For as long as people have interacted with plants, animals, and minerals, poison has been a part of our human story. Looking back within the deepest records of ancient history, we can see that poison and the use of toxins have been a feature of many great civilizations and societies.
Although anecdotal references to the use of poisons abound within ancient sources, looking at just five defined examples can furnish us with a glimpse into this fascinating subject.
Through the following stories, we will take in: a strange (almost mythologized) culture on the very fringes of classical civilization, revealing its approach to war; the politically motivated, judicial condemnation of one of history’s greatest philosophers; an Eastern Hellenic King, sophisticated and obsessed with the study of toxins; the forced suicide of an iconic Egyptian Queen, the last of her line and the last independent ruler of an ancient civilization; the alleged murder of one of Rome’s most promising imperial princes, hailed as the ‘Alexander’ of his day and loved by the people.
Poisons can tell us so much about the cultures, times, and societies within which they were used. The use of toxins was a reality that worked its way into the very heart of the ancient world, revealing some of the most significant moments, fated figures, and deadly events of ancient history.
An Overview Of Poison In Ancient History
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Reference to poison is present in all ancient civilizations. It is represented from early Egyptian hieroglyphs to the treatises of Greek, Hellenic, and Roman writers. Its historical reference comes up both anecdotally and deliberately within the study of medicine, law, and natural history. From its observed use in hunting and warfare by ‘wild’ tribal nations like the Scythians, Celts, and Iberians to the ‘sophisticated’ dynastic intrigues of Persian and Hellenic kings, poison has played a role. In the city-state politics and law codes of Greece, to the conspiracies, assassinations, and court cases of the Republican and deadly, imperial Rome, poison has been ever-present.
Before even the dawn of ancient history, the mythical hero Hercules was said to use poison, using the venom of the Hydra to taint his arrows. In Homer, the Trojan war hero Odysseus sought poison for use on his arrows also to restore his households honor; an act of terrible revenge unleashed upon the suitors that had disrespected his house:
“He [Odysseus] … had been to beg poison for his arrows from Ilos, son of Mermerus. Ilos feared the ever-living gods and would not give him any, but my father let him have some, for he was very fond of him.” [Homer, Odyssey. 1.5]
In noting a fear of the gods, an enduring facet of the subject comes to light. The use of poisons has always carried an element of ‘taboo.’ Fine for Odysseus to butcher his rivals like a man, but to poison them, was to risk offending the heavens themselves.
The deadly qualities of poison have long been associated with death, murder, and subterfuge, and it is this ‘dark arts’ dimension that has often kept it in the shadows of history; synonymous with murders, plots, conspiracies, and general ‘un-gentlemanly’ conduct. So many great figures – from Alexander the Great onwards – are rumored to have been poisoned that it’s frequently not possible to know with any certainty what the truth is.
In patriarchal and misogynistic Rome, poisons were associated with a number of significant conspiracies (in Republican and Imperial times) with certain events undertaken by dark forces that were associated largely with unsavory individuals that included desperados, usurpers, and frequently women. Their knowledge of poisons verged into the realms of religious taboo and almost took on characteristics of medieval witchcraft. Poison was a dark art, and it’s for good reason that the Hippocratic Oath promised not to dabble with it:
‘I SWEAR by Apollo Physician, by Asclepius, by Health, by Panacea and by all the gods and goddesses, [that]… I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrong-doing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course.…” [Hippocrates, Jusjurandum, section 1]
In the medical realm, although poisons and toxins were referenced, the scientific understanding was not like anything we would understand. Much of the surviving sources are anecdotal, observational, and intersected with misunderstanding and occasionally superstition.
This is not to say the ancients did not understand poisons, toxins, and venoms; quite the opposite, but they were not approached on the biochemical and scientific level afforded by modern science. However, deep non-literary knowledge was passed on by family, clan, and tribal mechanisms via folkloric and even shamanistic traditions. The actual poisons, toxins, and minerals – as the ancients knew them – were also limited to what nature provided in the form of plants, minerals, and animals. This gave their study a somewhat regionalized character. With different herbs and venomous animals dominating different traditions across the ancient world.
