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.

So, ambitious Gaius divorced dear old Domitia, the love of his life.  For Gaius loved money and power more than anything.

Gaius married Agrippina, which meant he became stepfather to her young son.  The boy’s name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, who would grow up to become the Emperor Nero.  At first, Agrippina enjoyed the wealth and status that came with being the wife of Gaius.  Eventually, though, Agrippina lusted after more power and more wealth.  She set her sights on marrying the Emperor Claudius.  To do that, she had to get rid of Gaius.  Divorce was out of the question, as that route would leave her penniless, which was unthinkable.  No, Gaius needed to die from ‘natural’ causes.  Obtaining some cyanide, which had been distilled from bitter almonds, Agrippina slipped the potion into his wine cup.  Gaius drank and died.  Agrippina circulated the rumor that her husband’s death was caused by a pustulence in his stomach.  Gaius was in no position to complain.  Agrippina the Younger / Image courtesy

As a result of her husband’s death, Agrippina’s reputation became even more pregnant with mystery.  Not only was she rich, beautiful and charming, which made her irresistible, but she was relentless in her pursuit of power.  She was a notorious reality that sensible people avoided, if at all possible.  Unfortunately, the Emperor Claudius fell into her clutches.

The Emperor Claudius’s full name was Tiberius Claudius Drusus.   He later took the surname of Germanicus to honor his dead brother.  Claudius became the Emperor of Rome almost by default.  The story went like this:  Caligula, who was Claudius’ cousin, was the Emperor.  Thoroughly insane and universally hated, Caligula was assassinated.  Hearing about the assassination, Claudius hid, fearing for his own life.  When the Palace Guards (Praetorian Guard) found him, he was trembling behind a curtain.  Expecting to be killed on the spot, Claudius begged for his life.  Instead of killing him, the Guards proclaimed him Emperor, because he was the closest living relative of Caligula.  To ensure that he kept on living, Claudius paid each member of the Guards 150 pieces of gold.

Years later, Agrippina, who was now Claudius’ wife, either poisoned him or had him poisoned.  Agrippina murdered him to ensure Nero’s claim to the throne.  Nero, who was Claudius’ adopted son, was the designated successor, but Claudius was having second thoughts and planned to change his will.  Some said his official food-taster poisoned him.  Others said that Agrippina added cyanide to a dish of mushrooms, which were Claudius’ favorite food.  Whatever the case, Claudius died by poison.

Prussic acid, extracted from bitter almonds, was probably the lethal agent.  Evidence pointing to bitter almonds came from Nero himself, who, although he didn’t poison his adoptive father, knew all about it.  Later, Nero admitted that Claudius died by eating “the food of the gods.”  Which can only be a reference to almonds as used by the Egyptian Pharaohs.

After he became Emperor, Nero kept a watchful eye on his adoptive brother, Britannicus, who, being the blood-son of Claudius, could make claim to the throne.  In time, Nero would have removed Britannicus because Nero, as crazy as he was, nurtured his advantages.  Any threat to his position, no matter how remote would have been noticed and construed into many eventualities.  Thanks to the pig-headedness of his step-mother, Agrippina, poor Britannicus died sooner than later.