Poisoning was often used in ancient times. Whether it was knocking off one’s siblings to put someone more in line for the throne or getting rid of an unfortunate spouse, poison was, in some areas, almost an art form. Many plants such as hemlock and belladonna were used frequently in order to kill of pesky rivals or those of higher social classes.
While poison was used, and many ancient rulers utilized tasters in order to make sure they were not the victims, only Rome would have a professional poisoner. Her name was Locusta and it is believed that she caused the deaths of many important Romans including the Emperor Claudius and Britannicus, Claudius’ son. Locusta’s services were first employed by Agrippina the Younger, the final wife of Claudius, to permanently take care of her husband. The weapon of choice was a large dish of poisoned mushrooms.
Locusta was, of course, arrested and was sentenced to death. Agrippina was exiled. All seemed bleak for Locusta and it likely would have been if Nero had not taken over. Nero was a bit paranoid about his position and felt threatened by Brittanicus. After all, Britannicus was Claudius’ actual son, and Nero was only a nephew. Because he wanted to get rid of Britannicus, he was willing to cancel the death penalty if Locusta was willing and able to deal with the issue. The poisoning took place in the middle of a dinner party. Britannicus’ convulsions were passed off as an epileptic seizure and he was removed from the room. He was dead several hours later.
She was more than willing to do so. She managed to figure out a way to foil the food tasters by adding the poison to water rather than to the wine. The food taster didn’t bother tasting the water. Who adds poison to water after all? Locusta would, and she did. Britannicus ended up dead and Locusta ended up with a rather highly placed patron.
Locusta became quite rich as a result. She was given land, gifts and money. More importantly, even though she was known to have committed a series of poisonings she was fully pardoned. Many of her referrals came from the Emperor himself. Locusta was so good at her work that she even began to educate others in how to use the same toxins and poisonous herbs.
When you are known to be a poisoner and your prime patron was a much-hated emperor, your life expectancy is considerably shortened after your patron is deposed. Such was the case with Locusta. After Nero committed suicide, her life went sharply downhill. Suddenly she was called to account for the many murders she had committed. She was executed the same year in which Nero died.