There is more than a touch of the ethnographical marvel in the ancient recording of poisons, as Greeks and Romans came into contact with regional cultures with different practices. What is clear is that some of these regional cultures, as we shall see, were experts in the use of local toxins.
Finally, it’s important to say that poisons and their use were not all bad. Although they could certainly be used for murder, we shall see that they could also be applied to save lives in the treatment of wounds, as well to provide assisted dying, either through suicide or as Pliny the Elder advocated elective euthanasia. Ancient history is rich with many such examples.
The Scythians – A Fearsome & Mysterious People
On the very fringes of the classical world on the northern shores of the Black sea where the most distant Greek settlers had colonized, lay a horse-people of the vast Eurasian and Crimean steppe. A fierce, trans-nomadic people who were so distant and so barbarous to the Mediterranean Greeks that they were viewed with a mixture of awe, fascination, and terror. These ancient, enigmatic people were the Scythians, and they were the subject of many weird and wonderful observations. To call the Scythians a ‘horse-people’ is not just say that they rode horses. That’s a given. The horse was indeed the very basis of their culture, and from it, they migrated, hunted, made war, drew food (from horse milk and cheese), and even fermented alcohol. Scythian elites were buried with their horses in elaborate burial sites.
Snakes On A Plain – The Eurasian Plain
Were the Scythians the earliest developers of biological warfare, using venomous snake toxins? We know that the Scythians were expert archers, and it was in this arm that their recourse to toxins takes on a shocking aspect. Using the famed composite bow, archaeology reveals an array of deadly Scythian arrow-heads. Yet it is from the medical sources that we learn that these projectiles were also be covered in deadly biological toxins:
“They say that they make the Scythian poison with which they smear arrows, out of the snake. Apparently, the Scythians watch for those [snakes] that have just borne young, and taking them’ let them rot for some days. When they think that they are completely decomposed, they pour a man’s blood into a small vessel, and dig it into a dunghill, and cover it up. When this has also decomposed, they mix the part which stands on the blood, which is watery, with the juice of the snake, and so make a deadly poison.” [Pseudo Aristotle, de Mirabilibus Auscultationibus: 141 (845a)]
So little is known about this specific practice that this extract from the Peripatetic disciples of Aristotle offers virtually our only insight. Spanning both Asiatic Russia, Europe, and the Caucasus, the Scythians would have access to a range of toxic snake venom, including the Steppe Viper, Caucasus viper, European Adder, and the long-nose, sand viper. With this mix, even small wounds had the potential to incapacitate and prove deadly. Whether this mix was used in hunting and warfare is not mentioned, but it is likely in both.
We know that other tribal people such as the Celts of Central and Western Europe also used poisons in hunting:
“They say that among the Celts there is a drug called by them the “arrow drug”; this produces so swift a death that the Celtic hunters when they have shot at a deer or other beast, run hastily, and cut out the wounded part of the flesh before the poison sinks in, both for the sake of its use, and to prevent the animal from rotting.” [Pseudo. Aristotle, De Mirabilibus Ausculationibus 86]
Clearly, tribal peoples were some of the deadliest users of venom in ancient history.
The Death Of Socrates
Poison has been used deliberately as a means of euthanizing criminals and those condemned by the state. Mighty Athens, the leading city of ancient Greece and the birthplace of democracy, was one such state. However, at the point we are interested in, Athens had been under the forced rule of a repressive oligarchy, the Thirty tyrants, installed after the loss of a long and costly war which Athens had lost to its most bitter regional rival, Sparta. Although the Thirty were expelled after a year of rule [404 – 403 BCE], this entire period was a bloody and unstable time for the city as it struggled to re-adjust both internally and geopolitically.
It was against this backdrop that Socrates [c.470 – 399 BCE]. The Father of Western Moral Philosophy lived his life as a citizen of the city. As a citizen, he was a fearlessly honest, moralistic voice, drawing both admiration and exasperation from many of his fellow citizens. With the ethos that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living,’ Socrates was outspoken and made many powerful enemies, earning himself the nickname ‘The Gadfly.’ Like a gadfly, he used his reflective criticism to sting the great horse of state [Athens] into action.
