The Ironic End of the Man who Made Himself Immune to Poison

Legend has it, there was an ancient king who resisted Rome. And he ended the way that most people who resisted Rome did. But, because of his research into poisons, and immunity to poison in particular, his end had an ironic twist that many Romans would have appreciated. Learn about the sad, ironic death of the poison-resistant Mithridates.

"I've spent the last few years building up an immunity to iocane powder."

If you're like me, that line from The Princess Bride was the first you heard of mithridatism. This is the practice of ingesting small, but ever-increasing, quantities of poison in order to build up an immunity to fatal doses. The poison can either be taken directly or in an adulterated form, but eventually it becomes just another thing that the body can deal with. Possibly. Some herpetologists say that they have built up immunity to the bites of certain snakes.

But understandably, few research institutions, or individuals, are up for developing these kinds of immunities when it's so much easier just to label things "poison" and tell people not to eat them.

In the past, many people haven't had that kind of choice. During the glory days of Rome, poisoning people was practically a sport, and some gifted people became champions at it. Mithridates had more reason to fear poisoning than most.

He was, as a child, meant to be the ruler of Pontus, a region in Asia Minor. First he had to survive childhood in the care of his mother, a woman who had most certainly poisoned his father in order to ascend to the throne. He ran away, and returned as a man to overthrow his mother and brother. By this time, though, he was so paranoid about being poisoned that he started looking for ways to survive the many food-based assassination attempts that he believed were coming.

By necessity, he became a scientist and poison control expert. Nobody is sure of the exact method he used for this. Some say that he created an elixir from the poisons and various other herbs and tinctures, which was called Mithridatium. The exact ingredients were sought after thousands of years after he died. Some say that he fed the poisons to ducks, observed which ones didn't die, killed them, and drank their blood to give him guaranteed nonlethal doses of poison.

What isn't in any doubt is that he did build up doses of the poison he could live though over time, gradually making himself immune to many of the poisons that felled his contemporaries. This process is, even today, called mithridatism or mithridatization. Not only was he a king and an advocate of matricide, he was a pioneering research scientist. No doubt many herpetologists look up to him.

The Romans, on the other hand, were not big fans of his. They did eventually get around to attempting to conquer his kingdom, and although Mithridates fought, they were successful. Preferring death to being shown off as a captured king in a Roman parade, he decided to kill himself. Unfortunately he must have been over-tired, because the only method he could think of was poison. Perhaps when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. He drank a large dose - nearly everything he had on hand - and completely failed to die. His exact end is disputed. Some say he got a close friend with a sword to oblige him, while others said he stubbornly stayed alive and was murdered by either a mob or Roman soldiers. Either way, it's yet another reason not to practice mithridatism. Even if you're a herpetologist.

Via University of Chicago and Academia.edu.