Tired of waiting for rich Uncle Tom to kick the bucket? Ready to take over the throne, but daddy just won’t die? Upset with your wife for cheating? Then you need to call Locusta, Profession Poisoner.
From the Roman province of Gaul (France), Locusta moved to Rome, where assassinations were a dime a dozen. Retained by royals, she managed to never be charged with murder or spend much time in jail. Her death sentences were often commuted or dismissed outright.
Locusta is best known for her association with Empress Agrippina the Younger, who married her Uncle Claudius, who became Emperor when his nephew was murdered by his own officers. Agrippina was his fourth wife and she had been accused of killing her previous husband by poisoning him. During her marriage, she was able to pursued Claudius to give preference to her own son Nero, over his son Brittanicus. But Agrippina wasn’t so sure Claudius would keep his word. So, when her son was 17, she contacted Locusta. On October 12, 54 A.D. the women fed Claudius mushrooms, one of his favorite foods. However, the poison didn’t kill him, it only made him sick. To succeed in the murder, he was given a fatal dose of poison via a feather down his throat.
Nero is said to have claimed that mushrooms must be the food of the gods, since Claudius had become a god by eating them.
Once Nero was on the throne, he decided to hire Locusta to take out his step-brother, Brittanicus—who could challenge him for the throne. In an ingenious move, Locusta poisoned Brittanicus at dinner, in front of family, friends and the official food tester. Nero was so pleased with her success that he gave her a full pardon for any and all poisons she may have committed as well as choice real estate. He even sent clients her way.
It is reported that Locusta was responsible for 10,000 deaths—although that number may be exaggerated. To insure that her ‘profession’ carried on after her death, she set up a school for poisoners. Her graduates went on to be quite successful in their field.
By 68 A.D., Rome was fed up with Nero’s cruelty, extravagance and greed. He was ordered to be killed the old-fashion way: beaten to death with iron rods. He, however, beat them to the punch, not by poison, though. He stabbed himself in the throat, but botched the job (much as had been done with his step-father) and begged his private secretary to finish him off.
With Nero’s death, Locusta’s luck ran out. The next emperor, Galba, had her and several other poisoners executed.
4,000 Years of Uppity Women by Vicki León
365: Great Stories from History by W.B. Marsh & Bruce Carrick
For further reading:
This blog first appeared at Hearts Through History Blog on May 19, 2012