Poisons, Poisoning, and Poisoners in Rome

This essay discusses the incidence and nature of poisoning in Rome (4th century B.C. to 3rd century AD).

The earliest known incidents of alleged mass poisoning (recorded at Livy 8.18) occurred at times when Rome suffered severe epidemics. It is likely that many innocent citizens were wrongly condemned at this early stage in the 4th century B.C., when superstition was rife in Rome and scapegoats were sought. Further incidents of probable poisoning in the 3rd century and later include the mass suicide of the Capuans in 211 B.C. and the tragic death of the Numidian queen, Sophonisba, in 203 B.C. Cicero's court speeches confirm the high incidence of murder by poison in the 1st century, and it is also probable that Cleopatra committed suicide by poison in 30 B.C.

A growing incidence of poisoning is recorded in the 1st century AD, which reached an alarming peak during the reign of the Julio-Claudian emperors. At Satires 1.8.1 Horace tells of the professional poisoner, Canidia, who with Martina and Locusta became the infamous trio of women poisoners in Roman times. Nero in particular made use of the latter to get rid of many of his subjects, including his half-brother, Britannicus.

Reports of poisoning continue during the reign of subsequent emperors, including Vitellius, Domitian, Hadrian, Commodus, Caracalla and Alexander Severus. During the late 1st century AD Juvenal described the moral decay of the elite and in his satires claimed that poisoning for personal benefit had become a status symbol. Suicide by poison was not common, but Pliny the Elder defended euthanasia by poison in the elderly when so desired.

Our knowledge of poisons available during Roman times is derived from the writings of Dioscorides, Scribonius Largus, Nicander, Pliny the Elder, and Galen. Poisons were of vegetable, animal and mineral origin. Animal poisons were not well studied in ancient times, and included cantharadine as well as such unlikely "poisons" as bull's blood, toads and salamanders. Poisonous insects, snakes, spiders and scorpions were known but rarely used in homicide. Mineral poisons, e.g. salts of lead, mercury, copper, arsenic and antimony, were known but virtually never used. Fumes in lead, silver and gold mines were recognized as toxic.

Vegetable poisons were best known and most frequently used. They included plants with belladonna alkaloids, e.g. henbane, datura, deadly nightshade and mandrake; aconite from monk's hood; hemlock, hellebore, colchicum (from autumn crocus), yew extract and opium. Strychnine was unknown to the Romans, and there is no evidence that cyanide was extracted from kernels of certain fruits.

Historians rarely mentioned specific poisons used when describing incidents of poisoning. However, we know that hemlock in honey was the poison favoured by Canidia, and that Seneca drank hemlock; Ovid calls aconite the "mother-in-law's poison"; the British king, Catuvolcus, committed suicide with yew extract; Claudius died after eating poisoned mushrooms, and a strong case is made out that aconite was used. The ancients apparently could not distinguish confidently between edible and toxic mushrooms. Professional poisoners often tested the potency of ther mixtures (probably containing multiple toxins) on animals, slaves or convicts.

It is clear that mass poisoning in early times occurred more frequently during stressful periods like wars and epidemics. From the 1st century B.C. onwards individual cases of poisoning increased, reaching a peak during the reign of the Julio-Claudian emperors, when ambition and political intrigues were the order of the day. In contrast, during the prosperous 2nd century AD when the tensions and fear of the previous two centuries made way for peace and quiet, very few deaths due to poisoning have been recorded.

Francois P. Retief & Louise Cilliers
University of the Free State
Bloemfontein, South Africa

Further Reading

Bloch, H. (1987) 'Poisons and poisoning,' Journal of the National Medical Association 79.9, 761-763
Dioscorides De materia medica. Transl. by T.Osbaldeston, Johannesburg, 2000
Frohne, D. & Pfander, H.J. (1983)A Colour Atlas of Poisonous Plants (London)
Horstmanshoff, H.F.J. (1999) 'Ancient medicine between hope and fear: medicament, magic and poison in the Roman Empire,' European Review 7.1, 37-51.
Kaufman, D.B. (1932) 'Poisons and poisoning among the Romans,' Classical Philology 27, 166 ff.
Nutton, V. (1985) 'The drug trade in antiquity,' Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 78, 138-145.
Pliny the Elder Natural History
Suetonius The Lives of the Caesars (esp. Nero, Claudius)
Tacitus Annals