It’s Driving Them Out of Their Minds: The First Big Poisoning in Ancient Rome

It’s Driving Them Out of Their Minds: The First Big Poisoning in Ancient Rome

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There were quite a few methods of offing rivals available to criminals in ancient Rome, but poisoning became a popular one by the early imperial period. Perhaps the first widespread ring wreaking havoc in Rome came in the fourth century BC, more specifically, in the year 331 BC, when a bunch of high-ranking men died of a disease…or, as Livy reveals in The History of Rome , of poison! What’s more, an ancient version of a modern plea bargain was involved.

A Servant Reveals the Truth

As Livy relates, that year, a number of major officials in the Roman Republic were falling ill from a mysterious disease—and most were dying! Nobody was sure of why people were getting sick, until “a certain serving-woman came to Quintus Fabius Maximus, the curule aedile, and declared that she would reveal the cause of the general calamity, if he would give her a pledge that she should not suffer for her testimony.”

It was a Roman servant who said she could reveal the cause of the mass deaths of high-ranking officials. Fresco of a servant in the Roman Tomb of Silistra in northeastern Bulgaria

It was a Roman servant who said she could reveal the cause of the mass deaths of high-ranking officials. Fresco of a servant in the Roman Tomb of Silistra in northeastern Bulgaria ( public domain )

What did this mean? For one, the “serving woman”—who was actually a slave; the Latin word to describe her was ancilla—would get immunity for testifying against the guilty party. Fabius Maximus immediately went to The Powers That Be, who agreed that the slave-woman should get immunity. Once she got her deal, the slave disclosed that Rome had been “afflicted by the criminal practices of the women” who were, in fact, upper-class matrons.

Conspiracy in Ancient Rome

Following the informer discreetly, these proto-police found the culprits. They also uncovered stored poisons; these noxious substances were brought into the light—literally, being dragged into the center of Rome, the Forum. About twenty ladies were summoned, too; their ringleaders, two aristocratic matrons named Sergia and Cornelia, claimed these concoctions were actually beneficial, not poisonous. Livy might have chosen these names because members of these gentes, or Roman clans, were later associated with the Catalinarian conspiracy, with which his readers would have been familiar.

It was a group of women who were said to be at the center of a conspiracy to kill off high-ranking men in ancient Rome. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library

It was a group of women who were said to be at the center of a conspiracy to kill off high-ranking men in ancient Rome. Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library

Accused Women Drinking Their Own Poison

But back to 331. The slave informant rebutted the allegation that the concoctions were healthy, challenging the women to drink the potions if they were so nice, after all. After discussing it amongst themselves, the twenty matrons downed the poison and unsurprisingly, all died. Why was this mass trial conducted publicly, in a criminal court, rather than privately? Because it wasn’t just about family; these women had tried to dismantle all of Roman society. After this, the conspiracy was swiftly dismantled. It was revealed that 170 matrons were involved and were found guilty (other, later sources place the number at 370, although both numbers were probably exaggerated).

Livy claims that, at this point, mass poisonings were so rare that the public regarded it as an instance of insanity rather than “felonious intent.” In order to restore sanity, the community resurrected an old custom: a dictator would drive a nail into something, which would make everyone normal again somehow. A Roman official was elected to be the nominal dictator—he drove in the nail and then resigned—and everything went back to normal.

‘The Plague at Ashdod’ by Nicolas Poussin

‘The Plague at Ashdod’ by Nicolas Poussin ( public domain )

What Was the Real Reason Behind the Deaths?

Why did these women poison so many high-ranking Romans? Perhaps, as one scholar suggests, they were offing male leaders in an effort to secure equal rights for women. These matrons resorted to extreme action in order to free themselves and others. Others have suggested that real-life epidemics were indeed just that—widespread illnesses—but people suspected poisonings and targeted human scapegoats instead. But perhaps the most important takeaway from this story of mass poisonings, as suggested by historian Victoria Pagán, is the association of multiple strata of women with secretive murders, poisoning, and conspiracies.

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