oracle foretold the destruction of Rome by fire and sword and the coming of a savior-king from the East whose birth would be proclaimed by a brilliant light from heaven. Another prophecy, the Zoroastrian apocalyptic scripture of the third century BC called the Bahman Yasht, envisioned an avenging savior-prince who would be born under a shooting star: this prince would drive foreign tyrants out of Asia. An ancient oracle of Egypt promised that the gods would send a great king from the Orient. The Hebrew prediction (Daniel 2.7) of the downfall of the “last great empire” was written in 165 BC, just thirty years before Mithradates’ birth. During Mithradates’ reign, a handbook of Egyptian star omens was widely read: comets signified massive war losses for Rome in Asia.12
Macabre events seemed to confirm the oracles. A ghastly tale, recounted by a compiler of popular lore, began to circulate after 191 BC. In that year, the Romans defeated the Greco-Babylonian (Seleucid) king Antiochus III at Thermopylae in Greece. While the Roman victors were plundering the enemy corpses on the battlefield, a Syrian cavalry officer named Bouplagos rose up from the dead. Bleeding from twelve gruesome wounds, the ghost warned in a rasping whisper that Zeus would send a “bold-hearted tribe” to punish Rome. The Roman soldiers panicked, and their generals, “much shaken by this utterance,” consulted the Oracle at Delphi. But the Delphic Oracle was ominous too, threatening awful punishment for Rome’s outrages in Greece and Asia.
The next day, the Roman general Publius fell into a frenzied trance, raving about horrible wars to come, gory atrocities, and “unspeakable desolation” for Rome. Terrified soldiers rushed to his tent—many died in the stampede. The Romans heard their trusted commander howl, I see a great king from the land of the rising sun who shall recruit a mighty army of many nations to obliterate Rome! Publius scrambled up a tree and declared that he himself would be devoured by a wolf, the sacred symbol of Rome. Aghast, the men watched as a wolf attacked and ate their esteemed general. Only his head remained—and it continued to predict doom. So the nightmarish story went, and as the tale spread, many believed. In years to come, many remembered.13
As Rome’s predatory ambitions rose, dire omens proliferated: rains of blood, plagues, monstrous births, talking cows. The Sibylline Books, ancient texts written on palm leaves and stored in a stone chest beneath the Temple of Jupiter in Rome, had been consulted by priests during crises since Rome’s foundation. These cryptic writings spoke of a “great conflagration from the sky falling to earth” and foretold terrible devastation and violent conflict for Rome.
The so-called Third Book of the Sibylline Oracles (different from the Roman Sibylline utterances) was another source of bad news for the Romans. Some of its passages were ancient, but others were apparently composed by anti-Roman Jews living in Anatolia during Rome’s expansion (160–140 BC and 80–40 BC). The widely circulated Third Sibylline Book declared that Rome’s impending corruption and ruin would come when a comet appeared as a “sign of the sword . . . and death” (Mithradates’ comets resembled curved swords). Then, declared the oracle, all the peoples of the East will rise up and unite, forcing Rome to pay back three times the riches it has plundered. They shall enslave twenty Romans for each Asian in servitude to Rome.14
FIG. 2.4. The Wolf and the Head, seventeenth-century lead sculpture, Grove of the Wolf and the Head, Versailles. Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, NY.
