The poor lad had a spectacularly dysfunctional family. When Mithridates was 12, his mother ascended the throne in his name after killing his father. Shortly thereafter, his supposed guardians tried to kill him, but the boy escaped and hid in the countryside until he was strong enough to retaliate. At 21, Mithridates returned to the city of his birth, imprisoned his mother, claimed the throne, poisoned his younger brother, and married his sister—not the makings of a mentally healthy future.
Although Pontus was a fertile and thriving land, the young king was not satisfied. He ventured into the surrounding districts to scout for expansion opportunities. Meanwhile his mother and sister-wife conspired to take back the throne, forcing Mithridates to poison the women upon his return.
For the next decade Mithridates busied himself with conquering neighboring kingdoms, until his growing power caught the attention of the Romans. With the backing of Rome, the new king attacked Pontus. When Mithridates sent a messenger asking the empire to call off the Bithynians, the Romans—who were itching for an excuse to attack Mithridates—interpreted the appeal as a declaration of war.
And so the first Mithridatic War was on.
Six-Legged Soldiers: Using Insects as Weapons of War
The Romans, however, soon discovered that their opponent was not some half-baked tyrant. Few enemies struck fear into the heart of the Roman Empire, but Mithridates did. After having a Roman legate arrested for bribe-taking, Mithridates executed him by pouring molten gold down his throat. And Mithridates was capable of scaling up his savagery, slaughtering 80, Roman citizens in an outlying province in single day. From 74 to 66 bce, Lucinius Lucullus and his army pursued Mithridates and his troops, driving them back toward the east.
Anxious for victory, Roman sappers bored beneath the walls of the city. With the tide of battle turned by bees, along with poisoned arrows and burning tar for good measure, the Pontic forces routed the Romans. More generally known as Pompey the Great, this battle-tested Roman general finally vanquished the Pontic army in 65 bce. But the victory was tainted. In the chaos of battle, Mithridates slipped away, escaping over the Caucasus.
In Colchis, the fallen monarch began plotting his revenge and return to power. True victory meant finding and killing the mastermind. Having tracked Mithridates into Colchis, Pompey was oblivious to the potential for entomological skullduggery. He had not learned of the experiences of Xenophon or Lucullus. Historians differ on this tactical detail, but what came next is clear from all accounts.
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The Roman legions were not especially well compensated by the empire. Allowing them to profit from raiding and looting provided incentive for Toxic Tactics and Terrors 35 soldiers to engage the enemy and kept the military budget within bounds. His troops were soon reeling, babbling, and vomiting. As they collapsed, the Heptakometes rushed in and put them out of their misery. The concoction was composed of 54 ingredients, in a base of—what else?
As for the Romans, they eventually subjugated the region and imposed a war tax to pay the costs of having subdued the people. But the Romans were not to be fooled again. Having learned the hard way what Xenophon and Pompey might have taught them, the Romans prohibited the payment of tribute to the empire in the form of honey. There is something particularly dishonorable about enticing an enemy with sweets, debilitating him with toxins, and then hacking him to death.
In this regard, Mithridates might be crowned the champion of entomological depravity, if it were not for a ruler who conceived of insects not merely as weapons of war but also as instruments of torture. Then the poor soul was stripped, lashed to a skiff or hollowed out tree trunk so that his head, hands, and feet protruded over the sides, smeared with honey, and set adrift on a stagnant pond or simply left in the sun.
Although the misery could be prolonged by providing the victim with continuing allotments of milk and honey, the condemned would eventually succumb to septic shock associated with being infested with maggots. Other Asiatic cultures employed insects for torture without such elaborate preparation. Centuries ago, Siberian tribes simply tied a condemned prisoner to a tree and let nature take its course.
Forests in that part of the world support phenomenal densities of biting flies, and so mosquitoes family Culicidae , black flies family Simuliidae , biting midges, deer flies, and their kin ensured an excruciating ordeal until shock or dehydration provided a merciful ending. Recent studies from the Canadian arctic suggest that an unprotected person can receive as many as 9, bites per minute—a rate sufficient to drain half of the blood from a large man in about two hours.
