By Helen King (monthly contributor)
Everybody knows that the ancient Greek word pharmakon means both healing drug and poison. So how could you tell the (rather important!) difference? In Latin, the equivalent term venenum was similarly used in both senses, and Roman law codes tried to tie down that ambiguity by making it clear whether a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ venenum was meant. The Digest of Roman law issued in the sixth century AD explained that all ‘drugs’ (in Latin, medicamenta) can be considered venena, because a medicamentum is simply something that, by being used, changes the nature of the thing to which it is applied.
An important way of tying down the ambiguity of pharmaka and venena is dosage. It was well known in ancient medicine that one and the same substance had different powers depending on how much of it is administered: in a small dose, it could be a love potion; in a larger dose, it would cause madness, sleep or intoxication; and in a very large dose it could kill.
Who knows what?
So, who knew this? Only physicians, or everyone else? An Athenian legal speech dating to the period 420-411 BC is interesting here. What’s the story? The accused is the stepmother of the man doing the talking. She’s on trial for poisoning her husband – his father. The deed was done when he was pouring a libation to a god, which meant drinking some of the wine himself. Also present at the crime scene was a young woman who was the slave and sexual partner of Philoneos, a friend of the speaker’s father. Philoneos had decided to rent out this young woman as a prostitute in a brothel: she was less than happy about the idea. The stepmother befriended this slave and told her that she too was being wronged by a man (that is, the speaker’s father), and that both of them needed to take action right now to restore the love of their partners. The stepmother announced that she had the means, but needed the slave to help her, and she handed over a pharmakon to the slave:Philoneos’ mistress, who poured the wine for the libation … poured in the pharmakon with it. Thinking it a happy inspiration, she gave Philoneos the larger draught; she imagined perhaps that if she gave him more, Philoneos would love her the more: for only when the mischief was done did she see that my stepmother had tricked her (Antiphon 1, Prosecution of the stepmother for poisoning, 19).
That’s so poignant, isn’t it? ‘If I give him more, he’ll love me more…’ Oh dear. This young woman is being presented as woefully ignorant of the importance of dosage! There’s a similar story in ps-Aristotle’s Magna Moralia (16, 1188b30-38), where a woman is acquitted on a charge of murder with a philtron because ‘she gave it to him for affection, but missed her mark’. Oops.
A philtron is a term for a drug/poison given specifically to inspire love. In the law court speech, made by the prosecution, the choice of the word pharmakon rather than philtron disrupts the story, making it less about a love potion that went wrong (focus on the silly slave), and more about a deliberate poisoning (focus on the wicked stepmother).
The fate of Philoneos
What happened to Philoneos? Receiving such a large dose, he died instantly; but the speaker’s father was also taken ill and died twenty days later. So, if the slave had not given her master so much to drink, it seems he would still have died from the drug. It looks like the stepmother’s dosage recommendation was cunningly set at a level where there would be a delayed effect, making it less obvious what the cause was, and thus less likely that the culprits would be identified. But the younger woman’s enthusiasm ruins the older woman’s plan. Here, as often in the classical world, women are associated with poison; not only does it require no physical force, but also it fits well with women’s roles in food and drink preparation.
This story shows that sudden deaths were most suspicious, but also that any death, whether rapid or gradual, could with hindsight be attributed to poison. In both Greek and Roman law, showing intent to kill was critical because, at least for citizens, accidental poisoning merited a less severe penalty than deliberate poisoning. Following the death of the two Athenian citizens, the stepmother is eventually brought to trial.
And the slave girl…?
But what of the young woman who put the pharmakon in the wine? While we hear a report of what was going through her mind – ‘Thinking it a happy inspiration’ – and an echo of her voice – ‘she imagined perhaps’ – she is long gone. Being a slave, she had been tortured and then executed.
To find out more:
Christopher A. Faraone, Ancient Greek Love Magic (Cambridge MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999)