The ancient remedy theriac, also known as ‘treacle’, was in use for nearly 2,000 years. In addition to any medicinal effect, its success relied on premium ingredients, specific packaging, public spectacle and reputation – all factors that today help promote big brand names.
Legend has it that King Mithridates VI (132–63 BCE) of Pontus, a kingdom in Asia Minor, was so scared of being poisoned by his enemies that he invented an antidote that he took daily. When the Romans conquered Pontus they seized the famed remedy, known as mithridatium. Emperor Nero (37–68 CE) asked his physician, Andromachus, to improve on it, which he did primarily by substituting viper flesh for skink, a lizard native to the Nile. It was widely believed that snakes contained an antidote that prevented them from being poisoned by their own venom.