Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Monday, December 12, 2016

The Last King (2004), by Michael Curtis Ford

The Last King, subtitled Rome's Greatest Enemy, is a clever bit of titling misdirection. This fictionalized biography of Mithridates VI, 6th King of Pontus by that name, is told from the viewpoint of his illegitimate son Pharnaces. Spoiler alert: the last King of Pontus was Pharnaces; not his father.

As noted in the review of Wrath of the Furies, by Steven Saylor, that book inspired me to read more about Mithridates and his multiple rebellions against Rome in the 1st century BC. This novel was a good find, and the first I've read by Michael Curtis Ford. Somewhat in the Bernard Cornwell school - heavy on battlefield gore and glory, Ford failed to match Cornwell's depth of research and historical detail but delivered a good read and a credible plot. The reader's feelings toward Mithridates evolve along with his son's - from absolute devotion to creeping doubt to recognition of the ultimate futility of 25 years of near continuous warfare against the Roman armies that never stopped coming.

The historical Pharnaces apparently failed to learn that lesson, however. Despite this novel's narrative of increasing disillusionment, the son led his own rebellion against Rome a few years later, only to meet Rome's greatest general - Julius Caesar. Caesar's crushing defeat of the last King of Pontus yielded his famously terse post-campaign report: "Veni, vidi, vici" (I came, I saw, I conquered).

The early sources for information on Mithridates VI are mostly Roman, and suffer from the normal cultural biases. When writing about formidable enemies, two standard slants were 1) the enemy's total barbarism and depravity (contrasted with the wholesome heroism of opposing Romans), and 2) his freakish physical abilities (how else could he have lasted so long against far-superior Romans?).

Ford chooses to split the difference in his portrait of Mithridates. While painting a more sympathetic picture of the King than Roman authors, he goes all in for the nearly superhuman abilities. For a heroic-protagonist sort of novel, that's standard stuff, so no discredit to the author.

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. I found a recent biography of Mithridates: The Poison King, by Adrienne Mayor. Also, I picked up Mary Beard's SPQR, a concise and thoughtful 1-volume history of ancient Rome (highly recommended).
Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes. Rather battle-heavy, as noted, and with little detail on anyone outside Mithridates' inner circle.
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Basically. The names and dates are drawn mainly from early Roman writings, as noted in the author's Acknowledgements. More attention to archaeology could have improved the accuracy of many details. For instance, Ford commits the movie-Roman sin of depicting Republic-era soldiers as wearing "Imperial Gallic" helmets (with red horsehair crests), that weren't adopted until after Julius Caesar.

The Poison King alerted me to a few places where Ford made artistic choices not necessarily supported by fact. One such is a scene where Mithridates and the remnants of his army elude the pursuing Romans by traversing a region of sheer cliffs bordering the eastern end of the Black Sea. Although it's possible that they took that route, Mayor argues convincingly that it was unlikely.

In Ford's narrative of that treacherous crossing, an event occurs that contradicts historical evidence. Mithridates' "Amazon" companion Hypsicratea falls into a glacial crevasse and perishes. Mayor notes, however, that her name appears inscribed on a stone monument years later. These are minor liberties, however, that take little away from the overall veracity.

A more intriguing speculation from Mayor, that would have fit right into Ford's novel, is the idea that Pharnaces conspired to fake his father's death and spirit him away to safety in the north. It makes a much more romantic end to the story of the unconquered king who defied the Romans for so many years, as opposed to the standard tale that Pharnaces revolted and offed dear old dad (or allowed him to kill himself).
Score = 3
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
Probably not, but who knows? Roman generals are universally depicted as sneering, insulting and cruel. Mithridates is caring and heroic. Standard 20th-century-Anglo novel types throughout.
Score = 3
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Mostly. Pharnaces is a credible son wanting to be like Dad. Motivations given are not improbable. Overall, not bad as Roman novels go (admittedly a low bar).
Score = 4