Locusta was born in the 1st century AD in Gaul (modern day France) during her youth it appears that she learnt a great deal about herbalism and toxicology. By the time the sources mention Locusta it is apparent that she is already held responsible for a number of poisoning murders in Rome. How many lives Locusta took throughout her career is impossible to tell, as secrecy and discretion were important elements of her business.
Well connected and wealthy Romans made use of her services throughout this period to rid themselves of rivals or to ensure that they didn’t need to wait any longer than absolutely necessary to claim their inheritance. Locusta first comes to our attention when the sources attribute the death of the emperor Claudius to poisons supplied by Locusta.
The empress Agrippina, wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, is said to have employed Locusta to supply poisoned mushrooms and a poisoned feather to ensure that her son Nero would become emperor.
Agrippina, found Locusta who had recently been condemned for poisoning and enlisted her to help prepare a suitable poison. Agrippina was aware that if she used a poison that acted immediately the fact that the emperor had been poisoned would be clear for all to see. Whereas, if the poison left the emperor lingering too long he might realise what had happened and ensure his son Britannicus was made the next emperor.
Agrippina and Locusta poisoned Claudius with his favourite dish. The emperor’s mushrooms were infused with a slow acting poison by Locusta (Tac. Ann. 12.66). Whilst the emperor was suffering from the effects of the initial poisoning his loving wife, getting nervous by an apparent recovery, tickled the back of his throat with a feather to help him purge whatever had made him feel ill. The feather she used had been coated in a fast acting poison ending the hapless Claudius’ life all the while looking the dutiful and loving wife.
Julius Pollio a Praetorian who had Locusta in custody for an unrelated poisoning, was ordered by Nero to procure a poison he could use to kill the 14 year old Britannicus. The poison did not act quickly enough for Nero’s likely so he almost had Locusta executed except for the promise of a much more rapid death if given another chance. The second attempt was cleverly enacted with the Roman habit of drinking warmed wine being used to advantage. Britannicus was served wine that was too hot for his liking, but that had been tested by a taster, cold water was added to the wine to cool it, the poison was in the water which was not tested. Britannicus fell into convulsions in front of the emperor and other family members but Nero dismissed these as nothing more than a fit, Britannicus died that night and was hastily buried (Tac. Ann. 13.15).
Nero, pleased with Locusta’s work, had the charges against her dismissed. Locusta became Nero’s personal poisoner/assassin after Britannicus’ death. Nero made Locusta wealthy and gave her an estate even sending pupils to study under Locusta at her estate, in effect creating a university of poisoners. There are a number of other murders likely associated with Locusta but there is no way that we’ll ever get an accurate number of deaths to be attributed to her.
Locusta’s end is an interesting story unto itself, mostly due to the inaccurate account of the circumstances of her death that seem to have become urban myth. Michael Newton in the 1st edition of his Encyclopedia of Serial Killers described her death as the result of her being raped by a giraffe and then being torn apart by wide beasts. This is reiterated by a number of authors including Harold Schechter in his The Serial Killer Files on page 130. This story has apparently come about because of a misunderstanding of Apuleius who described the strikingly similar execution of a female poisoner that involved a donkey (not a giraffe) but this was a work of fiction. The truth is that we only know that she was executed the year of Nero’s suicide under the order of the new emperor Galba.