In 399 BCE, his fellow citizens had finally run out of patience with Socrates, and he was brought to trial – politically motivated. Found guilty of the charges of corrupting the youth and irreverence towards the gods, he was condemned to death. The means was by drinking hemlock, and although Socrates (like other condemned citizens) had recourse to go into exile, he was never going to run from an unjust death. Thus would play out one of the most famous death scenes in ancient history.
Socrates’ most famous pupil Plato recounted the death of his famous teacher through a conversational dialogue:
“… his legs began to fail, and when he lay on his back, according to all directions, and the man who gave him the poison now and then looked at this feet and legs; and after a while, he pressed his foot hard and asked him if he could feel; and he said, No; and then his leg, and so upwards and upwards, and showed us that he was cold and stiff. And he felt them himself and said: when the poison reaches the heart, that will be the end, He was beginning to grow cold about the groin, when he uncovered his face, for he had covered himself up and said – they were his last words – he said: Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt? The debt shall be paid said Crito; is there anything else? There was no answer to this question; bin in a minute or two a movement was heard, and the attendants uncovered him; his eyes were set, and Crito close this eyes and mouth.
Such was the end, … of our friend; concerning whom I may truly say, that of all the men of his time whom I have known, he was the wisest and justness and best.”
[Plato, Phaedo, 117-118]
Thus, one of the most significant philosophers in ancient history died, dispatched by poison. Although some historians have gone on to question the reported effects of the hemlock, any inaccuracy is likely to be in the re-telling, rather than in the event itself, as the use of hemlock in Athenian state executions was well established.
Mithridates VI Of Pontus
Many rulers in history, ancient and recent, have nurtured a fear of being poisoned. It is, after all, one of the very real risks that comes from holding power:
“They [despots] go in constant suspicion even of their meat and drink; they bid their servitors taste them first before the libation is offered to the gods, because of their misgiving that they may sup poison in the dish or the bowl.” [Xenophon, Heiro The Tyrant, Chapter 4.]
So a great King ruled in Pontus [120 to 63 BCE] who was obsessed with the study of poisons. That ruler was Mithridates VI, known to some as Mithridates the Great, one of Rome’s most implacable foreign enemies. Mithridates of Pontus could trace a rich cultural heritage that took in both a Persian and a Hellenic tradition. He ruled over a powerful kingdom in northern Anatolia, centered around the Black Sea that encompassed parts of modern Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. His power even extended to the remote Greek cities of the Crimea, which were incidentally the traditional heartlands of the Scythians.
History has recorded Mithridates as a highly educated and sophisticated king who spoke 22 languages. He was also driven by an overriding personal obsession with the study of poisons and their antidotes. Employing something similar to an imperial toxicology department, Mithridates actively employed the best doctors and natural scientists of his day, seeking to entice famous doctors from as far away as Rome. Administering venoms and toxins on prisoners and convicts, it is clear that this king was building a body of proven knowledge that several ancient sources attest to.
Said to take small incremental doses of poison himself, the king was rumored to have a resistance to several poisons and toxins; he was attributed with the invention of several antidotes that went by his name. Although we have been left with no medical records of these learnings, Pliny the Elder tells us that Pompey the Great (the Roman who eventually defeated Mithridates in war) captured many of his medical notations and had them copied into Latin:
“These memoranda, which he kept in his private cabinet, fell into the hands of Pompeius, when he took possession of the royal treasures; who at once commissioned his freedman, Lenæus the grammarian, to translate them into the Latin language: the result of which was, that his victory was equally conducive to the benefit of the republic and of mankind at large.” [Pliny, Natural History, 25.3]
However, it’s in another regard that we have an even more amazing glimpse into the work of Mithridates and the toxicologists he employed. Before his defeat, we hear that Mithridates sustained bad wounds to the knee and under his eye, following a battle with the Romans. The great king was badly stricken, and we hear that for many days his men feared for his very life. From the historian Appian, we learn that his salvation came as follows:
“Mithridates was cured by the Agari, a Scythian tribe, who make use of the poison of serpents as remedies. Some of this tribe always accompanied the king as physicians.” [Appian, Mithridatic War, 13.88.]
