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  • Romans and Matron Poisoners: 190 Killed June 26, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback

    poison bottle

    331 BC was a very bad year in Rome. Livy (obit 17 AD) is our only record for the catastrophe. I include here an online translation from 8, 18 (with some slight changes) and the Latin as I hate translating ‘the Padovan’.

    The foremost men in the State were being attacked by the same illness, and in almost every case with the same fatal results. A maid servant went to Quintus Fabius Maxiums, one of the curule aediles and promised to reveal the cause of the public mischief if the government would guarantee her against any danger in which her discovery might involve her. Fabius at once brought the matter to the notice of the consuls and they referred it to the senate, who authorised the promise of immunity to be given. She then disclosed the fact that the State was suffering through the crimes of certain women; those poisons were concocted by Roman matrons, and if they would follow her at once she promised that they should catch the poisoners in the act.

    cum primores ciuitatis similibus morbis eodemque ferme omnes euentu morerentur, ancilla quaedam ad Q. Fabium Maximum aedilem curulem indicaturam se causam publicae pestis professa est, si ab eo fides sibi data esset haud futurum noxae indicium. Fabius confestim rem ad consules, consules ad senatum referunt consensusque ordinis fides indici data. tum patefactum muliebri fraude ciuitatem premi matronasque ea uenena coquere et, si sequi extemplo uelint, manifesto deprehendi posse.

    Intrigued? Well so evidently were the Roman officials.

    They followed their informant and actually found some women compounding poisonous drugs and some poisons already made up. These latter were brought into the Forum, and as many as twenty matrons, at whose houses they had been seized, were brought up by the magistrate’s officers. Two of them, Cornelia and Sergia, both members of patrician houses, contended that the drugs were medicinal preparations. The maid-servant, when confronted with them, told them to drink some that they might prove she had given false evidence. They were allowed time to consult as to what they would do, and the bystanders were ordered to retire that they might take counsel with the other matrons. They all consented to drink the drugs, and after doing so fell victims to their own criminal designs.

    secuti indicem et coquentes quasdam medicamenta et recondita alia inuenerunt; quibus in forum delatis et ad uiginti matronis, apud quas deprehensa erant, per uiatorem accitis duae ex eis, Cornelia ac Sergia, patriciae utraque gentis, cum ea medicamenta salubria esse contenderent, ab confutante indice bibere iussae ut se falsum commentam arguerent, spatio ad conloquendum sumpto, cum submoto populo [in conspectu omnium] rem ad ceteras rettulissent, haud abnuentibus et illis bibere, epoto [in conspectu omnium] medicamento suamet ipsae fraude omnes interierunt.

    This death by ordeal (they did die?) though was not the end of this sordid episode. 170 further women (so a total of 190?) were next brought to justice.

    Their attendants were instantly arrested, and denounced a large number of matrons as being guilty of the same offence, out of whom a hundred and seventy were found guilty. Up to that time there had never been a charge of poison investigated in Rome. The whole incident was regarded as a portent, and thought to be an act of madness rather than deliberate wickedness.

    comprehensae extemplo earum comites magnum numerum matronarum indicauerunt; ex quibus ad centum septuaginta damnatae; neque de ueneficiis ante eam diem Romae quaesitum est. prodigii ea res loco habita captisque magis mentibus quam consceleratis similis uisa

    There are broadly three ways of looking at this episode. The first is to gently point out that Livy was writing over three hundred years afterwards and may simply have got this wrong. Just to put this all in perspective, the Celtic attack on Rome in 390 B.C. a mere sixty years before is more fairy tale than fact and that too is recorded by Livy. Indeed, some would argue that attack never actually took place. Second, perhaps this was a witch hunt. Some very anxious men knew that people were dying and were misled into believing that their own womenfolk were responsible: maybe the women were trying to put together a remedy to the illness when they caught not red-handed, but altruistically handed (pink? yellow? green?). Third, the Roman matrons were mightily pissed. Even by the sorry standards of antiquity they had to put up with an awful lot from their men: and they rebelled. ‘Let’s get rid of them all, said Cornelia one morning and Sergia ran out for some deadly nightshade, treading though on an ancilla’s toe as she sprinted for the door: that toe tread would cost her dear swore the slave girl…’

