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Detail of ‘The Love Potion’ (1903) by Evelyn de Morgan. Unlike the creation of this woman, Locusta of Gaul’s potions were made in hatred. Source: Public Domain

Locusta of Gaul – Nero’s Notorious Poison Maker

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Poison was always the silent killer. Kings and emperors fell prey to it as easily as an unsuspecting servant. Throughout medieval and classical history, poison and those who knew how to prepare it played a huge role in the internal affairs of many a court. Assassins were feared, and herbalists were employed to concoct the most deadly poisons possible - all with the aim to remove competitors, enemies, and usurpers. The poisoner we are discussing today is one of the most infamous in classical history - Locusta of Gaul.

Employed as the favorite poisoner of the Roman Emperor Nero, this woman ended many lives with her deadly poisons . From the wild woods of Gaul all the way to the marble courts of Rome, this woman’s story is a true deadly drama. Widely considered as one of the earliest documented serial killers, Locusta was certainly a deadly dame. But is there more to her story? Revenge? Hate? Sorrow? We’re about to find out.

What influenced Locusta of Gaul’s actions? (revealedtheninthwave)

What influenced Locusta of Gaul’s actions? ( revealedtheninthwave)

The Earliest Historical Mention of Locusta of Gaul

In ancient Rome poisons were a common weapon often used with cunning skill. Emperors used them to depose unwanted pretenders and heirs to the throne, to eliminate staunch enemies, or to get rid of unwanted commanders. Murder by poison gave less involvement and a better alibi.

There was no need for weapons or bloodshed, as an assassin could simply insert the poison into food or drink in a critical moment. Fear of such an assassination became so widespread in Roman society , that many important individuals - mostly Emperors - hired special servants that would act as food tasters. These were often the cooks as well.

And to find a proper herbalist and maker of poisons, Roman Emperors did not hesitate to look in all corners of their Empire. And so it was that in the lands of their province of Gaul they discovered a skilled woman, well versed in the use of wild herbs, plants, and poisons. Locusta was her name, and she was most likely captured (sometime before 54 AD) and brought to Rome where her deadly skills would be utilized.

Locusta was living in Gaul before she was captured by Romans by 54 AD. (Archivist /Adobe Stock)

Locusta was living in Gaul before she was captured by Romans by 54 AD. (Archivist /Adobe Stock)

And her skill as a maker of poisons was quickly recognized. So it came to be that Locusta of Gaul was hired as the official poisoner of the Imperial Court. There she became the favorite of Emperor Nero - who, as we all know, had a particular affinity for all things deadly and odd.

Locusta was certainly a historical figure and what we can learn about her deeds was documented by ancient historians Tacitus, Juvenal, Cassius Dio, and Suetonius.

She is first mentioned in the service of Agrippina Minor, one of the most prominent female figures of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty of Rome, and the mother of the future emperor, Nero.

Empress Agrippina made Locusta of Gaul her poisons expert, and some sources claim that with her assistance the Empress conspired to murder her husband Claudius. Before this occurred though, Locusta is mentioned as being imprisoned in 54 AD, and condemned for a poisoning charge ( nuper veneficii damnata ).

It was at this point that Agrippina employed Locusta’s deadly services. The latter produced a poison to kill Claudius, which was purportedly sprinkled on mushrooms in his dinner. It is also possible that the mushroom itself was the poison, the Amanita Phalloides, the so-called Death Cap Mushroom.

Death Cap mushrooms. (Archenzo/CC BY SA 3.0)

Death Cap mushrooms. (Archenzo/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Agrippina’s influence was seemingly quite considerable, as she managed to turn those close to Claudius against him. So it was that the poisoned food was given to the Emperor by his very own food taster - Halotus. But the poison was not strong enough and death was drawn out.

Claudius was then finished off by his own doctor, Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, who inserted a feather into the emperor's mouth in order to induce vomiting. But the feather itself was coated with more poison, and it was this that killed Claudius. With the emperor gone, Agrippina paved the way for her son Nero.

