Monarchy and treachery go hand in hand. If you’re a ruler you probably have at least one person that wants to kill you. And what better way to kill a ruler who has many guards watching over him than poisoning him?
Mithridates VI (114-63) was constantly afraid of being poisoned so he tested many poisons and eventually began taking small doses of poisons to build up an immunity. He eventually made a substance which he dubbed Mithridatium which supposedly was able to cure all poisons. Pliny criticized Mithridatium for its numerous ingredients and was suspicious of its abilities (XXI 24-25). Mithridates later tried to commit suicide by poisoning himself to avoid capture by Pompey, but he was unable to do so because of his resistance to the poisons (Cassius Dio).
Livy describes the usage of poisons in Rome to kill off members of their own family for personal and political gain. The emperor Nero, ruling from 54-68 AD, was widely known to have poisoned his relatives (Suetonius). Nero’s great-uncle and predecessor, Claudius was reported to have been poisoned by Nero’s mother Agrippina or her poisoner Locusta with poisonous mushrooms or according to other sources, different herbs (Tacitus).
Not only were poisons used to assassinate people, they were also used to commit suicide. Cleopatra was said to have poisoned herself after hearing of Marc Antony’s death. Many sources such as Florus and Velleius Paterculus tell of her inducing an asp or Egyptian cobra to bite her on her breast.
Figure 1: An Egyptian Asp
Aenid. Virgil. Trans. H. Rushton Fairclough and G.P. Goold. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000. Print.
Cassius Dio. Roman History. Trans. Earnest Cary and Herbert B. Foster. London: W. Heinemann, 1970. Print.
Florus. Epitome of Roman History. Trans. E.S. Forster. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1929. Print.
Livy. History of Rome. Trans. B.O. Foster. London: Heinemann, 1919. Print.
Mayor, Adrienne. Greek Fire, Poison Arrows and Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. New York: The Overlook Press, 2003.
—. The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. Print.
Paterculus, Velleius. Compendium of Roman History. Trans. Frederick W. Shipley. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979. Print.
Pliny the Elder. The Natural History. Ed. John Bostock and H.T. Riley. Trans. H. Rackham. Perseus, n.d.
Poisoning in the Ancient Times. n.d. Web. April 2012. <http://www.portfolio.mvm.ed.ac.uk/studentwebs/session2/group12/ancient.htm>.
Suetonius. Lives of the Caesars. Ed. J.C. Rolfe. Trans. J.C. Rolfe. Harvard University Press, 1997. Print.
Tacitus. Histories. Trans. Clifford H. Moore and John Jackson. Harvard University Press, 1931.
Wikipedia. History of Poison. n.d. Web. April 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_poison#cite_ref-12>.