Poison Tsar

What Do Vladimir Putin and the Roman Emperor Nero Have in Common?


By Brendan Wilson


On August 20th, Alexei Navalny finished his tea and boarded a Moscow bound flight from Tomsk. He soon became violently ill, suffering painful convulsions and difficulty breathing. Video footage would later show the flight crew helplessly gathered around him as he howled in agony. His pilot was able to make an emergency landing in the Siberian city of Omsk, where local medical personnel identified the effects of a nerve agent and quickly administered lifesaving medication. Russian authorities refused to investigate the incident, so Navalny’s staff had him airlifted to a Berlin hospital for proper evaluation and treatment. Two days later the German government announced it had “unequivocal evidence” that Navalny, now in a coma, had been poisoned by the Novichok agent, a deadly chemical cocktail developed in Soviet laboratories in the 70s and 80s and banned by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.


Navalny, a popular blogger turned opposition leader, had been poisoned twice before. This is assuredly due to his role as chief thorn-in-the-side of the Putin Regime. He created the Anti-Corruption Foundation in 2011 to expose misconduct at the highest levels of Russian government and, in 2017, became the leader of the opposition party Russia of the Future. His anti-Putin rhetoric was very effective, leading to massive protests that flooded the streets of Moscow and St Petersburg. Unsurprisingly, he has been arrested several times, convicted on trumped up charges, and, due to his “criminal record,” was barred from running against Putin in the 2018 presidential election. Referring to the most recent chemical attack on his life, German chancellor Angela Merkel said that Navalny was “meant to be silenced,” and that the incident “raises very difficult questions that only the Russian government can answer.”


Sadly, it surprised no one that Putin would poison a political rival. This is Russia after all. In 2007, former anti-Putin Soviet spy Alexander Litvinenko died after drinking tea flavored with a radioactive isotope of Polonium. Another former Soviet spy, Yulia Skripal, was poisoned along with this daughter in 2018 while living in exile. “Choosing Novichok to poison Navalny in 2020 is basically the same thing as leaving an autograph at the scene of the crime,” explained an exasperated Leonid Volkov, Mr. Navalny’s chief of staff. Even so, it is unlikely that evidence will tie Putin to the attacks. Plausible deniability is one of the reasons that poison has been used throughout history to neutralize political adversaries. For further instruction on the art of the poisoning, we can look back to the Roman Emperor Nero and his mother, Agrippina.


In 49 AD, Agrippina the Younger was the most eligible woman in Rome. Rich, beautiful, and a blood relative of the divine Emperor Augustus, she attracted the attention of the aging Emperor Claudius, who took her as his 4th wife. But Agrippina had a son from her first marriage, Nero, whose career advancement was the chief aim of her life. After some coaxing, Claudius adopted Nero as his son and heir, but as time went by, he began to hint that he might favor his biological son, Britannicus, over Nero. To preserve her scheme, Agrippina seasoned her husband’s dinner with hemlock, a highly poisonous herb. The emperor died foaming at the mouth over a plate of mushrooms in 54 AD.


The Praetorian Guard immediately hailed Nero as Emperor and the Senate meekly voted him the associated authority. Having held no military or administrative posts, Nero was inexperienced compared to the four emperors that preceded him. But he was young, which falsely assured many that a long period of peace was to ensue. Nero was also handsome, confident, and vivacious, a stark contrast to Claudius, whose image was marred by a limp, a stutter, and the propensity to drool. With the counsel of his mother and the famed Stoic philosopher Seneca, the success of Nero’s first five years earned him the warm adulation of both the people and the Senate of Rome.


As Nero’s popularity and confidence grew, so did his desire to shirk the burden of Agrippina’s control. What teenager wants to be held under the constant sway of his mother? He wanted to invest lavishly on state projects, she implored him to rein in spending. He wanted to divorce his noble wife and cavort with a former slave, she urged him to preserve the marriage for the sake of his patrician bloodline. The tension between mother and son reached a fever pitch in 59 AD, when she began to suggest that she would arrange to have Britannicus unseat him. In short order, Britannicus was invited to dine at the palace, given wine poisoned with hemlock, and died in horrific convulsions to the terror of the guests in attendance. Nero blithely dismissed the macabre display, attributing the agony of the boy to an epileptic seizure.


