8 Facts About Locusta, Ancient Rome’s Official Poisoner | History Hit

8 Facts About Locusta, Ancient Rome’s Official Poisoner

A 19th century sketch of Locusta testing poisons on a slave.
Image Credit: Public Domain

The ruling classes of ancient Rome are often characterised by scandal, drama, power plays and even murder: it’s no secret that emperors would employ helping hands to remove rivals or traitors when they deemed it necessary.

Infamous in her lifetime, Locusta is one of the most fascinating women of ancient Rome. Employed by at least two different emperors wanting to make use of her expertise, she was feared and respected for her knowledge and place in the inner circle of the emperors.

Here are 10 facts about Locusta.

1. Most of what we know about her comes from Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio

As with many women in the ancient world, most of what we know about Locusta comes from classical male historians who had never met her, including Tacitus in his Annals, Suetonius in his Life of Nero, and Cassius Dio. She left no written record herself, and many details about her life are somewhat sketchy.

2. Poisons were a common method of assassination in the ancient world

As knowledge of poisons became slowly more widespread, poison became a popular method of assassination. Those in power became increasingly paranoid, with many employing slaves as tasters to sample a mouthful of every dish or drink before it was consumed to ensure its safety.

King Mithridates was a pioneer in trying to find antidotes to the more common poisons, creating a potion known as mithridatium (often described as a ‘universal antidote’, which combined tiny amounts of dozens of herbal remedies of the time as a means of combatting many things. It was far from completely effective, but it was helpful in combatting the effects of some poisons.

By the time Pliny the Elder was writing in the 1st century, he described over 7,000 known poisons.

3. Locusta first came to the attention of Agrippina the Younger

Locusta first appears around the year 54 when she was serving as an expert on poisons under the then empress, Agrippina the Younger. Exactly how she made a name for herself or was noticed by the empress is unclear, but suggests a certain degree of notoriety.

Agrippina the Younger was one of the most prominent women in the Julio-Claudian dynasty. Born during a time of radical political change in the Roman Empire, she had a very powerful pedigree.
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4. She supposedly murdered the emperor Claudius

Legend has it that Locusta’s first royal commission was to murder Agrippina’s husband, the emperor Claudius. She was said to have fed him a poisoned mushroom: not dangerous enough to kill him, but enough to send him to the latrines to try and vomit it back up.

Little did Claudius know that the tip of the feather (commonly used to put down the throat to induce vomiting) was laced with poison too (specifically atropa belladonna, a common Roman poison). He died in the early hours of 13 October 54, a combination of the two poisons killing him within a few hours.

Exactly how true this story is, or the extent of Locusta’s involvement if it is, remains unclear. However, historical consensus now agrees Claudius was almost certainly poisoned.

A bust of the emperor Claudius from the archaeological museum in Sparta.

Image Credit: George E. Koronaios / CC

5. Her role as unofficial expert on poisons continued on into the reign of Nero

The year after Claudius’ death, 55 AD, Locusta was repeatedly asked by Agrippina’s son, Nero, to poison Claudius’ son, Britannicus, a potential rival.

The original poison Locusta mixed was too slow acting for the hot-tempered Nero, and he flogged her. Locusta subsequently supplied a much faster-acting poison which, Suetonius recounts, was administered via cold water at a dinner party.

Nero reportedly blamed Britannicus’ symptoms on his epilepsy, a long-standing condition which was virtually untreatable at that time. Britannicus died before he reached his majority.

6. She was richly rewarded for her skills

Following the successful murder of Britannicus, Locusta was rewarded handsomely by Nero. She was pardoned for her actions and given large country estates. Reportedly she took on a select number of students to learn the art of poison at Nero’s request.

Nero himself kept Locusta’s fastest-acting poison in a golden box for his own use, if necessary, meaning her absence from court did not make it much safer.

7. She was eventually executed

After Nero committed suicide in 68, Locusta was rounded up along with several of Nero’s other favourites whom Cassius Dio collectively described as “the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day”.

On the orders of the new emperor, Galba, they were marched through the city of Rome in chains before being executed. Locusta’s skills made her extremely useful, but also dangerous.

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8. Her name lives on as a byword for evil

Locusta had trained and taught enough others to ensure her legacy lived on. Much as her skills and knowledge were used for dark purposes, given poisons were almost exclusively derived from plants and the natural world, her botanical knowledge was also second to none.

Her deeds were written down by contemporary historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, earning Locusta a place in the history books. Exactly what her role in the deaths of Claudius and Britannicus will never really be known, nor will her relationship with Nero: she has no voice of her own nor will she. Her legacy is instead defined predominantly by gossip, hearsay and a willingness to believe the inherent evil of powerful women.

Sarah Roller