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Serial killer of ancient Rome

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Joseph Noël Sylvestre, Locusta Testing Poison on a Slave
Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, Locusta Testing Poison on a Slave

Poison was a weapon commonly used in the intrigues of ancient Rome, it was a way more discreet and difficult to detect the killer efficiently than murders with melee weapons. Emperors used it to eliminate their opponents or pretenders to power, and people who knew each other and had the appropriate skills to use them were especially valued and employed by them. This is also what happened with a woman who travelled from the wild forests of Gaul to the marble palaces of Rome and is widely regarded as a professional poisoner and first serial killer in ancient Rome.

The woman called Lucusta came from Gaul, it is not known how she got to Rome, she was probably captured around 54 CE. She had extensive knowledge of various herbs and their properties, and these skills were noticed very quickly in her. She made a huge profit by selling her products to the wealthiest inhabitants of the eternal city, and at the same time distributing her products to customers who did not have any money, perhaps she wanted to help them change their fate? She was very experienced in her profession, she was able to prepare potions with various properties and duration of action, causing, for example, poisoning the body for a very long period (even many years), a feeling of enormous pain, suffocating the victim, deforming her face, causing blindness, or extracts confusing the victim’s mind who was losing awareness of thinking and could pretend to be a dog, for example. She was a professional, ready-made specifics first tested on animals to check their power, then analyzed and noted what works and what needs to be improved and improved her poisons. Over time, she gained more and more fame and political influence, establishing contacts with the Roman court. Valeria Messalina, the first wife of Emperor Claudius bought poison from her for her former annoying lover. Lucusta was imprisoned twice for her actions, but each time, probably thanks to her political knowledge, she managed to be released.

Soon she was contacted by Agrippina the Younger, niece and future wife of Emperor Claudius. Although Claudius had a son – Briton – his successor from a previous unhappy relationship with Messalina, he did bond with his sister. Agrippina had the ambition for her son Nero to become emperor, and Claudius and his son Britannic stood in her way. Agrippina bribed the imperial tasters and used Lucusta’s services to poison the mushrooms that were served to Claudius for dinner by his own taster, Halotus. However, the poison was not strong enough to kill the emperor right away. To apparently save the emperor, his doctor Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, who was also in league with Agrippina, tricked him into providing him with a pen to induce vomiting, wanting to help Claudius. However, the pen was also covered with poison, which this time gave no chance to the victim of the conspiracy and the emperor died in agony. Nero became the emperor.

Agrippina to cover all traces accused Lucusta of poisoning the emperor and put her in prison for murder. While waiting for her execution, she was unexpectedly pardoned and re-hired by Nero. The new emperor needed her services because he feared that the young Briton would be a threat to his rule in the future and would take power. Lucusta was tasked with preparing a poison that would kill Britain as quickly as possible. When the first opportunity came, the poison failed, apparently too little was used to be effective, Lucusta wanted death to appear more natural and less suspicious. The furious Nero personally punished her with a flogging penalty for the failure of the plan. Nero no longer worried about caution and expected that the next attempt would not fail. To increase the effectiveness of the poison, the emperor ordered it to be tested on children to select the appropriate dose.

The next opportunity came at dinner, where the boy was served too warm wine. The Briton had them chilled, this was done with water to which poison had been added, and it was not checked by the tasters. The victim fell to the floor with foam in her mouth and convulsions. Nero commented not to touch him because the boy has an epilepsy attack. Nero, delighted with the result, rewarded Lucusta with a huge estate and service. Moreover, he allowed her to run a nursery and admit students who would like her to teach them in her craft how to make and use lethal drugs. Some sources say he also allowed her to experiment with his products on slaves, animals, and convicted criminals who were often sent to her. The poisoner was at the grace of the emperor.

But nothing lasts forever. When Nero committed suicide in 68 CE, Lucusta lost her imperial protection and found herself in great danger. When the new Emperor Servius Sulpicius Galba came to power, he ordered all of Nero’s associates to be seized. She was captured, dragged through the streets of Rome, and then executed. This is how the story of Lucusta ended – a woman known for her professionalism, cold calculation and cleverness.

Author: Bartosz Kareciński (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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