Poisons in Ancient Rome

POISONS, POISONING AND THE DRUG TRADE IN ANCIENT ROME L Cilliers & F P Retief (University of the Free State) SUMMARY The first recorded instance of poisoning in ancient Rome occurred in 331 BC when, during an epidemic, a large number of women were accused of concerted mass poisoning. Overreaction of the community in times of stress particularly, when scapegoats for unexplained phenomena are sought, might have played an important role in this and many subsequent incidents of suspected poisoning.
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   Akroterion 45 (2000) 88-100 POISONS, POISONING AND THE DRUG TRADE IN ANCIENT ROME  L Cilliers & F P Retief    (University of the Free State) S UMMARY  The first recorded instance of poisoning in ancient Rome occurred in 331 BC when,during an epidemic, a large number of women were accused of concerted mass poisoning. Overreaction of the community in times of stress particularly, whenscapegoats for unexplained phenomena are sought, might have played an importantrole in this and many subsequent incidents of suspected poisoning.   Romerepresented a culture steeped in superstition, fear and mythology with virtually noscientific means of retrospectively proving or disproving alleged poisoning.   Thedrug trade in antiquity is briefly reviewed, from the Marsi and rootcutters whocollected materials, and the intermediary herbalists and drug pedlars, to the physicians and other prescribers of drugs.   There was a general lack of proper knowledge, which led to much abuse and death of patients.   The distinction betweenthese professional groups was often vague and physicians were generally not heldin high regard.   From authoritative writings of Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny andothers it is evident that the Romans were aware of a very large number of toxic(and assumed toxic) substances, of plant, animal and mineral srcin, but it isevident that the poisoners of ancient Rome almost exclusively made use of plant(and to lesser extent animal) products, and not mineral poisons.   A brief overview of the recorded crimes by poison, and known poison dispensers of the time is given.   Poisoning probably reached a maximum during the 1st and 2nd   centuries AD , whenthe Julio-Claudian emperors in particular achieved great notoriety, and a widevariety of specific and “universal” antidotes came into vogue. The history of poisons and poisoning goes back about 5 000 years to the earliestwritten records of the human race.   Menes, first of the Pharaohs, approximately 3 000years BC studied and cultivated poisonous and medicinal plants – an interest retained by the Egyptian court (Smith 1952:153), until the last Pharaoh, Cleopatra, probablydied of suicide by poisoning (Retief & Cilliers 1999:8-11).   The cuneiform writings of early Mesopotamia mention the use of poisons – a topic also dealt with in the writtenrecords of ancient India and China.   Early Greek myths tell of poisoners like Medeaand Hercules’ wife Deianira, and in the 5th century BC execution by poison wasaccepted in Athenian law courts.   In the Hippocratic oath, nevertheless, the students of the great master are made to swear that they will not use poison (Lloyd 1983:67).   ThePersian court was proficient in the art of poisoning (Smith 1952:155), whileMithridates VI, king of Pontus at the turn of the first century BC and Attalus III, lastking of Pergamum in the second century, experimented with poisons on condemned prisoners (Bloch 1987: 761-763).In Rome the first record of poisoning dates back to 331 BC when a largenumber of women were executed for suspected mass poisoning.   Although we shall  POISONS, POISONING AND THE DRUG TRADE89never know its true incidence, there is good evidence that poisoning occurred moreand more frequently among all levels of society, reaching a peak in the 1st and 2ndcenturies AD .   In 80 BC the dictator Sulla promulgated strict laws against poisoning. 1   At the end of the 1st century AD the satirist Juvenal and others denounced their decadent society, claiming that poisoning had become a status symbol, an acceptedway for mothers to get rid of husbands and stepchildren, and for children to get rid of rich fathers who lived too long (Juv. 1.73-76; 6.133 and 602-643; 7.169; 14.250-255).Kaufman   (1932:156)   states that the word venenum (venom) is derived fromVenus and srcinally meant a love potion.   