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 az.wikipedia.org

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. 

Livilla quickly came to despise her husband and entered into an affair with Sejanus, who was a very powerful man.  He was the head of the Praetorian Guard.  This meant Sejanus controlled all the military troops inside the city of Rome.  For a number of reasons, including the fact that Sejanus was fornicating with his wife, Drusus detested Sejanus.  When it looked like Drusus would soon become emperor, Sejanus decided to kill Drusus.  For Sejanus knew that when Drusus became emperor, Drusus would immediately execute him.  Therefore Sejanus considered his act preemptive as well as exceedingly sensible.   

Sejanus told Livilla what he planned to do.  When she heard, Livilla smiled and said she would help him.  Livilla added cyanide from bitter almonds to her husband’s food, as Sejanus waited in the next room.  Drusus ate the tainted food and died an excruciating death.  Because of his reputation as a lush, no one suspected Drusus had been murdered.  Everyone thought his death was due to overindulgence.  The truth came out eight years later, after the death of Sejanus.