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Drugs, Immunity, and Body Politics in the Age of Nero

James Uden

Boston University

At an unknown point during the reign of Nero, his doctor Andromachos wrote a 174-line Greek poem describing theriac, a panacea that would make Nero invulnerable to poisons and illnesses of all kinds. While earlier all-purpose antidotes were familiar to ancient culture, Andromachos innovates by making the flesh of a poisonous snake part of the recipe. He emphasizes both the danger of procuring the flesh of the snake, and the freedom from pain or danger that Nero will enjoy once he has consumed it.  While scholars have noted coincidences of imagery between Andromachos and his contemporary Lucan in the representation of snakebites (Houston 1992; Leigh 2000), this extraordinary text has mostly gone unnoticed by Latinists, even though its complex meld of didactic and panegyric is a valuable witness to the political discourse of the Neronian era. This paper argues that Andromachos associates the sublime powers of Nero with those of the all-powerful theriac, while also suggesting that political security comes only when the state has undergone a process of violence, a theme that can be paralleled in Lucan and other Neronian writers. For the body politic, health comes only after the consumption of frightful, destructive poison. 

"Hear of the mighty strength of an antidote of many ingredients," the poem begins, ‘"O Caesar, the giver of freedom without fear" (1-2). The emperor is made invulnerable through the drug’s preparation. He also wields its opiate powers over his subjects ("you could readily lead the sleepless to rest, Caesar, taking joy in this pain-reliever," 75-6). When the poet tells Nero that, having consumed the theriac, he could walk unconcerned through the sands of Libya, it is hard not to think of Cato in the Bellum Civile, drinking poisoned well-water (9.616-8) and dragging his troops through the snake-infested desert. But Andromachos’ panegyrical motifs also share a broader logic with Lucan’s text, a promise of divine serenity under absolute leadership only after undergoing some violence. Lucan presents civil war – ironically – as a worthy price to pay if it leads to life under Nero (1.33-45, 57-62). Security and savagery are grimly linked. 

            Medical anthropologists have noted the tendency for the immune system to be understood through metaphors of war, and the threat of illness to be externalized as something foreign to oneself (Martin 1994). While the ancient world lacks a modern physiological conception of immunity – the phrase "immune system" was itself only coined in 1967 (Biss 2014: 57) – the ancient world shared similar fantasies of bodily invulnerability. Andromachos’ poem uses freedom from wounds or illness as a way to conceptualize not an external threat to the state, but the supreme power of a single leader.  While the combination of exotic ingredients made Imperial-era pharmacology a celebration of Roman imperial power – the "world in a pill" (Totelin 2016) – Andromachos’ poem uses theriac to conceptualize a different aspect of Nero’s rule. One body becomes invulnerable and wields power over others. But at what cost, if other bodies become vulnerable and powerless as a result?

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Neronian Literature

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