68 or 69: Locusta, infamous poisoner

1 comment 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)

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69: Galba, in the Year of the Four Emperors

2 comments January 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in the year 69, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-him emperor of Rome Galba was slain — the first casualty in ancient Rome’s Year of the Four Emperors.

From the standpoint of this blog’s portfolio, Galba’s death admittedly makes for an edge case; in their time, the Romans experimented with every shade and interval for the span from extrajudicial execution to assassination to simple murder. Certainly the sudden homicide which forms our subject today proceeded under no purported legal color.

But dead is dead, and in Rome at that moment, dead was the essential fact. You had to get the incumbent into the ground to don the blood-drenched purple.

That’s exactly how Galba managed it himself: his predecessor was the infamous Nero, dead the previous June in a revolt that had set Galba up as the rival emperor.

Galba was a classic Peter Principle guy, a respected wealthy patrician who had been a prominent public figure for decades. At the end of Nero’s run, Galba was governor of a Spanish province and everyone thought would make a swell emperor … until he actually got the job.

As Suetonius observed, Galba’s “popularity and prestige were greater when he won, than while he ruled the empire.” Tightfisted (or fiscally responsible) and inflexible (or upright), the new emperor proved to have a gift for alienating his subjects.

The skinflint sovereign bullied enemies real and perceived, took an obnoxiously lordly attitude towards inferiors, and even decimated a legion (a practice long since out of date at this point). He set about restoring the ruined state finances by seizing even from parties at second and third hand goods which allegedly traced to Nero’s graft, then re-auctioning them … many of those auctions suspiciously won at a discount by Galba’s hated advisors-slash-controllers, the “Three Pedagogues.” And he “condemned to death divers distinguished men of both orders on trivial suspicions without a trial.” (Suetonius, again)

Very dangerously, Galba also refused to pay the customary donative to those arbiters of imperial succession, the Praetorian Guard.

All this mess brought the distant German legions into rebellion.

However, Galba triggered his downfall directly when he passed over for official heir an early Galba supporter, Otho — who had been dispensing liberal largesse on the understanding that he had the inside track to the throne — in favor of a youth named Piso.

Personally affronted and also in danger of having his now-unpayable debts called in, Otho brought the disaffected Praetorians over to his side and revolted.

The capital was thrown into a tumult. On January 15, Galba’s litter was being borne in the Roman Forum when Otho’s militia appeared,

loudly ordering all private citizens out of their way. The multitude, accordingly, took to their heels, not scattering in flight, but seeking the porticoes and eminences of the forum, as if to get a view of the spectacle. Hostilities began with the overthrow of a statue of Galba by Attilius Vergilio, and then the soldiers hurled javelins at the litter; and since they failed to strike it, they advanced upon it with their swords drawn. No one opposed them or tried to defend the emperor, except one man, and he was the only one, among all the thousands there on whom the sun looked down, who was worthy of the Roman empire. This was Sempronius Densus, a centurion, and though he had received no special favours from Galba, yet in defence of honour and the law he took his stand in front of the litter. And first, lifting up the switch with which centurions punish soldiers deserving of stripes, he cried out to the assailants and ordered them to spare the emperor. Then, as they came to close quarters with him, he drew his sword, and fought them off a long time, until he fell with a wound in the groin.

The litter was upset at the place called Lacus Curtius, and there Galba tumbled out and lay in his corselet, while the soldiers ran up and struck at him. But he merely presented his neck to their swords, saying: “Do your work, if this is better for the Roman people.” (Plutarch)

Piso tried to take refuge with the sacred Vestal Virgins, but was hauled out most impiously and abruptly put to death on the temple’s steps. Otho was said to greet this severed head of his rival heir with particular satisfaction. (Galba’s head was paraded through town on a spear, then given over to the servants of a guy Galba had executed so that they could dishonor it on the execution grounds.)

As for the victorious Otho, you’ll recall those restive German legions … and the fact that this is the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba was the first of those four; Otho, the second. As Cassius Dio tells it, “as he [Otho] was offering his first sacrifice, the omens were seen to be unfavourable, so that he repented of what had been done and exclaimed: ‘What need was there of my playing on the long flutes?’ (This is a colloquial and proverbial expression applying to those who do something for which they are not fitted.)”

