54 | Rome

The Death Cap

Nero declares mushrooms the food of the gods.

Claudius was preparing to put an end to his wife Agrippina’s power, to cause his son Britannicus to assume the toga virilis, and to declare him heir to the throne.

Agrippina, learning of this, became alarmed and made haste to forestall anything of the sort by poisoning Claudius. But since, owing to the great quantity of wine he was forever drinking and his general habits of life—such as all emperors as a rule adopt for their protection—he could not easily be harmed, she sent for a famous dealer in poisons, a woman named Lucusta who had recently been convicted on this very charge; and preparing with her aid a poison whose effect was sure, she put it in one of the vegetables called mushrooms. Then she herself ate of the others, but made her husband eat of the one which contained the poison, for it was the largest and finest of them. And so the victim of the plot was carried from the banquet apparently quite overcome by strong drink, a thing that had happened many times before, but during the night the poison took effect and he passed away, without having been able to say or hear a word. It was the thirteenth of October, and he had lived sixty-three years, two months, and thirteen days, having been emperor thirteen years, eight months, and twenty days.

The emperor received the state burial and all the other honors that had been accorded to Augustus. Agrippina and her son Nero pretended to grieve for the man whom they had killed and elevated to heaven him whom they had carried out on a litter from the banquet.

Nero has left us a remark not unworthy of record. He declared mushrooms to be the food of the gods, since Claudius by means of the mushroom had become a god.

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Dio Cassius

From Roman History. Born in Bithynia around 150, Dio went in 180 to Rome, where he became a member of the senate and later worked as an adminstrator of Pergamum and Smyrna, eventually serving as consul twice, the second time in 229. His 80-book history of Rome spans from the arrival of Aeneas in Italy to his own time. He died in 235.