Monday, October 08, 2012

Mithradates’ Antidote: A Pharmcological Ghost

Mithradates’ Antidote: A Pharmcological Ghost

By Laurence Totelin

Early Science and Medicine, Vol. 9:1 (2004)

A silver coin depicting Mithradates VI of Pontus
A silver coin depicting Mithradates VI of Pontus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Abstract: Two kinds of sources are available to the historian to reconstruct the first centuries of the history of Mithradates’ antidote: biographical information on Mithradates’ interests in medicine, and a series of recipes.In this paper I argue that we cannot reconstruct the original recipe of Mithridatium from our existing sources. Instead, I examine how the Romans remodelled the history of the King’s death and used the royal name to create a “Roman” drug. This drug enjoyed a huge popularity in the first centuries of the Roman Empire. An Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, consumed it as well as members of the upper class; and many highly literate physicians recommended it notwithstanding the medical sect they were belonging to. With all its expensive ingredients, and its claim to work asa panacea, Mithridatium responded to a real demand in a Roman Empire at its commercial and political apogee.

Introduction: By attempting to develop an antidote to protect himself against the threat of poisons, Mithradates VI Eupator, King of Pontus (120-63 B.C.), originated a tradition that would last more than twenty centuries: the tradition of the Mithridatic antidote or Mithridatium. Initially designed to counter poisons and venoms, the antidotebecame used to prevent—or even cure—a series of afflictions anddiseases. Andromachos the Elder (first century A.D.), physicianto Nero, transformed the recipe of Mithridatium by adding viperflesh and increasing the amount of opium, creating the famous“Theriac.” Mithridatium and Theriac survived as panaceas throughthe Middle Ages and the Renaissance, still figured in the German,French and Spanish pharmacopoeias in the nineteenth century, and may still be purchased on markets in the Middle East.

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