In 88 BC (the year of the massacre of Romans), the Greek philosopher Athenion met with Mithradates and brought back a message of hope to Athens. Rome’s conquest of Greece (200 to 146 BC) had brought much suffering. In Epirus in 167 BC, for example, the Romans systematically enslaved the entire population. The destruction of Corinth in 146 was another tragedy never forgotten by the Greeks. Just before the massacre of 88 BC, Athenion delivered a rousing speech to the demoralized citizens of Athens: “Oracles everywhere promise that Mithradates—already hailed as a god in Asia—will be victorious!”15
These sensational events and portents from so many different sources, predicting the fall of an evil empire and the advent of a savior-king born under an Eastern star, became intertwined and loomed large in Mithradates’ story during his lifetime. These oracles and the comets nourished the king’s self-image and his official publicity. The prophecies helped create fertile ground for popular support of his campaign against the tyranny of Rome. Mithradates, “the oriental saviour king of oracles and prophecies,” hoped that all people “would see in him the king from the east destined to bring about the destruction of Rome foretold in oracles.”16
The widespread belief in the ancient Near East that heavenly fire or light would announce the birth of a redeemer helps explain another story told about Mithradates. When he was a baby, lightning struck his cradle. Mithradates was unharmed, but the lightning left a distinctive scar—in the shape of a diadem or crown—on his forehead. Some said the lightning strike inspired his nickname, Dionysus, after the Greek god of liberation, change, and new beginnings. Dionysus had been marked for greatness by Zeus’s divine lightning while still in the womb. Mithradates used this name in his propaganda and placed Dionysus’s image on his coins—an immediately recognizable symbol of opposition to Rome. The god’s worship had been banned by the Roman Senate in 186 BC, because of Dionysus’s association with slave revolts and foreign rebellions.17
In Greco-Roman popular lore, a nonfatal lightning strike promised great distinction and fame. Similar beliefs held in the East too. According to the writings of the Magi (Persian Zoroastrian priest-astronomers), the savior-king was to be distinguished by a special mark on his body. The Magi in his father’s palace saw Mithradates’ lightning scar as a sign of divine approval; the diadem shape meant the gods had “crowned” him at birth. Many figures in history, myth, and legend have been marked for eminence by a bolt of lightning, from King Darius I of Persia and Alexander of Macedon to Harry Potter of Hogwarts. Mithradates’ lightning story is unverifiable, of course, but it’s not impossible: two out of three people stuck by lightning do survive. What is significant is that all these accumulating omens, prophecies, oracles, mythic traditions, and extraordinary natural phenomena were coalescing around the time of Mithradates. He was uniquely placed to take advantage of these converging Eastern and Western beliefs.18
Another Mithradatic claim long rejected as fable turns out to receive support in genealogical and historical evidence. Mithradates traced his father’s bloodline to Persian kings and his mother’s family to Alexander the Great. He also declared that his ancestral lands had been bestowed by Darius I, the great Achaemenid ruler who had consolidated the vast Persian Empire (d. 486 BC). It has been widely assumed by modern scholars that propagandists invented this noble ancestry for Mithradates.
Macedonian and Persian family trees are tangled, and further complicated by the ancient practice of reusing the same royal names over many generations. (Luckily, nicknames were common, and sometimes people had more than one, like Mithradates Eupator Dionysus). Two classical historians recently reevaluated the evidence in the ancient sources pertaining to Mithradates’ heritage. Their investigation reveals that Mithradates’ paternal line was in all probability related by blood to Darius I, who had married two daughters and a granddaughter of Cyrus Vazraka, “the Great,” founder of the Persian Empire. So Mithradates’ claim to descend from Cyrus and Darius was not mere propaganda. Darius had granted a fiefdom to Mithradates’ ancestors, which became a powerful satrapy (provincial governorship) centered in the ancient Greek city of Sinope, in Pontus on the Black Sea.
What about the Alexandrian lineage? Mithradates was related to Barsiné, a Persian princess captured by Alexander after the Battle of Issus in 333 BC. Barsiné had a son with Alexander and resided in Pergamon, where she maintained ties with Mithradates’ family. Mithradates’ mother, Laodice, a princess from Antioch (Syria), was a descendant of Alexander’s Macedonian general Seleucus Nicator, the founder of the new Macedonian-Persian Empire, stretching from Anatolia and central Asia to Babylonia and Iran.19
It was Alexander’s dream to meld Greek and Persian bloodlines and cultures as the foundation for a magnificent hybrid civilization. After Alexander’s conquest of Persia, marriage alliances were carried out on a grand scale among Macedonian and Persian aristocrats. Laodice’s kinship to Alexander is plausible, since Macedonian nobles shared bloodlines, but impossible to prove or disprove. Modern DNA studies show that the genetic material of powerful rulers, such as Genghis Khan, was generously dispersed in numerous unofficial offspring. This common practice, along with the custom of large harems for Macedonian and Persian royalty, gives further support to Mithradates’ claim to be the heir—by blood, land, and ideals—of the greatest rulers of Greece and Persia.
As with the comets and oracles, what really matters is that Mithradates’ illustrious ancestry was unquestioned in antiquity. Mithradates himself, his supporters, and his enemies all saw him as the living embodiment of Alexander’s vision of Persian-Greek fusion.