The victims either had honey smeared on their eyes and lips or had their mouths held open with sharpened skewers. Typically, the tales came from white settlers who found dead bodies and surmised the details of their hellish final hours. In light of cultural bias, we might doubt some reports of Indian torture, but an anthropologist working for the U. Bureau of Ethnology provided a particularly compelling account of how one tribe used ants to inflict pain.
The contest opened in , when Queen Victoria ascended to the throne and Britain began to establish a strategic presence in India. The opening moves from the Russians were made by Tsar Nicholas Pavlovich I, who sought to expand his empire to the south. The British feared that the tsar had designs on India or would at least impede their own colonial plans by controlling Central Asia. The Great Game was on. Each monarch dispatched agents to convince the local rulers that benevolent occupation was necessary to keep out the British brutes or Russian reprobates, depending on who was doing the talking.
The Russians were based in Orenburg, just north of the present-day border with Kazakhstan, and the British operated from northern India. If one drew a straight line from Orenburg to Delhi, the midpoint was the walled city of Bukhara—the place where Stoddart and Conolly would meet their fate. No European had set foot in this forbidding and strategic stronghold for a hundred years.
In a desolate landscape bloodied by marauding tribes, Bukhara was a cultural oasis endowed with palaces, mosques, and bazaars see Figure 3. Such an important political and economic center could not long remain a mystery to the empires who sought control of Asia. Russia sent a diplomatic mission to Bukhara in , to recover their imprisoned countrymen and foster diplomatic ties. Britain countered by sending delegations in and British concerns were deepened after the Russians sent a second mission in and also began forging ties with Persian and Afghani rulers.
In response, Sir John McNeill, the British ambassador to Persia, decided to send his own emissary to Bukhara to secure the release of Russian slaves and prisoners. There was no altruism involved; the British wanted to deny the Russians an excuse for invasion. Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stoddart was chosen for the job. At the entrance to Bukhara, little has changed since the arrival of Lieutenant Colonel Charles Stoddart in December Within hours of passing through the gates, Stoddart had offended the ruler and begun his terrifying journey into the infamous Bug Pit. Photo courtesy of Galen Frysinger Insects as Tools of Torture 39 experience for dealing with an emir.
The ambassador was tragically mistaken. His official title—the Shadow of God Upon Earth—should have been a tip-off. Concerned that turnabout might be fair play, he extended his homicidal streak to include his three younger brothers and several other relatives. Another act of tyranny committed by the Ameer is that boys are [required] to report to him every word which other boys talk in the streets even brother to brother at home, and servants in families are also obliged to write down for the King any conversation they hear between husband and wife, even in bed; and the people set over me were ordered to report to him what I might happen to speak in a dream.
Upon riding into the walled city, Stoddart proceeded to the main square in front of the palace to present himself.
He was not aware that riding there was forbidden, nor did he know that, when the emir rode up, a visiting horseman was expected to dismount. Instead, in accordance with British military tradition, he remained in the saddle and saluted the emir. Upon seeing that the missive had not been signed by Queen Victoria herself, Nasrullah was deeply insulted—again.
Nasrullah had a special place for such odious enemies. Twenty-one feet deep, covered with an iron grill and accessible only by a rope, the pit would have been an awful place even without the creatures lurking in the depths. Nasrullah seeded the pit with rats and reptiles, rather standard fare Figure 3.
The prison of Bukhara, where the emir maintained his entomological chamber of horrors, a foot-deep pit covered with an iron grill and accessible only by a rope. When there were no unfortunate souls to feed to the cold-blooded menagerie, chunks of raw meat were dropped into the pit. The arthropods would not have found such fare to be particularly appealing, so we might suppose that the emir managed to find live victims on a regular basis. Assassin bugs belong to the Reduviidae, a family of carnivorous insects see Figure 3.
Assassin bugs inject toxic saliva that paralyzes and kills other insects, along with enzymes that liquefy the innards of the prey, allowing the predator to suck it dry. A few assassin bugs feed on mammals, but the bite of these insects—also known as kissing bugs—is not usually painful. Stealth makes sense when securing a meal from a creature thousands of times larger than you. Most likely, the emir used species that do not normally bite humans, but when starved will feed on any animal tissue. The bite of these insects has been compared to being pierced with a hot needle, and the digestive enzymes that they inject cause suppurating sores.
Figure 3. An assassin bug preparing to taken a blood meal through human skin. The subsequent treatment of the British officer varied with the political climate.