16. Mithridates VI of Pontus was the scourge of Rome and spoke the languages of all the 22 kingdoms he ruled over
The Roman historian and author Pliny the Elder credited Mithridates VI as the Empire’s most formidable of enemies. Under him, the Kingdom of Pontus – in modern-day Turkey – fought and defeated the late Roman Republic in several battles of the Mithridatic Wars. While the underdog eventually lost, Mithidrates’ reputation would only grow over the subsequent years and centuries. As well as being acclaimed as a fine military leader and visionary ruler, the finest king of Pontus is also widely regarded as one of the greatest polyglots who ever lived.
According to Pliny the Elder, Mithridates made a point of learning the languages of the peoples his vast kingdom ruled over. As the famous ancient historian noted in Volume 7 of his seminal work Natural History: “Mithridates, who was king of 22 nations, administered their laws in as many languages, and could harangue in all of them, without employing an interpreter.” What’s more, though his kingdom didn’t stretch that far, the king was also fluent in ancient Persian. Accounts from the time noted that he spoke the language with Persian prisoners – before he killed them, of course.
It wasn’t just the ancients who admired the great king’s language skills. During the Enlightenment, his name became synonymous with the term ‘polyglot’. Several pioneering studies into the phenomenon of speaking many different languages fluently cited Mithridates as the ultimate example of just how much knowledge the human mind is capable of holding. Furthermore, all polyglots who came after were compared to him – speaking more languages than Mithridates himself was regarded as an outstanding, almost superhuman accomplishment.
These days, however, the king is probably best known for his ability to handle poison rather than his ability to master a new dialect. Famously, the paranoid ruler learned everything there was to know about poisons and their antidotes. He even took small doses of each so as to build up his natural defenses. The tactic worked – after being defeated by the Romans, Mithridates chose to commit suicide rather than be taken prisoner. Despite taking the strongest poison he could lay his hands on, he endured a slow and painful death, his immunity was just so strong.