Arts & Life

Poisoning Deaths Throughout History

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The ancients didn't use radioactive Polonium-210 to take out their enemies, but poisoning has long associated with the deaths of the powerful — though not always through assassination. Classics commentator Elaine Fantham reminds Scott Simon of some historic poisoning cases, starting with Socrates.

SCOTT SIMON, Host:

WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY classics commentator Elaine Fantham joins us from Toronto. Elaine, thanks very much for being with us.

ELAINE FANTHAM: Glad to be with you Scott.

SIMON: Elaine, could you give us a list, and it's fairly impressive, of notable figures in the ancient world who were also poisoned.

FANTHAM: Well, yes, but let's distinguish. These people died of poison. They weren't necessarily other people's victims. We start, of course, with Socrates, and let me just throw into the babble - we can talk about them - Hannibal, Cleopatra and Mithradates, the king of Pontos. In Socrates's case, it was a public punishment. He was condemned to death. The Athenian democracy actually condemned a lot of, as far as we can see, honorable people to death. I don't have a very high opinion of the Athenian democracy, I'm afraid. And death was in a way rather painless. They were required to drink hemlock, and the dose was measured exactly. And we happen to know blow-by-blow what it was like for Socrates. His guardian in the jail told him that he had to drink it all - he couldn't afford to pour out a couple of drops as a tribute to the god of health - and that he would gradually feel his legs go numb and then his arms. And as the numbness reached up to his heart, he would crease to be alive, he would die. And he drank it. In a sense it was voluntary, but in another sense it was, or course, compelled.

SIMON: What were some of the substances that were used with people who weren't as cooperative as Socrates, if I might put it that way?

FANTHAM: Well, I can only say the chief source of poison that was known was serpent venom. People must also have used extracts of poisonous plants - well, hemlock is a poisonous plant.

SIMON: Remind us about Claudius. That was mushrooms, right?

FANTHAM: Yes. And the story, as we have it, is that once Agrippina, his second wife, has persuaded him to adopt her horrible son Nero as his heir, Claudius became unnecessary. And the question when you're poisoning people is slow or quick poison. Slow poison, of course, goes unnoticed. It looks like an illness, like poor Litvinenko. I must say my heart grieves for that man. So the slow poison was the less obvious method. They tried slow poison and it didn't seem to work very well, so then they resorted to instant poisoning in a dish of mushrooms, I suppose Amanita muscaria instead of nice, safe mushrooms.

SIMON: And of course Claudius's son Britannicus?

FANTHAM: Britannicus was a couple of years younger than Nero and he was, of course, the rightful heir by blood to Claudius and his dead wife Messalina. As he approached his 14th birthday, Nero got anxious. So it was December, like now, and it was Saturnalia, the season of parties, and they knew that Britannicus had a taster who tasted his food before him. And if the taster dropped dead, then it would kind of look bad socially. So they gave Britannicus his drink without any poison in it, but they served it to him so hot that he had to ask for water to cool it. And they put the poison in the water.

SIMON: Oh, my gosh.

FANTHAM: He started to drink and gasped and dropped dead. Agrippina knew what was happening. Britannicus's kid sister knew what was happening. But you had to pretend you hadn't noticed, so the party went on, which Nero said, oh, you know, he's prone to epilepsy, he has little fits. And he was carried out and buried secretly that night.

SIMON: Well, I want to be careful, obviously, about analogies between the ancient world and modern Russian politics. But it does strike me that poison has a history of deployment by despots who fear somebody will challenge their rule.

FANTHAM: Yes. And there comes a point, of course, where the brave person who challenges the despot's rule does it too openly and the despot strikes, as it were.

SIMON: Elaine, thank you very much.

FANTHAM: Thank you, Scott. Good to talk to you.

SIMON: And bon appetite.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Elaine Fantham, who's professor emeritus of Classics at Princeton University, comes to us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.

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