    The third is unlikely for several reasons. We might posit a small wing of Roman liberation feminists, but 190 persuaded to upend the patriarchal order AND risk ghastly death? Incredibly, at least for this blogger, Claudine Herrmann in Le rôle judiciaire et politique des femmes sous la République made the case for homicidal Romen feminists back in 1964. The second explanation sounds credible enough, particularly remembering other poisoning scandals involving women, including the famous and also unbelievable late seventeenth-century poison affair in France where thirty-six, were executed, most of these women. Other woman poisoner hysteria examples: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com The most probable solution is surely, however, that we are in Roman prehistory here and that we are walking down the gingerbread road into fairy tale land, much as with the Celtic siege of Rome a half century before. Very few commentators trouble to mention that this was Livy’s view.

    This year gained an evil notoriety, either through the unhealthy weather or through human guilt. I would gladly believe – and the authorities are not unanimous on the point – that it is a false story which states that those whose deaths made the year notorious for pestilence were really carried off by poison. I shall, however, relate the matter as it has been handed down to avoid any appearance of impugning the credit of our authorities.

    illud peruelim, nec omnes auctores sunt,  proditum falso esse uenenis absumptos quorum mors infamem annum pestilentia fecerit; sicut proditur tamen res, ne cui auctorum fidem abrogauerim, exponenda est.

    26 June 2014: an important addenda from Mike Dash. Note that my experience of history is if there are three cases there are actually 55 out there in the archives. Mike comments: ‘It’s worth pointing out that France’s notorious “Affair of the Poisons” of 1677-82 was supposedly preceded by an Italian panic that is popularly said to have taken place in 1659. This revolved around a highly lethal – tasteless and odourless – liquid poison known as Aqua Tofana, allegedly concocted by a Sicilian woman named Giulia Tofana. The poison’s main symptom was that it caused unquenchable thirst; its victims died miserably. Tofana’s story – first related in detail, it is disturbing to find, as late as 1730 in Pallavicini’s Vita di Alessandro VII –  contains some familiar tropes. Tofana (Tophana, Toffania) was said to be the head of an all-woman group which concocted the poison (largely from arsenic) and marketed it as a cosmetic. It was alleged that this was merely a cover and that the female customers who purchased her “beauty treatments” were fully aware of what their real purpose was. It is frequently said that some 600 unwanted or inconvenient Roman husbands died as a result. Sources for the Aqua Tofana panic are poor, late and confused. It is generally placed in Rome, but the case was apparently not prosecuted by the Papal States. The most reliable near-contemporary sources that I have been able to find state that the process for Tofana’s trial was sent to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI (father of Maria Theresa); since Charles was also King of the Two Sicilies, this might imply that the true location of events was Naples. A second wrinkle is that Tofana is said in some accounts to have worked with her daughter, and to have been executed by strangulation soon after her arrest. However, at least two eighteenth century writers, Garelli and Keysler, tell of visiting her in prison years afterwards – the latter claimed to have found her still alive in Naples in 1730, seven decades after the events supposedly occurred. Since it is hard to credit that a woman alive in 1730 could have concocted poisons with an adolescent or adult daughter as early as 1659, I would be inclined to suspect this means the correct date for Tofana’s flourit (if there actually was one) was probably the early 1700s. Friedrich Hoffman’sMedicina Rationalis Systematica, which states that Tofana’s execution took place in 1709, lends some tenuous support to this supposition. All in all, the uncertainty suggests to me there are definite elements of “poisoning hysteria” in this case.’ thanks Mike!

    So there!