The first book I bought for my new Kindle was The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, by Adrienne Mayor, and I’m reading it now (in the breaks from my editing work); just as the reviews promised, it’s lively and well written, and provides a look at a familiar subject (the rise of Rome) from an unfamiliar point of view (that of the Asians who resented the corruption and brutality of Roman rule and tried to throw off the yoke). It starts off with the simultaneous massacre of tens of thousands of Romans, men, women, and children—basically, every Roman in Asia—in 88 BC, somehow coordinated across a huge territory.

Ever heard of it? Neither had I, and it was one of the worst instances of genocide in history before modern times. And who knew that Mithridates, famous for his investigations into poisons (“Mithridates, he died old“), was probably inspired by the example of Attalus III, who died around the time he was born? Anyway, if you like ancient history, you’ll probably like the book; here’s a nice list of ancient names for the red earth that helped make the fortune of Sinope, the capital of Pontus in Mithridates’ day (a town situated on a narrow isthmus between the mainland and a rocky peninsula—anybody know of other examples of towns built on an isthmus?): “Cinnabar, zinjifrah, vermilion, Sinopic red earth, ruby sulphur, miltos sinopike, sinople, orpiment, oker, sandaracha, sandyx, lithargyron, zamikh, arsenicum, arhenicum, zirnikhi, sindura, minium, Armenian calche, realgar, dragon’s blood: all were ancient names for the many forms of toxic ores containing mercury, sulphur, and/or arsenic.”


  1. Another great city of the Graeco-Roman world was Corinth, which held the Isthmian games – the ancient sources say that it was the city’s location on the isthmus between Athens and Sparta that earned it its great wealth through control of shipping lanes, before the Peloponnesian War.

  2. “Towns built on an isthmus?” Auckland, New Zealand must be the best example. Nagasaki was originally only facing the sea in one direction, but the modern metropolitan area seems to be large enough to qualify as “isthmian” too. The same could perhaps apply to Corinth – while the city proper is on the west side of its isthmus (*the* isthmus of antiquity), there seem to be adjacent communities facing the east side as well, so it won’t be too much of a stretch to describe it as a truly “isthmian” conurbation.
    If you allow isthmuses (isthmi?) between lakes (or between lakes and the sea), Madison, WI, Penticton, BC, or even Seattle, WA could count as well, and there are probably quite a few more places like this.
    If rivers are counted, you’ll get even more, such as New Orleans, between the Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain. In Russia, Ulyanovsk (Simbirsk) is famous for being located between two rivers: the Volga, which flows to the south, and the Sviyaga, which flows north, just to fall eventually into the Volga hundreds of miles away from Ulyanovsk.

  3. Attalus III, who died around the time he was born
    At least he lived long enough to count to three.

  4. What a great question, Language. I’ve looked it up. Suez & Panama are both isthmus cities, but it’s really Corinth that is significant from a city-planning point of view. The ancient Greek city was on the southern, i.e. Peleponnesian, side of the isthmus, with ports on both gulfs (Gulf of Corinth & Saronic Gulf) to its north. Periander (d. 585) was one of many who tried to cut a canal. When he couldn’t manage it he constructed a paved ramp, the Diolkos, that transported both merchant and naval shipping 5 miles overland on a horse-drawn railway. So being on the isthmus was a Good Thing, except during the Middle Ages, when Corinth had to utilise the acropolis to its south to repel invaders of the Peloponnese. The important thing to remember is that Periander, though apparently a horrible man, invented the railway, and the tolls he imposed allowed him to abolish taxes in Corinth.

  5. In the Diolkos article that Crown links, there is this statement:

    Greek historians note several occasions from the 5th to the 1st century BC when warships were hauled across the Isthmus in order to speed up naval campaigning.

    I saw something on German TV recently about one of those occasions, I think this one:

    After his victory at Actium in 31 BC, Octavian advanced as fast as possible against Marc Antony by ordering part of his 260 Liburnians to be carried over the Isthmus.

    For me these feats imply that “warships” must have been pretty small in comparison with modern ones, more like jumbo canoes.

  6. The trireme was invented in Corinth. It all reminds me of that 1980s movie about transporting a ship and an opera house across S. America. Made by a German, you must remember it. Called something like Patrick Velazquez.

