The Ancient Roman 'Sack Punishment' Will Give You Nightmares

Real History |

If you think that modern-day punishments are overly harsh, at least you don't live in ancient times. The ancient Romans had an especially bizarre punishment for people who were convicted of patricide.

Patricide, translated into Latin as "parricidium," could refer to a number of crimes. Principally, it means you murdered your father. It could also mean you murdered your mother, or another close blood relative.

It was considered the highest of crimes, as you spilled the blood of someone who gave you your life. Indeed, ancient literature is filled with stories of sons who remained haunted by the guilt of murdering their fathers.

If you were believed to have committed patricide in ancient Rome, the "sack punishment" was administered. The sack punishment, also called the poena cullei, was first levied in 101 B.C. A man was put in wooden shoes, put into a sealed sack and thrown in a river.

The sack punishment went through a number of macabre permutations over the course of its popularity. One rendition had the victim sewn into a leather sack that contained a rooster, a dog, a viperĀ and a monkey. The sack was then tossed in a river.

The sack punishment was considered barbarous even by the cultures that used it. The oldest known legal texts from ancient Rome regarded it as inhumane, and suitable only as punishment for the worst possible crimes.

Cicero wrote of the sack punishment, "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."

It is unlikely that animals were routinely employed in the sack punishment. Or, if it did happen regularly, it was probably not until the waning days of the Empire. It also appears to have only been given to people who confessed to the crime.

Before the advent of poena cullei, the punishment for parricide was traditionally to hand the offending individual over to the aggrieved family for punishment.

During the reign of Hadrian, the sack punishment was made optional. There was also the option of being thrown into an arena full of wild animals to be torn apart. The mind reels at both ideas. But it's always nice to have a choice.


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