At the height of the Roman Empire when riches were plentiful and the Emperors of the land were drunk with power and privilege, there lived a woman named Locusta who used her uncommon knowledge of botany and science to bring about the death of many prestigious men, elevating her status as a killer in one of history’s most insidious empires. Known to many as the “Black Widow of Imperial Rome,” she was a dedicated master of all things poisonous and a dark dealer in clandestine practices of death. Although mentioned in countless ancient stories, her life itself was mysterious–but her inventive, cruel, intelligent, and clever ambitions remain the stuff of Roman legend. In a world where aristocratic corruption and good old fashioned bloody revenge reigned supreme, her twisted talents became a valuable commodity among those looking to destroy others and further their own unscrupulous plans–making her one of the most infamous killers in all of history.
While the details of Locusta’s early life are few, it’s known she was born a common peasant somewhere in the Alps of what is now present-day France. Given her Gallic background, it’s safe to assume she inherited at least some of her dark knowledge of hemlock and the like from her regional ancestors. When she finally arrived in Rome as a young woman in the 1st century, she was already deeply entrenched in the world of botany and how to best concoct potions aimed at agony and death. In the early days of the Empire, she found a society that loved nothing more than a bloody feud, often titillating itself for days on end watching gladiators hack each other apart in the famous Colosseum. She could see right away that her wiles would be well-received by the corrupt and vapid world of the Eternal City.
Like a wicked apothecary, Locusta used her herbal expertise to devise “remedies” for life through creating elixirs of death. Not only was she able to effectively poison anyone who displeased her, but she was often paid well for such prized abilities by those who sought the same. Using anything from mushrooms to human blood, Locusta often employed animals as her test subjects, measuring the potency of her toxins through their reactions.
This type of experimentation gave her considerable precision and helped her master perfectly-lethal combinations, allowing her to bring about either a quick and painless end or one that was agonizingly long. She was the ultimate designer of death, able to determine her victim’s final moments through the potions she created.
Ancient Rome was a city filled to the brim with powerful men, many of whom carried fantasies of increasing their status through the demise of their enemies. Locusta made the most of this reality by offering them a way to covertly destroy anyone who opposed them professionally, infringed on their love life, or simply spurred their jealous nature. All they had to do was pay handsomely and she would deliver the exact elixir that would meet their needs, using substances like hemlock, belladonna, arsenic, nightshade, opium, or even cyanide. Such powerful herbs surreptitiously and prematurely ended the lives of many powerful men throughout Rome, and Locusta began to garner quite a dark and potent reputation throughout the city.
There was a long stretch of time when Locusta’s victims died without suspicion, but her reputation as an ancient hit woman couldn’t stay secret for long. She was arrested twice for murder, but neither charge could stick given the influential positions of her customers. Both times, powerful Roman senators used their connections to free her, mostly out of a selfish concern for her ability to expose them. They also depended heavily on her crafty ways as a method for dealing with pesky enemies or threats. Having friends in high places kept Locusta out of jail and her lethal business flourishing.
Around 54, it seemed Locusta had run out of luck when she was arrested by Roman officials a third time for the crime of murderous intent. Much to her surprise, however, she was saved from further prosecution by Julia Agrippina, a Roman Empress and one of the most prominent women in Rome.
It seemed Agrippina, the daughter of Caligula, had married her uncle Claudius who was more than 20 years her senior after the death of her husband. Entering the marriage to Emperor Claudius with a 12-year-old son named Nero, Agrippina hoped to elevate her station (and that of her young son) by forming a marital allegiance to the most powerful man in Rome. He eventually adopted Nero, officially putting him in place for the throne. Why she eventually employed Locusta to bring about the death of Claudius is somewhat unclear, but most believe it had everything to do with her extreme desire to see her son become Emperor. As soon as Locusta was released from jail and poised again at her mortar and pestle, she put the devious plan to kill Claudius into motion.
