The Last King
Ford’s subtitle “Rome’s Greatest Enemy” applies to Mithridates, the King of Pontus who wore Persian dress while attempting to establish a new Greek state capable of withstanding or even defeating the rapidly expanding Roman Republic. The most famous tale surrounding this king describes his daily intake of venoms and antidotes, which preserved him from court poisonings. Many of the stories involving this Mithridates Eupator read like myth, but classical historians record how he expanded his small kingdom on the Euxine Sea by engulfing neighboring states and eventually challenging Roman rule.
When a Roman force invaded Pontus, the king’s forces retaliated, beginning a series of wars lasting from 89 to 63 BC, including the one-day slaughter of 80,000 Romans and Italians living in his realms. Those who read Roman novels for the sake of battle scenes will find much to like in this one. Pharnaces, the bastard son who narrates the entire novel, describes his father as the kingdom’s best archer, swordsman, horseman,
linguist, and orator. Mithridates has difficult relationships with women, including his murderous mother, one treacherous sister, and an even more dangerous sister whom he married – all of whom are named Laodice. Other characters include an overpriced concubine and a loyal Amazonian partner in war, but his most important relationships are with the Greek mercenaries, Cilician pirates and Roman renegades who make up his military force.
The novel’s history follows the broad outlines found in ancient sources like Appius, Plutarch and Strabo. As is often the case, the most improbable tales, like Mithridates’ victory in a gargantuan eating contest with a wrestler, come directly from history. This book is recommended as a fast-paced look at Roman history from an outsider’s perspective.