  7. For about two years now, there have been quite a few documentary series on German TV (some from the BBC) about Roman politics, architectural techniques, engineering and military activities. These are not the gushing “wow, gee, look at all the things those ancients knew about” kind of documentary, but rather detailed presentations to which speculation is only sparingly added.
    I am fascinated despite myself, since politics, building buildings etc. are not subjects I am drawn to. Bookish as I am, I must say that these documentaries have got history tomes beat flat.

  8. that 1980s movie about transporting a ship and an opera house across S. America. Made by a German, you must remember it. Called something like Patrick Velazquez.
    That’s Fitzcarraldo with Klaus Kinski, directed by Herzog.

  9. That’s it.

  10. I remember the word orpiment from some sort of short story, but I can’t recall who authored it or what it was about. Google is no help. It’s bothering me far more than it should.
    Anyway, those words almost all have wonderful etymologies and histories. According to Wikipedia, no one knows the etymology of cinnabar, but if it comes from zinjifrah, I wonder if it’s related to Zanzibar (Zanjibar), from zanji for iron rust. See also the apparently unrelated gingers or zingibers and the Yemeni city of Zinjibar, recently in the news and in Arabic pronounced like the island off Tanzania. Something strange happening with those zees. What might frah mean in persian?

  11. First problem solved. Oliver Sack’s Oaxaca Journal, which also mentions the fabulous mispickel. What an internet!

  12. It’s interesting that you would characterize a successful rebellion against an Imperial overlord as genocide – I’m not saying it’s wrong to do so but it certainly is an outlier in the use of the word.

  13. –anybody know of other towns built on an ishmus?
    How about ancient Cyzicos (Kyzikos) on the Sea of Marmora?

  14. Can’t think of any English isthmus towns or cities but there’s a few up in Scotland which for topographical placename convenience some are actually named Tarbert (An Tairbeart) a Gaelic term corresponding with the word isthmus. Stranraer (An t-Sròn Reamhar) is a Scottish town situated on the shore of Loch Ryan (Loch Rìoghaine) on the northern side of the isthmus connecting the Rhins of Galloway (Na Rannaibh) to the mainland. This is a site of language lovers so I’ve included the Gaelic names.

  15. Trond Engen says

    There are isthmus cities and then there are isthmus cities. Corinth owes its existence to the strategic position on the overland crossing. There seems to be surprisingly few of its kind, at least on narrow isthmuses. Södertälje in Sweden is one. If we include the Suez type, cities on one end of an overland crossing, the list is long — and it’s hard to draw a limit. Sinope, on the other hand, is located on an isthmus behind a small peninsula, giving it some shelter and two harbours, which is convenient, but hardly a significant advantage in controlling the transport route between them. This type is more common. Some have been mentioned. I may add Ceuta, Gibraltar, maybe Cadiz, and Llandudno in Wales … but even here there’s a line that has to be drawn. Dakar? Cape Town? Baku?

  16. Or even Inverness?

  17. I just finished reading ‘greek fire, poison arrows and scorpion bombs’ by the same author (Mayor) where she mentions the use of beli dal (toxic honey) by allies of Mithradates against Roman soldiers.
    The Black Sea area was famous in antiquity for its commerce and cultures were mostly peaceful.

  18. Crown, Joe R above mentions Oliver Sacks’ Oaxaca Journal about an expedition to Oaxaca with other enthusiasts to observe ferns. A German reviewer of the book characterizes some of the people accompanying Sacks as “interesting crackpots”, two of whom (to the astonishment of the reviewer) “spoke fluent Norwegian with each other”. I suppose one doesn’t expect crackpots to speak Norwegian – is that your experience ?
    The title of the German translation of Oaxaca Journal is another instance of German media honchos treating the pop as a bunch of klutzes who need to have everything spelled out. “Oaxaca Journal” is rendered as “The Refined New York Fern Society”. By chance I am just now reading In The Mind’s Eye by Sacks. The translation is appropriately titled Das innere Auge, a strange departure from common practice.

  19. The only Norwegians I think of as crackpots are those who insist that the paperclip is a Norwegian invention.

  20. >Joe R
    The etymology of cinnabar comes, like Spanish “cinabrio”, from the Greek “kinnábari” = vermilion:
    It’s mercury sulfuric. Also, “vermilion” (our bermellón) is related with the color of this mineral.
    As regards of zinjifrah, perhaps it’s related with the Pelvi, like our “azogue” (mercury): http://buscon.rae.es/draeI/SrvltGUIBusUsual?TIPO_HTML=2&LEMA=azogue
    My job is in Almadén (Spain) where the most important mine of cinnabar in the world is.

