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Elaborately-gilded drug jar for storing mithridate. By Annibale Fontana, about 1580-90. Courtesy, J. Paul Getty Museum.
This article is about the remedy; Mithridate is also a 1673 play by Jean Racine. For other uses, see Mithridates

Mithridatium, also known as as mithridate," "mithridatum, mithridatium or mithridaticum, is a semi-mythical remedy with as many as 65 ingredients, used as an antidote for poisoning, and said to be created by Mithradates VI Eupator of Pontus. It was among one of the most complex, highly sought-after drugs during the Middle Age and Renaissance, particularly in Italy and France, where they were in continual use for centuries.[1] An updated recipe called theriac (Theriacum Andromachi) was known well into the 19th century.[2]

Mithridate takes its name from its inventor, Mithradates VI, King of Pontus (134 to 63 BC) who is said to have so fortified his body against poisons with antidotes and preservatives, that when he tried to kill himself, he could not find any poison that would have an effect. The recipe of it was found in his cabinet, written with his own hand, and was carried to Rome by Pompey. It was translated into Latin by Pompey's freedman Lenaeus, and later improved upon by Nero's physician Andromachus and Marcus Aurelius's physician Galen.[3] It likely underwent considerable alterations since the time of Mithradates.[2]

In the Middle Ages, Mithridatium was also used as part of a regimen to ward off potential threats of plague. According to Simon Kellwaye (1593), one should "take a great Onyon, make a hole in the myddle of him, then fill the place with Mitridat or Triacle, and some leaues of Rue".[4] Until as late as 1786, physicians in London could officially prescribe mithridate.[5]

The term mithridate has come to refer to any generally all-purpose antidote.[6]

Contents

Formulation

Aulus Cornelius Celsus details one version of the antidote in De Medicina (ca. AD 30). A recent translation is as follows: "But the most famous antidote is that of Mithridates, which that king is said to have taken daily and by it to have rendered his body safe against danger from poison. It contains costmary 1·66 grams, sweet flag 20 grams, hypericum, gum, sagapenum, acacia juice, Illyrian iris (probably I. germanica[7]), cardamom, 8 grams each, anise 12 grams, Gallic nard (Valeriana italica[8]), gentian root and dried rose-leaves, 16 grams each, poppy-tears (Papaver rhoeas, a wild poppy with low opiate content[9]) and parsley, 17 grams each, casia, saxifrage, darnel, long pepper, 20·66 grams each, storax 21 grams, castoreum, frankincense, hypocistis juice (Cytinus hypocistis[10]), myrrh and opopanax, 24 grams each, malabathrum leaves 24 grams, flower of round rush, turpentine-resin, galbanum, Cretan carrot seeds, 24·66 grams each, nard and opobalsam, 25 grams each, shepherd's purse 25 grams, rhubarb root 28 grams, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, 29 grams each. These are pounded and taken up in honey. Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient." Of these ingredients, Illyrian iris, darnel, and rhubarb were not commonly found in other versions of the antidote.[11] However, Celsus' formulation, written 100 years after the death of Mithridates, was one of the first published. Galen called the antidote "theriac" and presented versions by Aelius (used by Julius Caesar), Andromachus (physician to Nero), Antipater, Nicostratus, and Damocratis. The Andromachus formulation closely resembles that of Celsus.[12]

The manufacture of antidotes called mithridate or theriac (English "treacle") continued into the nineteenth century. Ephraim Chambers, in his 1728 Cyclopaedia, says "Mithridate is one of the capital Medicines in the Apothecaries Shops, being composed of a vast Number of Drugs, as Opium, Myrrh, Agaric, Saffron, Ginger, Cinnamon, Spikenard, Frankincense, Castor, Pepper, Gentian, &c". It is accounted a Cordial, Opiate, Sudorific, and Alexipharmic" Petrus Andreas Matthiolus considered it more effectual against poisons than venice treacle, and easier to make.[2] Late versions of the antidote incorporated dried blood or the dried flesh of lizards or vipers[13] or Malabathrum[14]

Criticism

Pliny (Natural History, XXIX.24-25, ca. AD 77) was skeptical of mithridate and other such theriacs, with their numerous ingredients:

"The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients, no two of them having the same weight, while of some is prescribed one sixtieth part of one denarius. Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? No human brain could have been sharp enough. It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science."[15]

In literature

In A. E. Houseman's collection of poetry titled A Shropshire Lad, there is a poem about King Mithridates and his antidote's amazing abilities:

There was a king reigned in the East:
There, when kings will sit to feast,
They get their fill before they think
With poisoned meat and poisoned drink.
He gathered all the springs to birth
From the many-venomed earth;
First a little, thence to more,
He sampled all her killing store;
And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,
Sate the king when healths went round.
They put arsenic in his meat
And stared aghast to watch him eat;
They poured strychnine in his cup
And shook to see him drink it up:
They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:
Them it was their poison hurt.
--I tell the tale that I heard told.
Mithridates, he died old.[6]

References

  1. ^ "Pair of Drug Jars". The J. Paul Getty Museum. http://www.getty.edu/art/gettyguide/artObjectDetails?artobj=1407. Retrieved 2006-01-26.  
  2. ^ a b c "Mithridate".
  3. ^ Adrienne Mayor, "Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs" Overlook 2003"
  4. ^ Kellwaye, Simon. 1593. A defensatiue against the plague contayning two partes or treatises.... 32.
  5. ^ Nature. 14 Sept 1989. 115/1.
  6. ^ Sci. Monthly. Sept 1932. 244/1.
  7. ^ M. Grieve, A Modern Herbal, 1931 [1]
  8. ^ Anthony Dweck, "A listing of the Valerianaceae family", in Medicinal and Aromatic Plants Industrial Profile, 1996 [2]
  9. ^ Stata Norton, Molecular Interventions 6:60-66, 2006 [3]
  10. ^ Culpeper, The Complete Herbal, 1654 [4]
  11. ^ Stata Norton, Molecular Interventions 6:60-66, 2006 [5]
  12. ^ Stata Norton, Molecular Interventions 6:60-66, 2006 [6]
  13. ^ Nature. 14 Sept 1989. 115/1.
  14. ^ Dunglison, Robley. 1848. Medical lexicon. A dictionary of medical science.
  15. ^ Grout, James. "Mithridatum". Encyclopaedia Romana. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/aconite/mithridatum.html. Retrieved 2006-01-26.  

See also

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