Agrippina was unnerved by her son’s brazen move and receded to the outskirts of Rome. There she remained until Nero discovered a new love, Poppaea Sabina. Nero found this rich, independent, intelligent woman irresistible. To pave the way for a new life with Poppaea, he divorced the popular Empress Claudia Octavia, exiled her, and then had her killed. This displeased the people of Rome, who loved the Empress, but above all, it inflamed the ire of Agrippina, which led Nero to the realization that matricide was the only way to live peacefully in hedonism. Three times he attempted to poison her, but a hunter knows when she is being stalked. Each of the attempts were thwarted. He arranged to have her travel in a boat specially designed to collapse and sink. As it turned out, Agrippina was an extraordinary swimmer and reached shore with only minor injuries. All else having failed, he dispatched the death squad. When the assassins arrived at her villa, she is said to have screamed “smite my womb!” Exhorting her assailants to strike her in the place from which she bore her monstrous son.


Nero became unhinged after his mother’s death. He was blamed for starting the Great Fire of Rome, during which he allegedly danced and played his lyre. He persecuted Christians mercilessly, supposedly executing Saint Peter in the field on which the Vatican now stands. He took a sabbatical from killing his countrymen to become an actor, a lowly pursuit considered far beneath the dignity of the Roman elite. Inevitably, a plot emerged to assassinate him, which he discovered and foiled. In response, Nero reinstated the bloody secret trials that executed scores of influential Romans. By 68 AD, The Senate had had enough. They declared him an enemy of the state and sentenced him to be publicly beaten to death in the Forum. According to the Roman historian Suetonius, Nero fled Rome to a nearby villa and stuck a knife in his own throat.


Where Nero was flamboyant and capricious, Putin is spartan and calculating. Nero was unreserved and pleasure-seeking, while Putin adeptly plays the long game. They are profoundly different men, but there are parallels that bind the two autocrats beyond their penchant for the syringe. Nero was popular during his early years, currying favor with the commoners and noblemen alike by granting the Senate more autonomy, reducing taxes, and banning capital punishment. Similarly, Putin also enjoyed early popularity by curbing corruption, stirring nationalist sentiment, and riding sky-high oil prices to enviable favorability ratings.


Nero’s star quickly faded after the unpopular murders of Britannicus, his wife, and his mother. In the face of this unpopularity, he lashed out with extra-judicial killings and cruel behavior, eroding his legitimacy, and leading to the death sentence handed down from the Senate. Likewise, a growing middle class in Russia has become frustrated with Putin’s inability to deliver on promised reforms. They have become angered by an economy hampered by foreign sanctions and incensed at the jailing and killing of their popular leaders. Backed into a corner, Putin has responded predictably, most recently by poisoning Navalny. As the Economist newspaper reminds us, “Regimes that rule by fear, live in fear.” This was true of Nero and is now true of the current occupant of the Kremlin. It is uncertain how long Vladimir Putin will hold on, but history suggests that he now stands on unsolid ground.

Agrippina the Younger: The first true empress of Ancient Rome. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.historyextra.com/period/roman/agrippina-younger-empress-ancient-rome-empress-nero-caligula/

Beard, M. (2016). SPQR: A history of ancient Rome. London: Profile Books.

Germany says that Alexei Navalny was poisoned with Novichok. (n.d.). Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.economist.com/europe/2020/09/02/germany-says-that-alexei-navalny-was-poisoned-with-novichok

Herszenhorn, M. (2020, August 21). 5 things to know about Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.politico.eu/article/5-things-you-need-to-know-about-alexei-navalny/

Miriam Berger, A. (2020, August 30). Why poison is the weapon of choice in Putin's Russia. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/08/21/why-poison-is-weapon-choice-putins-russia/

Pérez-peña, R., & Rao, P. (2018, March 16). Putin 'Likely' Ordered Russian Ex-Spy's Poisoning, Britain Says. Retrieved September 18, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/16/world/europe/uk-russia-spy-putin-johnson.html

Strauss, B. S. (2019). Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors from Augustus to Constantine. New York: Simon & Schuster