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March 31, 2018

In March, SCS editor-in-chief Sarah Bond interviewed ancient historian Adrienne Mayor, author of some of the bestselling books in the field of Classics, among them: The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World and The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy. We discussed Classics, pop-culture, writing for broader audiences, what it is like to consult with film and TV studios to help them recreate the ancient world accurately, and why the Amazons remain an inspiration even today.

Q. How did you first get interested in Classics and the ancient world?

My Book House (edited by Olive Beaupré Miller, 1920, with vivid illustrations) first introduced me to classical myths and world folklore. As a child I read those stories countless times. I reconnected with the ancient world at the University of Minnesota, where I combined classical studies, folklore, and history of science. Back then, I was mostly seeking stories to illustrate in my artwork.

When I had a chance to live in Greece in the early 1980s, I haunted the marvelous library of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens. Poring over vase paintings and reading the Loeb volumes, I began to collect odd details in mythic tales and accounts of a puzzling nature in ancient sources, intriguing anomalies that I wanted to know more about but for some reason had not attracted scholarly commentaries or convincing explanations. It seemed to me that persistent popular lore about nature might contain cores of reality.

At that time, now-famous scholars like John Oakley, Barry Strauss, Sarah Morris, and Josiah Ober were grad student-fellows at ASCS, and Eugene Vanderpool led archaeological expeditions. I still marvel at their forbearance with my barrage of off-the-wall questions about ancient literature and art. My first articles on "classical curiosities" were published in The Athenian. Recently, I was amused to come across a quaintly glorified self-description from those days scribbled on the back of a notecard: "Consider me a private investigator who follows clues wherever they lead--a classical Philip Marlowe with a library card!"

“Miller, Olive Beaupré. My Book House. 6 vols. The Bookhouse for Children, 1925.
Miller, Olive Beaupré. My Book House. 6 vols. The Bookhouse for Children, 1925.

Q. What do you think the rest of the field should know about how to write accessibly for a broader audience?

It's funny but I never thought of myself as "popularizing the Classics"--I just forge ahead on whatever captures my fancy. As for academics interested in writing accessibly, one might begin by pursuing some question that you yourself really care about, some aspect of the ancient world that you suspect might hold much more than it seems to. You also harbor the hope that what you seek will capture the attention of others. This is a gamble, of course. But as you delve into the matter, digging deeper and wider, you might find unexpected overlaps with other fields of knowledge and your hunch could pay off in relevance and wide appeal.

Even when writing articles or books for a broad audience, I think it's essential to document everything so that readers and critics can trace your sources. Footnotes are a good place to put academic-ese material, to ensure narrative flow in the text. Marking out one's trail is crucial when breaking new ground--and helps deal with the risks of trespassing outside one's own expertise. Don't hesitate to consult experts. Write in clear language without jargon--one trick is to imagine how you would explain your story to scholars in other disciplines and ordinary people outside the university. Let your passion to discover and convey something new shine through. An agent or editor can be very helpful, too.

“Books by Adrienne Major.
Books by Adrienne Major.

Q. Have you ever received pushback from people who asked you to write in a more academic manner?

Writing for a mixed audience is always not easy. Some popular reviews describe my books as "overly historical and dense," "too many footnotes," and "not enough like a novel. Meanwhile some academic reviewers complain about a "breezy" and "speculative" approach, too many "unreliable" ancient sources, and say I stray from strict chronology, etc. As a non-academic "stealth scholar," my style seems natural to me. Happily, I can report that I am capable of writing in an academic style that recently passed muster with ASCSA's Hesperia, and our paper (on deciphering nonsense inscriptions) was also featured in popular media.

Luckily, the questions I explore seem to interest others too. Because my research often involves unfamiliar territory, credibility is key, and I strive for meticulous documentation. My books are published by a university press (Princeton) known for its rigorous editorial process, and the editors have never requested "a more academic manner" of expression. Surprisingly, the German academic publisher of The Poison King/Pontisches Gift: Die Legende von Mithridates (Theiss) insisted on reducing my citation notes by half. Not surprisingly, some German reviewers complained that the documentation was deficient!

A few decades of note taking, Adrienne Mayor, unpublished.
A few decades of note taking, Adrienne Mayor, unpublished.

Q. What is the role of the ancient historian when working with film and television as an advisor? What films have you worked on and what can you do when they decide not to use your historically based advice?

Since 2003, I've served as an advisor, consultant, and interviewee for film and TV documentaries for Discovery, History, and Smithsonian Channels, BBC TV, ZDF-Berlin, and other production companies. Fossil-related legends, dragons and mythical beasts, biochemical warfare in antiquity, poisons and antidotes, Amazons, and other topics. Sometimes producers have an idea for a series and want to pick my brain about possible directions; other times they already have a project in development. I've also worked with screenwriters on scripts that draw on my research. Consulting for documentaries involves suggesting perspectives and storylines, recommending experts and people to interview, fact-checking scripts, advice on props, costumes, locations, museum collections, and so on. I know some academics really enjoy being talking heads, but I always try to wriggle out of on-camera interviews, unless I really appear to be the only resource.

The experiences are varied. I'll never forgive the hyper-sensitive mic that picked up my growling stomach--I was compelled to eat crackers between questions. One German director handed me the questions beforehand, along with the "expected answers." When I showed up for an interview for BBC's "Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters," I remarked that their script seemed awfully familiar. The presenter cheerfully replied, "oh yes, we lifted the whole thing from your books." I wish I hadn't agreed to give historical background about ancient plagues for History Channel's Ancient Aliens (2011). And it probably was a bad idea to describe ancient biological and chemical weapons for Russia's REN TV (2006). Directors can edit one's remarks without one's approval.

