The recent poisoning in Britain of a critic of Russia’s authoritarian rule, one of several such cases in recent years, has bought the political use of poisons to the forefront of the world’s consciousness.
Not since the Romans…but wait a minute, how poisonous were the Romans? They have a reputation for it, certainly, but much do we really know about the use of poisons by ancient Romans? Philologist David B. Kaufman thinks poisoning was more frequent in classical times than modern, but wonders if this might be attributable to the modern world’s surplus of guns, since murderousness tends to take advantage of the available technologies. Kaufman notes that women and slaves were most often accused of poisoning. For the Romans, “adulteress” was synonymous with “poisoner.” Yet “wife-poisoning seems to have been common.”
Poison was blamed for what turned out to be misunderstood epidemics. In 184 BCE, a pestilence was attributed to Hostilia, the wife of the consul. She was accused of carrying out a mass poisoning, and condemned to death on circumstantial evidence…along with three thousand others.
To put things in context, classicist Walter Scheidel explores the demographics of ancient Rome. Barring mass executions, death by natural causes was the norm. People today maybe surprised how young most Romans died, though. Augustus (76) and Tiberius (77) were long-lived, yet few of their subjects, across the classes, matched them in that kind of longevity. Infant mortality was high and life expectancy was low: it ranged from twenty to thirty years for elites. Crowded capitals like Rome and Constantinople were rife with diseases contemporary medicine was unequipped to understand, much less treat.
There was certainly a lot of talk of poisoning in the imperial period. The extant Latin texts are full of such rumors. Robert Graves’s I, Claudius put the supposed poisoning of Claudius in 54 CE by his wife Agrippina onto the center stage of popular culture. But scholar Veronika Grimm-Samuel says the historical evidence for this supposed assassination is “vague, contradictory, and open to alternative explanations.”
Most of the classical writers on the subject said that a poison was slipped into a dish with one of Claudius’s favorite foods, mushrooms. Grimm-Samuel points out that Claudius’s “food of the gods” included Amanita genus fungi. Some Amanita are delicious, and others are poisonous. In fact, Amanita phalloides is still responsible for 95% of the deaths of Europeans whose death is attributed to eating toxic mushrooms. It can easily be mistaken for harmless species. Grimm-Samuel argues that this particularly poisonous mushroom also affects eaters differently than other toxic mushrooms. The 10-15 hour incubation period for A. phalloides toxins to spread once ingested fits Claudius’s symptoms. So she thinks Claudius’s end was accidental, and that the “poison was put into the mushroom he ate by Nature and not by human hands.”
The gluttonous emperor was rewarded with deification upon his death. Agrippina’s sixteen-year-old son Nero ascended to the throne. Nero may have poisoned Britannicus, Claudius’s son. And maybe his own mother, too, but here too the sources are contradictory.
Editor’s Note: This story was corrected to indicate that Tiberius died at age 77.