Mithradates' Mythic Hero Script


From Adrienne Mayor, "The Poison King: Mithradates the Great" (forthcoming Princeton 2009), Appendix 3.


Mithradates' extraordinary life story seems to fulfill timeless expectations for mythic heroes, first identified by Otto Rank in 1914 and elaborated by Lord Fitzroy Raglan in 1936.


Otto Rank's basic model for mythic heroes can be summarized is 6 steps:


1.   Prophecy surrounds birth

2.   Divine, aristocratic, or royal parents

3.   Abandoned, given or sent away, separated

4.   Rescue or reared by foster parents or surrogates

5.   Return to the land of father, proves his worthiness

6.   Claims royal birthright and wins honors


Several of Raglan's 22 original heroic attributes overlap with Rank's. The following composite list of 23 incidents that typically occur in life stories of mythic heroes is based on Rank, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero (1914, no. 23, prophecy) and Lord Fitzroy Raglan, The Hero: A Study in Tradition, Myth, and Drama, Part II (1936; nos. 1-22). This list is adapted from Rank, Raglan, and Dundes 1990, which reprints Rank and Raglan, with an introduction by Robert Segal and an analysis of Jesus by folklorist Alan Dundes.


1.  Mother is a royal princess

2.  Father is a king

3.  Parents often related, or have a complicated relationship 4.  Unusual circumstances of conception 5.  Reputed to be son of a god or sent by gods 6.  Attempts to kill hero at birth or in childhood, often by relatives 7.  Abandoned or exiled, separation from home, escapes premature death 8.  Grows up in a faraway country, lives among animals or peasants 9.  Little is known of childhood 10. On reaching adulthood, returns to kingdom 11. Victory over powerful enemies 12. Marries a princess, often the daughter of his enemy or his predecessor 13. Acknowledged as king 14. Reigns for a time peacefully 15. Prescribes new laws, promotes new world order 16. Later loses favor with gods and/or subjects 17. Driven from throne and city 18. Mysterious or unusual death 19. Dies in elevated place, such as hilltop 20. Children do not succeed him 21. Corpse not buried conventionally, or somehow hidden 22. Has one or more revered tombs 23. Prophecies predict future greatness


Here is my scoring rationale for Mithridates VI of Pontus. His very high ranking in the Mythic Hero Scale is overdetermined, since several of the incidents receive multiple points. Mithradates' score is a perfect 23, with many extra credit points.


1. Mother a princess. Mithradates' mother, Queen Laodice, was a Seleucid princess.

2. Father a king. His father was King Mithridates V.

3. Parents related or have complex relationship. His parents, Mithridates V and Queen Laodice, may well have been remotely related, since both had entangled Macedonian and Persian family trees. Since Laodice was suspected of complicity in the murder of her husband, their relationship was complicated.

4. Unusual circumstances before birth. The rare, spectacular comet of

135 BC coincided with Mithradates' conception.

5. Son of or sent by gods. Mithridates' name means "sent by Mithra,"

and his authority to rule was bestowed by Mithra; according to ancient Iranian belief, the king is sacred, descended from the the Sun god. Mithradates' birth was said to fulfill oracles predicting a savior-king rising in the East. Mithradates was compared to the god Dionysus and the demi-god Hercules, both of whom he claimed as his ancestor. Mithridates also claimed descent from Alexander the Great, who by the first century BC had become a divine cult figure.

Mithridates himself was hailed as a god by followers in Asia.

6. Attempts to kill during childhood. While he was a boy, enemies within the palace attempted to murder him by various means, and his mother was suspected of trying to poison him.

7. Abandonment, exile, separation; escapes premature death.

Mithradates survived a lightning strike as a child. His father was murdered when Mithridates was a boy, abandoning him to the treachery of his mother. The teenage Mithridates disappeared into the countryside for seven years, again escaping premature death. Another long sojourn, in which Mithridates was presumed dead, occurred early in his reign. As a young man, he escaped another poisoning plot by his sister-wife.

8. Grows up in a faraway land, among peasants and animals. He survived and grew strong in the wilderness, hunting animals and living off the land for seven years, encountering and aided by numerous remote mountain folk. In his second long expedition incognito, Mithridates visited his future dominions to learn about geography, resources, towns, roads, and his subjects.

9. Little known childhood. There are very few details about Mithradates' childhood; his teen years shrouded in mystery.

10. Upon reaching adulthood, returns to kingdom. After seven years, Mithridates returned to his kingdom and recovered it. After losing his kingdom in adulthood, Mithradates regained it again.

11. Victory over powerful enemies. Mithradates overcame his dangerous enemies at court, imprisoning and poisoning his mother and getting rid of other rivals. He also won numerous victories over the Romans.

12. Marries a princess, daughter of his enemy or predecessor.

Mithridates married his own sister, Princess Laodice. She was not only the daughter of his predecessor (his father) but also the daughter of his enemy (his mother).

13. Acknowledged as king. Mithridates was welcomed and hailed as king of Pontus.

14. Rules peacefully for a time. For the first decade or so of Mithradates' reign, Pontus was quiescent and peaceful.

15. Prescribes new laws. Mithridates established new laws (freeing slaves, relieving debt, expanding citizenship) and promoted a "new world order" in his alternative to  Roman rule in Anatolia and the East.

16. Later loses favor with gods or subjects. During the wars against Rome, many omens indicated the gods' disfavor; heavy losses caused his allies to abandon Mithridates' cause. His subjects turned against his increasingly draconian rule; he was beset by defections, desertions, betrayals. In the end, he lost his power in a revolt.

17. Driven from throne and city. Lucullus and Pompey the Great both drove Mithridates from his throne in Sinope, Pontus, forcing him to abandon his kingdom and flee for his life, first to Armenia, and then over the Caucasus Mountains to his alternate Kingdom of the Bosporus in the Crimea.. His son Pharnaces revolted, forcing Mithradates to flee to the high tower of his fortress.

18. Unusual or mysterious death. The circumstances of Mithridates'

death  were extraordinaryy, mysterious, and violent: he attempted to commit suicide with poison but was thwarted due to his lifelong immunization regimen. He died by the sword at the hands of his most trusted bodyguard. Some sources indicate he was forced to commit suicide or killed by  rebels. Dio Cassius 37.13 notes that Mithradates' death was not "simple" but in effect "double."

19. Dies in an elevated place. Mithridates died  in the high tower of his fortress. on top of the high hill above the town of Panticapaeum.

20. Children do not succeed him. Mithridates himself ensured that his sons could not succeed him, by murdering or getting rid of all but one viable heir. That son, Pharnaces, betrayed him to the Romans, and usurped the crown. But Pharnaces' status was that of a client king of Rome, and later he was utterly crushed  and killed by Julius Caesar in 47 BC.

21. Corpse not buried conventionally, or somehow hidden. Mithridates'

corpse was poorly embalmed and shipped across the Black Sea to Pompey. But the body was so decomposed that Mithradates' face was unrecognizable, raising doubts that he was really dead. Even though Pompey could not be certain it was Mithridates' body, he gave it a grand burial/ 22. More than one revered tomb. Pompey placed the body in Mithridates' family sepulchre in Pontus. But the sources are unclear and scholars still debate: Was Mithradates' body ctually interred in Sinope or in Amasis?

23. Prophecies predicted future greatness. Numerous prophecies and oracles were interpreted to predict Mithridates' birth, his rise to power, and his grand destiny.