People > Mithridates



Mithridates (died 401 BC) was a young Persian soldier in the army of king Artaxerxes II who according to a version in Plutarch's Life of Artaxerxes II, accidentally killed the rebel claimant to the throne Cyrus the Younger in the Battle of Cunaxa (Greek: Κούναξα). In 404 B.C., the Persian king Darius II died, leaving behind two sons. Artaxerxes was the eldest, and assumed the role of king, while his younger brother Cyrus, challenged this claim. Cyrus had their mother, Parysatis, on his side, and when Cyrus' plot to claim the throne failed, she intervened on his behalf. Cyrus escaped punishment and retreated to Sardis, from which he plotted another attack.

In 401 B.C., Cyrus again raised an army, secretly planning to challenge Artaxerxes once again. Artaxerxes met his brother at Cunaxa, a town near the Euphrates River, and a battle ensued. This time, Cyrus managed to break through Artaxerxes' guard and the battle was nearly won. Cyrus being made elate with victory, and full of confidence and force, passed through enemy lines, crying out, and that more than once, in the Persian language, "Clear the way, villains, clear the way;" which they indeed did, throwing themselves down at his feet. But his tiara dropped off his head, and a young Persian, by name Mithridates, running by, struck a dart into one of his temples near his eye, not knowing who he was, out of which wound much blood gushed, so that Cyrus, swooning and senseless, fell off his horse.

— Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes

Shortly after, Cyrus's death was reported to the king, Artaxerxes. Mithridates was given rich presents by the king, as defeating Cyrus secured Artaxerxes' position as king. However, it was Artaxerxes' wish that all men think it was he and he alone who had slain Cyrus, thus Mithridates was given the rewards for conveying the horse trappings of Cyrus to the king. A while later when invited to a banquet, Mithridates then boasted that he was the one that killed Cyrus, not realizing that he was inducing his own undoing.

Mithridates, also, within a short time after, miserably perished by the like folly; for being invited to a feast where were the eunuchs both of the king and of the queen mother, he came arrayed in the dress and the golden ornaments which he had received from the king. After they began to drink, the eunuch that was the greatest in power with Parysatis thus speaks to him: A magnificent dress, indeed, O Mithridates, is this which the king has given you; the chains and bracelets are glorious, and your scimitar of invaluable worth; how happy has he made you, the object of every eye!" To whom he, being a little overcome with the wine replied, "What are these things, Sparamizes? Sure I am, I showed myself to the king in that day of trial to be one deserving greater and costlier gifts than these." At which Sparamizes smiling, said, "I do not grudge them to you, Mithridates; but since the Grecians tell us that wine and truth go together, let me hear now, my friend, what glorious or mighty matter was it to find some trappings that had slipped off a horse, and to bring them to the king?" And this he spoke, not as ignorant of the truth, but desiring to unbosom him to the company, irritating the vanity of the man, whom drink had now made eager to talk and incapable of controlling himself. So he forbore nothing, but said out, "Talk you what you please of horse-trappings, and such trifles; I declare to you explicitly that this hand was the death of Cyrus. For I threw not my dart as Artaxerxes did, in vain and to no purpose, but only just missing his eye, and hitting him right on the temple, and piercing him through, I brought him to the ground; and of that wound he died." The rest of the company, who saw the end and the hapless fate of Mithridates as if it were already completed, bowed their heads to the ground; and he who entertained them said, "Mithridates, my friend, let us eat and drink now, revering the fortune of our prince, and let us waive discourse which is too weighty for us."

— Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes


Furious, Artaxerxes ordered Mithridates to be executed in a notoriously torturous way known as scaphism, His punishment was recounted as follows:

[The king] decreed that Mithridates should be put to death in boats; which execution is after the following manner: Taking two boats framed exactly to fit and answer each other, they lay down in one of them the malefactor that suffers, upon his back; then, covering it with the other, and so setting them together that the head, hands, and feet of him are left outside, and the rest of his body lies shut up within, they offer him food, and if he refuse to eat it, they force him to do it by pricking his eyes; then, after he has eaten, they drench him with a mixture of milk and honey, pouring it not only into his mouth, but all over his face. They then keep his face continually turned towards the sun; and it becomes completely covered up and hidden by the multitude of flies that settle on it. And as within the boats he does what those that eat and drink must needs do, creeping things and vermin spring out of the corruption and rottenness of the excrement, and these entering into the bowels of him, his body is consumed. When the man is manifestly dead, the uppermost boat being taken off, they find his flesh devoured, and swarms of such noisome creatures preying upon and, as it were, growing to his inwards. In this way Mithridates, after suffering for seventeen days, at last expired.

— Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes


Drisdelle, Rosemary (2010-08-10). Parasites: Tales of Humanity's Most Unwelcome Guests. University of California Press. ISBN 9780520945784.

Fritz, Martin (2016-01-29). Our Human Herds: The Philosophy of Dual Morality and a Theory of Moral Evolution. Dog Ear Publishing. pp. 791–792. ISBN 9781457538018.

Kapferer, Bruce; Telle, Kari; Eriksen, Annelin (2010-08-30). Contemporary Religiosities: Emergent Socialities and the Post-Nation-State. Berghahn Books. p. 158. ISBN 9780857455345.

"Plutarch, Life of Artaxerxes".

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