  21. Gosh, I had never heard of the Norwegian pretensions to paperclip primofacture. I just read up on it in the WiPe. With such dangerously revisionist opinions as you express, it’s no wonder you guys decided to live out in the Norwegian woods.

  22. So Mithridates was rebelling against an imperial power. How is that relevant as to whether or not that was genocide?

  23. Corinth is of course the first city that comes to mind when one thinks of isthmuses (or isthmoi), but although the modern city has sprawled towards the actual isthmus, the ancient city was well away from it, on and around the high hill called Acrocorinth, obviously because that was more defensible, which is why it’s unusual to find cities on isthmuses.
    It’s interesting that you would characterize a successful rebellion against an Imperial overlord as genocide – I’m not saying it’s wrong to do so but it certainly is an outlier in the use of the word.
    It certainly is not an outlier; genocide is defined as “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group,” which is precisely what this was. Like befuggled, I don’t see what the reason for it has to do with anything. If you kill somebody in the service of national liberation, is that person less dead?

  24. Would Dalian count as an isthmus city? Not totally sure, but it gives that impression.
    So Mithridates was rebelling against an imperial power. How is that relevant as to whether or not that was genocide?
    Probably not, but usually ‘genocide’ is used when the powerful set out to destroy a hapless minority. It doesn’t sound right when it’s the oppressed throwing off shackles.
    ‘Ethnic cleansing’ is another term that springs to mind.

  25. it’s unusual to find cities on isthmuses
    Well, only literally – i.e. on the low ground by the water. When you get to defensible higher ground overlooking the isthmus, it was a great trade location.

  26. Trond Engen says

    Other ancient cities founded where promontories form a narrow isthmus are Aden in Yemen, Milazzo and Gaeta in Italy. Bergen in Norway may be included too (though I know enough about it to be aware that it was formed around one bay, turning its back on the other). Cumae in Italy and Khania on Crete are on one side of somewhat wider isthmuses.
    There are also some cities that were built on off-coast, often fortified, islands that time (i.e. rubbish disposal and engineering) turned into peninsulas, with the new city center located on the landfills: Tyre, Bombay, Macao (and maybe some of the above actually belong here too).
    (Does anyone mind me having my own subthread here? It’s hard to stick to the subject without my favourite Norwegian invention.)

  27. Grumpy, the main chain of shops in Norway that sells stationery, xerox paper, pens etc. was called Binders (Norwegian word for paperclip) until recently, when it was bought by, and changed its name to, the equivalent US chain – which is called Staples. So progress is being made.

  28. Trond Engen says

    Oh, much happening while I was writing. That’s for not remembering to reload before posting.
    For most of the ancient cities I think the fortified promontory is the key feature. The isthmus itself is just convenient building ground. Around the globe there are some really striking peninsular promontories wirhout cities. I wonder if archaeologists should take a closer look on some of them.
    I didn’t think of Dalian, but that too, apparently. How old is it? There are some newer isthmic cities. Djibouti comes to mind.

  29. When I was a kid, my parents had beautiful crystals of cinnabar (Russian киноварь) in their mineral collection, found in the ancient mines of Khaidarken, which were to Central Asia what Almaden was to the Roman Empire. Quite likely that’s where zinjifrah of the Persian shakhs was coming from. BTW Russian wikipedia posits that cinnabar is a corruption of zinjifrah. The Russian name of the mineral is nowadays mostly associated with the werewolves who supposedly color their lips with cinnabar to instill greater fear into the hapless prey.
    Isthmus cities: it isn’t really about geography, but about their being a gate which one can’t bypass by dry land? Then the most famous regional parallel would be the seashore fortress of Derbent, aka Bab al Abwab, the Gate of Gates … which isn’t even located on a geographical isthmus. Rather, it is blocking access along a narrow coastal plain between the mountains and the shore.
    Lastly please stop the crazy “oppression justifies genocides” talk! Who is the powerful and who is the weak is fluid and relative and subject to temporal and local vagaries; moreover, the feeling of “being oppressed or slighted” is notoriously subjective. There is nothing subjective or relative about extermination of peoples, though.

  30. John Emerson says

    I’d say “massacre” is better than genocide. There’s a lot of argument about what qualifies, and the term was invented to mark the unique horror of the Nazi extermination of the Jews.

