Professor David Osselton on Bloody Tales documentary

Professor David Osselton, Director of the Centre for Forensic Science at BU, featured in a documentary on the National Geographic TV channel exploring the truth behind history’s most famous tyrants.

Professor Osselton, who specialises in toxicology, helped investigate whether the Roman Emperor Nero poisoned his stepbrother as part of the Bloody Tales: Tyrants documentary.

Nero’s stepbrother Britannicus was a rival to the throne, and collapsed and died after drinking with Nero.

Journalist Joe Crowley visited BU’s labs and worked with Professor Osselton to see whether it would have been possible for Nero to poison his stepbrother, or whether his death could have been the result of an epileptic fit, as Nero suggested.

Professor Osselton said: “In the case of Nero, it has been suggested in some of the literature that it might have been cyanide.

“They were quite aware that the kernels of many fruit contain a chemical that will release cyanide into solution.”

He added that, within minutes of drinking the solution, symptoms would resemble an epileptic fit, but that it would cause the lips and tips of the fingers to turn blue.

As there were no reports of this happening to Britannicus, Professor Osselton thought that cyanide should be discounted.

He said that one of the poisons which was very widely used in Greek and Roman times was hemlock รขย€ย“ a plant that grows alongside river banks and would produce the symptoms described.

“One thing that hemlock does produce is blodges on the skin,” he told Joe.

“Certainly, the majority of the population are unlikely to know all the signs and symptoms of poisoning.”

Bloody Tales: Tyrants was broadcast on the National Geographic channel at 8pm on Monday 22 April.

Find out more about the Bloody Tales series