Human Disasters Ancient Roman Poisoner Locusta Part 2

About the ancient Roman poisoner Locusta, biography and history of the woman responsible for numerous murders including that of Emperor Claudius.



Britannicus, of course, who suspected foul play and made no attempt to conceal that he knew he'd been bilked of both his inheritance and the throne, remained a threat to Nero, who therefore plotted to slay him. Locusta had, since Claudius's death, been charged with murder and condemned to die; she was now languishing in prison, under the watchful eye of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts. Nero demanded of Julius that he release Locusta and then had her fashion for him a particularly efficient poison that would quiet his fears immediately. This Locusta did, assuring him that the venomous brew would kill as quickly and surely as the thrust of a dagger.

Nero customarily dined each night with the whole imperial family, including Britannicus. Locusta knew that poisoning only Britannicus would be tricky, for each dish and beverage earmarked for him was first tested by a servant. The solution: Britannicus was served an untainted drink which, he complained, was too hot. The servant added some cold water which, unbeknownst to him or his master, contained Locusta's creation. It struck with such speed and violence as to cut off Britannicus's breathing and render him voiceless instantly.

He fell over backwards, clutching his throat and gasping for air. Octavia and Agrippina both were terrified; the children present fled the room in horror; but the other adults looked in amazement at Nero, who was eerily blase about the whole event. He explained that Britannicus was merely suffering from yet another of his epileptic fits and that he would soon recover. The meal resumed.

In ancient Rome it was widely accepted that if a corpse decomposed too quickly or if the face grew livid, it pointed to one thing only: poison. Nero knew this, and to conceal his and Locusta's villainy he covered Britannicus's lividity with a coating of chalk. "But a shower of rain washed the chalk away," writes Cassius, "and revealed to the people the evidence of the crime."

As a reward for her labors, Locusta was given a full pardon by Nero for all her crimes, and a piece of choice real estate as well. Nero also referred several would-be poisoners to her school so that her secrets would be known to future generations. She remained the official poisoner of the imperial court, as well as a private entrepreneur who would demonstrate the efficacy of a particular poison for a customer by trying it out on one of a stable of slaves she kept for that very purpose.

Locusta's fortunes did not always wax. Some years later, Emperor Galba embarked on a law-and-order campaign throughout Rome and publicly executed many "official" criminals. Locusta was among them.

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