Poena Cullei: The Worst Roman Punishment

Jul 1, 2021 0 comments

Throughout history Man has shown extraordinary imagination in inventing penalties and sentences for crimes committed by fellow man. The Romans in particular had an almost theatrical quality in the way these punishments were dolled out. One of the worst was reserved for parricide—the killing of a parent— in which the prisoner was placed in a sack with several live animals and thrown into the water: the poena cullei, or “penalty of the sack”.

The German philosopher Erich Fromm said that we are "the only animal that enjoys doing evil to its own kind without any rational biological or social benefit". But sometimes there was, and still is, a moral pretext: the defense of society. Aristotle himself affirms in his work Politics that the most necessary public position is that of a jailer, while Pío Baroja, through the mouth of a character in his novel La lucha por la vida, equated the office of executioner with those of priest, military and magistrate, as supports of society.

In this sense, patricide was considered a particularly infamous crime in ancient Rome (and earlier in Greece, as evidenced by the myth of Oedipus or the harshness with which Solon treated it), where the character of Tulia the Less was a figure of unfortunate memory. As almost everything in the monarchical stage, history and legend intertwine and there remains a mixed narrative of how the youngest daughter of the sixth king, Servius Tullius, not only participated in the conspiracy to assassinate her father and get her second husband, the future Tarquinius the Superb, to ascend the throne, but also desecrated his corpse by driving over it with a chariot.

It must be understood that the Roman family was the basic cell of society; it was a vast institution that grouped the members of the family, but also those adopted and even servants, and was under the absolute authority of the pater familias, whose patria potestas allowed him to dispose of the lives of all those dependent on him. Therefore, to kill him was revealed as an atrocious act in the personal but also in the social sphere and the state had to act accordingly. The Lex duodecim tabularum (Law of the XII of Tables) defined parricide as the voluntary homicide of parents by their children.

A 1560 sketch showing capital punishment.

But this legislative corpus was made in the middle of the 5th century B.C. and, with time, the section referring to this type of crime was expanded. For example, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, consul between 88 and 80 BC. (with a period of dictatorship from 81 to 80 B.C.), extended the possible liability to other relatives in addition to offspring. And the Lex Pompeia de parricidiis, established by Pompey in 55 B.C., did the same with potential victims, going from being only parents to stepparents, grandparents, siblings, uncles, spouses, cousins, in-laws, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, stepchildren and even employers.

Those who fell outside these categories were governed by the general Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis, which remained almost unchanged since the XII Tables and punished murder with banishment. Likewise, according to Herennius Modestinus (a Roman jurist of the 3rd century A.D.), the Lex Pompeia could be used to accuse parricide in reverse, that is, parents who murdered their children, grandparents who did so with their grandchildren or even anyone who bought poison with the intention of killing their parent, even if they did not actually do it.

Once the crime has been clarified, how does the corresponding punishment arise? It is possible that the origins of the poena cullei date back to the monarchic period. During the reign of Tarquinius the Superb, one of the duumviri sacrorum (priests) Marcus Atilius, appointed to guard the Sibylline Books, revealed some of their secrets. This was a sacrilege because these books were an anthology of prophecies dictated by the Sibyl of Cumae and were consulted every time Rome faced a difficult situation to seek possible solutions, so they were forbidden to the public. Consequently, Atilius was condemned to be thrown into the sea inside a sewn sack.

Now, what does that have to do with patricide? Nothing really, unless we believe Dionysius of Halicarnassus, according to whom Atilius was also condemned for parricide. Other authors are of the opinion that he simply took advantage later of that form of execution because his extravagant character went well to exemplify. Plutarch places the date after the Second Punic War and gives the name of Lucius Hostius as the first documented parricide of Rome, although he does not explain how he was executed; before, the death of a father at the hands of his son would be considered a homicide more, generically.

When it began to give differential category to that type of crime, it would have resorted to the atavistic method of delivering the culprit to the family of the deceased; but being the same, it became necessary to also devise a different punishment. This must have begun towards the end of the third century B.C.; according to some historians, perhaps because of the social disorders that arose among the Romans as a result of the invasion of the Italian peninsula by the Carthaginian Hannibal. They even believe to see in certain passages of Plautus, at the beginning of the following century, humorous references to the introduction of the poena cullei.

Of course, Marcus Attilius was not the only one to go down in history dying in such an ignominious way. Plutarch also describes the case of a certain Gaius Vilius, who was condemned for having supported the reforms of the Gracchi and who was executed by being locked inside a vase with snakes inside. A variant that preceded by a few decades the one that Titus Livius is considered to be the first to be executed for parricide in the way that would last from then on: Publicius Maleolus, who, having been found guilty of murdering his mother around 100 B.C., was condemned to be put inside a closed sack and thrown "into a stream of water".

The case of Maleolus is described by various sources and none of them mentions that animals were also introduced with the prisoner, which confirms the current belief that this was a later addition of the first imperial stage. The description that can be read in the Rhetorica ad Herennium (Rhetoric to Herennius, an anonymous philosophical treatise dated approximately 90 B.C.), does provide other details, such as that Maleolus' head was covered with a wolf-skin bag and soleae lignae (wooden clogs or shoes) were put on him, objects that were intended to isolate the culprit from the world.

However, Cicero (to whom the Rhetoric to Herennius was erroneously attributed for a long time) objects in his De inventione that the head bag was made of simple leather, perhaps a wineskin. Cicero speaks several times of poena cullei in his writings. For example, in the vibrant speech with which he defended Sextus Roscius against the accusation of murdering his father (in reality it was a personal vendetta in which Roscius himself almost died after his father), Cicero criticized the system of execution, and incidentally, obtained the acquittal of his client.