In this single line, we learn something truly amazing. Not only were Scythian descended healers practicing with the use of snake-venom, but as Adrianne Mayor has noted, this application of venom is likely to be the first recorded example of healers using tiny amounts of a toxin to coagulate a wound to prevent hemorrhaging. This is an area of science, so far ahead of its time, that it has only in modern times become understood within the study of modern ‘venomics:’ actively using snake toxins, like the crystallized venom of Steppe Vipers (Vipera ursinii) within modern medicine.
The application of venom saved Mithridates from his wound, but it could not save him from the Romans. In a final irony of his life Mithridates when facing utter defeat, failed to kill himself by poison and had instead to ask his guard to end his life by a sword thrust. The gods ever have a sense of humor and one has to be careful about what one wishes for.
Of course, if snake venom had helped to keep one Hellenic king alive (at least for a while), it was about to have the very opposite effect on another.
Cleopatra: Last Queen Of Egypt
Just over 30 years later, in Egypt, another descendant of a great Hellenic blood-line was also fighting for her very life against a rapacious and aggressive Rome. Cleopatra, a truly iconic figure of ancient history, fought against Rome in a complex set of wars. As an ally and a lover of both Julius Caesar and subsequently, his lieutenant Marc Anthony [they should make a film about that], Cleopatra was a significant player in the Roman civil wars that followed the assassination of Caesar. As a powerful woman, the last ruler of her Ptolemaic dynasty, and indeed the last independent ruler of that most ancient of ancient civilizations, Egypt. Cleopatra is one of the most iconic and yet fated figures of ancient history.
There’s only one key rule when entering a Roman civil war as a foreigner, and that’s don’t be on the losing side. Cleopatra did not get this right, and by 31 BCE at the great sea battle of Actium, her forces were shattered. The year after, Octavian [the soon to be Augustus] invaded Egypt and forced her lover, Marc Anthony to commit suicide. Octavian was looking for a reckoning with the Egyptian Queen also, though we are told that he would have saved her for his triumph, could he have kept her alive. According to the biographer Plutarch, Octavian met coldly with Cleopatra and told her of his intention to carry her and her three children to Rome, though no Queen of her standing could allow herself to be taken in triumph.
In one of history’s great acts of personal resistance, Cleopatra, with two attendants, Iras and Charmion, had a basket of fat figs delivered to her rooms. It was not just figs the baskets contained:
“It is said that the asp was brought with those figs and leaves and lay hidden beneath them, for thus Cleopatra had given orders, that the reptile might fasten itself upon her body without her being aware of it. But when she took away some of the figs and saw it, she said: ‘There it is, you see,’ and baring her arm she held it out for the bite.” [Plutarch, Life of Anthony, 86.1]
Octavian was said to be angry, though not out of any personal compassion, but rather from being robbed in his hour of triumph. The Roman biographer Suetonius adds:
“Cleopatra he anxiously wished to save for his triumph; and when she was supposed to have been bit to death by an asp, he sent for the Psylli to endeavor to suck out the poison. He allowed them to be buried together in the same grave, and ordered a mausoleum, begun by themselves, to be completed.” [Suetonius, Life of Augustus, 17]
A defining inflection point of Roman history had just played out. The last rivals of the Republican civil wars lay vanquished and with Octavian, the heir of Caesar now triumphant, a new imperial Roman order would emerge.
The Psylli Of Africa
As a final footnote to the Cleopatra story, we should not pass mention to the referenced Psylli. As perhaps akin to Mithridates’ Agari of Scythia, these were a local tribal people of Africa who were famed for their knowledge of venomous snakes, providing cures to their bites. Although some ancient sources imbued them with holding an antidote to snake venom, other sources thought rather that the Psylli had mastered the art of sucking venom from snake wounds.
“Anyone, therefore, who follows the example of the Psylli and sucks out the wound, will himself be safe and will promote the safety of the patient. He must see to it, however, beforehand that he has no sore place on his gums or palate or other parts of the mouth.” [Celsus, De Medicina, 5.27]
In later times the term Psylli was used more broadly than to those of the actual tribe and was a generic label that denoted snake healers and charmers in general.
