Bitter Almonds

By Christopher Zoukis

It happened like this:  Nero fired his secretary of the treasury, whose name was Pallas.  Pallas was one of Agrippina’s cronies.  And Agrippina, even though Nero was her son, had an intractable lust for power and control.  She considered Nero’s action a slap in the face.  So she responded, announcing publicly that Nero was unfit to rule and that she was now backing Britannicus, who was the true heir.  She would take Britannicus to the Praetorian Guards and tell them she had murdered Claudius, thus incriminating Nero.  The Guards would declare Britannicus emperor and Nero would either have to commit suicide or be arrested. 

When word of his mother’s plan reached Nero, he hired a famous expert poisoner named Locusta to whip up a batch of poison for him.  Nero added the poison – cyanide from bitter almonds – to his brother’s food.  But the dose was weak and failed to kill him, giving him only severe diarrhea.  Enraged, Nero summoned Locusta and “flogged her with his own hands.”  Then Nero ordered her to concoct a lethal dose of the poison, which she did.  Livilla / Image courtesy

Nero threw a dinner party, inviting his adoptive brother Britannicus, his sister Octavia, and his mother Agrippina, along with other rich and powerful people.  The lethal dose of cyanide was poured into Britannicus’ cup of wine.  Taking a sip from his cup, Britannicus dropped dead instantly.  Nero brushed his brother’s death aside, explaining that Britannicus had “the disease of the gods,” which was epilepsy, and the death was ordained by the gods.  In other words, it was no big deal.

So both the Emperor Claudius and his son, Britannicus, died by means of cyanide obtained from bitter almonds.  Like father, like son. 

As did another famous Roman.  His name was Drusus Julius Caesar, who was the only child of the Roman Emperor Tiberius.  At the age of seventeen, Drusus married his cousin, whose name was Livilla.  Drusus had a violent temper, which was made even worse by alcohol.  Drusus loved to drink.  Indeed, so that he could drink even more he regularly ate five or six bitter almonds prior to drinking.  Bitter almonds supposedly functioned as an immunizing agent against drunkenness.  In the end, bitter almonds would have a great impact on the life of Drusus.

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Bitter Intrigues

By Christopher Zoukis

There is another type of almond, called bitter almonds.  The bitter flavor of this second type of almond comes from the glycoside amygdalin, which is quickly broken down to produce cyanide, also known as prussic acid.  Which means bitter almonds can kill by means of cyanide poisoning.  This lethal aspect of bitter almonds was known by many ancient cultures, one of which was the Roman Empire.  Death by poison was quite common among the Romans, especially in the upper levels of society.  Most of these murders were motivated by politics, either familial or civil.  Poison was a sure-fire way to remove someone who was in the way of one’s grab for power, money or position.  It was sure-fire because, even though everyone knew the victim had died from poison, it couldn’t be proved.  There were no forensic teams, no CSI, no pathologists who could pronounce murder by poison. Image courtesy

A number of famous Romans were most likely poisoned by cyanide from bitter almonds.  For one, Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus, who was a wealthy and powerful businessman and public figure.  Because of those two factors, he had great political influence in Rome.  Twice, Gaius attained the coveted position of consul, which was the office of supreme civil authority in the city of Rome.  It was like being mayor of New York City.

Gaius married twice.  The first time for love, the second time for power, which proved his undoing.  His first wife was Domitia, who was related to the Emperor Augustus.  Eight years later, the Emperor Claudius asked Gaius to divorce his first wife and marry Agrippina, whose husband had recently died under mysterious circumstances.  Some whispered he was poisoned, but no one knew for sure.  Because of the enormous profit latent in such a marriage, Gaius agreed.  For the marriage would provide him with a pedigree he could never acquire, no matter how wealthy he became.

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