The Pontic Mountains in northern Anatolia gained a fearsome reputation in the ancient Greek and Roman world. Curiously enough, the region’s notoriety was in large part due to its not-so-sweet honey. In fact, several ancient armies unfortunately discovered that some of the honey produced in the Pontic Mountains could be poisonous and mind altering.
In Greece, the mad honey of the Pontic Mountains was popularized by Xenophon, an Athenian philosopher, historian and mercenary, who personally encountered the honey while serving with a famous mercenary company, known as the Ten Thousand. A Persian prince named Cyrus the Younger hired the mercenary company in 401 BCE for a failed revolt against King Artaxerxes II. When Cyrus was killed and his revolt crushed, the Greek mercenaries found themselves alone and unwelcome in the vicinity of Babylonia. While being pursued by Persian forces and ambushed by local tribes, the Greeks weaved their way through Mesopotamia and Armenia to reach the Pontic Mountains, from which they could see the Black Sea. Nearby was the Greek-inhabited coastal city of Trapezus, but the Greeks could not reach it in a single day, and would have to camp in the mountains for several days until they neared the coast.
After having defeated a militia of Colchians, the mercenaries encountered very little resistance during their march to Trapezus. They took a detour to some villages on the mountainside, and no one stopped the Greeks from helping themselves to the local supplies. In particular, the mercenaries were delighted to find an abundance of beehives and honeycomb around the villages. Yet, the honey would turn out to be potentially more dangerous than local militias. Xenophon vividly described the scene that occurred after the Greeks ate their fill of the honey:
“all the men who ate honeycomb became deranged, suffered from vomiting and diarrhea, and were too weak to stand up. Those who had eaten a little behaved as though they were drunk, while those who had eaten a lot behaved like madmen, or even like people on the point of death. The ground was so thickly covered with supine men that it looked like the aftermath of a defeat, and morale plummeted” (Anabasis, Book 4, section 8).
Fortunately for Xenophon and the Greek mercenaries, the worst effects of the honey wore off after 24 hours, and the group was able to resume their march to Trapezus after a few more days of rest. Several centuries later, however, a Roman army in the region had less luck with the honey.
According to the Roman geographer and historian, Strabo (c. 64 BCE-21+ CE), Pompey the Great lost a portion of his army to the effects of the mad honey in the Pontic Mountains. In 66 BCE, he had been assigned to command Roman forces against King Mithridates VI in Pontus. When Mithridates committed suicide in 63 BCE, Pompey had a fairly free hand in reorganizing the region.
One particular community in the Pontic Mountains gave Pompey difficulty. Strabo identified this group as the Heptacometae, which he believed was linked to a certain Mossynoeci people that Xenophon and the Ten Thousand encountered centuries earlier. According to Strabo, the Heptacometae weaponized the poisonous honey of the Pontic Mountains and successfully used it in war against a portion of Pompey’s army. Strabo wrote:
“The Heptacometae cut down three maniples of Pompey’s army when they were passing through the mountainous country; for they mixed bowls of the crazing honey which is yielded by the tree-twigs, and placed them in the roads, and then, when the soldiers drank the mixture and lost their senses, they attacked them and easily disposed of them” (Geography, Book 12, chapter 3, section 18).
Interestingly, scientists in the late 19th century claimed to have solved the mystery of the honey. In a 1889 study, the maddening properties in the Pontic honey were attributed to andromedotoxin that bees picked up from a local variety of yellow-flower rhododendron (Rhododendron luteum). Honey produced in May and June from bees in regions dominated by the Pontic rhododendrons apparently had a concentration of andromedotoxin that was high enough to make it dangerous to consume.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cupid the Honey Thief by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Anabasis Kyrou (The Expedition/Upcountry March of Cyrus) by Xenophon and translated by Robin Waterfield. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.