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10 Notable Poisonings From The Ancient World

by Joe Duncan
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Throughout the course of history, poison has proven an extremely valuable item for the assassin’s toolkit. What it lacks in reliability it makes up for in silence, and sometimes warfare and murder need to be as absolutely discreet as possible.

In ancient Rome, for instance, the political climate and strife between wealthy, aristocratic Roman elites dissuaded more brutal and overt forms of violence, and poisoning became a favorite for those who wanted to kill unquestioned without a trace. There were even mass poisonings and master poisoners, assassins who’d work to carry out the quick, quiet, clean, and murderous directives of the highest bidder.[1] Needless to say, an assassin who could effectively kill discreetly was in high demand in an age where challenging political factions and alliances was dangerous and could get you killed if found out.

Throughout many ancient historical empires, leaders and citizenry alike have been disposed of through the use of poison. Here are ten notable poisonings from ancient history which had important consequences, often ushering in a change of power.

10 Socrates

Photo credit: Jacques-Louis David

No list discussing poisoning would be complete without a mention of one of the most famous poisonings of all time, the trial and execution of Socrates. While Socrates administered the poison himself, uttering that he longed for death after a long life of reflection, it’s no secret that the father of Western philosophy was coerced into doing so in an Athenian prison, put into a situation where he had to accept an unjust guilt, pay a fine, and leave town—something he could not, in good conscience, bring himself to do—or die at his own hand in the custody of the Athenian authorities. The Athenians needed a face to blame, a scapegoat for political and social unrest, and Socrates was just about the least popular character in town at the time.[2]

Socrates was the laughingstock of the city but also a philosophical genius, a fool capable of making a fool of everyone who thought he was a fool, demonstrably and in public, by outsmarting them. This made the old man a target for political attacks, and he would be persecuted and essentially forced to drink poison by his fellow Athenians. Plato tells of Socrates’s trial, and through Plato, the philosophy of Socrates lived on and ended up being a catalyst that changed the entire history of the Western world indefinitely.

9 Drusus Julius Caesar

Photo credit: Robur.q

This almost-would-be emperor was the only son of Emperor Tiberius of ancient Rome and was the expected successor to the throne in the 20s AD. He was a moderately experienced statesman with a life of imperial richness ahead of him.[3] He was related to two emperors of excess, Nero and Caligula, and because of this, and possibly his moderate temperament mixed with his violent reputation, he ended up getting the raw end of a political double cross.

Sejanus, an ambitious confidant of Tiberius and rival of Drusus, didn’t want Drusus succeeding Tiberius to the throne, and Tiberius wasn’t exactly a young man. Sejanus seduced Drusus’s wife, Livilla, even telling her that he’d divorce his own wife for her. Livilla poisoned Drusus. Ultimately, however, when Tiberius died, the throne would pass to the infamous Caligula.

8 Demosthenes Of Athens

Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Demosthenes was an Athenian public speaker and politician who would be notable for is opposition to the consolidation of Greek power which took place under Philip II of Macedon—and later, Alexander the Great. Demosthenes was very vocal about his disagreement with the idea that Macedon should annex Athens, and Greek land in general. He was an avid supporter of Athenian democracy and culture and was a notable figure in the city-state, furthering much of what ended up spilling into future Western culture. Giving an infamous speech to try to gather Athenian support against Macedonia, he would fail at his task, regardless of his skills in rhetoric and public discourse, though he would continue long, dedicated campaigns in support of Athenian independence.

After the sudden and surprising death of the Macedonian king Philip, Alexander would take hold of the newly forming empire, and he would go on to become the conqueror and leader we know as Alexander the Great. After he led a failed uprising against Alexander, Demosthenes went into exile. Even though Alexander would suddenly die, Demosthenes’s friend Demades denounced him as a traitor and turncoat, and the Athenians sentenced him to die. Demosthenes ultimately chose to kill himself with poison.[4]

7 Cleopatra

Cleopatra (aka Cleopatra VII Philopator), one of the most famous women in history, would end up dying from poison at the end of her life and reign. She became a ruler of Egypt through her Macedonian ancestors’ takeover of the ancient nation and became a figure of literary history after her death, especially as a result of William Shakespeare’s work about her.

Cleopatra would notably sweep Julius Caesar off his feet after he chased political rival Pompey into Egypt to solidify his power. Cleopatra famously rolled herself into a rug and smuggled herself right into Caesar’s presence, the opportunist that she was, seeing an opportunity to seduce the military general as he took nearly the sole reigns of the budding Roman Empire. However, Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar was largely a political move. She did, however, end up in a romantic relationship with Mark Antony, one of Caesar’s political allies.

But Antony truly loved Cleopatra, allowing her great powers within Egypt and some Greek islands in the Mediterranean, which didn’t sit well with the political elite of the day. He was ultimately forced to run away to Egypt after falling out of political favor in Rome. In truly Shakespearean fashion, Cleopatra is alleged to have spread word of her own suicide. Antony was completely unaware of this ploy, and thinking her actually dead, chose to commit suicide rather than live without her. Cleopatra would take her own life with poison as well, rather than face capture by Octavian. The classic story goes that she used the venom of an asp, but she probably actually used hemlock.[5]

6 Artaxerxes III

Photo credit: Mardetanha

Outside of the Greco-Roman world, political double crosses in the face of great opportunity were still largely the norm. The Persian Empire had its fair share of political strife, and that means it had its fair share of political assassinations. That, of course, means poison was a valuable tool for anyone who wanted to murder their way to the top.

