“Mithridates King of Pontus” by Nathaniel Lee (1653 – 6 May 1692)*
Mithridates (134 BC – 63 BC) was the great eastern enemy of Rome in the days before Caesar Augustus. Depending on your political inclinations, he was either the bold standard bearer of an oppressed minority defending his many loyal subject against a brutal Empire, or just another swell-headed killer on the make.
Whatever, he was a man so terrified of being poisoned that he dosed himself repeatedly with the standard widow makers in the hopes of building up a tolerance. As a fail-safe, he also had a miracle cure-all for anything that he might have missed, an idea so popular that it and improvements upon it were eventually dubbed Mithradatia .
Science thought this nonsense even at the time. Pliny the Elder (23 AD – August 25, 79 AD) wrote : “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.”
Among the ingredients, many of them of strong smelling plants, were rosemary, myrrh, Cretan carrot seed, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, rhubarb root, opium. A good sleeping aid, if nothing else, but there was a need of such things well into the seventeenth century and they were concocted and sold and presumably eaten after dubious meals.
What has any of this to do with scent?
Well, they are allied trades, scent and poison, along with drugs and cosmetics in general, and as such are both beguiling and frightening. As noted in Smell The Glove, Catherine de Medici’s perfumer Sig. Renato Bianco was widely believed to be a poisoner on the side (we are writing after the time of the Borgias, recall, and exotic Italians who worked with strange decoctions of unknown origin could kick up a bit of a frisson in their clientele . Not enough not to patronize them, you understand, but still – quite thrilling to think about.)
Fast forward a century and it still goes on. One wonders, in reading Madame De Sevigne’s letters from the time of Louis XIV- was there perhaps that thrill of danger, did going to the parfumiers create a small, or maybe not so small, frisson in the buyer, a brush with death to make life that much sweeter? Is there perhaps some value in that?**
Perhaps so, but law was not going to smile on this forever. Napoleon, as part of his legal code in 1810, required apothecaries to list all ingredients in medicines. A good law and one, interestingly, not universally applicable in the United States – the Federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act of 1973 exempts scent makers from this requirement, and wouldn’t you just love to know how that little loophole came about?
Not that the perfumers of Napoleon’s day were any better. They saw a downside to the Napoleonic edict and after some close reading of the fine print, some one (lawyers, presumably) found their loop hole. This stuff wasn’t medicine, they explained, it was cosmetic, eaux de senteurs, and therefore quite outside the confines of the medical (or murderous) profession. Carry on smelling.
Happily, the poison trade seems to have petered out in our time. But then, it was always a two edged sword. Consider again Mithridates. Rome finally caught up with him, and, depending on who you read, he was either assassinated or committed suicide. In either case, the first choice of dispatch – poison – failed, and they had to make due with a knife.
As Housman said:
I tell the tale that I heard told, Mithridates, he died old.
*Poor Mr. Lee. A moderately talented playwright in his prime, he spent five years in Bedlam, quite against his will: “They called me mad, and I called them mad, and damn them, they outvoted me!”
**We in America live with the assumption that death is, not so much purely optional as a matter of poor planning, like a badly funded retirement portfolio, or booking a Caribbean cruise at the height of the hurricane season. Death is for losers. Is it any wonder that our favorite fictional characters are vampires, eternal creatures living off the blood of others? Momenti Mori are not to be found here, except perhaps in New Orleans. French, you notice.