In one of the most cunningly brutal ambushes of all time, an entire Roman military column was once slaughtered by enemy soldiers who poisoned the legionaries with a type of hallucinogenic honey that is produced by bees living along the Black Sea coast. Known as "mad honey", the intoxicating treat causes severe yet temporary discombobulation and would have made sitting ducks of the unfortunate Roman soldiers who tasted it.
The episode occurred during the Third Mithridatic War, which saw Rome expand its empire across Anatolia between 73 and 63 BCE. During the campaign, the Roman Republic came up against one of the trickiest opponents it would ever face in form of King Mithridates VI of Pontus, otherwise known as The Poisoner King.
With a backstory befitting a Bond villain, Mithridates is said to have become obsessed with poisons after his father was assassinated with a deadly toxin. Known for his intelligence and fascination with pharmacology, the ancient ruler successfully developed a tolerance to several deadly poisons by regularly consuming sub-lethal doses – a practice which to this day is known as mithridatism.
When the Romans came to town, Mithridates was more than happy to get on the dancefloor and show off his unconventional military moves. According to historical sources, his soldiers attacked the invading forces with poisoned arrows, released “wasps and wild beasts” into Roman siege tunnels, and even developed chemical weapons from naphtha.
Describing an event that occurred in 65 BCE, the ancient historian Strabo explains how allies of Mithridates called the Heptacomitae used mad honey to wipe out a Roman column. Produced by bees that feed on the nectar of a particular species of rhododendron, the honey contains high concentrations of a class of neurotoxins called grayanotoxins.
Capable of triggering hallucinations, loss of coordination, and nausea in small doses, larger quantities of the substance can produce serious heart complications. According to Strabo, the Heptacomitae placed bowls of mad honey in the path of the advancing Romans, “and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them.”
Collating historical accounts of the event, the authors of a new study explain that this was not the first instance of an ancient military unit being poisoned after consuming mad honey. Three centuries earlier, the Greek commander Xenophon noted that hundreds of his soldiers “all went for the nonce quite off their heads, and suffered from vomiting and diarrhea, with a total inability to stand steady on their legs” thanks to a helping of the substance.
Despite their severe intoxication, though, none of Xenophon’s men died, and all had regained their senses within 24 hours of eating the honey. In fact, grayanotoxin poisoning is hardly ever fatal, since the toxins are rapidly metabolized by the body.
However, after carefully timing their attack in order to catch the Roman soldiers at the peak of their honey-induced madness, the Heptacomitae had little trouble massacring their enemy. Unfortunately for Mithridates, though, this minor victory did not turn the tide of the war, which ultimately resulted in the destruction of Pontic Kingdom by the Roman army.
As for Mithridates himself, legend has it that he tried to kill himself by poisoning himself following his defeat. Ironically, though, his body was already so used to the effects of poison that he had to ask his bodyguard to finish the job.
The study is published in the journal Cureus.