Toxic Fungi of Western North America

by Thomas J. Duffy, MD

The classical history of Amanita phalloides and related species

The ancient Greeks and Romans were well aware of the toxicity of Amanita phalloides. Their favorite mushroom was Amanita caesarea (Fr.) Schw., but Amanita phalloides had enough color to pass as such when cooked. The Stoic philosopher, Seneca the Elder, who committed suicide by order of the Emperor Nero, was well aware of the long delay before symptoms appeared. He wrote a satire on this deadly confusion 9-10 years after the death of the earlier Emperor, Claudius and had it sent to his friend Lucillus. This satire appears have been a veiled reference to Claudius's death, since he was in a position to know the details. (14) The Roman historian, Tacitus, stated that the emperor Claudius had been killed by his wife and niece, Aggripina, one of the theories being that she gave her husband a poisonous mushroom dish. Tacitus explained that she wanted a poison with a delayed action and one causing enough mental confusion that Claudius would be unable to arrest her. The accounts of Tacitus, Suetonius and Dio Cassius differ, but all agree that Aggripina poisoned Claudius. Dio Cassius reports that a particularly large mushroom cap was specifically pointed out to Claudius.

Vaillant’s term “amanite phalloïde” in 1727 was given the binomial Amanita phalloides almost a century later by Fries. The “phallus-like” refers to the mushroom arising from its volva or “death cup”, much as a phallus (the erect penis) rises from the scrotal sac. (15) The phallus, considered a fertility symbol, was carried in the solemn Dionysiac processions of ancient Greece. The genus Amanita was named by Persoon in 1801 after Amanos (Amanos), a small moist mountain range in Southeastern Turkey.