Codex Lochianus

A gallimaufry of musings on history, gaming, and speculative fiction

Can we really call Locusta a ‘badass chemist’?

Esther Inglis-Arkell recently wrote a short piece for Gizmodo about Locusta, the infamous poisoner who allegedly helped the great and good of first-century Rome dispose of difficult individuals. Unfortunately, Inglis-Arkell’s narrative is problematic in many respects.

The biggest problem is that the article makes a number of questionable assertions. For example, she claims that Locusta helped Agrippina the Younger dispose of two husbands. Inglis-Arkell never identifies the first victim, but she probably meant Agrippina’s second husband, Gaius Sallustius Crispus Passienus. The second victim was Agrippina’s third husband, Emperor Claudius.

Inglis-Arkell makes it seem as if Locusta’s role in both deaths is a known fact, but that’s not true. On the contrary, there’s no evidence linking Locusta to Crispus’s death at all. It’s not even clear that he was poisoned. We don’t actually know much about Crispus, and what little we do know comes from the scholiast on Juvenal, who records that he was “slain by the treachery of Agrippina.” There’s no mention of poison or Locusta. Inglis-Arkell doesn’t explain why she links Locusta with Crispus’s death, but she may have been led astray by a toxicology textbook that she cites later in the article. Toxicology by Thomas J. Haley and William O. Berndt does indeed claim that Locusta helped Agrippina get rid of Crispus, but it doesn’t cite any sources. At any rate, a toxicology textbook isn’t necessarily a good source for Roman history.

As for Claudius, it’s true that many Roman historians alleged that he was poisoned at Agrippina’s behest. But Locusta’s role in his death is far from clear. Suetonius doesn’t mention her at all in his account of Claudius’s murder, but Tacitus and Cassius Dio do. Tacitus gives the fullest account, claiming that Agrippina hired Locusta to poison a dish of mushrooms. However, he says that the physician Xenophon ultimately ended up killing Claudius when Locusta’s poisoned mushrooms don’t work (Tacitus, Annals, 12.67). Cassius Dio also mentions Locusta, but he claims that the poisoned mushrooms did the trick (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 61.34).

Even though Tacitus and Dio seem to provide clear evidence of Locusta’s role, we have to take their claims with a grain of salt. They weren’t writing history in the modern sense of the term. For starters, they didn’t cite sources. When Tacitus writes that Agrippina used Locusta to poison Claudius, we have no way of knowing where he got this information. Did he actually see documentary evidence linking the two women, or was he simply reporting rumor as fact? One of the most frustrating things about studying Roman history is the fact that some of our most detailed sources of information aren’t as objective as we would like. Locusta may well have been involved in Claudius’s death, but that is far from certain.

Inglis-Arkell’s claim that Locusta was a ‘badass chemist’ who taught her art to others is also suspect. Although a number of secondary sources claim that Locusta operated a school for poisoners, the primary-source evidence for this seems to be scanty. The only references I can find are Suetonius and Juvenal. Suetonius claims that, as a reward for helping him get rid of Britannicus (Claudius’s son), Nero gave Locusta an estate in the country and sent her pupils (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 33.3). The reference in Juvenal is a brief claim in his Satires that Locusta “teaches her artless neighbours to brave the talk of the town and carry forth to burial the blackened corpses of their husbands” (Juvenal, Satires, 1.71-2).

Claiming that Locusta was a ‘badass chemist’ on these basis of such slim evidence seems unwise. Suetonius is the more credible of the two, but even then we can’t be sure whether he’s telling the truth. Without corroborating evidence from other sources, the idea of Nero sending pupils to Locusta could easily be a bit of slander intended to make him seem even more monstrous. As for Juvenal, it seems unwise to place too much reliance on a few lines from a poem. He wasn’t writing history, after all. We have no idea whether or not his reference to Locusta should be taken literally or if it’s simply a product of his imagination.

I can’t claim to be an expert on Locusta, and it’s possible that Inglis-Arkell drew on sources that I’m not familiar with. However, I suspect she relied too heavily on secondary sources and failed to question their claims. The result is an article that, while entertaining, is ultimately misleading.

An oral history of Diablo II

US Gamer has published a rather interesting oral history of Diablo II. It’s a long read, but it’s definitely worth checking out.

