When we think of hitmen today, we usually imagine some shady character out of a Godfather movie, planting a bomb in a car or surprising his target in his home. But the role of hitman goes back much further than 20th century America. Politicians have been hiring assassins for thousands of years, and private citizens have paid private killers to get rid of enemies for just as long. One of the most notorious hitmen in history, however, was a woman in ancient Rome named Locusta.
Little is known of Locusta’s early life, aside from the fact that she was born in Roman Gaul, in what is now modern-day France. She was likely from a peasant family, and some of her knowledge of poisons probably came from local Gaulish herbal lore. She came to Rome sometime in the middle of the first century AD, and she quickly made a name for herself as a talented poisoner.
She was quite an inventive hitwoman, as well. She constantly experimented with various plants and fungi to devise new ways of poisoning people. Some of her deadly recipes even called for the use of human blood. To make sure her creations were deadly, she would test them on animals first. Pretty soon, Roman aristocrats were availing themselves of her services so they could rid themselves of rivals.
Unfortunately for Locusta, she was not able to keep her work hidden from the authorities. She was arrested three times for murder, but her powerful friends exercised their influence to get her released. It is possible that her aristocratic friends feared she would rat them out, and they secured her freedom in exchange for her silence.
Locusta’s third release from jail, in 54 AD, went a little differently than the first two times. On this occasion, her rescuer was Empress Julia Agrippina, wife of the Emperor Claudius and mother of the future Emperor Nero. Locusta probably had not worked for the Empress before, but her abilities were well-known by then. Agrippina got Locusta released in exchange for her agreement to kill the Emperor Claudius, her biggest job to date.
In October of that year, Locusta made the Emperor’s bodyguard ill by putting something in his food. Then she poisoned Claudius’ dinner with highly toxic death cap mushrooms. Doctors tried to save him by sticking a feather down his throat to make him vomit up the poison, but Locusta had soaked the feather in strychnine. Claudius did not stand a chance.
Nero succeeded Claudius, but Agrippina thanked Locusta for her services by having her arrested for killing her husband. She was sentenced to death. Nero saw Locusta’s potential usefulness, though, and ordered her exoneration. He also gave her money and land, made her an aristocrat, and absolved her of all crimes, both past and future.
Nero put Locusta to work right away, hiring her to kill his stepbrother, Britannicus, his rival for power. She accomplished this task and was rewarded with the title of official Imperial Poisoner.
Locusta kept this position for 14 years, and even trained other women in the art of poisoning. By 69 AD, though, the people of Rome had had enough of Nero’s cruelty, and he was sentenced to death. Locusta had made him his own suicide kit, so that he would not have to undergo the execution. In his haste to flee his executioners, Nero forgot his suicide kit, so he ended up killing himself with a knife.
Emperor Galba, Nero’s successor, wanted to rid Rome of his predecessor’s corrupt court, so he ordered Locusta’s execution. Her strange career and fascinating life ended when she was dragged through the streets of Rome in chains and publicly executed.