Nero and Agrippina. Agrippina crowns her young son Nero with a laurel wreath. She carries a cornucopia, symbol of fortune and plenty, and he wears the armor and cloak of a Roman commander, with a helmet on the ground at his feet. The scene refers to Nero's accession as emperor in 54 AD and belongs before 59 AD when Nero had Agrippina murdered. Museum in Aphrodisias, in modern-day Turkey. (Carlos Delgado/CC BY SA 3.0)

Nero and Agrippina. Agrippina crowns her young son Nero with a laurel wreath. She carries a cornucopia, symbol of fortune and plenty, and he wears the armor and cloak of a Roman commander, with a helmet on the ground at his feet. The scene refers to Nero's accession as emperor in 54 AD and belongs before 59 AD when Nero had Agrippina murdered. Museum in Aphrodisias, in modern-day Turkey. (Carlos Delgado/ CC BY SA 3.0 )

Locusta of Gaul in the Service of Nero

The next time we hear of Locusta is during the reign of Nero, a mere year after the death of Claudius, in 55 AD. Several sources state that Locusta was imprisoned on charges of Claudius’ death, but that the new emperor, Nero, pardoned here and employed her once again. He needed her deadly services, for Claudius had a son, a young boy named Britannicus. Nero feared that the boy would become a threat to his rule and usurp the throne, even though he wasn’t even a teenager.

Locusta was to concoct a poison which would kill Britannicus as swiftly as possible. Historical sources state that Locusta used Atropa Belladonna , commonly known as deadly nightshade, and quite possibly used arsenic, henbane, mandrake, aconite from monk’s hood, colchicum, hellebore, and yew extract. These were among the most efficient and well known poisons in ancient Rome.

Leaves and berries of the Deadly Nightshade plant, Atropa belladonna. (espy3008 /Adobe Stock)

Leaves and berries of the Deadly Nightshade plant, Atropa belladonna. ( espy3008 /Adobe Stock)

When the time to poison Britannicus came, it seemingly failed the first time too. It seems that Locusta opted for arsenic, but used too small a dose in order to make the death seem more natural and not suspicious. Nero also wanted to do it cautiously, but was furious when the assassination didn’t work out.

He personally flogged Locusta for her failure and ordered her to give the full dose. Nero no longer cared about caution. And to ensure the effectiveness of the poison, Nero ordered Locusta to test it out on children. When deaths were either too slow, or the poison ineffective, they ramped it up until they were satisfied with the results.

A depiction of Emperor Nero with a tiger and Rome burning in the background during the Great Fire. (Public Domain)

A depiction of Emperor Nero with a tiger and Rome burning in the background during the Great Fire. (Public Domain)

Britannicus was thus positioned at a dinner. He was brought a hot beverage, which his food taster had to taste. When all was well, Britannicus ordered it to be cooled down, which was promptly done with poisoned water. This time Locusta’s poison worked. Britannicus immediately suffered its effects, with Tacitus stating that the boy “immediately lost alike both voice and breath.”

Furthermore, young Britannicus suffered from epileptic fits throughout his life, and Nero used this as the cause, claiming that the boy was having a seizure and should not be touched. The boy would later die.

After this event, Nero was seemingly well pleased with his chief poisoner from Gaul and decided to grant her many prestigious rewards, including her own estates and servants. Furthermore, he sent her pupils, which were to be taught the ways of poison making.

Several sources state that Nero granted Locusta the permission to test her various poisons on slaves, animals, and convicted criminals, which were sent to her often. If this is correct, then it is quite certain that Locusta of Gaul was indeed one of the earliest documented serial killers , having murdered many people in cold blood.

‘Locusta Testing Poison on a Slave’ (1870-1880) by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre. (Public Domain)

‘Locusta Testing Poison on a Slave’ (1870-1880) by Joseph-Noël Sylvestre. ( Public Domain )

But all that eventually came to an end - the riches, the prominence, the protection. When Nero committed suicide in 68 AD, Locusta surely knew that her situation would only worsen. Without the Emperor’s protection, and her deeds well known to all, she was in danger.

When new Emperor Galba came to power he ordered her to be seized. Alongside several freedmen that were Nero’s close associates - including Patrobius, Narcissus, Helios, and others, according to Cassius Dio - Locusta was sentenced to death.

Cassius Dio names her and all the others in that category as “the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s days.” She was dragged through the streets of Rome and then executed. Locusta of Gaul and her poisonous arts were no more.

Poisons and Royal Intrigue in the Roman Court

But one has to wonder about Locusta of Gaul as a person, her underlying motives, and her intentions. These are the things that we cannot learn from our historical sources, but we can still discuss them. Could there have been more to her than just pure motivation and thirst for power?