For me, the most interesting bits were the ones that talked about story development. I assumed that the designers were more or less in control of the game’s story, but with Diablo I and II, the cinematics team played a huge role in shaping the game’s narrative, and they worked more or less independently of the designers. For example, it was the cinematics team that decided that the hero should shove the soulstone into their forehead at the end of the first game. Judging from what Erich Schaefer says in the oral history, the design team wasn’t entirely sold on the idea, but there was nothing they could do about it.1

Diablo III has gotten a lot of flak for its weak story, and a lot of fans act as if the Blizzard North guys were master storytellers.2 But the oral history suggests that the parent company has always played a key role in shaping the Diablo story, for better or worse.

This approach to story development might seem rather careless, but they had a lot less to work with back then. Many plot elements that fans now take for granted (e.g., the love affair between Inarius3 and Lilith,  Zayl the Necromancer) didn’t enter the canon until after the release of LoD. Richard A. Knaak in particular played a huge role in fleshing out the world of Sanctuary with his Sin War trilogy, but that didn’t come out until 2006-7. Blizzard’s approach to lore is a lot more professional nowadays (they even have a ‘Senior Vice President, Story and Franchise Development’), though as Diablo III shows, this method has its own drawbacks.


Questions about the quaestiones

Work on a new family of stories has sent me on a hunt for information about Roman criminal courts in the first century of the Principate. More specifically, I’ve been investigating the relationship between the old standing jury courts (quaestiones perpetuae) and newer tribunals such as the court of the Prefect of the City (praefectus urbi).

The standing jury courts were established during the Republic to try specific crimes (e.g., treason, bribery). They could be quite large–in the later Republic, a jury court might have over 50 jurors, including senators, equestrians, and Tribunes of the Treasury.4 The jury courts survived the transition to the Principate, though from Augustus’ reign onward most jurors came from outside the senatorial order.5 As time went on, the jury courts had to compete with other tribunals. The Senate itself heard cases of treason and extortion by provincial magistrates,6 and the Prefect of the City adjudicated criminal cases from Rome. It’s not clear when the City Prefect first acquired judicial duties, though Richard A. Bauman argues it might have been the reign of Nero.7

For a time, the jury courts co-existed alongside the court of the City Prefect. It seems there was a certain tension in this arrangement, as this passage from Tacitus shows:

Valerius Pontius suffered the same degradation [sc., exile] for having indicted the defendants before the praetor [i.e., bringing the case before a jury court] to save them from being prosecuted in the court of the City Prefect, purposing meanwhile to defeat justice on some legal pretext and subsequently by collusion.8

It’s a shame Tacitus doesn’t offer a more detailed explanation for why Pontius was so keen to maneuver cases into the jury courts, but he may have hoped their chronic congestion would allow the defendants to evade justice.9 Also, John Crook argues in passing that the jury courts were open to ‘gerrymandering,’ but he doesn’t provide any evidence in support of this contention.10 Presumably, he means that an unscrupulous litigant (or someone acting on their behalf) could have manipulated the selection of jurors to ensure a desirable verdict, but it would be interesting to see what evidence we actually have of this practice.

My new protagonist will likely come into contact with the Roman courts from time to time, so I need to nail down the relationship between the traditional jury courts and the court of the City Prefect. If you know of any books or articles that might help me in my quest, please let me know!


Brill’s typographical disaster

I recently started reading an electronic copy of László Török’s Between Two Worlds: The Frontier Region between Ancient Nubia and Egypt, 3700 BC – 500 AD, and I was shocked at how shoddy it was. Letters and punctuation were missing on almost every page, and the letter f was frequently replaced with an ß! See, for example, this excerpt from page 179:

A signi cant process of change seems to have started in the second half of the Nineteenth Dynasty period. Merenptah s (1213 1203) rst viceroy, Mesui, was probably buried at Aniba (see above), discontinuing (at least for one generation) the traditional Theban burial of the viceroys.


The book wasn’t published by CreateSpace or Publish America. It was the work of Brill, a 300-year-old Dutch publisher that specializes in academic texts. I’m usually rather fond of Brill. A lot of their titles are available in digital form through Brill E-Books, and since UW-Madison subscribes to this service, I can access them for free.