  31. I have a few reservations about the book. The author slants Mithridates as some kind of Eastern freedom fighter against an overbearing Rome, ignoring the view of him as an opportunistic despot no less interested in building his own kingdom as the Romans were theirs. There’s a good deal of flimflam in the man (his claim to Persian blood is unproven family lore at best) that fooled most of the people most of the time, but caught up with him in the end. I didn’t get the impression the author saw behind the facade.
    She is also a little fast and loose in setting up Rome as the baddy. One example only – she uses ironic quotation marks in describing how Rome “liberated” Caunus from Rhodes in 167bc. It’s more complicated than that. Yes, it was force majeure, Rhodes having bought and paid for Caunus – however, the Senate’s order was instigated by petitions from (presumably unhappy) citizens of Caunus.
    Not a terrible book, but not a defining one either, and not to be read in isolation.

  32. >MOCKBA
    I’m sorry, with “Pelvi” I meant “Pahlavi”.
    Yours parents were so lucky because, as you know, the crystals of cinnabar aren’t frequent. Thanks to you I’ve just known not only the mines of Khaidarken but a colleague of mine has worked for UNEP there; it’s a small world!

  33. ignoring the view of him as an opportunistic despot no less interested in building his own kingdom as the Romans were theirs.
    Yes, I’ve not read this particular book but from from I know of Mithradates it was more a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

  34. J.W. Brewer says

    Presumably various pogroms and other historical anti-Semitic outrages were understood by their participants as instances of the powerless/oppressed getting back at their supposedly powerful (indeed, world-controlling, according to some propaganda they might have been exposed to) oppressors. I think a good rule of thumb is to say when you start systematically killing children of a particular group I am not interested in hearing justifications or even definitional arguments based on alleged power differentials between the corresponding sets of adults. E.g., I am willing to stipulate that the Russians (Czarist, Bolshevik, and post-Commie alike) have treated the Chechens pretty abominably over the last century and a half — but kill a couple hundred schoolchildren in Beslan and it turns out my interest in legitimate Chechen grievances will dwindle to the point of asymptotically approaching zero.

  35. The author slants Mithridates as some kind of Eastern freedom fighter against an overbearing Rome, ignoring the view of him as an opportunistic despot no less interested in building his own kingdom as the Romans were theirs.
    I haven’t finished the book, but I don’t get that feeling at all. She makes it very clear that he was interested in building his own kingdom, but she also points out some salient differences: he wanted to create a “coprosperity trade zone” in which taxation would support the state without killing off business, so that everyone could prosper: “Indeed, the immense and surprising wealth that archaeologists are uncovering in the northern Black Sea region—not just in urban areas but in the chora—reveals the great success of Mithradates’ concept. Mithradates’ farsighted vision offered a positive alternative to Rome’s rapacious greed and violent resource extraction in its early period of conquest.” (p. 107) Her point is not that his rule would have been one of universal love in which the lion would lie down with the lamb, but that it would have been better than rule by Rome, which it’s hard to argue with. There was a reason so many people were rebelling against Rome all over, in the West, in Africa, and in the East.
    Not a terrible book, but not a defining one either, and not to be read in isolation.
    I don’t really understand this way of looking at books (which I see a lot in reviews). Why should it be “defining”? Does it really make sense to expect, or want, a book so magisterial that it will replace all others past and present? I’m happy if a book teaches me a few new things without boring me, and if it provides a whole new perspective, as this one does, I’m downright thrilled.
    Presumably various pogroms and other historical anti-Semitic outrages were understood by their participants as instances of the powerless/oppressed getting back at their supposedly powerful … oppressors. I think a good rule of thumb is to say when you start systematically killing children of a particular group I am not interested in hearing justifications or even definitional arguments based on alleged power differentials between the corresponding sets of adults.
    I am very much in accord with both points.

  36. I don’t really understand this way of looking at books (which I see a lot in reviews). Why should it be “defining”?
    Because reviews are basically news, and nothing is important in the news universe unless it is (a) new and (b) the only or the best or both.

  37. Not a terrible book, but not a defining one either, and not to be read in isolation.
    Many reviews – perhaps most – are not terrible, but are not defining ones either, and not to be read in isolation.
    That review sentence contains magisterial, defining pretensions on the part of the reviewer. It suggests that he is so familiar with the subject, and has read so many books past and present on the subject, that he can sum it all up for you at no extra charge.
    Reviewers assume that they are at the top of the food chain. Effectively they are, because nobody bothers to review reviewers – there’s just not enough meat there.