Firstly, we can assume that as she bore the epithet of Gaul , Locusta was born Gaulish. It could be that she was captured and made a slave initially, before her skills with herbs were recognized. Also from this we can deduce that perhaps Locusta’s motives were those of personal revenge, a yearning to wreak havoc on the conquerors that took her captive and away from her home.

As she had the means - the folkloric knowledge of herbs and nature - Locusta could have used her knowledge in ways that would allow her to exact vengeance on the Romans - by poisoning them. It would be a fitting act of a personal war of a simple Gaulish slave, and the perfect background for an assassin - having no warm feelings for those whose lives she was to take.

Locusta testing poison on a slave in front of Nero. (Sébastopol76/CC BY SA 4.0)

Locusta testing poison on a slave in front of Nero. (Sébastopol76/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

The use of poisons in Roman times was no oddity. Many relied on them and dabbled in those deadly arts. Many contemporary historians wrote on this, including Suetonius, Galen, Nicander, Pliny the Elder, Scribonius Largus, and Dioscorides. In general, there were three types of poisons - mineral, herbal, and animal poisons. The mineral ones included arsenic, antimony, mercury, copper, and lead, and were unstable and thus rarely used. 

Animal poisons were mostly ineffective and the produce of folk tales - and included such odd concoctions including bull’s blood, toads, and salamanders. Of course, there were also poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, but they were difficult to use and thus rare.

But herbal poison proved to be diverse, effective, and easy to use and conceal. These were usually derivatives of plants with belladonna alkaloids, such as henbane, datura, mandrake, or deadly nightshade.

Historians also tell us of the several occurrences of poisoning, and even name exactly which ones were used in the deed. So for example, we have the popular figure of Canidia from Horace’s poems who favored hemlock in honey as poison. We also know that Seneca himself drank hemlock, while Ovid cites aconite as the “poison of mother-in-law’s.”

Hemlock. (Djtanng/CC BY SA 4.0)

Hemlock. (Djtanng/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

But of course, it was the Imperial Court where poisons were mostly used. Surviving examples are many, but we shall mention only a few. For example we have Drusus, the son and heir of Tiberius, who was slowly poisoned by his wife Claudia Livia Julia and her accomplice Lucius Aelius Sejanus.

Of course, there is the death of Claudius at the hands of his niece and wife Agrippina. Nero Claudius Drusus’ son, Germanicus, a skilled Roman general , was also poisoned over time by Piso. Germanicus’ wife, Agrippina the Elder, was known to have a fear of being poisoned and was wary of anything she ate.

And some of the well known emperors either committed or attempted murders by poison, including Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla, Caligula, Nero, Elagabalus, and Vitellius. A well known historical reference tells us that Caligula had a huge trunk filled with various poisons, and that Nero himself carried a special poison made by Locusta of Gaul, in case he had to commit suicide.

Caligula also committed or attempted murder with poison. (Michiel2005/CC BY NC 2.0)

Caligula also committed or attempted murder with poison. (Michiel2005/ CC BY NC 2.0 )

Nero relied heavily on poisons, and perhaps for that reason named Locusta his chief poisoner. He poisoned his own aunt, Domitia Lepida Major, and seized her estates. The woman suffered extreme constipation - perhaps from poison - Nero visited her and immediately ordered a fatal dose of laxative be administered.

It is claimed that he was the one who poisoned his once chief advisor, Sextus Afranius Burrus, by replacing his medicines with poison. We can realize from such examples that poison was one of the major methods of murder in ancient Rome. The silent killer, it was usually unexpected and caught its victims off guard. And for women such as Locusta of Gaul, there was plenty of work to be had.

Poisoning the Honorable Past

Locusta was not the only woman poisoner in ancient Rome. Horace mentions a deadly female trio that was infamous for their arts in potions - Martina, Locusta, and Canidia - the black widows of Rome. This use of immoral weapons shows us a clear shift from the much more honorable and poetic times of Caesar, Cicero, and those before them, where a noble death was common.

With the likes of Nero, greed and power struggles became rampant - and in such an environment poison rules.

Top Image: Detail of ‘The Love Potion’ (1903) by Evelyn de Morgan. Unlike the creation of this woman, Locusta of Gaul’s potions were made in hatred. Source: Public Domain

By Aleksa Vučković

References

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MacInnis, P. 2004. Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar. Arcade Publishing.

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