Until the end of his life, Mithradates cherished a cloak believed to have belonged to Alexander. How could Mithradates have obtained such a relic? Was the robe handed down in his mother’s noble Macedonian family? Or did Barsiné present her lover’s mantle to Mithradates’ relatives in Pergamon? The ancient historian Appian inadvertently provides a clue. Appian says that after Mithradates’ death in 63 BC, the Romans discovered Alexander’s cloak in Mithradates’ castle, among the treasures that Mithradates had received from Cleopatra III, wife of Ptolemy VIII of Egypt. During a succession crisis in Egypt, this queen had stored her treasures for safekeeping on the island of Cos. Some years later in 88 BC, the year of the great massacre of the Romans, Cos turned over these treasures to Mithradates. But how could a mantle belonging to Alexander the Great come to be among Cleopatra III’s treasures?
Genealogical detective work provides an answer. Cleopatra, her husband, and her father were all direct descendants of Alexander’s best friend and general, Ptolemy. When Alexander died in 323 BC in Babylon, Ptolemy hijacked the corpse—and presumably his cloak—to Egypt, in order to support his claim to be Alexander’s successor. Cleopatra’s husband may well have inherited this precious relic from his Macedonian ancestors.20
Again, however, the robe’s true provenance is irrelevant. Everyone, including the Romans, believed that Mithradates had inherited Alexander’s mantle, and that it was an authentic physical link to Alexander. To wear Alexander’s cloak was not merely symbolic for Mithradates. In ancient Persian court rituals, the robe or khilat of a venerated person or ruler was thought to transmit the owner’s personal qualities and authority. Cyrus the Great presented his fine purple robe to his most beloved friend; Darius III dreamed that Alexander wore his royal robe; numerous other examples of the ritual (dorophorike in ancient Greek) appear in Old Testament and other Near Eastern writings. This ancient concept is the basis of well-known legends about Saint Paul’s cloak and the robe worn by Jesus. The idea lives on today in our phrases “to assume the mantle” and “to vest power,” and in the desire to possess clothing worn by cult figures. Two striking modern examples occurred in 2006. In Lebanon, Shi’ite Muslims flocked to see the abayaor robe worn by the Hezbollah leader Nasrallah, displayed in several cities. Meanwhile in the United States, the fabulous gold lamé cape worn by Elvis Presley (“The King”) received high bids in a celebrity auction (Presley’s cape was decorated with a sequinedcomet design).21
By Mithradates’ time, Alexander’s life had achieved cult status, and—as we shall see—Mithradates shared many notable commonalities with his idol. Some resemblances were real, others were embroidered with legend, but Mithradates’ followers saw every parallel as proof of his glorious destiny.22
THE MYTHIC HERO SCRIPT
Precious little is known about Mithradates’ youth. Curiously, however, an obscure childhood is typical of larger-than-life individuals whose exploits become legendary. What we do know about Mithradates’ early years comes from a few passages in Justin and passing remarks by other ancient historians. Some of the episodes in these accounts sound like the stuff of fairy tales. This has led modern historians to reject several events in Mithradates’ life as propaganda fabricated after the fact by his supporters.23
Some suspicion is justified. Mithradates was keenly aware of his public image, and some loyalists were experts in manipulating public relations. Yet many unusual details in the king’s life are accepted as true, supported by historical and archaeological evidence. Some incidents are likely or plausible. Other anecdotes seem extraordinary—yet none are impossible. But the meaning of Mithradates’ compelling life story goes beyond political propaganda. What is truly striking is that his biography parallels a standard sequence of incidents typically found in the life stories of mythic heroes across different times and cultures.
The universal pattern of “hero-defining” attributes of legendary and historical personages was first recognized by psychologist Otto Rank and comparative myth scholar Fitzroy Raglan. Their model has been refined and applied to dozens of heroic figures in myth, history, and popular culture around the world, from antiquity to the present. Appendix 1 lists the twenty-three features that distinguish mythic heroes. There are variations in how different scholars interpret key events in individual lives, but folklorists have calculated the mythic-hero scores of, for example, Moses, Oedipus, and Cyrus the Great (20–23 points); Jesus, Muhammad, Hercules, and King Arthur (18–20); Alexander the Great, Buddha, Joan of Arc, and Robin Hood (13–16); Harry Potter (14); Spartacus (12); and John F. Kennedy (5).24
Since antiquity, Mithradates has been admired by many as a champion of anti-imperialism, despite his eventual defeat. But modern Western historians tend to cast Mithradates as Rome’s evil “Oriental” nemesis, rather than a heroic figure. Perhaps that’s why no one has ever thought to calculate Mithradates’ rating on the archetypal hero index. How does his story measure up by the established criteria for immortal legend?