Three months later, it was time to pay the flautist. Those German legions arrived, bumped off Otho, and made their own commander into emperor number three. (Otho, not theretofore viewed as particularly noble soul, redeemed himself for posterity by committing suicide for the good of Rome rather than press a ruinous civil war — uttering the Spock-like sentiment, “It is far more just to perish one for all, than many for one.”)

The History of Rome podcast series covers Galba’s abortive reign here.

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Feast Day of Saint Peter and Saint Paul

12 comments June 29th, 2009 Headsman

June 29 is the shared feast day (in both the Latin and Greek rites) of the two biggest wheels in first century Christianity, Saint Peter and Saint Paul.

Tradition holds that both men were martyred in Rome during the persecutions of Emperor Nero after Rome burned: Paul beheaded, Peter crucified upside-down at his own request not to die in the manner of his lord.* Some traditions have both being put to death on the same day; others do not.

Concrete dates** are going to be hard to come by, of course, and the purported historical doings of New Testament Christians are inextricably conjoined to theological ox-goring.

But it is their lives and not their deaths that make them memorable, and to judge by the conquest of the faith they propounded, their feast day honors are richly deserved. Some scholars with no fear for their soul will tell you that Paul in particular can be rated a more consequential historical person than the Nazarene himself, having formulated the doctrine and conducted the ministry needed to turn a dead-end Jewish sect or inchoate reform movement into a surging universal religion that would play to Praetorians.

More from this program — and other resources on early Christianity — at this Frontline page.

While linked on this day, Peter and Paul appear in the Bible as sometime rivals. One might well speculate at the dynamics between them: Peter, after all, got his commission straight from the Savior himself; the upstart Saul of Tarsus, late of the Jewish establishment, arrived fired with the zeal of the converted and went from persecuting Christians to appropriating their doctrine, even calling Peter out publicly.

However they sublimated that awkwardness, their respective offices as Apostle to the Jews (Peter) and Apostle to the Gentiles (Paul) allude to an oft-explored problem whose resolution would prove decisive for the nascent faith: did Christianity require adherence to the strict Mosaic law?

The stakes: would anyone outside of already-existing Jews actually want to convert?

Paul looks like the firebrand, boldly enacting his revolutionary faith-alone revelation (so central to the Protestant Reformation 15 centuries later) on the pacified highways and sea lanes of the Pax Romana; Peter seems the compromiser (or a vacillator), instinctively granting precedence to the Jewish tradition but being carried along by events towards Paul.

Peter is seen in the Bible acceding to Paul’s opposition to making Greeks eat kosher and circumcise, and even persuading the most august Judaizer and leader of the Jewish Christians at Jerusalem, Saint James.

Amongst these illustrious names, we may perceive or imagine — “through a glass darkly”, as it were — what must have been a blossoming multitude of contending beliefs and practices.

Paul made Christian doctrine amenable† to the practices that would make it a phenomenal evangelical success (and separate it from the faith of Abraham), but on that same winners-write-history basis one is entitled to wonder whether the authority of Peter and James have been appropriated ex post facto by the Biblical writers of the Pauline party. If so, you wouldn’t say his reputation has suffered for it: the pope still claims to speak as “the unworthy heir of St. Peter” … and in St. Peter’s Basilica.

Whatever the faithful and the merely interested may speculate about their historicity, their names are on the founding charter of Christianity.

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day … (St. Paul, 2 Timothy 4:7-8)

A very few of the very many books about Peter and Paul and their times

* See the apocryphal Acts of Peter.

** Italian archaeologist Margherita Guarducci, however, argued that Peter’s death could be assigned to a precise date: October 13, 64. We can pose against this skepticism that Peter ever went to Rome at all, a sometime Protestant hobby-horse supposed to undermine the primacy of the Holy See.

† But not so decisively that he wasn’t soon at loggerheads with the Jerusalem Jewish Christians again.


Update: Just as this post was getting set to publish, the Vatican announced the discovery of what it claims may be the oldest image of St. Paul, a 4th century fresco uncovered in a Roman catacomb.

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