The evening before the murderous plot was to take place, Locusta poisoned Claudius’ personal bodyguard so he appeared too sick to work and had to be relieved of his duties. She then bribed Claudius’ food taster to conveniently skip work that day, leaving little between her lethal potion and the Emperor’s dining table. As Claudius ate the deadly mushrooms she had prepared, he began clutching his throat and gagging in terror as the poison invaded his body.
He fell from his throne, alerting the other around him to his distress, and was rolling about on the floor when his doctor approached. As was the medical practice then, the doctor stuck a feather down Claudius’ throat to induce vomiting. But Locusta was clever and had already soaked the feather in a strychnine-like poison that, as soon as it touched his throat, secured his timely death.
Exactly according to plan, Agrippina’s son Nero was placed on the throne and their nefarious plan appeared to have been a success. Nero was now the Emperor of Rome. As a result, Locusta was expecting a big payout for her perfect assassination, but what she received instead was an accusation of murder by Empress Agrippina herself. She had been double-crossed by the woman who had hired her, and there was little she could do about it.
Locusta languished in jail for two months, waiting for death, until a surprising ally appeared once again to save her skin, the most influential man in Rome–Emperor Nero. He was a clever and devious ruler who saw Locusta’s value as an assassin. And so, he freed her in 55, gave her money and land, set her up as an aristocrat, and publicly declared she be absolved of all crimes. Locusta was back on top… for now.
Not long thereafter, the Emperor colluded with Locusta to bring about the end of his loathed younger stepbrother, Britannicus, who was just fourteen at the time and the only person who had the power to usurp Nero’s authority. As a ruler, Nero was known to be masterful at getting rid of his opposition and one of the most ruthless of all Romans. His track record included having likely kicked his pregnant wife Poppaea to death; attempted to kill his own mother Agrippina; and ordered the castration of a young boy so he could marry him. He may have been a depraved and entitled man, but he was not stupid.
Considering Locusta had already been jailed three times and Nero did not want to elicit scrutiny for his brother’s death, the two had to be extremely covert.
So, one afternoon, Nero called a hapless slave into his quarters who was about the same size as Britannicus, and he and Locusta demanded the servant drink the lethal potion. Of course, he did. The slave then proceeded to fall writhing on the floor where he soon died. It would seem Locusta’s poison was perfectly suited for the job.
Nero soon invited his younger brother to a festive evening of celebration at the palace. The decadent meal was going splendidly until Brittanicus took a sip of his poisoned wine, which sent him to the ground violently convulsing and foaming at the mouth. Because the young man did actually suffer from epilepsy, it was easy for Nero to calm the dinner guests by telling them this often happened as a result of his condition.
The group continued to watch, expecting Brittanicus to soon recover, but he eventually stopped breathing altogether and died on the spot. Behind a facade of grief, Nero was positively delighted and instantly awarded Locusta a hilltop villa in downtown Rome where she would soon become the Imperial Poisoner.
Life for Locusta was pretty amazing for the next fourteen years. She was not only given carte blanche to poison anyone Nero disliked, but she was able to open a school for other women looking to learn the fine art of making dark potions. Living like a queen herself, Locusta trained future female assassins (such as the infamous Martina who may have poisoned Agrippina’s father Germanicus later on) and furthered her own studies in chemistry, biology, and formula-testing on anyone she deemed appropriate.
Unfortunately, her guardian and main employer, Nero, was not particularly popular in Rome and had earned the scorn of the government and many citizens. In 68, the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state and sentenced him to die by public beating. Upon fleeing, however, Nero forgot the special poisoning kit given to him by Locusta and was forced to die under his own knife.
Indeed, Locusta’s luck had finally run out. Nero’s successor, Emperor Galba, was none too happy about all the poisoning and rampant death that had been going on and seized her as one of Nero’s dastardly accomplices. In true Roman form, she was dragged through the streets in chains, publicly denounced, and promptly executed, finally bringing an end to her reign of poisonous terror. But despite her brutal death, Locusta remains one of the best-known assassins of all time and a dark legend in the nefarious world of ancient Rome.
And the rest is history.