I listen to 25-30 audio books each year, divided between history and fiction. Once I have completed an audio book, I consider it “read” just as much as any printed book. The quality of an audio book depends heavily on the narration; for some books, such as The Wheel of Time series, the narration is so good that I find the audio books a superior experience to reading.
I recently finished The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, written by Adrienne Mayor and narrated by Paul Hecht. The narration is solid and does not get in the way of the text. Hecht does a good job of pronouncing ancient names.
Mithradates (134-63 BC) was the ruler of the Black Sea kingdom of Pontus. Before listening to this book, I knew that Mithradates had fought against Rome and that he had an interest in poison, but that was all. In The Poison King, I learned that he led a vigorous resistance to Rome’s eastward expansion for decades, and had a real chance of stopping Rome. His armies were often much bigger than those sent against him, and he had able generals. He was also aided by Rome’s internal problems, including rebellions by a Roman general in Spain and the gladiator Spartacus in Italy. In fact, Spartacus might have fought against Mithradates in Greece before becoming a gladiator.
Although they were large, Mithradates’ armies were polyglot, and this inherent lack of cohesion made them brittle and prone to break in adversity. The Romans, on the other hand, fielded homogeneous forces of experienced professional soldiers. Mithradates lost multiple armies over the years. Still, he always managed to resurrect his fortunes and organize yet another army to continue the fight. At the time of his death, he was pursuing grandiose plans of marching an army overland to Italy.
Mithradates was more than a military leader, however. He was well-loved by his people, and many events during his life were connected to celestial omens and the gods. He spoke numerous languages and modeled his reign after Greco-Persian styles, often explicitly emulating Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius. He was wealthy beyond measure and stored treasures in forts throughout his lands. Finally, he was keenly interested in poisons, experimenting on criminals and prisoners as well as himself. He regularly ingested small amounts of many poisons and antidotes to build up resistance.
Mithradates led such a fascinating life that I can only mention some obvious high points. As with all interesting lives, there is much more depth to the man than I can impart here. To get at least a taste of what the book is like, read this short paper by the author. The paper also helps remedy a weakness of some history audio books: if the listener is not already familiar with the geography, the book can quickly descend into a bewildering series of unfamiliar places.