Poena Cullei – A Punishment Like No Other

Welcome back to Rome Across Europe! Today we are taking a look at a less-than-positive side of the Roman Republic and Empire. We are going to discuss corporal punishment.

Most of us are familiar with crucifixion or being sent to the arena to fight till your death as a gladiator. Both of these methods have been shown in movies and television, and even discussed in the Bible.

The focus of today is an odd one and it even has its own specific name. Our focus today is on Poena Cullei, or Punishment of the Sack.

We are not going to discuss the suitability or justification of this sentence because we shouldn’t judge ancient peoples with the values and morals of the present. Our focus is the method and how it was applied, purely a sharing of history.

Under Roman law this specific death penalty was imposed on a person who had been found guilty of parricida, basically children who killed their parents. A minimum age for this punishment to be imposed on the guilty was not given.

Poena Cullei consisted of being sewn up in a leather sack, sometimes with an assortment of live animals, and then being thrown into water.sack-in-thames

The frequency and precise form of punishment varied widely during its use by the Romans. The earliest fully documented case is from about 100 BC, although scholars think the punishment may have developed about a century earlier.

Before 100 BC it is believed that all murderers, including parricides, would be handed over to the aggrieved family for punishment, rather than punishment being enacted by Roman state officials.

Inclusion of live animals in the sack was only documented from early Imperial times, with only snakes being originally mentioned. In the 2nd Century AD, at the time of Emperor Hadrian, the most well known form of Poena Cullei was where a cock, a dog, a monkey and a viper were inserted in the sack.poena-cullei-dibujo

With Emperor Hadrian, Poena Cullei was made into an optional form of punishment for parricides; the other was being thrown to the beasts in the arena. During the 3rd Century AD up to the accession of Emperor ConstantinePoena Cullei fell out of use.

Well over 200 years later, Emperor Justinian reinstituted the punishment with the 4 animals, and Poena Cullei remained the statutory penalty for parricides within Byzantine law for the next 400 years. Poena Cullei was then replaced with being burnt alive.

The person sentenced to Poena Cullei was first whipped, or beaten, with virgis sanguinis (blood-colored rods), and his or her head clad in a bag made of a wolf’s hide. On his feet were placed wooden shoes and he was then put into the Poena Cullei, a sack made of ox-leather.virgis sanguinis

Placed along with him into the sack was the assortment of the 4 previously mentioned live animals. The sack was put on a cart, and the cart driven by oxen to a running stream or to the sea. Then, the sack with all its inhabitants was thrown into the water.

At least 1 modern author believes the sack, or culleus, involved would have been one of the large, very common sacks Romans transported wine in. This would have made such a sack readily available, with a volume of 144.5 US gallons.gallon sack

Another point of debate concerns how, and by what means, the individual was beaten. In his 1920 essay The Lex Pompeia and the Poena Cullei, Max Radin observes that, as penance, convicts were typically flogged until they bled. Radin also states the “rods” actually were some type of shrub, since it documented from other sources that whipping with some kinds of shrub was thought to be purifying in nature.

The ritual of Poena Cullei is compiled from sources generally ranging from the 1st Century BC to the 6th Century AD, so over a period of 600 to 700 years. Different elements are mentioned in the various sources, so that the actual execution ritual at any one particular time may have been substantially distinct from that ritual performed at other times.

In 90 BC details of the execution of Publicius Malleolus, found guilty of murdering his own mother, along with citing the relevant law as follows: “He who has been convicted of murdering his parent shall be completely wrapped and bound in a leather sack and thrown in a running stream.”

Since Malleolus was convicted of matricide immediately after he had received sentence, his head was wrapped in a bag of wolf’s hide, wooden shoes were put upon his feet and he was led away to prison. His defenders brought tablets into the jail, where his will was written in his presence, and the penalty was then exacted of him.wolf hide sack

From this early reference, no mention is made of live animals as co-inhabitants within the sack, nor is the mention of any initial whipping contained. Malleolus was not said to be put in a sack, nor was it stated he was transported to the river in a cart driven by black oxen.

