It’s been a while since I last messed with the Romans and their traditions, some of which are extravagant and even outlandish, but that doesn’t mean I have abandoned them completely. Today we are back with one of those practices, specifically one of the many punishments handed out by Roman law to the worst offenders, in this case, parricides. Poena Cullei, as its name in Latin states, “the Sack Sentence”, was applied in Ancient Rome to those children who killed their parents, as perverse as a crime can get. Not that the Romans were short of cruel penalties but, as you will see in this case, this punishment was as inventive as they get.
I am not going to discuss in these lines the suitability or justification of this sentence, first of all, because I am not an expert in legal matters and, second, because we already know we shouldn’t judge ancient peoples with the values and morals of the present. Besides, every case is different. What matters to me is the method, which I do not wish for most of my enemies, although for some of them I have even more sadist ideas, as it may be forcing them to watch Big Brother or the speeches of Congress… eternally. Anyway, I’ll stop beating around the bush and focus on the question at hand.
I quote Marcus Tulius Cicerone on Poena Cullei: “Right after the sentenced was handed out, the offender’s face was covered with a wolf skin and wooden sandals were tied to his feet, so that he could not besmirch anymore the air with his breath nor the ground with his feet. Then he was imprisoned, but only while the sack was being prepared”. That’s not all. In his Digesta seu Pandecta, a Roman Law compendium collected by Emperor Justinian in the VI century, we read:
“Poena parricidii more maiorum haec instituta est, ut parricida virgis sanguineis, verberatus, deinde culleo (made of leather) insuatur cum cane, gallo gallinaceo, et vipera, et simia deinde in mare profundum, ut omni elementorum usu vivus carere incipiat etei coelum superstiti, terra mortuo auferatur» (Justiniano, Inst. IV. 18.6)
The guy or girl was put inside the sack, together with a dog, a rooster, a snake and a monkey. The sack was then tied so that the five beasts had some fun, and then thrown into the sea (or a river), “so that the criminal was disposed of his elements”.
I can imagine the chaos inside the sack, scratches, bites and screaming, lots of screaming. Most likely the show attracted the masses who, as in the amphitheater, cheered during the time the prisoner lasted and very possibly commented the play jokingly the next day at the baths. I just feel sorry for the animals. I don’t know about you, but any grievance that I may still have against my parents for my upbringing have been suddenly forgotten.
The Sack Sentence varied widely during the different stages of the Republic and the Empire and was even abandoned during the third century, when it was more common to throw the criminals to the arena of the circus for the pleasure of the lions, but Emperor Constantine reestablished it at the beginning of the fourth century. Poena Cullei was also applied in the Byzantine era, until it was abolished in the year 892 and by some Germanic tribes during the Middle Ages. The last case documented occurred in Saxony in the first half of the XVIII century. Although in some cases the beats varied depending on availability, the bases were the same, putting the criminal inside the sack with some animals and throwing them into the water until they drowned.
There you go, Roman imagination for punishment was as advanced as their engineering prowess and their military campaigns. It is funny how we sometimes complain that modern civilization does not treat well its prisoners…