Locusta the Poisoner—Ancient Rome’s Deadliest Assassin,
Perhaps the most feared woman in the ancient world, Locusta was a first century AD assassin who offered her services to wealthy and powerful Roman patricians, politicians, and military leaders. So infamous were her deeds that her career was detailed by Juvenal, Seutonius, Cassius Dio, and Tacitus. Born in Gaul (modern day France) Locusta was raised by her mother to be an herbalist, a healer who specialized in using medicinal plants and herbs. However, her career abruptly changed when she moved to Rome in search for greater opportunities, she found that her skills could put to much more lucrative uses killing people rather than healing. Rome was rife with political intrigue, and skilled assassins were in high demand.
Locusta intensely studied poisonous plants, becoming a “master poisoner” in short time. She knew of scores of different poisons; poisons that could bring about a heart attack, poisons that could cause a stroke, poisons that affected the nervous system, even poisons that would make it seem like the victim had died of something completely natural, such as the flu or plague. For several years, Locusta hired out her services to wealthy patrician families and powerful politicians, or whoever was the highest bidder. In 54 AD Locusta was approached by Agrippina, wife of Emperor Claudius, with perhaps the biggest and most important job of her career; to assassinate the Emperor himself. Agrippina wanted her son from another marriage to be Emperor, and thus Claudius had to go. On October 13th, Locusta infiltrated Claudius’ palace, distracting a guard by placing a laxative in his drink. She then tainted a dish of mushrooms, Claudius’ favorite dish, with strychnine. Claudius consumed the poisoned mushrooms. A few hours later, he began suffering strong stomach cramps, then he began foaming at the mouth and convulsing. Agrippina appeared to attempt to force Claudius to vomit the poison by sticking a feather down his throat. Of course, the feather was also poisoned by Locusta with a potent toxin. Emperor Claudius died a short time later.
When Nero came to throne, he made Locusta his personal assassin. Among another of her famous hits was the poisoning of his brother, Britannicus, whom he felt threatened his rule. Between 55 and 68 AD, Locusta was responsible for removing a number of Nero’s rivals and enemies. Of course, Nero was not a popular Emperor, and after the burning of Rome he was stripped of his titles and declared an enemy of the state by the senate. After Nero’s suicide Rome fell into a chaotic civil war as Roman generals and warlords fought for control over the empire. One of these generals, a short reigning Emperor named Galba, despised Locusta because of her former status as Nero’s chief assassin. On January 15th, 69 AD, Locusta was dragged from her home into the streets of Rome, and was publicly executed.