If you’ve ever cracked open a history book (or, let’s be real, watched Gladiator), you know that Ancient Rome was notorious for being a pretty dangerous place to live.
Aside from the murders of people like Julius Caesar, renowned mathematician Hypatia, and some dude named Jesus, there were gladiator fights, endless wars, and the general death, disease, and destruction that were rampant in most pre-vaccination cities.
Some might have seen Rome as a perilous place, one to be avoided at all cost.
The world’s first serial killer, Locusta, saw Rome and thought, “Now here’s an opportunity.”
What’s in a Name?
Let’s get something out of the way off the bat: Locusta bears the title of the world’s first serial killer, but that moniker isn’t exactly correct.
Locusta wasn’t a serial killer so much as an assassin – one hired by the Roman elite to dispatch of their pesky relatives and workplace enemies.1
The traditional definition of a serial killer is someone who murders three or more people over a significant period of time (longer than a month). What’s not outwardly stated in that definition but tacitly implied in society’s understanding of serial killers is that they kill to satisfy some abnormal psychological gratification. There’s not really any evidence that Locusta liked to kill people – she was just damn good at it.
Locusta grew up in Gaul (aka, modern-day France), where she developed a deep knowledge of herbal and plant lore. Today, she’d probably just be a welcome addition to any millennial feminist’s coven, but back in Ancient Rome, her skills made her stand out as an ally of a different sort. Local elite saw Locusta’s knowledge as a way to quietly and quickly get rid of their enemies; Locusta saw their needs as a way to quickly earn some serious paper.
The poisoner made quite a name for herself in Gaul. She was arrested a few times, but the thing about having a talent for killing powerful people is that other powerful people will jailbreak you if they need your services. Locusta never spent long in prison, thanks to a series of wealthy patrons.
Eventually, word of Locusta’s very particular set of skills got her called up to the big leagues: she was to travel to the city of Rome itself to assist the Empress Agrippina in getting rid of her husband.2
Never Send a Man to Do a Woman’s Job
A bit of backstory on Agrippina: she was actually known as Agrippina the Younger (her mother being Agrippina the Elder) and she was the fourth wife of the Emperor Claudius, who was also Agrippina’s uncle and third husband.
It’s complicated, okay?
Basically, what you need to know is this: Agrippina and Claudius were married, but weren’t exactly star-crossed lovers. Their marriage was, as many royal marriages are, designed to further consolidate power to a small, elite group of people. It was a marriage of convenience, not one of love. Until, of course, it became a marriage of inconvenience to Agrippina, which is where Locusta came in.
In short, Agrippina had tired of Claudius. He had done his job: he had helped elevate Agrippina’s status in Roman society. Agrippina wanted to eliminate Claudius so her son from a previous marriage, Nero, could ascend to the emperorship and Agrippina could, in theory, have more power without the old ball and chain.3
As you can imagine, it was pretty hard to get close to the emperor, so Agrippina used Locusta to get at the emperor’s food supply.
Claudius had a penchant for mushrooms, which was unfortunate for him because a.), mushrooms are disgusting (don’t @ me) and b.), their earthy flavor is great for masking other tastes, like poison. Agrippina bribed Claudius’ food tasters to take a night off, Locusta sprinkled a whole bunch of poison onto his dinner, and the deed was done.
An Expendable Ally
A few days after eating the poisoned mushrooms, Claudius was dead. Locusta, presumably, was filled with the thrill of a job well done… until, that is, Roman soldiers showed up at her home to throw her in jail for the murder.
Turns out, Agrippina wasn’t very loyal. (Shocking!) The empress was happy to give up Locusta as the murderer to prevent her own stint in prison.
Thankfully for Locusta, though, the new emperor was Nero… and if you know anything about Nero, you know that he positively loved killing people. Nero wasn’t about to let a talented murder weapon languish away in prison, so he freed Locusta and set her to work.
Under Nero, Locusta’s murder business boomed. She was poisoning left and right and enjoying the fruits of her labor and the emperor’s favor.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. And by good things, I mean Nero’s bloody and chaotic reign. After fourteen years, the Roman Senate finally had enough of Nero’s antics and sentenced the young emperor to death. Before they could enact the sentence, however, Nero killed himself… with the help of a poisoned dagger given to him by Locusta.
As Jesus Says
When Nero died, so did Locusta’s immunity. She was immediately sentenced to death for her role in the murders of dozens of members of Rome’s political elite. There’s a lot of nonsense out there about how Locusta met her end, but no definitive sources.
What is clear is that after an illustrious career as one of the most prolific murderers in history, Locusta was, herself, murdered.
You know what they say: do unto others as you would have them do unto you.