The Ancient Roman Master Of Poisons: Locusta

When you think of a poison expert, what first springs to mind? A person meddling in the dark arts? Or someone adept at finding antidotes to common poisons? In Ancient Rome, the best expert you might find would be skilled at making poisons. A number of Roman historians, including Tacitus, Suetonius, and Cassius Dio, described the notorious Locusta’s elicit career and her equally elicit end. Modern poisoners like Linda Stratmann and William Palmer may have taken cues from their predecessors.

In Ancient Rome, if you made your career in killing, you were just as likely to be killed yourself whether you were following orders or not. Keep that in mind if you ever find yourself thrown backward through time.

Locusta’s storied history started the moment she decided to serve as a poisons expert for Agrippina the Younger, a Roman empress described as ruthless, violent, and power-hungry. By 54 AD Locusta had already been formally charged and imprisoned on poisoning charges. This was before the work she did under Agrippina.

What did she do?

Locusta provided her employer with a poison that was then sprinkled on mushrooms given to Agrippina’s husband, Emperor Claudius. The best way to poison an emperor? Make sure the food taster is on your side. Even though Agrippina made sure to have Claudius’s food taster hand the poisoned mushroom to the emperor himself, the poison still wasn’t enough to get the job done. Instead, the pair of villains moved onto their next plot. They provided Claudius’s doctor with a poisoned feather, which was then thrust down his throat in order to induce vomiting (most likely after health problems from the mushrooms developed, because that’s just the way these stories go).

Even though she was still locked away, Locusta’s career was not over.

Agrippina’s son was the Emperor Nero, and he would eventually call on Locusta in 55 AD to murder Claudius’s son. After all, if you murder the father, you can’t let his spawn escape. He’s likely to come after you someday! It’s logic.

Anyway, Locusta’s poison failed to eliminate its target as quickly as Nero desired. After he beat her and threatened her life, she opted to provide him with a poison of the faster-acting variety. The death of Claudius’s son left Nero in such a state of jubilation that he decided to provide Locusta with a pardon for any and all crimes she may have committed. He even gave her land and wealth. Convinced that she had secrets worth knowing, Nero sent students to Locusta’s new home so that they might learn the art of poisoning themselves.

It’s always best to have more than one murderer in your employ, after all.

When Nero fled Rome in 68 AD and eventually committed suicide, Locusta’s own prosperity was in jeopardy. The new emperor chained her alongside a number of Nero’s other pets, including Patrobius, Narcissus, and Helius. He had them dragged through the city so that all might see what happens when you follow the orders of a crazy leader, and then executed the lot of them. It never pays to poison.