Ancient & Modern: Poisons in Antiquity – 3 of 3

Ancient & Modern

“Poisons in Antiquity – 3 of 3”

Καὶ οἳ θάνατον αὐτοῦ κατέγνωσαν, προσθέντες
ἄλλας ψήφους ὀγδοήκοντα. καὶ δεθεὶς μετ’ οὐ
πολλὰς ἡμέρας ἔπιε τὸ κώνειον, πολλὰ καλὰ
κἀγαθὰ διαλεχθείς, ἃ Πλάτων ἐν τῷ Φαίδωνί φησιν.

And they condemned him to death, adding 80 votes
more.  Thus, not many days later he drank the hemlock
after an extensive, fine and magnificent discussion
which Plato reports in his Phaedo.

Diogenes Laertius [early third century CE?]  Lives of the Philosophers 2.42.4-6

The powerful emotions stirred by Socrates’ end in the Phaedo aside, the symptomatology that Plato reports is similar to what Frohe and Pfänder describe (A Color Atlas of Poisonous Plants 1984) as typical of poisoning by hemlock, the toxically active constituent of which, coniine, “paralyzes that striated musculature starting at the legs and rising until finally, while still fully conscious, (sic) death takes place as a result of respiratory paralysis.”

Livy tells us (ab urbe condita 30.15.4: regio more ad incerta fortunae venenum erat  “in the royal fashion, the poison was for those unforeseen situations fortune throws our way”) that ancients in positions subjects to swift reversal of fortune were wont to carry poison (presumably hemlock) with them, kind of the way modern spies (at least in movies and novels) have cyanide in a hollow tooth in case things go south.  Hannibal, for example, had his in a ring, and used it when his time came (183 BCE) so as to avoid having to face a Roman court.

One infers that by Sulla’s day (early first century BCE) poisonings, like assassins, had become sufficiently popular as a resourceful recourse for removing human obstacles to inheritances and other desired objectives that part of his legislation, the leges Corneliae, included a specific lex de sicariis et veneficiis (“law regarding hit men and poisoners”) as well as a lex testimentaria (“law regarding wills”) that prescribed penalties for tampering with such documents.

As for those in high places, in her day the infamous Lucusta was instrumental in procuring the poisonously beautiful mushroom dish the emperor Claudius got for dinner that October day in 54 CE from the anxious hand of that loving schemer, his wife, the pathologically ambitious Agrippina.  Tacitus informs (Annales 12.66-7) us that Lucusta as artifex talium (“a skilled practitioner of such arts”) worked closely on this sensitive project with the court eunuch Halotus, who was inferre epulas et explorare gustu solitus (“in the habit of serving the banquet and testing the food by tasting it”).

Agrippina wished to secure unobstructed passage to the imperial throne for her lovely son – the pathological Nero – and when the mushrooms were taking too long to work their magic on her stuporous husband, she urged the coup de grâce from a complicitous physicain, one Xenophon (haud ignarus summa scelera incipi cum periculo peragi cum praemio  “fully aware that very serious crimes were being set in motion at great personal risk but being executed for great reward”).  The healer force-fed the emperor more poison.  As Pliny notes (Naturalis historia 22.2), neither ineptly nor unaptly, Agrippina quo facto illa terris veneum alterum sibique ante omnes Neronem suum dedit: “by so doing she bequeathed to the world and above all to herself a second poison in the form of her own son Nero).”

On the principle that nothing succeeds like success, Agrippina got Lucusta to get rid of Brittanicus, who was Nero’s stepbrother, 14 years old, the son of Claudius – and a possible claimant for the throne.  Like father, like son.  But when Lucusta’s first attempt failed, the young emperor flew into such a rage at this bungling foreigner from the provinces (she was from Gaul) that he personally flogged her (Suetonius Nero 33.2-3);  chastened, she mixed a powerful potion whose efficacy, first demonstrated on an unfortunate pig, secured Brittanicus’ immediate (ad primum gustum “at the first taste”) death, and on the basis of this second try she was richly rewarded by Nero with both estates and promising students.

But let us come back finally to the matter of poisons and wills.

Some people will do all kinds of unseemly things in order to inherit high position, as we have just seen, or lots of money, as the popular media are constantly reminding us today.  In ancient Rome the problem was twofold: first, how to be a successful legacy hunter (captator) so as to get yourself written into a rich person’s will, and, second, how now to expedite that individual’s journey across the Styx.

The former task could be accomplished in any number of inventive ways.  For example, (1) one could generate gratitude through the providing of satisfactory sexual services to some vetulae vesica beatae “rich old bag” (Juvenal Satires 1.37-39 () – although at 10.202 the poet suggests that in this ugly terrain there were borders of disgust beyond which the migratory avarice of even the most opportunistic captator would hesitate to step; (2) or one might heap up implicit obligations through lavish gift-giving (as in Martial Epigrams 6.63; cf. 1.10); (3) or, if groveling blandishment failed of its greedy plan, one might turn direct about it and simply forge  a will (as did the fancy-fingered Oppianicus of Cicero’s pro Cluentio 41 who digito legata delevit [“destroyed with a finger the legal bequest”] of his former mother-in-law Dinaea and signis adulteriis obsignavit [“affixed counterfeit seals to her will”]).

In antiquity, then, once assured of a place in an instrument, one could proceed with arrangements for the final send-off least messily through the judicious administration of some reliable poisoner with reliable poisons – which is pretty much what was alleged about the murderous insurance scammer in the New York Times article adduced an A&M post or two ago.

3 of 3 – the end

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