1823: Robert Hartley, on Penenden Heath 1944: Kaj Munk, Danish pastor-poet

68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner

January 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Come close and see her and hearken. This is she.
Stop the ways fast against the stench that nips
Your nostril as it nears her. Lo, the lips
That between prayer and prayer find time to be
Poisonous, the hands holding a cup and key,
Key of deep hell, cup whence blood reeks and drips;
The loose lewd limbs, the reeling hingeless hips,
The scurf that is not skin but leprosy.
This haggard harlot grey of face and green
With the old hand’s cunning mixes her new priest
The cup she mixed her Nero, stirred and spiced.
She lisps of Mary and Jesus Nazarene
With a tongue tuned, and head that bends to the east,
Praying. There are who say she is bride of Christ.

-“Locusta”, by Algernon Charles Swinburne

On an unknown date late in the year 68 or in the very first days of the year 69 the infamous Locusta was put to death.

Like most ancients, Locusta survives for us through a bare handful of lines — but the notoriety of her deadly potions has made her name a metonym for poisoners down the centuries and inspired outlandishly lurid Game of Thrones-esque legends like the one about being executed via giraffe-rape.

According to Suetonius and Tacitus, Locusta was fished out of the dungeons in the year 55 for use by the young Nero, the stepson of the emperor Claudius, to murder Claudius’s natural brother Britannicus and assure Nero uncontested power. (There’s some speculation that she might have offed Claudius, too.)

[Nero] meditated a secret device and directed poison to be prepared through the agency of Julius Pollio, tribune of one of the praetorian cohorts, who had in his custody a woman under sentence for poisoning, Locusta by name, with a vast reputation for crime. That every one about the person of Britannicus should care nothing for right or honour, had long ago been provided for. He actually received his first dose of poison from his tutors and passed it off his bowels, as it was rather weak or so qualified as not at once to prove deadly. But Nero, impatient at such slow progress in crime, threatened the tribune and ordered the poisoner to execution for prolonging his anxiety while they were thinking of the popular talk and planning their own defence. Then they promised that death should be as sudden as if it were the hurried work of the dagger, and a rapid poison of previously tested ingredients was prepared close to the emperor’s chamber.


Locusta and Nero test their new and improved poison on a slave before administering it to Britannicus, by Joseph Noël Sylvestre c. 1875

It was customary for the imperial princes to sit during their meals with other nobles of the same age, in the sight of their kinsfolk, at a table of their own, furnished somewhat frugally. There Britannicus was dining, and as what he ate and drank was always tested by the taste of a select attendant, the following device was contrived, that the usage might not be dropped or the crime betrayed by the death of both prince and attendant. A cup as yet harmless, but extremely hot and already tasted, was handed to Britannicus; then, on his refusing it because of its warmth, poison was poured in with some cold water, and this so penetrated his entire frame that he lost alike voice and breath. There was a stir among the company; some, taken by surprise, ran hither and thither, while those whose discernment was keener, remained motionless, with their eyes fixed on Nero, who, as he still reclined in seeming unconsciousness, said that this was a common occurrence, from a periodical epilepsy, with which Britannicus had been afflicted from his earliest infancy, and that his sight and senses would gradually return. As for Agrippina [Nero’s mother, later murdered by the monster -ed.], her terror and confusion, though her countenance struggled to hide it, so visibly appeared, that she was clearly just as ignorant as was Octavia, Britannicus’s own sister [and Nero’s wife … also later murdered by Nero -ed.]. She saw, in fact, that she was robbed of her only remaining refuge, and that here was a precedent for parricide. Even Octavia, notwithstanding her youthful inexperience, had learnt to hide her grief, her affection, and indeed every emotion.

And so after a brief pause the company resumed its mirth. One and the same night witnessed Britannicus’s death and funeral, preparations having been already made for his obsequies, which were on a humble scale. He was however buried in the Campus Martius, amid storms so violent, that in the popular belief they portended the wrath of heaven …

-Tacitus

The family horror of the Julio-Claudians was the career breakthrough for Locusta, whom Nero rewarded “for her eminent services with a full pardon and large estates in the country, and actually sent her pupils.” (Suetonius)

One presumes (although the ancient historians are not so kind as to share her accounts with posterity) that her baneful academy proceeded to do a roaring business for the balance of Nero’s 14-year reign, for she resurfaces in the narrative at the very end of it — as the desperate Nero’s supplier for a suicide draught when he was fleeing the Senate’s proscription.

Nero ended up doing the deed with a blade, not the poison. His dour and forgettable successor, Galba, enjoyed only the briefest ascendancy before he too was done to death on January 15 of the year 69 — but he made sure to use that interval to destroy Nero’s most hated henchmen, Locusta included. (Sans giraffe.)

In the case, however, of Helius, Narcissus, Patrobius, Lucusta, the sorceress, and others of the scum that had come to the surface in Nero’s day, he ordered them to be led in chains throughout the whole city and then to be executed. (Cassius Dio)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Infamous,Italy,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Roman Empire,Uncertain Dates,Women

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One thought on “68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner”

  1. Yes, the Julian-Claudian dynasty succeeded in murdering each other till the line was extinguished. However, while the murders were usually fact, the sexual excesses were mostly fiction. Because the chroniclers were always aristocrats and staunch republicans and making them up.. The aristos probably went to orgies the imperials were too busy to attend. Also the later dynasties had no problems with blackening the earlier families..

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  • Petru: 400 yards away? Damn, that is a real sharpshooting!
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  • Dolliet: Very inspiring story. God bless you.
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