The universal antidote

For more than 1700 years, mithridate and theriac were Europe’s ultimate medicines. A concoction of up to sixty-four ingredients – including cinnamon, turpentine, and poppy – they were supposed to neutralise any poison or plague.

Jebulon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

At the start of this year when writing about poison damsels and mad honey I promised a post on the potion of Mithridates… so here it is.

Mithridates was a king of Pontus and Lesser Armenia (parts of modern Turkey and the land surrounding the Black Sea) around the last years of the Roman Republic. He engaged in a series of wars with Rome, many of which were successful, but following a major loss to the Roman general Pompey he tried to poison himself. But it didn’t work.

Mithridates’ father died by poison, so the new king had begun taking small doses of poison to build up a tolerance against them. Yes, pretty much “I spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder.” Except that Mithridates supposedly took this to the extreme, creating a potion that was a combination of dozens of different substances. It was so effective that when the time came to poison himself it had no effect – Mithridates had to ask an officer to stab him instead.

The recipe of this potion – now called Mithridate or Mithridatum – was reportedly taken back to Rome by Pompey. It became a medicine for the emperors of Rome, from Julius Caesar to Nero to Marcus Aurelius. As the recipe was passed down it kept picking up new ingredients. By the time of Galen (the famous medical researcher and personal physician of Marcus Aurelius and Commodus) the concoction included frankincense, myrrh, parsley, cinnamon, ginger, poppy, rockfoil, St. John’s wort, various gum resins, turpentine, saffron, rose leaves, and much more. And rather than a potion that would build up a tolerance to poison, Mithridate became known as the potion that could neutralise any poison.

Mithridate really took off in the Middle Ages. It was the most expensive and in-demand medicine in Europe. Under the name theriac, also known as Venice treacle, its use spread along the Silk Road as far as India and China. The potion was used against the Black Plague – unsuccessfully, obviously – and it kept picking up more ingredients: honey, opium, ground up vipers…

As far as I can tell these potions never actually worked, except accidentally. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until the advent of modern medicine, and the decline of apothecaries, that mithridate and theriac went out of fashion and slipped into history.

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