In actual usage it later had three meanings:remedy, poison and magic drug or abortive; in fact, venenum is such an ambiguousword that jurists demanded that “the user of the word venenum must add whether it is beneficial or harmful”. 2   The Greek word  pharmakon likewise referred to herb or drugin general without distinguishing between its beneficial or harmful effects(Horstmanshoff 1999:43).   Veneficium meant poisoning or practicing sorcery, while veneficus or  venefica referred to a poisoner or preparer of drugs.   The word  scelus  (crime) is actually used by historians like Tacitus to indicate murder by poison (  Ann .1.5.2; 4.10.2; 6.33.1; 12.66.3).   Poisons were also used for suicide – royalty in particular kept a supply for emergencies (Kaufman 1932:160).   Pliny considered itquite proper for the infirm elderly to end his or her miserable life by taking poison,and opium in particular (  NH  2.197; 20.197-199).   The drug trade Differentiation between producers of drugs (including poisonous substances), sellersand prescribers of drugs in antiquity was much less clear cut than today.   There were,however, distinct intermediaries in this drug trade who played specific roles, assummarised by Nutton (1985:138-145).   The Marsi or “travelling people” were at one end of the production chain.   Inhabiting the Abruzzi (central mountainous area of Italy), they had a reputation of  being wild and warlike with strange and archaic religious practices.   They lived in poverty, were excellent soldiers in the Roman army, but their only civilian attributeslay in almost legendary magical powers as snake hunters and charmers, and druggists.   In many ways they were marginal people, who paid periodic visits to the cities,selling their wares in the markets and performing daring acts as snake charmers.   Theywere reputed to have immunity against snake venom, and Galen admits to consultingthem on the value of drugs and antidotes.   The Psylli, Nasamones and Palaeothebanswere similar peoples living elsewhere in the Mediterranean region, respected for their skills with drugs, but frowned on by the early Christians who felt that they should not be admitted to the flock without the greatest circumspection. 1 Although there existed a Quaestio de veneficiis before the time of Sulla (Dessau  ILS  45), the iudicia publica (among which the Quaestio de sicariis et veneficiis ) instituted by Sulla were properly organized in that penalties were fixed and no appeal against the verdict was possible(Scullard 1982:83 and 415-416 n.45. 2 Digesta 50.16.236. Reference thanks to Horstmanshoff 1999:43-44.  CILLIERS & RETIEF90The so-called rootcutters ( rhizotomoi ) were much more acceptable to societyas true herbalists who knew and collected plant products, which were sold to physicians and other interested parties.   Some of them were recognized experts,including the respected 1st century BC pharmacologist, Crataeus, assistant toMithridates.   Most large cities had quartersfrequented by the sellers of drugs(including those inducing euphoric trances 3 and poisons) and hawkers (called an agurtês , “the man who attracts a crowd” or  ochlagôgos , “seducer of the crowd”), aswell as physicians in search of remedies, and a motley crowd in search of pleasuresassociated with the variety of ointments, perfumes and spices. Gradually the drugtrade    became very lucrative and expanded by way of contact with the Far East, Egypt,Arabia, North Africa and Spain.   In Rome these imported products were stored in apothecae (derived from a Greek word which literally means “storeroom”)  , where thestoreman ( apothecarius ) would list them.Eventually the lucrativeness of the drug trade led to widespread fraud andincompetence.   Galen and others insisted that physicians should prepare their ownmedicines, and not rely on herbalists to do so.   As poisoning increased, there was agrowing trade in mithridatum, theriac and other so-called antidotes to poison.   However, Nutton   (1985:144-145) points out that wide-spread and basic ignoranceabout the action of medications led to the situation where the drug trade wasfinancially profitable, but from a medical point of view ineffective and evendisastrous.As from the late 1st century BC certain persons (mostly women) becameinfamous as dispensers of poison.   The poet Horace ( Sat. 2.1.56)   tells of Canidia whoterrorized her opponents with her efficiency at poisoning.   