  38. Re-reading the list of the ancient poision-mineral names again, I was at first surprised that arsenic ores such as realgar are listed there alongside with the mercury minerals. These elements are no synonims! But apparently the author knew the difference after all.
    We’ve recently discussed Efremov and I think I should mention here one of his great short adventure stories, about a discovery of mercury ores in my beloved Altai Mountains. Lake of the Mountain Spirits tells of the narrator’s fascination with a landscape painting by a native Altai artist, dying, he believes, because of the curse of the place he dared to paint, and of the narrator’s quest to find the cursed lake and to solve its mystery (which, as he gradually comes to believe, is caused by rich mercury deposits on the lake shores).
    I remember Efremov’s fans seeing the author’s veritable prescience in this story (because mercury has indeed been found and mined in Altai), and the author himself kind of shrugging it off (because, he said, it was only natural to expect mercury to be discovered in this region of polymetallic ores, and because the actual mine didn’t have any magnificent lakes and peaks like in the painting).
    As I researched the story before posting it here, the reality turned out to be even more fascinating in some aspects. The painting of the sharp-pointed peak did exist in reality – it was a 1910 painting by (indeed) a native Altaian, titled, lo and behold, Lake of the Mountain Spirits! The pre-WWI years in Russia were strong on theosophy and general fascination with Buddhism, and with the idea of continuity between Altai and the Himalayas. The high range still remains a place of pilgrimage for Russia’s esoteric followers, most notably the Akkem (White Water Spirit) Lake at a base of the towering Noth Face of Belukha, which does look similar to the painting.
    But of course, unlike in the tale, there were no toxic spirit-fumes in the actual painting; and the painter, although frail and sick, survived decades of deprivations after painting it. And the mercury mine of Aktash, Altai, had already been operational by the time Efremov started writing his tale (1942).
    … it already turns out to be very long post, so I’ll have to return at a later time to tell a story of poison-mine rockhounding in Central Asia, and its curse, for Jesús. BTW there were nice specimens of orpiment in the same collection of my parents, too … strange that Adrienne Mayor doesn’t mention this name (aka auripigment) in her list.

  39. Grumbly by name, grumbly by nature.
    Look, there were a lot of gushing reviews when the book came out and there are plenty of people who read one popular book and assume that is the end of the story. This book, like Ms Schiff’s recent Cleopatra bio, is a case in point. It’s a fun read, but it has significant flaws (Sulla leveled Piraeus, not Athens) and it contains a bunch of conjecture better suited to novelists (an approach I would have no problem with, btw, as long as it is in novels). And yes, I really did get a sense that she was cutting Mithridates slack that she was not cutting the Romans.
    Without wishing to spoil the ending, let us just say her thoughts on his end of life are – novel. Also kind of pointless in a book of history. (And what’s with the anachronistic or pop culture chapter titles? That’s just weird.)
    Also not defining but worth reading is McGing’s “Foreign Policy of Mithridates VI Eupator King of Pontus”, if you can get a hold of it.

  40. I really did get a sense that she was cutting Mithridates slack that she was not cutting the Romans.
    I would agree with that, but I also have no problem with it. She’s not writing a dispassionate, just-the-facts-ma’am work of history, she’s openly presenting a totally different perspective than the one we’re used to, which is completely Rome-centered even though it mentions the terrible things the Romans did from time to time—you come away with the idea that Romans were the people who mattered, and if they had to bash a few barbarian heads together to maintain their supremacy, so be it. She’s presenting the opposite point of view: the Romans were greedy, brutal overlords, and Mithridates (or Mithradates, as she prefers to spell it), for all his faults, was trying to rid people of their yoke. I think that’s a valid perspective, and I applaud her for trying to get it across by any means necessary, including novelization (which is quite open—she always introduces the “might have” passages by telling you that’s what she’s going to do). I think we need many more alternate views of history, and I’m willing to cut them slack I don’t cut reiterations of the standard Greeks-and-Romans-leading-to-Us story.
    Thanks for the McGing recommendation; I’ll keep an eye out for it.

  41. Of course, I wouldn’t recommend anyone read Mayor as their only introduction to the history of the period. (And I’m still only halfway through; I may well find the ending irritating.)
    By the way, I had an odd experience with the Kindle edition. Plate 10 is not shown; instead there’s a notice “To view this image, please refer to the print version of this book.” Anybody know what that’s about?