Artaxerxes was the ruler of ancient Persia, coming from a long line of emperors, and while generally popular, he ruled with an iron fist, snuffing out any competition in his way, even family. In a time of political turmoil, revolt, and challenges to the throne, Artaxerxes III put his enemies and opponents to death in a fashion that would make modern mob bosses blush—like many rulers at the time, he simply did what had to be done.

In a historical double cross, Bagoas, Artaxerxes’s minister and political ally, would poison Artaxerxes and all of his sons except one, consolidating his power.[6] He would later attempt to poison Darius III of Persia unsuccessfully.

5 Artaxerxes IV

Photo credit: the saleroom

But the story of Artaxerxes and Bagoas doesn’t end there. Remember that one, single, lone surviving son of Artaxerxes III? Bagoas would catapult him to the throne in an attempt to manipulate him and maintain his consolidated control over the Persian Empire.[7]

However, turmoil persisted throughout the empire. (Being invaded by Philip II of Macedon didn’t help.) After reigning for only two years, Artaxerxes IV (aka Arses) plotted to poison Bagoas. Instead, Bagoas successfully poisoned and killed Artaxerxes. With everyone scrambling for power and all heirs to the throne dead, Bagoas would establish Arses’s cousin, Darius III, as the new emperor of Persia.

4 Bagoas

How sweet the taste of revenge is. Cashing in on built-up karma, the next famous poisoning on our list is none other than Bagoas himself. Bagoas was a consultant and political statesman who operated largely behind the scenes, conducting his imperialism behind the facade of emperor-making and controlling them like puppets, as we’ve seen. He disposed of both Artaxerxes III and IV when they proved not to be loyal enough or exactly what he wanted out of a puppet emperor. Then, he installed Darius III.

Remember how Bagoas later attempted to poison Darius III? Well, finally, his sleazy ways would catch up with him. Darius had been warned of Bagoas’s intentions. After his attempt to poison Darius failed, Darius forced Bagoas to drink the poison intended for the emperor. Bagoas died, quite literally, from a taste of his own medicine.[8]

3 Antipater

Antipater was the father of King Herod the Great and started a dynasty in Palestine, of which Herod was his successor as ruler. Antipater was caught in a whirlwind of local Palestinian politics, both Jewish and non. Having been installed to power by Caesar and Pompey meant he was caught up in Roman politics as well.[9]

During his rise to local political leader as governor, he snubbed the then-Palestinian king, Aristobulis, and distanced himself from another king, Hyrcanus II, by installing his two sons, including Herod, into positions of power in local office. A political rival named Malich (or Malichus) would end up poisoning Antipater a few years later, something which benefited Hyrcanus as well. Nevertheless, Herod was placed in power by the Romans and would go on to become the king written about in the Holy Bible.

2 Claudius

Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Emperor Claudius was the son of Nero Claudius Drusus Tiberius, who was the younger brother of the Emperor Tiberius (the same Tiberius who fathered Drusus Julius Caesar, mentioned earlier). He is notable for greatly expanding the size of Rome and making Britain a province. Through many military campaigns, Claudius brought Rome to one of the largest sizes it would ever be and reigned from AD 41 to 54. Having a long tenure for a Roman emperor of that era, Cladius’s reign was largely successful.

Claudius was married to a woman named Messalina, with whom he had a son, Brittanicus. Claudius would eventually discover that his wife supposedly conspiring against him to seize power, in true Roman format. Claudius divorced her. Subsequently, he married Agrippina the Younger, who was the mother of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, also known as Nero. Agrippina, hoping to position Nero to become an heir to the Roman throne, poisoned Claudius behind the scenes and succeeded in installing Nero as emperor.[10]

1 Britannicus

Photo credit: Gautier Poupeau

Nero was poised to take the throne as the Roman emperor, but only one thing stood in his way. Claudius had died, but he had a son with his previous wife, Messalina. Britannicus was the actual, rightful heir to the throne left open by the poisoning of Claudius. Agrippina the Younger, Nero’s mother, was as ambitious as she was brutal and, having already murdered Claudius, was anxious to get Britannicus out of the way.[11]

She would hire the same poisoner who murdered Claudius to do the job. Britannicus died at only 13 years old, and Nero claimed the throne, but Aggripina’s murderous ways wouldn’t go unpunished. At first, the lavish, extravagant Emperor Nero was quite popular, and he decided he no longer needed Agrippina, making the executive decision to murder his own mother.

I like to write about dark stuff, history, horror, murder, true crime, philosophy, and serial killers.


Read more about poisonings through history on Top 10 Remorseless Poisoners That History Almost Forgot and 10 Horrific Poisoning Cases.

fact checked by Jamie Frater