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p1188 Veneficium

Unsigned article on pp1188‑1189 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

VENEFICIUM, the crime of poisoning, is frequently mentioned in Roman history. Women were most addicted to it; but it seems not improbable that this charge was frequently brought against females without sufficient evidence of their guilt, like that of witchcraft in Europe, in the middle ages. We find females condemned to death for this crime in seasons of pestilence, when the popular mind is always in an excited state and ready to attribute the calamities under which they suffer to the arts of evil-disposed persons. Thus the Athenians, when the pestilence raged in their city during the Peloponnesian war, supposed the wells to have been poisoned by the Peloponnesians (Thucyd. II.48), and similar instances occur in the history of almost all states. Still however the crime of poisoning seems to have been much more frequent in ancient than in modern times; and this circumstance would lead persons to suspect it in cases when there was no real ground for the suspicion. Respecting the crime of poisoning at Athens, see Pharmacon Graphe.

The first instance of its occurrence at Rome in any public way was in the consulship of M. Claudius Marcellus and C. Valerius, B.C. 351, when the city was visited by a pestilence. After many of the leading men of the state had died by the same kind of disease, a slave-girl gave information to the curule aediles that it was owing to poisons prepared by the Roman matrons. Following her information they surprized about twenty matrons, among whom were Cornelia and Sergia, both belonging to Patrician families, in the act of preparing certain drugs over a fire; and being compelled by the magistrates to drink these in the forum, since they asserted that they were not poisonous, they perished by their own wickedness. Upon this further informations were laid, and as many as a hundred and seventy matrons were condemned (Liv. VIII.18; cf. Val. Max. II.5, § 3; August. De Civ. Dei, III.17). We next read of poisoning being carried on upon an extensive scale as one of the consequences of the introduction of the worship of Bacchus (Liv. XXXIX.8). [Dionysia, p413.] In B.C. 184, the praetor, Q. Naevius Matho, was commanded by the senate to investigate such cases (de veneficiis quaerere): he spent four months in the investigation, which was principally carried on in the municipia and conciliabula, and, according to Valerius of Antium, he condemned 2000 persons (Liv. XXXIX.38, 41). We again find mention of a public investigation into cases of poisoning by order of the senate, in B.C. 180, when a pestilence raged at Rome, and many of the magistrates and other persons of high rank had perished. The investigation was conducted in the city and within ten miles of it by the praetor C. Claudius, and beyond the ten miles by the praetor C. Maenius. Hostilia, the widow of the consul C. Calpurnius, who had died in that year, was accused of having poisoned her husband, and condemned on what appears to have been mere suspicion (Liv. XL.37). Cases of what may be called private poisoning, in opposition to those mentioned above, frequently occurred. The speech of Cicero in behalf of Cluentius supplies us with several particulars on this subject. Under the Roman emperors it was carried on to a great extent, and some females, who excelled in the art, were in great request. One of the most celebrated of these was Locusta, who poisoned Claudius at the command of Agrippina, and Britannicus at that of Nero, the latter of whom even placed persons under her to be instructed in the art (Tacit. Annal. XII.66, XIII.15; Suet. Ner. 33; Juv. I.71).

The first legislative enactment especially directed against poisoning was a law of the dictator Sulla — Lex Cornelia de Sicariis et Veneficis — passed in B.C. 82, which continued in force, with some alterations, to the latest times. It contained provisions against all who made, bought, sold, possessed, or gave poison for the purpose of poisoning (Cic. pro Cluent. 54; Marcian, Dig.48 tit. 8 s3; Inst. 4 tit. 18 s5). The punishment fixed by this law was, according to Marcian, the deportatio in insulam and the confiscation of property; but it was more probably the interdictio aquae et ignis, since the deportatio under the emperors took the place of the interdictio, and the expression in the Digest was suited to the time of the writers or compilers. [Lex Cornelia, p687.] By a senatusconsultum passed subsequently, a female, who gave drugs or poison for the purpose of producing conception even without any evil intent, was banished (relegatus),º if the person to whom she administered them died in consequence. By another senatusconsultum all druggists (pigmentarii), who administered poisons carelessly "purgationis causa," were liable to the penalties of this law. In the time of Marcian (that of Alexander Severus) this p1189crime was punished capitally in the case of persons of lower rank (humiliores), who were exposed to wild beasts, but persons of higher rank (altiores) were condemned to the deportatio in insulam (Dig. l.c.).

The word Veneficium was also applied to potions, incantations, &c. (Cic. Brut. 60; Petron. 118); whence we find Veneficus and Venefica used in the sense of a sorcerer and sorceress in general.a


Thayer's Note:

a For a more general article, but also somewhat more detailed, see Poisons and Poisoning among the Romans (Class. Phil. 27:2:156‑167).


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