And historical advice is not always followed.

For History Channel's “Ancient Weapons of Mass Destruction," I met in LA with a trio of young guys eager to re-create toxic tactics described in my Greek Fire, Poison Arrows, and Scorpion Bombs. Oblivious to the dangers, they assumed that such weapons were too ancient to pose any threat today. For example, to re-create the spectacular, deadly conflagration used by the Spartans against Plataia, they planned to build a great bonfire of resinous pine logs in a public park and dramatically toss giant lumps of sulphur from a chemistry supply shop onto flames. Alarmed, I pointed out that the cloud of poisonous sulphur dioxide gas would be just as lethal today as it was in 429 BC. Mandatory gas masks for film crew and entire neighborhood!

I was invited to write a script for a forthcoming TED-Ed animation "Did Amazons Really Exist?" and I'm currently working with three UK and US TV production companies. I am also the consultant for the Hollywood studio that optioned The Amazons in 2015, for a possible film or TV series. The project is "in development." It may come to naught but the prospect is fun to think about!

So far my favorite film experiences are History Channel's "Ancient Monster Hunters" based on The First Fossil Hunters and BBC's "Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters" with Tom Holland. It was great fun working on Smithsonian Channel's "Amazons" episode (Epic Warrior Women series, March-April 2018), based on The Amazons, filmed in Kazakhstan. I was an interviewee and consultant for the script, Scythian costumes, weapons, and equipment. I'm thrilled that they've promised to send me an Amazon's hat, dagger, bow, and quiver of arrows, made for the film.

Q. What drew you to Mithradates and to Amazons?

Mithradates' experiments with antidotes appeared on my radar when I researched poisons in war. Wanting to know more, I was astounded that the most recent biography of this audacious rebel king who defied Rome was written in 1890, and only available in French and German. It became my mission to tell this amazing story from the point of view of Mithradates and his followers. I'm delighted that The Poison King has inspired two popular games: "Quest for the Antidote," a board game in which players have been poisoned by Mithradates and must race to find ingredients of the antidote, and “The Curse of Mithradates," a lavishly illustrated video game in which treasure-seeking archaeologists must escape diabolical traps set by Mithradates.

Long fascinated by tales of Amazons, my curiosity was piqued by the spectacular, recent archaeological discoveries of steppe nomad women buried with weapons. My research turned up compelling evidence to challenge the old-fashioned claims still accepted by many prominent classicists, that Amazons were nothing but fictional foils created to be killed by Greek heroes; that Amazon myths were intended to discourage Greek women from admiring strong women; that Amazons symbolized Persians in Greek art; and that nothing in the historical world shaped or influenced the images of Amazons in literature and art.

Screen shots from Hidden Expedition: The Curse of Mithridates, Big Fish Games.
Screen shots from Hidden Expedition: The Curse of Mithridates (Big Fish Games, 2017)

Weapons props from Epic Warrior Women: Amazons, Smithsonian channel.
Weapons props from Epic Warrior Women: Amazons (Smithsonian channel, 2017).

Q. Why do you think that the Amazons are having a “moment” right now in particular? How does this mythical group speak to women today—even thousands of years later?

In this time of high awareness of gender inequalities, it is exciting for girls and women to discover that strong, free Amazons were not just a figment of the Greek imagination. Flesh-and-blood warrior women, nomadic horsewomen of Eurasia, really existed-- we have the proof of their bones. And Greeks were not the only people to tell tales of women who were the equals of men--thrilling stories also arose in Persia, Egypt, Africa, and Asia. Instead of seeing Amazon myths in negative terms of male violence against uppity women, ancient literary, artistic, and archaeological evidence is revealing that egalitarian societies were not just a dream. If it happened once upon a time, it can happen again!

Header Image: Adrienne Mayor with Nikos Solounias, still image from "Ancient Monster Hunters" (A&E Home Video, 2004).


Adrienne Mayor is an independent folklorist/historian of science who investigates natural knowledge contained in pre-scientific myths and oral traditions. Her research looks at ancient "folk science" precursors, alternatives, and parallels to modern scientific methods. Mayor's latest book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World, analyzes the historical and archaeological evidence underlying myths and tales of warlike women (2014, winner of the Sarasvati Prize for Women in Mythology). Mayor's two books on pre-Darwinian fossil traditions in classical antiquity and in Native America have opened up a new field within geomythology, and her book on the origins of biological weapons uncovered the ancient roots of biochemical warfare. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy won top honors (Gold Medal) for Biography, Independent Publishers' Book Award 2010, and was a 2009 National Book Award Finalist. It is the first biography in a century of the world's first experimental toxicologist, the brilliant rebel leader of a Black Sea empire who challenged Roman imperialism in the first century BC. Mayor is also a research scholar in the Classics Department; her work is featured on NPR and BBC, the History Channel, the New York Times, Smithsonian, and National Geographic and her books have been translated into Russian, Turkish, Spanish, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Hungarian, Polish, and Greek. Mayor's fossil legend research is featured in the National Geographic children's book The Griffin and the Dinosaur (by M. Aronson, 2014). She is a regular contributor to the award-winning history of science website Wonders and Marvels.