Ancient & Modern
“Poisons in Antiquity – 2 of 3”
Seneca interim, durante tractu et lentitudine mortis, Statium Annaeum, diu sibi amicitiae fide et arte medicinae probatum, orat provisum pridem venenum, quo d[am]nati publico Atheniensium iudicio exstinguerentur, promeret.
“Meanwhile. because the process of his dying was sluggish and drawn out, Seneca asks Statius Annaeus, a friend of proven loyalty and skillful in medicine, to get him the previously arranged poison of the kind used for executing those condemned in public trials among the Athenians.”
Tacitus Annales 15.64
The cobra (or asp, from Greek ἀσπίϛ aspis ‘shield’) produces a neurotoxin, and according to Nicander brings a man to a painless end through “deep drowsy sleep” (ὑπνηλόν … νῶκαρ hupnēlon nōkar [Θηριακά Thēriaka “Wild Animal Matters” 189]) without any rupture or swelling of the skin. Tu (Reptile Venoms and Toxins 1991) notes that these toxins produce a “selective neuromuscular blockade affecting mainly the muscles of the eyes (ptosis), tongue (difficulty in speaking), throat (dysphagia) and chest (dyspnea) leading to respiratory failure,” a characterization that would account for the impression of drowsiness offered in the ancient description.
Haley and Bernd (Handbook of Toxicology 1987) similarly observe that these neurotoxins produce “drowsiness … muscle weakness and flaccid paralysis of [the] facial muscles, which extend to the limbs.”
The viper (ἒχιδνα ekhidna), characterized as having a κολοβὴν … οὐρήν / ἀζαλέαις φρίσσουσαν ἐπηετανὸν φολίδεσσι (kolobēn … ourēn / azaleais phrissousan epēetanon pholidessi “docked tail bristling with an ample supply of rough, dry scales” – Θηριακά Thēriaka 220-1), by contrast produces a venom that causes extreme pain and provokes “a greasy serous discharge” (λίπει εἴκελος ἰχώρ lipei eikelos ikhōr) from the fang marks and is accompanied by an “intense swelling [that] rises up on the flesh, often paleish green, again reddish or grayish blue.”
Nicander then goes on at lines 224-5 to describe what appear to be symptoms of clinical shock: weakness in the limbs, thirst, cold, a “clammy sweat chiller than snow fall” (νοτέων … / ψυχρότερος νιφετοῖο βολῆς … ἱδρώς noteōn … /psukhroteros niphetoio bolēs), extreme restlessness, altered skin color. This characterization is, again, consistent with Tu’s description of the hemolytic toxins of viper and crotalid (e.g., most rattle-snakes) envenomation: “very strong tissue damaging effects such as edema, hemorrhage and myonecrosis”, followed by “late shock [that] is a main cause of death.”
A selective cultural history of poison in antiquity is likewise not uninteresting. Nicander, it should be noted, discusses “arrow poisons” at great length in his Ἀλεξιφαρμακά (Alexipharmaka or “Defenses against Poisons”). Thus, Odysseus once went “in search of man-slaying poison” (Homer Odyssey 1.262: φάρμακον ἀνδροφόνον διζήμενος pharmakon androphonon dizēmenos) to smear on his arrows. And in the Iliad, when an arrow injures Menelaos, we learn that the Greek physician Makhaon (the first battle-surgeon!), a son of Asklepios himself, attend the hero by sucking the cloud-black blood (4.140) out of the wound (4.218) – which surely suggests a toxic arrow as it were. Next Makhaon sprinkles the wound with ἤπια φάρμακα ēpia pharmaka (“healing drugs”).
A “deathly drug, poison” (φάρμακον οὐλόμενον pharmakon oulomenon) is what the powerful sorceress Circe administered in Odyssey (10.394) to the hero’s men, thereby killing their humanness and transforming them physically into animals. And hundreds of years later, Thucydides notes that when the great plague first (in 430 BCE) struck Athens at the start of the Peloponnesian war, it was generally believed by the Athenians “that the Spartans had tossed poisons into their water wells” (220.127.116.11: ὡς οἱ Πελοποννήσιοι φάρμακα (pharmaka) ἐσβεβλήκοιεν ἐς τὰ φρέατα), which suggests that this was not an unknown practice in war, perhaps a vicious prototype of biological warfare against civilians that is all too horribly familiar from our own age.
Although we do not know what these poisons were, the one which the great Athenian admiral of the Persian Wars, Themistocles, took when he committed suicide in 462 BCE was presumably hemlock (Greek κώνειον kōneion, Latin cicuta). This is undoubtedly the most famous poison of antiquity. The draught of hemlock that the Athenians used for executing dangerous criminals like Socrates (in 399 BCE) may perhaps be seen as a very early version of the lethal injection some states now administer to inmates on death row.
Plato poignantly recounts at the end of the Phaedo (117e4-118a14) the death of Socrates after drinking the cup (φάρμακον τετριμμένον pharmakon tetrimennon “crushed poison”) in the prison. Socrates walks around a bit until “his legs get heavy” (οἱ βαρύνεσθαι … τὰ σκέλη) and then lies down. The executioner examines his feet and legs; Socrates, announcing that he feels nothing, sits up and indicates that he is cold and stiff (ψύχοιτό τε καὶ πήγνυτο). The other man tells him that when it reached his heart, “then he will be on his way” (τότε οἰχήσεται).
The origins of the Hippocratic corpus generally antedate Plato’s literary activity (the shadowy Hippocrates himself is said to have died in the same year as Socrates), and they are aware of hemlock as part of the physician’s pharmacopoeia. The much later Disoskourides comments on this plant as a dangerous poison (de materia medica 18.104.22.168); Galen, the famous ‘team’ doctor (in the gladiatorial schools) and anatomist of the second century CE, states in his de causis morborum 7.1.43 (On the etiology of diseases) that it is the extreme cold engendered by hemlock (and opium) in the patient that does the actual killing (μήκων καὶ … κώνειον, ἃ δὴ καὶ κτείνε τῷ σφοδρῷ τῆς ψύχεως).
2 of 3 – to be continued