The Suspicious Death Of Germanicus Caesar
Poisons have often been used to murder leading figures their benefit being that they can be deployed in secret, at a distance, and at least with the chance that they might not arouse retribution. Indeed, they might even go undetected, constituting the perfect crime. Rome was certainly no stranger to poisonings, and significant poisoning events are mentioned throughout the Republican and Imperial periods. However, these instances were by their very nature difficult to prove. For the historian, they are difficult to grapple with, especially when viewed through the mirky lens of incomplete, ancient history.
Germanicus Julius Caesar [15 BCE – 19 CE] was the adopted son of his paternal Imperial Uncle Emperor Tiberius (Rome’s second emperor). Despite his youth, Germanicus enjoyed a prominent rise in both political and military posts. As a husband also to Agrippina the Elder (a granddaughter of the deified Augustus), Germanicus was in effect a royal prince who spanned both blue-blooded clans of the powerful Julii and Claudian households. Clever, able, and active with ability and stature, Germanicus was beloved of the people of Rome. The kind of effortlessly popular prince that might just get up the nose of a moody, jealous uncle, like Tiberius.
Gaining his military reputation in Germania (hence the name), he was eventually posted to the Eastern provinces – a place where it was said he was put to be out of the way. In his last year, Germanicus experienced a very fractious relationship with the governor of Syria, Cneius Piso, a close and direct appointee of the emperor Tiberius. There was clear animosity between the two men and Germanicus felt that Piso had worked strongly to thwart his rule in the East; countermanding orders and taking a hostile stance to his very presence. As things came to head, Germanicus suddenly sickened and from his death bed, left ancient history in no doubt as to what he thought to be the cause of his death:
“Even if I were dying a natural death,’ he said, ‘I should have a legitimate grudge against the Gods for parting me, at this young age, from my parents, children, and country. But it is the wickedness of Piso and Plancina that have cut me off.” [Tacitus, Annals, 2.70]
Rome’s most favored son had been cut off in his prime. As the Roman historians, Tacitus and Suetonius both make clear, something didn’t smell right. It was not for the want of a suspect that they nurtured such doubts. Tacitus ultimately notes that it was not evidentially clear if Germanicus had been poisoned or not, though the fact that many believed it to be, was strong enough to see the undoing of Piso — his wife Plancina being shown imperial mercy.
Pliny the Elder notes that Germanicus’s heart would not burn on the funeral pier, due to the poison used, but this phenomenon was cited by both the prosecution and the defense to point towards alternative narratives. The public consensus was that Piso had been a willing agent to the spiteful Tiberius. Operating under direct written instructions, which Tiberius later had taken from him, Piso was denied his only tangible defense.
The bigger story was one of a dynastic succession crisis in which Tiberius favored his natural son Drusus over the claim of his more popular adopted nephew Germanicus. It was problematic that Germanicus commanded both bloodline and popularity, factors that exacerbated the jealousy of a vindictive emperor. Tiberius would not hear the case against Piso personally and it was the Senate who would ultimately go on to take the case. However, Piso cheated justice, taking his own life before sentence. Did he jump, or was he pushed? Romans had their suspicions. It was all very convenient if you believe that Piso was indeed acting on the orders of the emperor. If he was, he had been well and truly ‘hung out to dry.’
This was a highly significant yet broadly typical example of alleged Roman poisoning, typical in the sense that the suspicions raised could certainly be true. They were certainly possible and perhaps even likely. But typical also in that, the facts were unattainable and certainly far from conclusive.
Poison In Ancient History: A Conclusion
As we can see poisons have played a part in many civilizations and their use is as old as the hills themselves. Used in warfare, in murder, in medicine, and to hunt, we can see that the application of poison within ancient history has been varied and often surprising. Looking at history through the prism of ‘poison,’ we have come into contact with topics as diverse as law & order, crime, justice, death, suicide, politics, war, and much more.
Though we might be inclined to see the very term ‘poison’ as carrying negative connotations, we should remember that positive applications have resulted from their development, such as in their use in antidotes, medicines and for humane and approved euthanasia.
Though the sources of ancient history are scant on much scientific detail, it is clear that many ancient societies worked with poisons and toxins over many millennia. Just as with contemporary tribes of today, there is no reason to assume that ancients did not possess detailed folk knowledge and traditions that have allowed the use of poisons to span human history.