Guest Post by Historical Fiction Author Fiona Forsysth

Welcome to the Book’s Delight. Today we are excited to have a guest post by author Fiona Forsyth. If you want to read more about her, you can check out her author interview here. 

Poison and Rome

I have a theory that every writer of historical fiction at some point finds themselves researching poisons. Herbs, medicines, drugs – they’ve been part of human life since the first child scraped a knee and the first chef decided that maybe a pinch of pepper was needed to spice up that mammoth stew. But herbs attract superstition and fear, and my lovely Romans were no different. For them, knowledge of herbs led quickly from healing to witchcraft and poisoning.

In 331 BCE, according to the historian Livy (who wrote at the end of the first century BCE), there was a plague in the city of Rome, and 20 women were found concocting potions – potions which they said would help in the fight against the disease. When they were forced to drink their own potions, the women died and further investigation brought another 170 women to be condemned. “I would be glad,” says Livy sadly, “if this was a false report.” The mix of disease, potions, women and poison may be hard for Livy to report, but he reports it nonetheless, and adds that prior to this there had never been an investigation into poisoning in Rome.

By the time of the era in which I set my books, poison is a subject for rumour and gossip and even mentions in the lawcourts – the dictator Sulla set up a special permanent court to deal with assassinations and poisonings in about 81 BCE. Pliny the Elder tells us of accusations of aconite poisoning in a notorious lawcourt speech – in 56 BCE Caelius Rufus was prosecuting Calpurnius Bestia for electoral bribery but as was common in Roman speeches, he threw in an extra smear. Pliny reports: “The ancients agree that aconite is the swiftest poison, and only has to touch the genitals of female animals for death to occur within a day. It was with this poison that Calpurnius Bestia poisoned his wives while they were sleeping – hence Caelius’ heated speech accusing Calpurnius’ finger.” The accusation has everything – sex, horror and the unspoken hint of cowardice, because Calpurnius used poison, a woman’s weapon. (Steven Saylor makes a great story out of this episode in his excellent novel “The Venus Throw.” I recommend it!)

By the time of the first Emperor Augustus - end of the first century BCE and start of the first CE - the poet Horace was writing about poison mixed with honey to help speed up the death of a parent who is lingering too long for the heirs. And poisoners even gained celebrity status: at a time when few women are even named in our sources, Canidia the witch features in Horace, while the historian Tacitus tells us of a woman called Martina, so notorious in her home province of Syria that when a member of the Imperial family died there, Martina was arrested and shipped to Rome for questioning. Unfortunately, she had hidden a tiny phial of poison twisted up into her hairstyle, and she committed suicide before giving the authorities the answers they wanted.

About the Author: 

Fiona spent many years teaching Latin and Greek before becoming a writer of Roman historical novels. She has just published Poetic Justice, the first in a series of mysteries starring the poet Ovid.


X: @for_fi

Amazon page: 

Readers, I've included a buy button for Fiona's book if you'd like to check out her stories. 




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