At the height of the Roman Empire, in the glory days where the Legions were powerful, the gold was plentiful, and the Emperors were drunkenly and impulsively ordering political assassinations while laying on top of piles of naked women, the Eternal City was a place where death, intrigue, and Scorcese-like drama was lurking behind every piazza. Political double-dealing, aristocratic corruption, and good-old fashion blood feuds sunk their talons into the darkest corners of the world’s wealthiest city, spilling blood across the streets with frightening regularity.
If you were a powerful Roman and you needed your hated arch-nemesis to somehow break out into spontaneous cardiac arrest and then fall off a building onto a couple sword points, all you needed was an ice-cold heart and a fat bag of even colder gold coins.
All you had to do was call Locusta of Gaul. A hardcore all-natural free-range organic chemist assassin so nefariously-good at using biological sciences for evil that she was known to the people of her city simply as Locusta the Poisoner.
Resistance is futile.
Aside from the part that this master alchemist and career assassin’s name ends with “of Gaul”, we don’t know much about the origins of the Black Widow of Imperial Rome. She’s mentioned in countless ancient sources, yet her past remains a mystery, forever lost to time. We know she was of common peasant stock and hailed from the dark side of the Alps in present-day France, and it’s probably safe to assume she inherited some of her knowledge of the dark powers of hemlock from her Gallic barbarian ancestors in the region. She arrived in Italy sometime in the mid-first century AD, in the early days of the Empire, successfully realizing that this was the best place in the world if you wanted to make a living killing people for money.
Locusta was a dedicated, masterful botanist who took something as lame and useless as science and applied it to important things like giving people heart attacks for fun and profit. Inventive, cruel, powerful, and intelligent, this mysterious woman from the countryside of Gaul dedicated her life to the study of herbal lore, creating hundreds of extracts from various plants and fungi and using them to ingeniously devise new ways of ruining her enemies. Utilizing everything from mushrooms to human blood, Locusta tested her dark concoctions on animals to ensure their potency in her constant quest for the perfect toxins. It wasn’t long before she realized the best applications of this would be to become a hitman, crafting herself a fortune by helping the corrupt asshole aristocrats of Rome destroy other corrupt asshole Roman aristocrats.
SPOOKY HALLOWEEN SHIT
Earning a name for herself as a master poisoner, Locusta turned Rome into her own personal Jonestown and made some of the most powerful men in the city chug Drano from a beer bong until they barfed to death. As a hardcore killer-for-hire making money hand-over-mortar-and-pestle, this diabolical assassiness offered dozens of varieties of painful death, utilizing things like hemlock, belladonna, nightshade, arsenic, quinine, and possibly even cyanide and opium overdoses to surreptitiously and prematurely end the lives of the most powerful men in the city. A lot of modern sources like to call her “history’s first serial killer”, but those sources are all dumb because she was doing it for the cash and not out of some sick personal obsession.
It’s safe to assume that dozens of Locusta’s victims died without anyone even suspecting foul play, but you also can’t put out fucking Yellow Pages ads under the name “Locusta the Poisoner” without a cop or two rolling around to ask you a few stations. Locusta was arrested twice for murder, but both times she was bailed out when powerful Roman senators flexed their political balls to get her exonerated of her charges. Presumably they did this in exchange for a future kill, or because they needed to save their own butts from being implicated in the murder investigation, but either way this chick was like an Ancient Roman Keyser Soze with dark friends from up on high the prince of darkness himself.
The third time Locusta was tossed in jail was a little different. It was 54 AD, and the woman who came to bail Locusta’s ass out was none other than the Empress Julia Agrippina – an ultra-badass woman, one of my all-time favorite female badasses, and a person you should be familiar with if you’ve read my book Badass (a masterpiece critically-acclaimed by at least a half-dozen Amazon commenters and a fantastic work of art I personally choose to shamelessly plug any time I get the opportunity). Agrippina pulled Locusta out of jail and tasked her with the most high-profile hit of her career – to kill the Emperor Claudius himself.
