Got Pandemics – Pt. 2: Which of the Gods, in the Name of Truth, Fixed These Absurd Proportions?

Remember Old Mithridates, the King who couldn’t die by his own poison?

Here’s a reminder from poet A.E. Houseman (collected in A Shropshire Lad, 1896):

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 that 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.


Mithridates, the panacea, also known as theriac (Theriacum Andromachi) was in use to cure poisoning well into the 19th century.

Adding to the mythos was this: that the recipe was in Mithridates’ cabinet, and that the conquering General Popmey took it back to Rome. There, it was improved on by Andromachus, a physician to Emperor Nero, and then by Galen, who is still considered one of the greatest pioneers of early Western medicine.


Bring Out Your Dead: Mithridates and the Plague

“Doctor Beaky”, Paul Fürst, engraving, c. 1721, of a plague doctor from Marseilles. The beak could be filled with anti-plague herbs…

Here’s a recipe to ward of the Bubonic plague from 1593:

Take a great Onyon, make a hole in the myddle of him, then fill the place with Mitridat or Triacle (Venice Triacle, another name for theriac), and some leaues of Rue
– Simon Kellwaye, A defensatiue against the plague contayning two partes or treatises

Oliver Cromwell of Commonwealth fame used large doses to prevent the plague, and found it also quite useful for his acne (according to historian Christopher Hill).

In London, it was still legal to prescribe through 1786. So, how do you make it?


According to Celsus’ De Medicina (ca. AD 30), you’ll need these ingredients:

  • costmary, 1–66 grams
  • sweet flag, 20 grams
  • hypericum, 8 grams
  • Natural gum, 8 grams
  • sagapenum, 8 grams
  • acacia juice, 8 grams
  • Illyrian iris (probably I. germanica), 8 grams
  • cardamom, 8 grams
  • anise, 12 grams
  • Gallic nard (Valeriana italica),16 grams
  • gentian root, 16 grams
  • dried rose leaves, 16 grams
  • poppy-tears (Papaver rhoeas, a wild poppy with low opiate content), 17 grams
  • parsley, 17 grams
  • casia, 20–66 grams
  • saxifrage, 20–66 grams
  • darnel, 20–66 grams
  • long pepper, 20–66 grams
  • storax, 21 grams
  • castoreum, 24 grams
  • frankincense, 24 grams
  • hypocistis juice, 24 grams
  • myrrh, 24 grams
  • opopanax, 24 grams
  • malabathrum leaves, 24 grams
  • flower of round rush, 24–66 grams
  • turpentine-resin, 24–66 grams
  • galbanum, 24–66 grams
  • Cretan carrot seeds, 24–66 grams
  • nard, 25 grams
  • opobalsam, 25 grams
  • shepherd’s purse, 25 grams
  • rhubarb root, 28 grams
  • saffron, 29 grams
  • ginger, 29 grams
  • cinnamon, 29 grams

Celsus continues: the ingredients are then “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.”

More modern versions sometimes included dried lizard blood and or flesh; vipers were singled out for their efficacy.

Snake blood…

snake oil?


So, was everyone taken in by Mithridates?

Here’s Pliny, from his Natural History, XXIX.24–25, ca. 77 CE:

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.


What’s the take away?

Mithridates probably won’t cure any plagues or pandemics.

But at least everyone’s acne would clear up.

Consider this a cup half full scenario.

[still, make sure anyone who drank from that cup’s been tested,
just saying]

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