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On the Mushroom that Deified the Emperor Claudius

  • Veronika Grimm-Samuel (a1)

From Pliny the Elder, who was his contemporary, to the present, the unhappy ending of the fourth Julio-Claudian emperor's life is often and uncritically retold. Thus Agrippina's poisoned mushrooms have become proverbial through the writings of Pliny, Juvenal and others. Historical evidence surrounding the circumstances of his death is, however, vague, contradictory, and open to alternative explanations. In the present note I shall argue for the simplest of these: that the emperor Claudius died after having ingested – either through criminal intent, or by sheer accident – the most W poisonous of mushrooms, Amanita phalloides or Death Cap.

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1 Plin. H.N. 22.46.

2 Vilibus ancipites fungi ponentur amicis,

Boletus domino: sed qualem Claudius edit

Ante ilium uxoris, post quem nil amplius edit. (Juvenal, Sat. 5.146–8)

and again,

Minus ergo nocens erit Agrippinae

Boletus: siquidem unius praecordia pressit

Ille senis, tremulumque caput descendere iussit

In coelum, et longa manantia labra saliva. (Sat. 6.620–3)

3 Tacitus, , Ann. 12.66–9. Tacitus was born A.D. 56/57 and probably wrote the Annales in the years a.d. 116–18.

4 Ibid. 67.

5 Ibid. 68.

6 Suetonius (born c. a.d. 70), Lives of the Caesars, Book 5.

7 Ibid. 5.44

8 Ibid. 5.33.

9 Ibid. 5.40.

10 Dio, Cassius (born c. a.d. 163/4), Epitome of Book 61.

11 Ibid. 61.34.

12 It is not my purpose in this paper to argue for Agrippina's guilt or innocence in the death of Claudius. She may or may not have given him the mushroom. It is, however, a curious fact that the same topos, i.e. the ambitious woman ready to poison her husband so that her son may rule, was used by Tacitus only a few pages earlier in the Annales, in the case of Livia, Augustus and Tiberius. Many historians tend to view Livia's guilt with scepticism, whereas Agrippina's is accepted without question.

13 Plin. H.N. 22.47.

14 Houghton, W., ‘Notices of Fungi in Greek and Latin Authors’, Annals and Magazine of Natural History 5.15(1885), 2249; Ramsbottom, J., Poisonous Fungi (London, 1945), pp. 1823; Ramsbottom, J., Mushrooms and Toadstools (London, 1960), pp. 3144.

15 Nicander, , Alexipharmaca 521–36.

16 … vulvam enim terra ob hoc prius gignit, ipsum postea in vulva, ceu in ovo est luteum. nee tunicae minor gratia in cibo infantis boleti. rumpitur haec primo nascente, mox increscente in pediculi corpus absumitur, rarum umquam geminis ex uno pede. origo prima causaque e limo et acescente suco raadentis terrae aut radicis fere glandiferae, initioque spuma lentior, dein corpus membranae simile, mox partus, ut diximus. ilia pernicialia quae probandi alea! si caligaris clavus ferrive aliqua robigo aut panni marcor adfuit nascenti, omnem ilico sucum alienum saporemque in venenum concoquit. deprehendisse qui nisi agrestes possunt atque qui colligunt ipsi? alia vitia ne hi quidem, si serpentis caverna iuxta fuerit, si patescentem primo adhalaverit, capaci venenorum cognatione ad virus accipiendum. itaque caveri conveniat prius quam se condant serpentes (Plin. H.N. 22.46).

17 For biological, chemical and clinical aspects of the genus Amanitae see Ramsbottom, op. cit.; Litten, W., ‘The Most Poisonous Mushrooms’, Scientific American 232 (1975), 90101; Runuach, B. H. and Saltzmann, E., Mushroom Poisoning: Diagnosis and Treatment (Florida, 1978).

18 Dio, op. cit. 35.

19 Milham, M. E. (ed.), De Re Coquinaria (Leipzig, 1969); Edwards, J., Roman Cookery (Washington, 1986).

20 I wish to thank Dr R. L. Lucas of Keble College, Oxford, and Professor Benjamin Isaak of the Tel Aviv University, for reading the manuscript and for their kind and helpful comments.

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The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
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