The Roman historian Livy, however, places the execution of Malleolus to just about 100 BC, and claims that Malleolus was the 1st in Roman history who was convicted to be sewn into a sack and thrown into the water, on account of parricide.

The historians Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Valerius Maximus connect the practice of Poena Cullei with an alleged incident under King Tarquinius Superbus (535–509 BC). During his reign, the Roman state apparently acquired the so-called Oracula Sibyllina, books of prophecy and sacred rituals.

King Superbus appointed a couple of priests, Duumviri sacrorum, to guard the books. One of them, Marcus Atilius, was bribed and divulged some of the book’s secrets. For that breach of religion, Tarquinius had him sewn up in a sack and thrown him on the sea.ocean

According to Valerius Maximus, it was very long after this event that this punishment was instituted for the crime of parricide as well. Dionysius says that in addition to be suspected of divulging the secret text, Atilius was also accused of having killed his own father.

The Greek historian Plutarch in his Life of Romulus claims the 1st case in Roman history where a son killed his own father, happened more than 5 centuries after the foundation of Rome (753 BC). This parricide was committed by a man called Lucius Hostius, who murdered his own father after the Second Punic War with Hannibal (201 BC).

Plutarch does not, however, specify how Lucius Hostius was executed or even if he was executed by the Roman state at all. Plutarch additionally notes that from the time of Romulus onwards, “parricide” was regarded roughly synonymous for what is now called homicide. Prior to the times from Luicus Hostius, the murder of one’s own father was simply morally “unthinkable”.

Two laws documented from the 1st Century BC are principally relevant to Roman murder legislation and parricide, in particular. These are the Lex Cornelia de Sicariis publicized in the 80s BC, and the Lex Pompeia de Parricidiis publicized about 55 BC.

The relation between these old laws might have been that it was the Lex Pompeia that specified the Poena Cullei as the particular punishment for a parricide because a direct reference to the Lex Cornelia shows that the typical punishment for a poisoner, or general murderer, was either deportation or banishment. So Lex Pompeia makes explicit distinctions for the crime of parricide not present in Lex Cornelia.

Marcus Tullius Cicero, the renowned lawyer, orator and politician from the 1st Century BC provides several references to the punishment of Poena Cullei, but not of the live animals documented within the writings by others from later periods. In defense of Sextus Roscius who was accused of having murdered his own father in 80 BC, Cicero expounds on the symbolic importance of the punishment for he believed it was devised and designed by the previous Roman generations:

They therefore stipulated that parricides should be sewn up in a sack while still alive and thrown into a river. What remarkable wisdom they showed, gentlemen! Do they not seem to have cut the parricide off and separated him from the whole realm of nature, depriving him at a stroke of sky, sun, water and water – and thus ensuring that he who had killed the man who gave him life should himself be denied the elements from which, it is said, all life derives? They did not want his body to be exposed to wild animals, in case the animals should turn more savage after coming into contact with such a monstrosity. Nor did they want to throw him naked into a river, for fear that his body, carried down to the sea, might pollute that very element by which all other defilements are thought to be purified. In short, there is nothing so cheap, or so commonly available that they allowed parricides to share in it. For what is as free as air to the living, earth to the dead, the sea to those tossed by the waves, or the land to those cast to the shores? Yet these men live, while they can, without being able to draw breath from the open air; they die without earth touching their bones; they are tossed by the waves without ever being cleansed; and in the end they are cast ashore without being granted, even on the rocks, a resting-place in death.

