The Deathcap

Exif_JPEG_PICTUREThe source of the poison that ended the life and reign of Emperor Claudius in AD 54 is much debated. Whether through tainted food or the dealings of his double-crossing physician, what is without argument is that Claudius suffered a slow, painful death.

A popular belief is that he was poisoned by a mushroom, and more specifically the deathcap (Amanita phalloides). There is some value to this argument.

Mushrooms were a staple part of the Roman diet and most prized was the subsequently named Caeser’s mushroom, whose latin name, Amanita caesarea, does little to hide a close connection to the deathcap. The mushrooms are similar in appearance – particularly so when in egg form which is when the Caeser’s was most valued. To slip a deathcap unnoticed onto the plate of Claudius would have been remarkably easy.

Claudius’ lingering death also points toward probable amanitin ingestion. The poison is slow acting and victims show no ill-effect for anything up to 12 hours. By then, the amanitin is busy breaking down the liver and kidneys and leaving the body with nothing to fight back with.

After a couple of days of gastric torment there is usually a sudden lifting of illness, when the victim may well feel completely clear of ailment. Such respite is short-lived though, and organ failure, coma and death will follow over the following hours. Even with hospital treatment survival is not guaranteed and those fortunate few that do will likely require a liver transplant.

Deathcaps are not especially common but this week I found a patch of beech woods that seemed carpeted. At least fifty trooped across the forest floor – enough to bring down the Senate and not just the Emperor of Rome.

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