The Roman mass poisoning of 331 BC

Contributed by Dr Edith Lister

According to the historian of ancient Rome, Titus Livius Patavinus (‘Livy’), a sensational trial took place in 331 BC which saw nearly two hundred Roman women charged with mass poisoning after the death of many of the “principal persons of state”.  Livy was writing more than three hundred years after the event, and he himself doubted the truth of the story, writing that he “should be glad to believe it had been falsely handed down.” He described the scandal in Book 8, chapter 18, of his monumental history Ab Urbe Condita (‘From the Founding of the City’) which covers the story of Rome from Romulus and Remus to the time of Augustus, the first emperor.

Livy
Livy 64 BC-AD 17

As Livy tells it, eminent men had been dying across the city in a similar fashion, but many thought at the time that this was due to an epidemic which had been scourging Rome that year.  However, a lowly maid – probably a slave girl (ancilla) – approached the officer responsible for public order, the aedile Quintus Fabius Maximus,  and offered to tell all in return for official protection, which was granted by the Senate.  An investigation team was despatched and she led them to a place where twenty women of noble rank were “preparing certain drugs” which they declared to be “wholesome”.  The informer challenged them to prove her a liar by drinking the potions themselves, which they did, and “all perished by their own wicked device”.  Their servants were interrogated and they in turn named 170 other women who were subsequently condemned.  The whole affair was put down to a one-off moment of collective insanity.  Various rituals were performed to pacify the people’s nerves, and that’s where Livy’s story ends.  The fate of the 170 other women is not recorded, though most likely they were driven into exile.

So what exactly was going on?  Professor Richard Bauman suggested that these noble women were killing their husbands as part of a rebellion against Roman marriage (1994:17), but there is no firm evidence of this.  Livy used the words “principal persons of state” (according to the Spillan translation of 1827); “leading citizens” (Foster, 1926); or “foremost men of the state” (Reverend Roberts, 1912).  In no extant translation is the word “husbands” used.  However, we can be sure that Rome at this time was ravaged by sickness, but solely on the word of a slave girl the authorities were minded to assume that a mass poisoning had taken place.  This would seem to be a gross overreaction, and it becomes even more absurd if we consider that, for this to happen, the deadly liquids would need to be smuggled past security staff and tasting slaves (praegustatores) into the hands of the powerful, many times over and always without detection.  Furthermore, Livy does not put the word “poison” into the serving girl’s mouth; rather she only offered to “discover the cause of the malady”.  Only in Roberts (1912) is the Latin venenum translated as ‘poison’.  However, venenum and its Greek equivalent pharmakon can also be read as “potion”, a much more ambiguous word.  It also seems strange that the twenty women, when confronted by the investigators, should insist that their potions were “salutary” (Foster), “medicinal” (Roberts) or “wholesome” (Spillan).  Surely if these were lethal preparations, and known to be so, they would not have so readily offered to drink the concoctions themselves knowing that certain death would result, or at least done so without some political or justifying declaration.  Instead, two women known as Cornelia and Sergia acted as spokespersons for the others and protested their innocence on behalf of the group.

Consideration should also be given to the ingredients of these “salutary” potions.  We know that many leading men were afflicted with a similar illness – which speaks of an epidemic – but not all of them died.  Cilliers and Retief make the point that “the ambiguity inherent in the words venenum and pharmakon shows that the difference between remedy and poison did not lie in the substance itself, but in the dosage.”  There were three basic types of medicinal ingredients used then: herbal, animal and mineral.  Herbal remedies were by far the most common, and two in particular were aconite and hemlock.  Both of these were used to treat respiratory ailments, but a mistake in dosage could be lethal.  Mixed together, death could be almost instantaneous.  Pliny the Elder regarded taking medicines from amateur herbalists and other pedlars to be “tantamount to committing suicide.”  Cilliers and Retief also note that “incidents of mass poisoning in early Rome usually coincided with crises such as wars and epidemics; superstition and the belief that scapegoats would solve the problem, would have been determining factors”, and we know from Livy that madness was recorded as the official reason for the events and various ceremonies took place to ‘cleanse’ the city and its people from the dark spirits.

So, here is a plausible alternative version of events.

In 331 BC republican Rome was in the grip of an epidemic, possibly a virulent form of influenza.  The disease was certainly known of at the time, possibly as ‘the fever of Perinthus’ as described by Hippocrates.  Many were dying, among them some city elders and officials.  In an attempt to bring relief or even a cure to those afflicted, a group of women with high social rank decided to manufacture curative potions using one or both of the principal herbs prescribed for respiratory illness, hemlock and aconite.  Using their social connections, they presented their preparations to sufferers who accepted them as a token of goodwill from people they knew and trusted, bypassing the usual security channels.  When some of these men then died rapidly, suspicions were raised.  A slave girl who witnessed some of the potions being made, and perhaps in the hope of some reward, then informed on her owners who were then confronted by officials.  Protesting their innocence, both of the ‘crime’ and their medicines, they offered to prove their testimony by drinking the potions themselves with fatal results.  Subsequent interrogations led to 170 other ‘matrons’ being implicated in the affair, and these too were either making the cures or gathering materials.  Faced with no clear motive for the ‘murders’, the authorities fell back on a time-honoured remedy by declaring the guilty women mentally unstable – “an act rather of insane persons than of persons depraved by guilt” (Spillan, 1857).  In order to pacify the public, the sacred ritual of clavum figere (literally, ‘the driving of a nail’) was performed as a piaculum, a form of expiatory sacrifice for which a dictator was appointed solely for the purpose.  What this ritual consisted of, or its overall importance, is unknown at present, but afterwards “men’s minds, disordered by civil strife, had been restored to sanity.” (Roberts, 1912)

Useful sources:

L Cilliers and F P Retief:  Poisons, poisoning and the drug trade in ancient Rome (2000)  Available at http://akroterion.journals.ac.za/pub

Kaufman, David B:  Poisons and Poisoning among the Romans (1932) Available at: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Journals/CP/27/2/Poisoning*.html

Translations of Livy (Ab Urbe Condita) available at the Perseus Digital Library: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/

Bauman, Richard A:  Women and Politics in Ancient Rome (Routledge 1994)

Bauman, Richard A: Criminal prosecutions by the aediles (Latomus, April-June 1974)

Hippocrates: Of the Epidemics (410 BC) http://classics.mit.edu/Hippocrates/epidemics.1.i.html

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