Posted by: Footler PJ8 JUL 2009
During a walk among the blue remembered hills of Shropshire I rested for a while in the Devil’s Chair on the Stiperstones and opened my old copy of ‘A Shropshire lad”. It seemed to be an ideal moment to read A. E. Housman’s work again.
As I read, a word leapt from the page before me — Mithridates. It looked odd but sounded familiar. Is it a medical condition? Could it be a drug name? Was I confusing it with a similar sounding word — Mydrilate perhaps?
King Mithridates VI ruled the state of Pontus on the shore of the Black Sea from about 120BC to 63BC. He became convinced that some of his erstwhile allies were trying to assassinate him by adding poison to his food and drink.
He decided to protect himself by taking progressively larger amounts of all the poisons he knew about until he was able to tolerate lethal doses. It seems he was successful. The story goes that in later life he tried to kill himself but nothing that he took would work. He died apparently in old age.
This almost mythical remedy was said to contain as many as 65 different ingredients. Mithridates himself listed hypericum, acacia, iris, cardamom, poppy, cassia, storax, rhubarb and many others. The ingredients were pounded and mixed with honey and then a piece the size of an almond was taken in wine.
The king’s own handwritten recipe was found later by Pompey. He sent it to Rome, where it was translated into Latin and prescribed by the emperor’s physicians. Marcus Aurelius, Nero and Julius Caesar were among those said to have tried the resulting compound.
The actual ingredients used varied greatly over the centuries but anything that was thought to provide a general antidote to poison or disease became known as a mithridate.
Such remedies became highly sought-after medicinal compounds during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Nicholas Culpeper noted in 1653 a recipe for mithridate using opium, myrrh, agaric, frankincense, spikenard, costus, turpentine and peppers, among many other ingredients.
Other recipes mention the addition of dried blood or the dried flesh of snakes or lizards. Physicians in London were prescribing the remedy widely as late as the 1780s and an updated version known as theriac was known well into the 19th century.