Locusta didn’t bat an eye at the request. On October 13, 54 AD (almost exactly 1,960 years ago), the Poisoner put her plan into motion. The night before, she poisoned Claudius’ bodyguard just enough that the guy had to call out sick with explosive barf diarrhea. Then she bribed Claudius’ food taster to take the night off, leaving nothing in the way of Emperor Claudius wolfing down a delicious bowl of amazing stew that oh yeah just so happened to be spiced up with super-poisonous Death Cap Mushrooms. Claudius fell out of his throne, clutching his neck, and a doctor came up to do what doctors did during this time, which was to stick a feather down the Emperor’s throat until he barfed up whatever was making him sick.
It didn’t work. Locusta had already soaked the feather in strychnine and paint thinner.
Just as Agrippina planned, Claudius beefed it and was succeeded by her their son, a guy named Nero who you should probably have heard of before. Everything was going OK until then Agrippina accused Locusta of poisoning her husband and had her arrested and sentenced to death by bludgeoning. Which came as kind of a surprise to Locusta, who was actually expecting to, you know, get paid pretty decently in exchange for murdering the Emperor of Rome on the orders of the Empress. But whatever.
Well, a few months later, Nero decided hey, he might have some use for a woman who can snap her fingers and have anyone in the Roman Empire secretly assassinated. So, in 55 AD, Emperor Nero freed Locusta the Poisoner from prison, gave her a ton of money and a huge plot of land, made her an aristocrat, and publicly declared that she be absolved of all crimes she has committed and will ever commit, which, you gotta admit, is a nice touch.
“Mushrooms must be the food of the gods, since Claudius became a god by eating them.”
In 55 AD, Nero hired Locusta to kill his step-brother, a 14 year-old punk-ass fucking kid named Britannicus that everybody in Rome seemed to like for some dumb reason. Locusta’s only question was whether Nero wanted agonizing extended pain or just quick and sudden death.
Nero invited Britannicus to a big huge party at the palace, and everyone was having this great time until Britannicus took a sip from his wine goblet and almost immediately fell to the ground shaking and convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Everyone got a little worried, but Nero was like, “nah, dudes, don’t worry about it, he has epileptic seizures and you all know this.” Britannicus did actually suffer from epilepsy, so people were like yeah ok and just waited it out, and of course that dumb kid stopped breathing pretty quickly because that’s what happens to people when they chuck a fifth of arsenic.
The next day, Nero rewarded Locusta the Poisoner with a big villa atop a hill in downtown Rome and declared her the official Imperial Poisoner. Locusta was probably also the person behind the attempted assassination-by-poison of Julia Agrippina (revenge is a dish best served cold and laced with cyanide), but Agrippina was fucking awesome and had already made herself immune to most kinds of poison.
For the next 14 years (which, holy shit), Locusta the Poisoner not only performed risk-free assassinations on behalf of one of Rome’s most ruthless Emperors, but she also opened up a school where she trained other women in the fine arts of making unsuspecting dumbasses huff Clorox until they bleed out of their eyes and nose. Living in a huge palace, she trained future poisoners such as the infamous Martina, the woman associated with death of Germanicus, and many others. She also continued her studies of chemistry and biology, learning new formulas and testing them out (at the Emperor’s request) on convicted criminals, slaves, and anyone else she wanted.
Well, Nero pissed off a lot of people, and in 69 AD he was sentenced to death by being beaten with iron rods. Nero almost always carried a special suicide poison kit Locusta had crafted up for him, but in his hurry to escape his assassins he forgot to pack it in his luggage so instead he had to do it old-school and kill himself with a knife. His successor, the Emperor Galba, was a little bitter about all the poisoning bullshit and had Locusta dragged through the streets in chains and then publicly executed, ending her reign of terror once and for all.
Gibson, Dirk C. Legends, Monsters, or Serial Murderers?. ABC-CLIO, 2012.
Suetonius. The Twelve Caesars. Penguin, 2007.
Stratton, Kimberly B. Daughters of Hecate. Oxford University Press, 2014.
Tacitus. The Annals. Acheron, 2012.