I’m hopeful that the problems with Between Two Worlds are an aberration since I’ve downloaded other Brill e-books, and they’ve been fine. Still, a cockup of this magnitude is a huge embarrassment for such a prestigious publisher, and I hope they’ll fix it at some point.


Interview with the developers of Torment: Tides of Numenera

Many of you know that Planescape: Torment is one of my all-time favorite video games (you can read my paean to the game here). Naturally, I’m thrilled that InXile is working on a spiritual successor to Planescape called Torment: Tides of Numenera. I recently had a chance to talk to the developers to learn more about the game, and you can read my interview over at Urban Gaming Elite.



Archaeology Magazine Gets Confused

I felt a little rush of joy this evening when the following headline appeared in my Twitter feed: “A book of ancient Egyptian spells has been translated.” Naturally, I clicked through, but I was swiftly disappointed. A glance at the article revealed that the book in question has nothing to do with ancient Egypt. It’s actually about a Coptic spellbook from 700 or 800 AD!

Calling a Coptic manuscript ‘ancient Egyptian’ is like calling Dante’s Divine Comedy a work of ancient Roman literature. It’s a lazy attempt at shorthand that ultimately obfuscates rather than enlightens since Coptic civilization had little in common with its pharaonic predecessor.


An Introduction to Ghost Stories

Several years ago, The Physicist and I wandered into our local game store and left with a little game called Ghost Stories. Although we lost horribly the first few times we played, we were hooked. Ghost Stories can be a bitch to win, but it’s also a lot of fun. The premise of the game is game is that a group of Taoist monks (the players) are fighting to save a village from the depredations of the malevolent Wu-Feng and his legion of ghosts. Since a new ghost typically appears each turn, players face an uphill battle to keep the enemy at bay. Thankfully, you’re not completely alone. You can seek aid from the villagers, but a helping hand can have consequences…

I wrote a handy introduction to Ghost Stories for Urban Gaming Elite’s ‘Unplugged’ section. Why don’t you mosey on over to UGE and check it out?


Elevator Pitch Olympics

Last week, I wrote an article for about the Wisconsin Early Stage Symposium’s Elevator Pitch Olympics. Eighteen entrepreneurs gave ninety-second presentations to a panel of judges, who then rated the entrepreneurs’ performance on a scale of one to five.

The winner, Tyrre Burks of Team Interval, hopes to create a digital platform that will serve as a universal health record for student athletes. He faced stiff competition, though. Steve Visuri of FloraSeq, wants to create a stool bank to facilitate fecal transplants, while Ben West of Concinnity is trying to make it easier for doctors to file reports for the Physician Quality Reporting System (the process is so byzantine that many doctors have opted out of it entirely; according to West, 800,000 physicians miss out on approximately $4 billion annually).

I thought it was interesting that many of the entrepreneurs were reluctant to brag about their credentials, even when it would have helped their pitches. One gentleman wants to develop a drug to treat canine diabetes and then use the profits to fund research in human diabetes. He gave a decent pitch, but he neglected one tiny detail: he’s a famous pancreatic transplant surgeon at the University of Wisconsin. At the end of the competition, the judges stressed that entrepreneurs need to overcome their Midwestern modesty if they want to be noticed by investors. :)



Torment: Tides of Numenera First Glimpse

InXile has released a first glimpse video of Torment: Tides of Numenera, and it looks awesome.

Although this is an alpha version of the build and therefore subject to major change, the omens definitely look good. It has a clear Planescape: Torment vibe, though there are subtle refinements: although there’s still a lot of reading to be done, they’ve made it so that dialogue is actually voice acted. I think this is a nice compromise–it helps deepen characterization while keeping the wonderful descriptions that made Planescape: Torment such a joy to play.

The game’s story seems promising, too. Even though the video only shows the barest hints, I’m already intrigued by the Maw. Given the all-star team that’s working on the story, I think it’s safe to say that the end result will be amazing.

So far, the only bad thing about Torment: Tides of Numenera is that it probably won’t be released for another year. :(


Wisconsin Patriot Boot Camp

Last weekend, I had the privilege of covering the Techstars Patriot Boot Camp for The boot camp aims to give veterans and military spouses the tools they need to become successful entrepreneurs. I really enjoyed hearing the entrepreneurs speak about their business ideas, and I’m glad that Techstars is helping them turn their dreams into reality. You can read my write-up of the event here.