Around the year 331 BCE, the city of Rome suffered from a terrible plague. Rome’s senate became so fearful of the rampant disease that they ultimately appointed a dictator to take the helm of government and steer the city through the disaster. This dictator, named Gnaeus Qunctilius, could do little to help the city except put fearful minds at ease by carrying out religious ceremonies, and to enforce order in the city that was driven to hysteria by the plague. Although general order was, for the most part, maintained during the plague, spikes of hysteria and paranoia did indeed appear and cause harm to the people of Rome. Curiously, according to ancient Roman legends, something reminiscent of a witch trial was said to have taken place during the time when Rome was being ravaged by disease in 331 BCE.
As the story goes, the fearful Romans were quick to search for a scapegoat when disease struck their city around 331 BCE. Eyes eventually fell on a group of women who had apparently decided to do their civic duty during the plague by brewing remedies and medicines for the sickly Roman people. Unfortunately, the potions produced by this group of women were not very effective, and as people who took the women’s potions continued to die, public suspicion aimed at the remedy-makers only continued to grow.
Rome’s situation took a sad turn when an official named Quintus Fabius Maximus reportedly brought a gossipy serving-maid to speak to members of the Roman government. The maid proclaimed that the group of women who were brewing remedies and medicines were not acting benevolently, but were instead infecting or poisoning the Roman people with their potions. As the story goes, the serving-maid named twenty patrician-class matrons who were directly involved in stockpiling the mysterious potions in their homes. The Roman government decided to act upon the information and launched an investigation. A Roman historian named Livy (c. 59 BCE-17 CE) described the odd incident:
“They followed their informant and found certain women brewing poisons, and other potions that were stored away. These were brought to the Forum, and up to twenty matrons in whose houses they had been found were served an official summons to appear there. Two of the women, Cornelia and Sergia, both of patrician families, argued that these were wholesome remedies, but when their informer disproved this and told them to drink if they wanted to prove she had invented false charges, they took time to confer…” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.18).
Although the breadcrumbs of truth have already been difficult to pick out from this folkloric tale, the discernment of fact from embellished legend becomes even more vague from this point forward. According to the ancient legend, the accused women did drink their potions and they died. As narrated by Livy, “all swallowed the potions and died by their own evil practices. Their attendants were arrested at once, and informed against a larger number of matrons, of whom as many as 170 were found guilty. Before that day there had never been a public inquiry into charges of poisoning in Rome” (Livy, History of Rome, 8.18). Although the Roman inquisitors believed they had determined the cause or vehicle of Rome’s illness, the deaths of the potion-makers and the arrests of their attendants did little to halt the ravages of the plague. Romans continued dying of the illness, causing the Roman government to revert back to the tactic of carrying out religious ceremonies to pray for the end of the disease.
Livy, despite narrating the legend as he had learned it, expressed disbelief in the accusation that the women were brewing poison, or at least he did not believe their brews contributed to the spread of the disease. Livy wrote, “There is one thing I should very much like to think was falsely put on record (not all the authorities mention it)—namely, that those whose death made this year notorious for the plague were in fact killed by poison” (History of Rome, 8.18). Therefore, by Livy’s ancient estimation, the plague was deemed historical, as, likely, was the trial against certain women for alleged poisoning during the time of the plague, but he and other authorities did not believe that the accused women were the cause of the outbreak.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (cropped Offering Of A Vestal, Painted by Franciszek Smuglewicz (c. 1745 – 1807), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Museum of Krakow).
- The History of Rome (Rome and Italy) by Livy, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1982.