  42. Following up on the comment by Jesús about the cinnabar mine in Almadén (Spain), during the 19th century that mine was run by the Rothschilds on behalf of the Spanish monarchy. Since it was a virtual monopoly, the price of mercury was very high.
    At the time of the California Gold Rush, another rich source of cinnabar was discovered at New Almaden, near San Jose, California. This allowed the extensive use of mercury in separating the gold, creating a massive amount of mercury pollution which is still causing problems today.

  43. >Maidhc
    Before the Rothschilds, the Fuggers ( hispanicized as Fúcares) “hired” the mine for 150 years, with our Emperor Carlos I (born in 1500) and then others kings because these ones had to pay their debts mainly because of a lot of wars. Nearly all American gold and silver went to Germany and others countries. There are still two houses that belonged to Fugger, in Almadén and Almagro. During the Spanish colonial era there was a mine in Huancavelica (Peru) that was used for Nueva Granada (Peru and its surroundings) whereas Almadén supplied Nueva España (México). This mine was exploited from the Roman to nearly nowadays though there are good reserves.
    The metallic mercury is not as pollutant as others derivative products like it vapor, organic compounds, etc.
    As curiosity, the etymology of Almadén is from the Arabic and means “the mine”.

  44. Almadén is from the Arabic and means “the mine”
    Jesús, Khaidarkan is usually translated simply as “the great mine” too (Central Asian Turkic languages use the word kan / ken for “mine”, although Turkish switched to Arabic “maden”). But Khaidar / Haydar / Geydar (already discussed in another languagehat thread) is more commonly a personal name (although it also serves as an epithet of grandeur, for example when added to Imam Ali’s name). It is from the Arabic حيدر “lion”
    ancient names for the red earth
    on my Nth reading, I come back to my belief that the author didn’t know the difference between arsenic and mercury after all; for the list is limited to the red minerals of arsenic!
    “My family’s” arsenic beauty wasn’t red – it was golden starry orpiment, from Kugitangtau aka Köýtendag Range if I recall it right (another abandoned mine province in Central Asia, so close to the Great Game line that it was actually mined by the tresspasing British at one point, ca. 1920. With their limited supplies of rail stock, the Britts famously “inchwormed” their RR track, continuously taking it apart behind their operation to lay more track in front of it).
    My stepfather was among the pioneers of speleology in Russia, and in 1975 he was invited to join an unusual rockhounding outfit. Officially an “academic geological expedition”, it consisted of just one truck, one geologist, one caver, and one laborer / cook (my Mom). They went exploring abandoned mines and natural caves in Central Asia, including many ancient poison works. He’s got badly hurt by this curse, if it exists of course, first coming down from endemic leishmaniasis, and much later, with an unknown medical condition which may or may not related to tropical elephantiasis (disfigured feet, collapsed ankle joints … not for the faint of heart really).
    Speaking of mercury and medical conditions, I also can’t help remembering an exhibit about American Civil War medicine at Washington DC Walter Reed Military Medicine Museum. There was this one fellow with a toothache who’s got treated by a small dose of corrosive sublimate aka white mercury. The doc made a small hundred-fold mistake, and although the private’s tooth was no longer aching, his jawbone and cheekbones started to dissolve. In short time the poor chap has been discharged from the military with pay, and started to earn more money at freak shows. The ex-soldier was so grateful to the Doc for saving him from the battles, and from poverty, that he willed his horribly disfigured skull to the hospital after his death.

  45. a few more minerals…
    Sinopic red earth, miltos sinopike, sinople, oker
    Strabo mentions this “miltos” from Cappadocia, exported through Sinope, which was “superior to all others” (even the Iberian one). Then modern authors begin to add conjectures … the notion of “arsenic sulfate” travels from one publication to another, probably implying that it was reagar (consisting of arsenic and sulfur, although not in any way a sulfate).
    Well it turns out that this red pigment (better known today as Sinopia) isn’t toxic, or sulfuric for that matter. Rather, it is a red form of iron oxide superbly useful for painting, frescos, and fresco backgrounds.
    Red / burnt oker / ocher / ochre is a cheaper form of the same iron oxide pigment; Pliny is quoted as writing that its highest quality form was brought from, yes, Sinope.
    sandaracha, sandyx, lithargyron … Armenian calche Lithargyron is another pigment which contains neither nercury nor arsenic. It is yellow lead oxide. Pliny discusses the quality of its subtypes (chiefly sandaracha, but also red-hued sandyx made by Syros islanders by mixing lead oxide with iron oxide of local red ochers, or sometimes the superior red ochers of Sinop). Strabo on the other hand believed that sandyx was mined somethere in Armenia, and “resembled the calche”.
    I just think that the author is far too quick with running crazy Google search-hopping and quickly scanning the results for the words which sound the best. Shoddy work to make a false impression of encyclopedic erudition.

