The ancient Romans were endlessly creative in creating deadly spectacles (gladiatorial games, anyone?). Among the most heinous of acts was patricide, killing one's father. But was this crime punished by a truly spectacular punishment?
In Latin, patricide was also known as parricidium. In ancient times, it could mean any number of things, most often murdering a parent or close relative. This was considered a particularly grievous sin, since it involved spilling the blood of the man who gave someone life. It was the ultimate inversion and corruption of social order and polluted the killer's very body. Ancient writers played up how the stain of a father's blood would linger on his son-murderer.
Those judged guilty of this crime were given the "sack punishment," or poena cullei, the first instance of which came in 101 B.C.E. For killing his dad, one guy was forced to wear wooden clogs (so he couldn't escape), tossed into a bag, and thrown into the river. Anther version of the punishment saw criminals sewn into a leather bag with a snake, rooster, dog, and monkey, and then the sack was tossed into the river. The Tiber was an effective means of transporting the deceased to the Underworld, getting the polluted body away from neutral Earth, and was symbolic of the once-living's presence in a liminal realm away from
This punishment was certainly bizarre, but how often was it actually employed in the ancient world? The oldest legal texts even regarded it as a barbaric, antique practice, but the extremity of the punishment fitted the most heinous of crimes. Cicero successfully defended a prominent client named Roscius against this charge and emphasized that parricide was the worst kind of atrocity: not just a mere murder, but the most reprehensible act possible.
And a parricide couldn't simply be killed; his body was so polluted that wild beasts could be corrupted by eating a corpse.Most likely, as Cicero wrote in his speech defending Roscius, the Romans simply sacked a parricide:
"They devised a singular punishment for parricides in order that they whom nature herself had not been able to retain in their duty, might be kept from crime by the enormity of the punishment. They ordered them to be sown alive in a sack, and in that condition to be thrown into the river."
Chances are that the addition of animals was only occasional (or perhaps took place later in the Empire, as a Hadrian-era jurist described the punishment, and Constantine seemed to love it) or a literary exaggeration in many cases. And not every guy who seemingly killed their dad was convicted: It seemingly applied only to those who confessed, and there's a lack of evidence for its use (some emperors even hesitated to convict people of parricide).
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