Tacitus (  Ann. 2.69-74; 3.7)relates that when the emperor Tiberius’ nephew   Germanicus died under suspiciouscircumstances ( AD 19), it was suspected that the notorious poisoner,   Martina, a closefriend of Plancina, the wife of governor Piso who had quarreled with Germanicus,was partially responsible.   Martina was sent to Rome where the Senate planned aninvestigation into Germanicus’ death.   She suddenly died on the way.   Her body boreno signs of suicide, but poison was found hidden in a knot of her hair.   Apollodorus, arhetorician of Pergamum, was convicted as poisoner, but he escaped to Massiliawhere he opened a school (Kaufman 1932:165).   Locusta   was the most infamous of these poisoners (Suet.  Nero 33.3; 34; Claudius 44).   Convicted of many crimes duringClaudius’ reign, she was not immediately executed, and subsequently approached byAgippina, second wife of Claudius, to prepare a poison for her husband.   WhenClaudius died, he was immediately succeeded by Nero, Agrippina’s own son – whothen engaged Locusta to prepare a poison for his younger half-brother, Britannicus.   After the latter’s murder, Nero suspended Locusta’s death penalty and kept her as theemperor’s adviser on poisons.   He even organized a school of poisoning where shecould train others in her art.   Locusta was allowed to test her poisons on animals andconvicted criminals.   3 According to Rutten (1997:32) the “top ten” drugs in Roman times inducing euphoric tranceswhen used in extremely low dosages were opium, mandragora, henbane, belladonna, thorn apple,hemlock, aconite, cannabis sativa (dagga), alcohol, and poisonous mushrooms.  POISONS, POISONING AND THE DRUG TRADE91    Known poisons Our knowledge of poisonous substances known to the ancient Romans is derivedfrom the records of various contemporary writers.   The Greek physician Diocles of Carystus (4th century BC ) wrote an important book on botany of which we havefragments (Sigerist 1971:38-39), but Theophrastus, associate and successor of Aristotle as head of the Lyceum (4th century BC ), led the way in identifying plantswith medicinal (and poisonous) properties (Smith 1952:154).   In the 1st century AD  Dioscorides wrote his famous  De Materia Medica which superseded all existingliterature in classifying remedies and drugs from the animal, vegetable and mineralkingdoms.   This work which dealt with close on 1 000 drugs, became the standard textfor centuries to come.   Information on poisons can also be gleaned from the writingsof Scribonius Largus ( AD 1-50), Pliny the Elder ( AD 23-79) and the poet Nicander (2nd century AD ).The following substances regarded as potentially lethal for man are mentioned byat least one of the above authors.   The toxic clinical picture  produced by thesesubstances, is briefly discussed in the light of present knowledge. 4  1. Vegetable srcin(i)  Henbane (  Hyoscyamus niger  ).   Symptoms: Rapid onset of dry mouth,abnormally rapid heart beat and a progression of neurological symptomsvarying from sedation to delirium, hallucination, mania, paralysis, coma anddeath.(ii) Thorn apple   (  Datura stramonium ). Symptoms: Rapid onset (within minutes of ingestion) with clinical picture as for henbane.   Seeds produce mainly maniacalsymptoms, white leaves tend towards stupor and coma.   Survivors haveamnesia of the event.   (iii)  Deadly nightshade (  Atropa belladonna ).   Three berries said to be fatal for achild.   Symptoms as for henbane. Pliny   (  NH  21.177-182) refers to this plant as  strychnos or  trychnos, and mentions that spears were dipped in it.   It was alsotaken by priests and others who wished to go into temporary trances.(iv) Mandrake, mandragora.    Atropa mandragora.   Symptoms include dry mouthand rapid heart beat, but neurologically it caused sedation, motor depressionand twilight sleep, rather than excitation and delirium, as with previous drugs.   The toxins are mainly in the prominent root, which is long, often split intotwo, and reminded the ancients of the human figure.   There was a widelyshared belief that gathering the root was dangerous, as the plant, whenuprooted, uttered a shriek, which caused the death or insanity of those whoheard it.   The root was thus merely loosened with a digger, and then attached to 4 For a detailed discussion of each of the poisons cf. Gilman et al 1985; Frohne & Pfander 1983;and Watt & Breyer-Brandwijk 1962.
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