  46. Thanks for all that legwork, MOCKBA, and I agree, it sounds like she was aiming more for piling up effects than for accuracy.

  47. John Emerson says

    Ochres are iron oxides and were used as pigments from a very early period, long before they were used as ores, just as cinnabar was. It is thought that the smelting of metals was a spinoff of the firing of pottery (because of the high-temperature ovens used) and of the use of pigments, and had its beginnings N. of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, and near the Urals.

  48. the list of words on p 71, as Mayor says, includes ancient terms that are “difficult to sort out and identify today.” Just as in botanical terms, the medieval and modern uses of words for minerals are not the same as the ones in antiquity and scholars labor to figure out which minerals were really intended in the ancient sources. Plus, the list of words were “ancient names for many forms of ores that contain mercury, sulfur, and/or arsenic” not just red earth. Do any of you bother to consult an author’s footnotes? The list obviously comes from the numerous written sources, both ancient and modern, which are listed in the footnote. Eg Pliny says “lithargyron” was a Grk word for mercury: “the essential things that are of force to endue brass with a whiter color, are these. Arsenic or Oker, that kind of Quicksilver that is sublimated, as the alchemists call it, the foam or froth of silver, which is called by the Greeks, Lithargyron…”
    On genocide, the author Mayor gives a very clear and detailed definition of “genocide” as it may be used in antiquity.
    On the missing Plate 10–Looks like National Geographic refused to permit reproduction in Kindle.

  49. BWA “significant flaws (Sulla leveled Piraeus, not Athens)”
    P 205, Sulla’s destruction of Piraeus by fire is clearly described.
    p p 202-203, Sulla’s massacre of the entire population of Athens, razing the city walls and plundering everything of value is generally agreed by ancient historians to mean the end of Athens as it was known in antiquity, even though Sulla boasted that he did not burn the buildings.
    as for Caunus, are you sure the petition to Rome was not instigated by the Romans who lived there?

  50. Eg Pliny says “lithargyron” was a Grk word for mercury
    the passage you quoted is actually from an English translation of a XVI c. treatise on magic by a teenage Neapolitan alchemist, Giambattista della Porta. Does Mayor’s footnote really attribute this to Pliny?

  51. “even though Sulla boasted that he did not burn the buildings.”
    It would have sounded worse if he had burned the buildings, same as the Blitz on London still resonates while the bombings of Liverpool and Hull are largely forgotten outside of England. Likewise, “Is Paris Burning?” was a bestseller in a way that “Is LeHavre Burning?” could never have been. After the dead are buried, we remember the art and architecture. Cold, but there it is.
    Nor did he massacre “the entire population”.
    Plutarch writes that the best of Athens committed suicide in despair on the, as it turned out incorrect – belief that Sulla would raze the city. Soon after, he stopped the killing, enough that that it could indeed recover. Battered and bruised and bleeding and never the same, but not eradicated like, say, Carthage.
    “as for Caunus,..”
    No. Do you know otherwise. And anyway, what of it? Regardless, Mayor was the one insinuating that the Roman relief was a sham. Which is, I still contend, tendentious.

  52. On the missing Plate 10–Looks like National Geographic refused to permit reproduction in Kindle.
    Thanks. I have no idea why Nat Geo would do that, but at least I know what’s going on.

  53. Apropos the history of ocher … a 100 millennia old ocher paint factory is being described in the current issue of Science. (I recall that in the similar ocean-shore caves of South Africa, the archeologists have already uncovered the earliest symbolic art, a latticework of ocher lines). The paint-makers used abalone seashells as vessels, and it powerfully underscores the importance of the rich seashore ecosystems for the early development of the human culture … of course since the Ice Age sea levels were so much lower than now, most of the artifacts left behind by the ancient seashore dwellers remain submerged out of reach of archeologists. Shore cliff caves are the one notable exception.

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