Sunday, July 1, 2012

‘When poison’s to blame’: Accusations of mass murder in ancient Rome

It is fitting that the first indexed entry under “women” in The Cambridge Companion to The Roman Republic is “—and poison.”  So many accusations against female poisoners surface in the annals of Roman history that the modern aphorism “When poison’s to blame, the killer’s a dame” seems an accurate term for the csi-zeitgeist of the age.  Poison itself was so feared by the elite in many ancient empires that the Greek ruler Mithridate (c. 120-60 BC), one of Rome’s most feared enemies, would ingest small doses of poison in the hopes of achieving immunity to known toxins.  Mithridatism – the belief that one could protect the body from poison via small doses of toxins – survived well into the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Coin and bust of Mithridates

The Romans knew and employed a wide variety of poisons of animal and vegetable origin, including the hemlock that caused the death of Socrates, mushrooms, mandrake, nightshade, opium, spider, viper, and certain marine animals.[1] Since many of these toxins were available locally, murder by poison certainly could and did occur. 

Atropa bella donna, or deadly nightshade --
a known Roman poison

Much of the difficulty in separating the fact and fiction of Roman poisonings rests in the word for poisoning itself: veneficium.  In her recent study of homicide in the Republic, historian Judy Gaughan notes that the etymology of the word suggest both magic and poisoning, ideas that may have been inseparable at the time.[2]

The idea of magic, poisoning, and femininity culminated in an ancient case relayed by the chronicler Livy (59 BC – 17 AD).  The 331 BC poisonings led to the conviction of 170 Roman women, an incident the Roman historian pejoratively writes was the result of mulierbris fraus – feminine treachery.  

 Roman patrician woman

Since Livy is the earliest source for an incident dating to ancient Rome, modern researchers should be wary of his account.  Livy reports that the poison conspiracy surfaced during an already troubling period for the Republic, which was suffering from some sort of pestilence.  Accounts of the pestilence vary, but it appears the citizens were largely unconcerned until they noticed men dying off more quickly than women.  When the pestilence began to affect the upper classes, the primores civitatis, the state grew even more uneasy.

In this turbulent environment, the testimony of an ancilla, or slave woman, lead to stunning charges against nearly 200 Roman women.  According to the slave, who approached curule aedile Q. Fabius Maximus under the promise of indemnification from prosecution, the deaths of the Roman men were not natural consequences of the pestilence.  She explained that the city was under attack by mulierbris fraus and lead him to a house where two patrician women were brewing suspicious concoctions.  

Bust of the Roman historian Livy (b.59 BC)

According to Livy, the aristocratic women accused of the brewing – Cornelia and Sergia – insisted they were merely cooking curatives for the victims of the pestilence. The informer challenged their statements, insisting the women drink their own potions. The curule aedile agreed; Livy explains that the women drank the potion and died, “killed by their own wickedness.”

Roman vessel, such as the ones used for
mixing potions

As word of the poisoners and their deaths spread, Rome was gripped by fear and suspicion.  Since the charges against the accused affected the state and not just individuals, the subsequent trials were public, held by a special commission presided over by Fabius Maximus -- the first such trials for poisoning in the Republic.  The likelihood that some confessions surfaced under trial by ordeal is highly likely, and by the time the commission concluded, 170 women were found guilty and executed. 

For Livy, who chronicled events such as these as exempla, or moral tales, for his readers, this female conspiracy was easily explained: these patrician women wished to rid themselves of their husbands or fathers, thereby claiming some measure of independence.  

Tomb of a Roman noblewoman

Many Roman philosophers – Livy, Cato, and Dionysius among them – believed that men should have complete control over their wives and daughters, even in decisions of life and death.  These men would refer to the apocryphal “Laws of Romulus,” arguing that these laws maintained strict rules for society, some of which were upheld by the citizens. 

In the upper classes, men were required to raise all sons, but only one daughter, a law that could and did lead to female infanticide.  Husbands also had the right to decide whether or not their wives should undergo an abortion. Noblewomen could not vote or serve in public office, save for the Vestal Virgins, who were priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth.  Even women’s names were not their own – taking their only name from that of their fathers, with a feminine ending such as Julia for Julius. 

Mosaic from Pompeii of two Roman women with a witch

Further down the social ladder, women had less and less rights, losing any claim even to their own bodies.  Female slaves, for instance, were often given to males as rewards or companions.  Girls as young as seven were given to older slaves as reward for good work. And even the Vestal Virgins, who enjoyed some freedom, were often treaded as scapegoats in trying times for the Republic. 

So what happened during the poisonings of 331?  Were these patrician women challenging the natural order, seeking equal rights through murder?  Were they taking advantage of the pestilence to rid themselves of the yoke of marriage? Or were they wrongly accused by a superstitious, fearful public?

Roman drinking cup

Modern theories on the poisonings vary according to the weight a historian is willing to give Livy’s account.  In his Women and Politics in Ancient Rome, Richard Bauman believes Livy’s retelling of an event that occurred some 400 years before the Roman chronicler’s death.[3]  The problem with believing Livy is that he a male writer fully invested in the idea of paterfamilias, and he himself is concerned with maintaining a social order where women are scapegoats for lapses in morality.  

Roman coin with a woman's portait (Augusta)

Notably absent from Livy’s chronicle is any account of the effects of this “poison” Cornelia and Sergia had allegedly been brewing.  Obviously, this makes a modern forensic investigation difficult since the effects of Roman toxins of the age are well-known.  The fact this these accusations surfaced during a period of pestilence and that the initial informer was paid for her information also raises questions about the veracity of Livy’s account. 

Livy insisted that the 331 events “suggested madness rather than felonious intent,” but the suggestion that 170 patrician women would have conspired to murder greatly diminishes the idea that “madness” could have played a role in the affair.  Gaughan believes that the pestilence presented a “threat to [the] social order,” and should be factored into a reading of Livy’s version of the 331 poisonings, which seems a more tempered assessment of the events of 331.[4]

Gaughan also raises the possibility that the two women initially caught brewing the concoction may have been trying to prevent the pestilence from consuming the Republic.  Unfortunately, their medicines were their own undoing in a culture and environment that was highly suspicious of Roman women’s motives.

What do you think? Was poison to blame?  Roman-csi values your input.  Feel free to weigh in the comments section. 

[1] For a complete list of Roman toxins, see I. Cilliers and F.P. Retief’s “Poisons, Poisoning, and the Drug Trade in Ancient Rome.”
[2] See Judy Gaughan, Murder Was Not a Crime: Homicide and Power in the Roman Republic, Austin: U of Texas P, 2010. 
[3] See Bauman’s Women and Politics in Ancient Rome, London: Routledge, 1992. 
[4] See Gaughan, 45.