Suetonius says that it was Augustus who formally authorized the poena cullei, although in practice it was already applied, as we saw, and since then it became habitual; so much so that, according to Seneca, in the time of Claudius they saw "more sacks than crosses", from which it would be necessary to deduce that the parricides proliferated. That parricide had become more frequent than desirable has its icing on the cake in the death of Agrippina at the hands of her son Nero.

Suetonius attributes to the emperor the death of her young lover, Aulus Plautius, suspecting that she wanted to replace him on the throne; later, he adds, he did the same to her under the influence of his wife, Poppaea Sabina, fulfilling an ancient prophecy that foretold that he would be emperor but would kill his mother, to which she would have replied "Occidat, dum imperet!" (Let him kill me as long as he reigns!).

Regardless of whether these facts are true or not, as also happens with the life of the reviled Caligula (Suetonius, one of the main sources for both, belonged to the senatorial class and in that period the Senate struggled not to lose its power before the growing imperial authority), and returning to what concerns us, Juvenal wrote that Nero deserved more punishment than to end up in a sack. Something that Suetonius endorses again when he narrates how, after the emperor's suicide, a statue of him appeared partially covered with a culleum and accompanied by a writing that read "I did what I could. But you deserve the sack!"

The poena cullei was not only a form of execution. It constituted a whole ritual full of symbols, although not all were incorporated at the same time. Some had antecedents as old as Pharaonic Egypt, where the parricide was martyred by cutting off pieces of flesh with sharpened reeds ad hoc and then burning him on thorns. In this sense, the aforementioned Modestino narrates how the prisoner was whipped with the virgae sanguinae (blood sticks, so called because of their function or perhaps because they were previously dyed red), before his head was covered, the clogs were put on him and he was introduced into the sack, whose opening was then sewn; in this way, he was deprived of seeing the sky before dying.

The extra element of the animals inside the sack did not arrive until imperial times. It was precisely Seneca's father who testified to the novelty of the introduction of snakes with the prisoner (specifically a viper, a species believed to kill its parents at birth), while the poet Juvenal, a little later, did the same with respect to a monkey, which embodied madness and was considered a caricatured version of the human being. It is not clear at what point the rest of the fauna appeared, a rooster (metaphor of ferocity and violence against its own parents) and a dog (representative of rabies, a despicable animal for the Romans).

In the second century A.D., under Hadrian, we find another faunal element, although not inside the sack: a pair of black oxen pulled the cart that transported the prisoner and his peculiar prison to the water. This had a double meaning; on the one hand, the culprit of such a horrendous crime was deprived of land where he could rest in peace and, on the other hand, the human and animal remains would end up mixed for his eternal dishonor, all of this sifted by the purifying quality attributed to water in the Roman world.

However, with Hadrian the poena cullei fell into disuse and became optional; there were other alternatives such as buried alive or in a damnatio ad bestias (that is, being devoured by wild beasts) in the arena of the amphitheater, although it seems that it applied mainly to lower-class people and it is also unclear whether the condemned could defend themselves (damnatio ad bestias proper) or awaited their terrible end tied up (obicĕre bestiis). It is possible that this was to make things easier if there was no body of water nearby.

However, in the third century Constantine revitalized the ceremonial—he was the one who brought the dog and the rooster— without considering it incompatible with the new Christian faith. In fact, it was even extended, for in the following century Constantius and Constantius included the penalty for adultery and added a fish, symbol of lust, to the sack. The same happened with Justinian three centuries later, since in his Institutiones (an introduction to the legislative compilation he made under the title Corpus iuris civilis) the poena cullei is reflected with all its paraphernalia, including animals. Nevertheless, the Basilika (the legal corpus of the Byzantine emperor Leo VI the Wise) shows that in the ninth century it no longer existed and had been replaced by the stake.

This did not prevent it from being briefly resurrected in the Middle Ages. For example, it appears in the Siete Partidas (a legislative body introduced in 13th century Castile by King Alfonso X) and with all the characteristics (sack, animals, water), although over time it tended to be carried out only metaphorically: the condemned was dragged to the scaffold in a seron dragged by some beast of burden (something that continued to be done until the middle of the 19th century) and then his corpse was introduced into a bucket that had a dog, a monkey, a rooster and a snake painted on it, and which was simulated to be thrown into the water before burial.

But where it really survived was in medieval and modern Germany, as evidenced in the 12th century by the Sassen Speyghel (Saxon Mirror), the most important penal code of the Germanic Middle Ages. There were some differences, however: the rooster was not included, and the serpent was represented only pictorially on a piece of paper and the monkey was replaced with a cat, often separated from the prisoner by a sewn cloth. Moreover, the sack was not made of leather but of linen, which facilitated death by drowning rather than by asphyxiation. This meant shortening the suffering, something that was sometimes sought and sometimes not.

A case is recorded in Dresden in which a leather sack waterproofed with pitch was used to make the agony of its occupant last longer. But the sack burst open when it hit water, and the animals were able to escape. The condemned, however, presumably tied, drowned and got his punishment. The last time this punishment was meted out in 1734, somewhere in Saxony. However, according to some sources, it could have been the Saxonian city Zittau, where the last case is alleged to have happened in 1749. In 1761 the poena cullei was definitively abolished.

This article was originally published in La Brújula Verde. It has been translated from Spanish and republished with permission.


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