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Detail of ‘Man eating noodles’ (1656) by Jan Vermeer van Utrecht.

A Deadly Bite: The Plight of the Ancient Food Taster

Poison was a potent weapon that could be used by would-be assassins to get rid of their targets. This was especially useful when the target was a person in power and was surrounded by bodyguards. One of the ways in which poisons can be administered is through food and drink. In several ancient societies, the fear of being poisoned led many members of the ruling class to hire food tasters. Believe it or not, this fear still persists even today - there are several examples of food tasters being employed by the rich and powerful of the modern world.

Halotus – The Possible Poisoner

As its name suggests, a food taster was tasked with the job of tasting a person’s food. This was to ensure that the food / drink was not contaminated by poison and was safe to be consumed. Food tasters can be found throughout human history. One of the most famous food tasters, for example, was a eunuch by the name of Halotus. This was the food taster employed by the Roman Emperor Claudius, and is remembered in history for being Claudius’ murderer.

A statue of Claudius in the Vatican museum.

A statue of Claudius in the Vatican museum. (Sailko/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Whilst the cause of this emperor’s death is still a subject of debate amongst scholars, Halotus has been singled out as a prime suspect. According to ancient authors such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny, Halotus was the one who served Claudius mushrooms (one of Claudius’ favorite foods) at a banquet in 54 AD. The dish was laced with poison made by Locusta, and the plot was orchestrated by the emperor’s wife, Agrippina the Younger.

Joseph-Noël Sylvestre: Locusta testing in Nero's presence the poison prepared for Britannicus.

Joseph-Noël Sylvestre: Locusta testing in Nero's presence the poison prepared for Britannicus. ( Public Domain )

Whilst Halotus remains a suspect of regicide, he did not face retribution for his alleged crime during his lifetime. As a matter of fact, he retained his job during the reign of Nero, who succeeded Claudius. Moreover, during the reign of Galba (Nero’s successor), Halotus was given a procuratorship, an important government post, by the new emperor. It might be added that whilst Galba executed almost all of Nero’s servants when he came to power, Halotus was one of the few who were spared. Halotus eventually disappeared from the records, but it may be assumed that he died of natural causes.

Mark Antony’s Unlucky Food Taster

Not all ancient food tasters, however, were as fortunate as Halotus. One example of a food taster ‘doing his job’ may be seen in the story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Whilst the two are arguably one of ancient history’s best-known lovers, they seemed to have distrusted each other. According to Pliny, during the time leading up to the fateful Battle of Actium in 31 BC, Mark Antony kept a food taster on hand at all times, as he distrusted Cleopatra and was worried that she would poison him when she no longer had any use for him.

Cleopatra's Banquet. By Gerard de Lairesse.

Cleopatra's Banquet. By Gerard de Lairesse. ( Public Domain )

Pliny goes on to state that Cleopatra found this amusing, and decided to entertain herself at his expense. Therefore, at a banquet, she wore a circlet of flowers, of which their extremities were dipped in poison, on her head. As the feasting went on, the atmosphere became increasingly merry, and Cleopatra challenged her lover to swallow the flowers by mixing them with wine. Mark Antony could not refuse the challenge, and nearly drank the poisoned wine when the queen stopped him. She then summoned his food taster, who, needless to say, dropped dead after drinking the wine. Thus, Cleopatra demonstrated to Mark Antony that the best precaution he had against being poisoned was to trust her.

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel (1887).

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel (1887). ( Public Domain )

Tasting the Food of a Führer and Presidents

The job of the food taster has survived even into the modern world. During the Second World War, for instance, a group of young women were forced into becoming food tasters for Hitler. In 2014, the last surviving food taster of the Führer, Margot Wölk, recounted her harrowing experience as a food taster. It has also been revealed that the presidents of the USA had food tasters making sure that their food was not poisoned.

This received attention in 2009, when the Agence France Presse reported that when the Obamas visited France to mark the 65th anniversary of D-Day, a food taster was testing the food at a restaurant where the President and his family were to have their dinner. Finally, in a reversal of roles, it was revealed by a warrant officer of the King's Own Scottish Borders regiment in a 2016 report that Queen Elizabeth would often taste the packed lunches of the regiment. Of course, the queen was not testing for poison, but for the quality of the food that was being prepared.

Top Image: Detail of ‘Man eating noodles’ (1656) by Jan Vermeer van Utrecht. Source: Public Domain

By Wu Mingren 

References

Heighton, L., 2016. Queen turned food taster over bodyguards' packed lunches. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/17/queen-turned-food-taster-over-bodyguards-packed-lunches/

Kelly, D., 2016. 10 Crazy Tales Of History’s Food Tasters. [Online]
Available at: https://listverse.com/2016/05/23/10-tales-of-sacrifice-and-ceremony-about-historys-hidden-food-tasters/

Luthern, A., 2009. Testing for Poison Still a Profession for Some. [Online]
Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/testing-for-poison-still-a-profession-for-some-61805292/

Mikkelson, D., 2013. Presidential Food Tasters. [Online]
Available at: https://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/taster.asp

Paterson, T., 2014. Hitler’s former food taster reveals the horrors of the Wolf’s Lair. [Online]
Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/hitler-s-food-taster-reveals-the-horrors-of-the-wolf-s-lair-9738880.html

Pliny the Elder, Natural History [Online] [Bostock, J., Riley, H. T. (trans.), 1917-32. Pliny the Elder’s Natural History .]

Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.02.0137

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