The points add up quickly. Prophecies predicted Mithradates’ birth and rise to power. His father, King Mithradates V, and his mother, Laodice, a princess, may have been related through intertwined Persian-Macedonian family trees. Conceived under the rare comet of 135 BC, the infant Mithradates survived a lightning strike. He was associated with the gods Mithra and Dionysus, and—like Alexander the Great—he claimed Hercules as a divine ancestor. As a youngster, Mithradates eluded murder plots by his guardians, by experimenting with antidotes, ultimately inventing a secret potion that protected against all poisons. As a teenager, Mithradates disappeared. For seven years no one knew whether the crown prince of Pontus was dead or alive. As the following pages will reveal, by the time he was a young man, Mithradates had already tallied an impressive score of 10 on the mythic hero scale. Without giving away what transpires, over his long and dramatic lifetime Mithradates fulfilled all the remaining requirements of the mythic hero index, for a perfect score of 23 (see appendix 1).
Historical personages for whom there are complete written records normally rate 5–10 points. Mithradates’ high score indicates that many aspects of his life were preserved orally, in popular lore. Some events (comets and prophecies, ancestry, toxicological experiments, horsemanship) are documented, while other stories coalesced around grains of truth, or were exaggerated or made up—although nothing reported in the sources is beyond belief. Mithradates was brilliant at presenting himself as the savior of Greek and Persian civilization and the scourge of Rome. Undoubtedly he encouraged favorable interpretations of oracles and omens, assassination attempts, narrow escapes, notable feats, gallant deeds, and other actual events to his advantage. But much of what historians assume were deliberate falsehoods dreamed up as propaganda were more likely the result of a gradual, natural process. In the “Snowball Effect” of oral tradition, the actual facts of Mithradates’ life mingled with probable and then with plausible events. Between romance and reality, propaganda and plausibility, lies the real story. As we consider what seem like improbable events in Mithradates’ story, it’s worth keeping in mind that, in scientific probability/possibility theory, probability applies only to the future, not to past events. Even if something reported in the past had small odds of occurring, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Over time, of course, Mithradates’ story accumulated more and more narrative details that conformed to the heroic archetype. Mithradates’ high score is the result of the accretion of mythic motifs in oral tradition around actual events; contemporary public relations; and a genuinely remarkable life.25
One senses that Mithradates himself understood the mythic hero script and endeavored to live it out. The circumstances of his birth and many other events were beyond his control, of course, yet from a very early age it seems that Mithradates self-consciously cast himself as the hero of his own epic saga. As a child, Mithradates heard the oracles surrounding his birth and absorbed the life stories of illustrious ancestors and other role models from myth and history. Hidden under his curly bangs was the special lightning scar shaped like a diadem. It would be no wonder if Mithradates came to think of himself as a mythic hero and resolved to behave like one. Most of the crucial elements of the heroic plotline were readily available to him, two millennia before modern myth scholars recognized the Persian king Cyrus the Great as the epitome of the historical hero. Another real-life idol, Alexander, followed the heroic pattern, which is also prominent in the myths of the divine Mithra, Dionysus, and Hercules.26
Folklorists have a word to describe the way real-life actions can be guided by legends: ostension. Ostension explains how widely known myths and legends sometimes shape ordinary people’s behavior patterns, leading them to enact or perform certain elements from mythic narratives, thereby translating fiction into fact. Events inspire stories and stories influence events.27 The concept of ostension is another reason why some episodes in Mithradates’ life story appear to mirror Greek myths and theater. If Mithradates was guided by something like a mythic hero script, that helps explain his phenomenal self-confidence and ability to surge back after crushing losses. Mithradates’ belief that he was a hero in the classical mold, marked from birth for a glorious destiny, was a wellspring of his perseverance and resourcefulness in times of crisis. He was determined to be remembered for all time.
Mithradates was not introduced to his father until he was five years old (a Persian custom intended to protect the king from grief should his son die in infancy). Until then, the little prince lived with his mother, Queen Laodice, and concubines and children in the harem. Mithradates listened to exciting myths and legends recounted by the women and their guardians and confidants, the eunuchs—castrated males who served as trusted attendants, generals, and powerful advisers in Persian-influenced courts. Notably, of the many names of eunuchs that have survived from antiquity, half are from Mithradates’ reign, a fact that reminds us of the constant court intrigues in this era.28 Indeed, palace conspirators would plot to do away with the young ruler after the untimely death of his father. But that was still in the future. While the old king still lived, he oversaw his heir’s education. As soon as the boy celebrated his fifth birthday, tutors began his immersion in classical Greek lessons and the Persian essentials of kingship.