Locusta the Poisoner
Rome was a rough and tumble place. Even in the golden years of the Pax Romana where everyone was supposed to gather around and celebrate being in the glory of the Roman Empire. Political intrigue was rife and there was more drama than Days of Our Lives even when Marlena was possessed by the devil. So what did you do if you have a political enemy that was really getting under your skin? You looked up Locusta of Gaul or as she was known, Locusta the Poisoner. Tacitus describes her in his Annals, “This was the famous Locusta; a woman lately condemned as a dealer in clandestine practices, but reserved among the instruments of state to serve the purposes of dark ambition. By this tool of iniquity the mixture was prepared.” Who was this woman and how did she get her fearsome reputation.
We don’t know much about Locusta’s early days. Her name ends in “of Gaul” so she must have been from there at some point. Most sources say she was a peasant woman from the dark side of the Alps in present day France. The assumption she gained her extensive knowledge of hemlock as it was well known by her Gallic barbarian ancestors. Somehow, she made her way to Rome in the mid-first century CE, carrying with her a knowledge of herbs so deadly it was coveted by the ambitious and unscrupulous. Herb knowledge was not unusual, in fact most villages that could not afford Greek doctors had a wise woman to brew tisanes and potions to cure their ills. Any herb woman worth her salt would know what plants were harmful and what plants weren’t. It is not known when or why Locusta decided to use her knowledge for harm, but she joined Canidia and Martina in the infamous trio of female poisoners of Roman times.
Locusta dedicated her life to the study of herblore and took her calling very seriously. She created hundreds of extracts from many plants to dispatch her client’s enemies in new and interesting ways. Her arsenal included hemlock, belladonna, nightshade, arsenic, quinine, and possibly even cyanide and opium. She was both creative and thorough as all poisons were tested on animals to ensure their potency. Locusta took note on what worked and what didn’t and used this to improve her poisons. It was scientific method at its finest. Her dedication to quality attracted clients, and many of them were rich and influential. Locusta ended up in jail twice for her activities, but with the help of the influence of unseen hands, she always managed to get out.
In 54 CE, Locusta was contacted by Empress Julia Agrippina, the wife and niece of Emperor Claudius. Although Claudius had a son and heir from his previous disastrous marriage to Messalina, he ran out and married his niece who had her own grown son. This was not about to end well. Agrippina did have ambitions for her son, Nerō Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus. Even if you don’t know much Roman history, you probably have heard of Nero, who was accused of fiddling while Rome burned. No one really thinks he did, but it is a testament to his character that the rumor seemed plausible. Agrippina wanted to see her son as Emperor of Rome, and there were two people standing in his way- Claudius and his son Britannicus. Enter Locusta.
Claudius wasn’t stupid. He knew being emperor was a dangerous business, and had two food tasters as well as a bodyguard. He also had a weakness for mushrooms, which Agrippina knew. She had Locusta whip up something to make the bodyguard get an explosive case of the runs, which put him out of the way, then bribed food tasters to stay home. Then she brought Claudius a lovely bag of mushrooms, seasoned by Locusta. When he doubled over with cramps, Agrippina seemed concerned. Was it something you ate, dear? Then sweetly provided him with a feather so he could vomit up anything that was making him ill. What he didn’t know was Locusta had treated the feather with strychnine. Claudius went off to the great palace in the sky soon after. One down. Since Britannicus had not reached age 14 yet and Agrippina had tricked Claudius in naming Nero heir, Nero was crowned emperor.
To cover her tracks, Agrippina accused Locusta of poisoning the Emperor and had her thrown in jail for murder. While waiting for execution, she was sprung by the most unlikely patron. Nero was beginning to chafe at his mother’s overbearing ways and she was turning her attention to the younger Britannicus in the hopes he might be more moldable. Britannicus was almost 14, which would make him a man in Roman society. He could challenge Nero. He had to go. Locusta was sprung from prison in 55 CE and given a general pardon from any crimes she had previously committed as well as a lot of cash and land.
Her first attempt to kill Britannicus was too weak, and he was only sickened. Nero lost his famous temper and supposedly beat her senseless with his own hands. She had better up her game. She tried again and this time it was a masterpiece. Food tasters always checked any wine brought to the guests, but wine was taken watered in polite society. Britannicus took his wine and complained of it being too hot. The water used to cool the wine was not tasted, and was chocked full of poison. Britannicus fell on the floor, foaming at the mouth and convulsing. Nero made an offhand remark about Britannicus having an attack of epilepsy and everyone let the poor boy twitch on the floor. Even Agrippina, who was not consulted in this plot, had to sit and watch Britannicus die. He was hastily buried with only servants in attendance.
Nero was thrilled and Locusta was awarded a huge estate and named the Imperial Poisoner. He sent her pupils, and she trained the aforementioned Martina. Unfortunately, time ran out for Nero and in 68 CE, he was condemned to death by the Roman Senate. Nero usually travelled with a poison suicide kit from Locusta, but for some reason didn’t have it with him and had to kill himself with a knife.
After Nero’s death, Locusta’s safety net disappeared. She was arrested by his successor, Emperor Galba, and dragged her through the streets in chains and executed her. Legend said she was killed in a very distasteful way- raped by wild animals in the arena, probably a giraffe. The Romans were brutal, but thankfully, this is most likely fiction. Only one book, The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers by Michael Newton in the first edition only, sites Apuelius as the sources. In The Golden Ass, Apuelius does tell a story like this but does not say the woman was Locusta and it was a fictional story. The only clue to her death we have is from Cassius Dio, “In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta [aka Locusta], the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he [Galba] ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed.”
In any case, be careful of your enemies and more careful of your friends, dear reader, and don’t accept any mushrooms!
Sources available on request