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 ibeatyou.com

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.

Read More