Martin Shkreli has nothing on Mithridates VI. During his reign (120 to 63 B.C.E.), this king of Pontus (located on the southern edge of the Black Sea) worked as a toxicologist in between waging wars on Rome. His efforts to create a universal antidote helped pave the way for modern drug regulation.
Hellenistic monarchs frequently used poison to alter the political landscape around them, whether to kill themselves or rivals. Most famously, Cleopatra VII of Egypt killed herself by snakebite in 30 B.C.E. And Mithridates’s contemporary Ariarathes VI, the king of Cappadocia (south of Pontus), came to the throne after his five elder brothers were poisoned, likely by their own mother.
Mithridates first learned about poisons at a young age. His father, Mithridates V, was poisoned, possibly at his mother’s behest, as Adrienne Mayor, Mithridates VI’s biographer, suggested in her book The Poison King. Afraid he’d be next, the young Mithridates began to study their properties. The Roman natural historian Pliny the Elder called him, “with his brilliant intellect and wide interests … an especially diligent student of medicine, [who] collected detailed knowledge from all his subjects.”
Once he became king, Mithridates consulted physicians, scientists, and shamans in the hopes of creating a foolproof remedy to toxins. He worked with his court botanist, Krateuas, and corresponded with doctors like Zopyrus, the royal physician in Alexandria, Egypt. Mithridates cultivated unique poisons in his laboratories and gardens, and, some historians say, may have even tested them on condemned criminals, in the interest of finding ways to counteract them.