Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Poison King

I give my enthusiastic recommendation for Adrienne Mayor's extraordinarily written biography of Mithradates, The Poison King. Everything about the book is just right.

At the same time, I have to say that I feel unsettled by my own reaction to reading about great conquerers like Mithradates. It is so easy, looking back, to feel admiration for them; yet, whatever nobility they might at times possess, they invariably are soaked in innocent blood. Mithradates himself, early in his rise to power, orchestrated the murder of nearly one hundred thousand Roman citizens in Asia Minor—some of them surely deserving the death owed to oppressors, as many surely not. Reading such things, and still finding oneself romanticizing such men, one wonders whether, two thousand years hence, people will view Hitler in the same way.

It often is a challenge to feel connected to suffering that is spatially distant from us; notwithstanding my donations to help Japan, it is not as though I am running off there to help with the reconstruction, much less impoverishing myself to help people even worse off elsewhere in the world. Yet, suffering that is temporally distant is even more remote; once we get into the ancient chronicles, where faceless thousands seem to die at the drop of a hat, even remote recognition of the sheer magnitude of the human suffering in question is next to impossible.

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