• L. Cilliers University of the Free State
  • F. P. Retief University of the Free State


The first recorded instance of poisoning in ancient Rome occurred in 331 BC when, during an epidemic, a large number of women were accused of concerted mass poisoning. Overreaction of the community in times of stress particularly, when scapegoats for unexplained phenomena are sought, might have played an important role in this and many subsequent incidents of suspected poisoning. Rome represented a culture steeped in superstition, fear and mythology with virtually no scientific means of retrospectively proving or disproving alleged poisoning. The drug trade in antiquity is briefly reviewed, from the Marsi and rootcutters who collected materials, and the intermediary herbalists and drug pedlars, to the physicians and other prescribers of drugs. There was a general lack of proper knowledge, which led to much abuse and death of patients. The distinction between these professional groups was often vague and physicians were generally not held in high regard. From authoritative writings of Theophrastus, Dioscorides, Pliny and others it is evident that the Romans were aware of a very large number of toxic (and assumed toxic) substances, of plant, animal and mineral origin, but it is evident that the poisoners of ancient Rome almost exclusively made use of plant (and to lesser extent animal) products, and not mineral poisons. A brief overview of the recorded crimes by poison, and known poison dispensers of the time is given. Poisoning probably reached a maximum during the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, when the Julio-Claudian emperors in particular achieved great notoriety, and a wide variety of specific and “universal” antidotes came into vogue.