It is within the law collection Digest 48.9.9 that perhaps the most famous formulation of the poena cullei is retained, from the sayings of the mid-3rd Century AD jurist Modestinus. In Olivia Robinsons translation, it reads:

According to the custom of our ancestors, the punishment instituted for parricide was as follows; A parricide is flogged with blood-colored rods, then sewn up in a sack with a dog, a dunghill cock, a viper, and a monkey; then the sack is thrown into the depths of the sea. This is the procedure if the sea is close at hand; otherwise, he is thrown to the beasts, according to the constitution of the deified Hadrian.gianni-moretti-poena-cullei

Thus, it is seen in the time of Emperor Hadrian (117–138 AD), the punishment for parricide was basically made optional, in that the convict might be thrown into the arena instead. Furthermore, a document from Hadrian was rewritten in the 4th Century AD by grammarian Dositheus Magister that contains the information that the cart with the sack and its live contents was driven by black oxen.black oxen

On 16 November 318 AD, Emperor Constantine wrote the following to Verinus, Africae Vicarium:

Whoever, secretly or openly, shall hasten the death of a parent, or son or other near relative, whose murder is accounted as parricide, will suffer the penalty of parricide. He will not be punished by the sword, by fire or by some other ordinary form of execution, but he will be sewn up in a sack and, in this dismal prison, have serpents as his companions. Depending on the nature of the locality, he shall be thrown into the neighboring sea or into the river, so that even while living he may be deprived of the enjoyment of the elements, the air being denied him while living and interment in the earth when dead.

It is seen that Justinian regards this as a novel enactment of an old law, and that he includes not only the symbolic interpretations of the punishment, but also Constantine’s extension of the penalty to fathers who murders their own children. In Justinian, relative to Constantine, we see the inclusion in the sack of the dog, cock and monkey, not just the serpent(s) in Constantine.

The Poena Cullei was eliminated as the punishment for parricides within the Byzantine Empire in the law code Basilika, around 892 AD. According to the Synopsis Basilicorum, parricides are to be “cast into the flames.”Byzantine_Dardanelles_Customs_Law

Poena Cullei gained a revival of sorts in late medieval and early modern Germany, with late cases of being drowned in a sack along with live animals being documented from Saxony in the 1st half of the 18th Century. The 13th Century compilation of laws / customs Sachsenspiegel states that the  is the appropriate punishment for parricides. Poena Cullei in the Poena Cullei evolved some differences within the German ritual.

Relative to the original Roman ritual, the rooster was not included, the serpent might be replaced with a painting of a serpent on a piece of paper, and the monkey could be replaced with a cat. Furthermore, the cat and the dog were sometimes physically separated from the person, and the sack itself was made of linen, rather than of leather.

The difference between using linen rather than leather is that linen soaks easily, and the inhabitants will drown. A watertight leather sack, however, will affect death by suffocation due to lack of air or death by a drawn-out drowning process.

The last case where this punishment is alleged to have been used was from the Saxon city of Zittau in 1749. The punishment of the sack was expressly abolished in Saxony dated 17 June 1761.

The Sack Sentence varied widely during the different stages of the Republic and the Empire and was even abandoned during the 3rd Century. With a resurgence of use in the Byzantine era, along with the German Saxons, it goes to show that Roman imagination was as advanced as their engineering prowess and military campaigns.

We hope you enjoyed learning about how the Romans handled their murderers, and maybe you even gained some perspective on how we handle things now.

Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!



Bradley, Mark (2012). Rome, Pollution and Propriety: Dirt, Disease and Hygiene in the Eternal City from Antiquity to Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-107-01443-5.

Francese, Christopher (2007). Ancient Rome in So Many Words. New York, NY: Hippocrene Books. ISBN 978-0-7818-1153-8.

Kyle, Donald C. (2012). Spectacles of Death in Ancient Rome. Oxford: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-134-86271-9.

Livy; Baker, George (tr.) (1797). The History of Rome, volume 6. London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell jun. and W. Davies.

Radin, Max (1920). “The Lex Pompeia and the Poena Cullei”. The Journal of Roman Studies (Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies) 10: 119–130. doi:10.2307/295798. ISSN 0075-4358. Retrieved 13 March 2014.

Valerius Maximus; Walker, Henry J. (tr.) (2004). Memorable Deeds and Sayings: One Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome. Indianapolis,IN: Hackett Publishing. ISBN 978-0-87220-674-8.


One thought on “Poena Cullei – A Punishment Like No Other”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *