Poisoning in Ancient Times


Poison has often been referred to as the "coward’s weapon" the administration being calculated in cold blood, with the recognition of prolonged suffering. There is, and always has been a discrepancy over the correct classification of what constitutes a poison. Some argue that it is a substance, which destroys the health or life of a living organism. However, the typical example is common salt; in small quantities salt is essential, but administered in large quantities, it will kill. Poisons are also often used beneficially in medical treatment, albeit in small quantities, such as belladonna. A nineteenth century toxicologist, Alfred Swaine Taylor, perhaps was arguably justified in commenting, "a poison in a small dose is a medicine, and a medicine in a large dose is a poison."

We know from archaeological evidence that primitive men sought to find weapons, which would be more and more efficient towards animals or indeed their enemy. Even though a flint type object would inflict injury, it is doubtless that they strived to find more destructive means. In their search, apart from curative substances, more potent ones were found and possibly incorporated into their existing weapons. Archaeological evidence has found groves in such hunting implements, their purpose being to hold these noxious substances, for example tubocurarine. These findings seemed to be kept secret, a mystery held only by the most observant and intuitive member of the tribe. This would have given power and authority to this member, which may have brought rise to the idea of a witch doctor or medicine man. These people were always the wise ones to whom people looked up.

The use of poisons dates back as far as spiritual and mythological beliefs have been recorded. Perhaps the first accounts deciphered are from the Sumerians of Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). Here, there are associations of poisons with "Gula" who was regarded as a spirit or " the mistress of charms and spells". This dates back to around 4500BC and tabulated accounts of her have been found from about 1400BC. Here is an example:

"Gula, the woman, the mighty one, the prince of all women

His seed with a poison not curable

Without issue; in his body may she place

All the days of his life,

Blood and pus like water may he pour forth."

Even in Greek mythology there is reference to poison, although no apparent citation to specific poisons used. An example is that of Medea, one of the children of the sun. She became the wife of Ageus, King of Athens. Ageus’ son, Theseus, returned to Athens to claim his rights and Medea, according to myth, resented this and vainly attempted to poison Theseus with a poisoned goblet.

Records of Egyptian knowledge can be dated about 300BC. Menes, the earliest recorded Egyptian king studied the properties of poisonous plants. Detailed accounts at this time were not recorded as it was forbidden to reveal any secrets taught in the temples. Exposing these mysteries carried the penalty of death. There is however sufficient evidence from various papyri that the Egyptians were conversant with antimony, copper, crude arsenic, lead, opium, and mandrake, amongst others. Certain papyri also reveal how the Egyptians were probably the first to master distillation and discovered how to extract a powerful poison from peach kernels. A translation by Duteuil on a papyrus in Louvre shows the earliest recording of a preparation a substance for lethal purposes

"Pronounce not the mane of I.A.O, under the penalty of the peach."

(I.A.O is believed to represent the ancient Hebrew name for God.)

Today this extract is known as prussic acid (cyanide). Peach kernels contain "cyanogenic glycosides" which release toxic substances in the presence of water.(Thompson, 1931)

Toxicology, the name given to the study of poisons is denoted from the Greek word, toxon. This refers to a bow used for shooting arrows. The word toxeuma meant an arrow, and toxicos is consigned to such a poison, which, in ancient times was often used on tips of arrows to produce a more lethal weapon. (Trestrail, 2000)

We also know the Ancient Greeks knew of arsenic in the form of realger and orpiment. They had an idea of metals such as lead, mercury, gold, silver and copper, and of their properties to some extent. Concerning vegetable poisons, the Greeks chiefly employed Hemlock. This was imbibed for suicidal purposes. Under certain conditions, suicide at this time was seen to be noble, and the use of the "poisoned cup" was often sanctioned. Hemlock was also used as a form of capital punishment. The "State Poison", as it was referred to, used a species of Hemlock known as cicuta. The administered dose however was often not fatal and frequently required a second dose. An account of the execution of Phocian described how

"having drunk all the Hemlock juice, the quantity was found insufficient and the executioner refused to prepare more unless he was paid 12 drachmas."

A more famous account of execution by Hemlock, described by Plato, was that of Socrates. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the youth of Athens with his philosophical teachings, and in 402BC was made to drink the State Poison.

There is reference much later on in history (40AD) of the usage of the State Poison, by Dioscorides in his work on Materia Medica. He made a valuable contribution to the classification of poisons, differentiating between plant, animal, and mineral origins, which for fifteen centuries or more remained the chief authority on that subject. (Trestrail, 2000)

The knowledge of poisons appears to have been more general among Eastern races. The Persians were very interested in the art of poisoning, and Plutarch and Ctesias relate an account, which occurred during the reign of Artaxerxes II (405 – 359BC). Queen Parysatis supposedly poisoned her daughter-in-law, Statira by means of a poisoned knife. Certain venom was administered to one side of a knife and used to cut a bird at the dinner table. Taking the untainted half, Parysatis lived while her daughter-in-law died.

Poisoning at the dinner table was certainly not uncommon, especially in ancient Roman times. According to the writer Livy, homicidal poisoning in the high circles of Roman society was happening as early as 331BC. Nero was notorious for "disposing" of unwanted family, and with the aid of his personal poisoner, Locusta, murdered his brother Britanicus with cyanide. Belladonna was also a favourite poison, and Locusta, used this on the instruction of Agrippa, the wife of Claudius, to kill him.

A custom adopted by the Chinese around 246BC, which still exists today is the Chou Ritual. Of the 5 poisons used, 4 are known; cinnabar (mercury), realger (arsenic), green vitriol (copper sulphate) and loadstone. Burnt together, the fumes were caught on a bunch of feathers to be used externally. (Thompson, 1931)

Soon after the properties of poisonous substances were found, people looked towards methods of prevention of their fatal effects. Mithridates was King of Pontos (Turkey) around the time of 114-63BC. He was thought to have lived in constant fear of being poisoned by his enemies, so studied the subject of antidotes extensively. He tested various poisons on condemned criminals and experimented with other poisons to see if they held any antidotal properties. He took small doses of various poisons daily in an attempt to render him immune. The formula for his antidote was known as Mithridatum, which he secretly guarded, until Pompey, who took it back to Rome, invaded him. Pliny describes some 54 different poisons including one he mentions as;

"the blood of a duck founds in a certain district of Pontus, which was supposed to live on poisonous food, and the blood of this duck was afterwards used in the preparation of the Mithridatum, because it fed on poisonous plants and suffered no harm."

Ironically, during this invasion, Mithridate attempted to commit suicide by poison. The poison failed, perhaps due to this antidote, so he made his soldier stab him to death. (Thompson, 1931)

During these ancient times, poisons were essentially viewed as ‘mysterious’ substances, and were poorly understood. It would seem that the ritual and preparation of poisons was deemed the most important step in the act of poisoning, as opposed to the fundamental action of the poisons themselves.

Poisoning in Medieval Times

Folklore Poisons


Contents page