One of the earliest documented cases of Serial Murder involved a woman known as Locusta of Gaul who lived in Rome during the reign of Emperors of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty. By most accounts she was an expert at creating poisons and her talents were sought by Agrippina the Younger who wished to remove her husband, the Emperor Claudius to ensure her son Nero would assume control of the Empire. Locusta was then employed by Nero himself to remove any potential threats to his power.
Nothing is known of Locusta's early life but it was assumed she originated in Gaul and came to Rome during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. There she began to use her knowledge of herbal extracts as a means to murder people and soon became a prolific poisoner. However by AD 54 she had been caught by the Roman authorities and imprisoned on charges of murder. She was then approached by the Empress Agrippina the Younger who was the younger sister to the previous Emperor Caligula. Agrippina ordered Locusta to procure a suitable poison to murder her husband.
Claudius had assumed Imperial powers after the assassination of his nephew Caligula, who was murdered by the Praetorian Guard in AD 37 after only 3 years as Emperor. Despite being considered an idiot by most of his family, Claudius had managed to hold onto the reigns of power, and in his early rule he attempted to placate the Senate and was easily influenced by powerful senators. By his later years he began to grow more formidable in exercising Imperial administration, gaining many hostile opponents within the Senate which resulted in numerous attempts on his life. Several coups and assassination attempts were made during his reign and those responsible were exiled or executed.
His niece and fourth wife Agrippina had by now come to regard Claudius' son Britannicus as a threat to her ambitions for her own son Nero's political future. Britannicus was Claudius' child from his previous marriage to Valeria Messalina, and would stand to succeed his father upon his death. She soon began to manipulate her husband into securing Nero's ascent to power, by having him adopt Nero as his own son. In AD 51 she schemed to have the Praetorian Prefect Rufrius Crispinus replaced with Sextus Afranius Burrus, who was loyal to her. Towards the end of AD 54, Claudius had begun to witness Agrippina's growing influence over his rule and with Britannicus approaching manhood, he planned to remove Nero from the succession and re-appoint his own son as his successor.
Agrippina the Younger
Agrippina moved quickly, and sought out Locusta in prison to acquire her services. She advised the Empress to use Atropa belladonna, more commonly known as Deadly Nightshade which had been used by early humans some to make poison-tipped arrows. It was believed by some that the first Roman Emperor Augustus had been poison by his wife Livia, who used Atropa belladonna to poison his fresh figs.
On the evening of 13 October AD 54, Claudius was served with a plate of mushrooms, which had been poisoned with the deadly nightshade extract. It is unknown exactly who provided the fatal dose, with most accounts recording either his food taster Halotus or his personal physician Xenophon. Claudius died after prolonged suffering and one account describes his slow death being hastened by his doctor placing a poisoned feather down his throat to induce vomiting, whilst another records how he was poisoned a second time to quicken his demise.
A contemporary account by Seneca the Younger ascribed his death to natural causes, however there were many rumours which seemed to implicate members of the Imperial household. With Claudius' death, Nero was appointed as Emperor of the Roman Empire and Agrippina now became a priestess of the cult of the deified Claudius and exerted even more control over her son than she had done over her husband.
Despite providing her assistance in removing Claudius, Locusta remained in prison until the following year when she was again consulted on poisons, this time by Nero himself. He sought to murder his step-brother Britannicus, to ensure his consolidation of power. Britannicus had also earned the enmity of Nero by criticising the Emperor's singing voice as well as referring to him by his birth name of Lucius Domitius.
In December AD 55 he was invited to a dinner party held by Nero and attended by his sister Octavia, Agrippina and several other nobles where he was given a hot drink tested by a food taster. Britannicus requested it be cooled and the poison was added which began to act quickly, causing him to lose both his voice and breath. Nero reassured those present that Britannicus was merely suffering from an epileptic fit and he was attended by the court doctors.
Nero then returned to Locusta's cell and admonished her for her failure, flogging her with his own hand and threatening her with execution. She then provided a faster acting poison to be administered to the already dying Britannicus. Nero waited some time before he gave his brother more poison, and it wasnt until 11 February AD 55 that Britannicus finally died aged 13. Many believed his death, the day before his fourteenth year, was no mere coincidence as his ascent into manhood would haven given him a claim to his father's throne.
Locusta was now rewarded with a full pardon and gifted money and estates. She began to teach her craft to others, and had soon established a school of poisoners at her country estate. Nero now increasingly began to openly disagree with his mothers way of governing the Empire. Soon mother and son were in conflict and by AD 59, he had plotted her downfall after failing to engineer her death in a drowning accident, one account claims he sent three assassins to murder her. He then removed any influence from his mothers rule and by AD 62 the Praetorian Prefect Sextus Afranius Burrus, who had helped Nero maintain a stable government was dead, according to some accounts from poisoning.
Nero's reign was increasingly erratic and with the burning of Rome in AD 64, he had angered an already tax burdened and outraged public and by AD 68 a usurper by the name of Galba had declared himself Emperor. Fleeing Rome in disguise, Nero sought santuary at the house of one of his freedmen and there attempted suicide but could not bring himself to complete the task.
He ordered one of his slaves to kill him. With his death brought the end of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and the short reign of Galba began in the year of the Four Emperors. One of Galba's first acts as Emperor was to order the arrest of the poisoner Locusta of Gaul, along with Hero's other favourites, Helius, Patrobius and Narcissus. She was led in chains through the city and publicly executed for her crimes.