Locusta of Gaul ,
Roman “Herbalist” and Professional Poisoner
By Ann Wamack
Locusta was born into the first century A.D. in one of the outer provinces of Rome called Gaul , an area we now know as France . In her early years in the countryside, it would appear that Locusta learned a great deal about herbal lore and the plants around her. When she arrived in Rome , she learned that the people around her were ambitious and greedy. There were many people in Rome in those days who wanted to hurry along the deaths of their rivals or their rich relatives, but it had to look like the death was from natural causes. Locusta provided them with the means to accomplish their goals – she became a professional poisoner. Although she was arrested often for her activities, she had some influential clients among her customers and she always seemed to be able to get out of jail pretty quickly.
Around 54 A.D., Locusta got a secret summons from the Empress Agrippina, the fourth wife of Emperor Claudius. Agrippina’s ambitions were clear: She wanted Nero, her son from a prior marriage, to be emperor of Rome . To accomplish this, the 64-year-old Claudius needed to die. That’s where Locusta came in.
Agrippina knew that Claudius dearly loved mushrooms. She also knew the emperor had food tasters. The two women devised a plan. One evening, the emperor’s closest aide was sick, Agrippina bribed the food taster to stay out of the way, and Locusta poisoned a big batch of mushrooms. After serving the emperor much wine, Agrippina brought the poisoned mushrooms to Emperor Claudius herself. Unsuspecting, Claudius gobbled the toxic delicacy down.
Soon the emperor was doubled over with stomach cramps, gasping for air, unable to speak. Agrippina, the devoted wife, fluttered frantically at his side in feigned concern. Perhaps the dear emperor had eaten something that disagreed with him? Locusta had provided a second weapon which Agrippina now wielded, a feather with another lethal dose of poison on it. In her apparent excitement to render aid to her stricken husband, Agrippina ran the poisoned feather down his throat, allegedly to expel the toxic substances from his stomach.
On October 13, in 54 A.D., Emperor Claudius was dead and the 16-year-old Nero was named emperor. Agrippina was thrilled! Locusta was arrested, thrown into prison and given a death sentence.
But Nero had his own rivals and his own fears. Claudius had a 14-year-old son from a previous marriage named Britannicus. Nero knew that Britannicus also had a claim to “his” throne, and Nero needed to make sure that Britannicus was forever taken out of the way. Quietly, a few months after becoming emperor, Nero ordered Locusta’s release from prison and developed a new plan for her services.
One evening at a family dinner, the wine was brought in and poured into goblets. The food tasters each tried the goblets of wine and handed the goblets to the family members; Nero, his mother Agrippina, several other close relatives, and young Britannicus, completely unaware of the plot. As Britannicus took a sip of the wine, he handed it back to the taster, complaining that the wine was too hot. It was a curious Roman custom of the first century to dilute their dinner wines with hot water. The food taster added some cold water into the wine and handed it back to the boy. The taster failed to taste the cold, clear water that he had added to Britannicus’s goblet – and that was where Locusta had slipped her poisonous potion.
As Britannicus fell into convulsions, Nero calmly reminded the dinner party that Britannicus suffered from epilepsy and refused to summon any assistance for the convulsing boy. Agrippina’s anguish was excruciating! She knew exactly what her son was doing, she recognized the plot and all of this without consulting her! She began to eat her dinner calmly, careful not to let her face show any sign of the terror that was filling her heart that she could be the next target. The other family members soon conformed to the calm and cautious return to the evening meal while the boy foundered and convulsed on the floor. No one was brave enough or foolish enough to do anything about Britannicus against the Emperor Nero’s wishes.
Presently, Nero called for the servants to remove Britannicus from the room. The emperor’s would-be rival died a few hours later and was hastily buried that same night, despite a great storm and the furtive gossip of the people of Rome .
With Emperor Nero as one of her satisfied customers, Locusta enjoyed a growing reputation and expanding wealth. The emperor lavished her with land, money, gifts, and a full pardon for all the poisonings she had been charged with over the years. There were many imperial referrals and more assignments. Locusta was very busy with her contract work in poisonings-for-hire, and even opened a school where she taught others her knowledge of herbs and toxins.
With the patronage of the emperor, Locusta enjoyed a period of great business success – until the Roman Senate finally gathered the nerve to condemn Nero to death in 68 A.D. Locusta had thoughtfully furnished Nero with a poison kit for himself, but in the confusion of the moment, Nero left the kit behind. Before he could be brought before the Roman Senate to stand trial for his many crimes, Nero killed himself with his own dagger.
As for Locusta … after Nero’s demise, Locusta tried to keep a low profile. But with her vast reputation as a professional poisoner, no longer supported by the favor of the emperor, Locusta was executed later that year.
Leon, Vicki. Outrageous Women of Ancient Times .
New York : John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1998.