History books are full of grim examples of torture, punishment, and execution. Even the Romans, who are often heralded for their supposed civility, were well-versed in cruel and inhumane ways to end another person’s life, from crucifixion to the notorious bronze screaming bull.
But of these methods, one has gained an especially feared reputation over the centuries: poena cullei.
What Is Poena Cullei?
Loosely translated from Latin as “punishment of the sack”, it was a punishment saved for parricide – the act of killing one's own parent. It is commonly said to have involved sewing an accused person into a leather sack along with a variety of vicious animals – such as a chicken, a snake, a primate, and a dog – before throwing them into a river.
“The penalty of parricide, as prescribed by our ancestors, is that the culprit shall be beaten with rods stained with his blood, and then shall be sewed up in a sack with a dog, a cock, a viper, and an ape, and the bag cast into the depth of the sea,” Modestinus, a well-known Roman jurist from the third century CE, reportedly wrote.
“That is to say, if the sea is near at hand; otherwise, it shall be thrown to wild beasts, according to the Constitution of the Divine Hadrian”, added Modestinus.
Whatever killed the condemned individual in this process – whether it be the bite of a snake, the brute force of a chimp, or the suffocation of drowning – it was certain to be a highly unpleasant last moment on Earth.
However, many aspects of this savage punishment remain mysterious. There are no archeological remains of this act (can you imagine how confused archaeologists would be to find some?) so we are forced to rely on written sources, which can be tricky to trust from ancient times.
That quote above from Modestinus, for example, comes from a law history book published in 1932. This cites a digest ordered by emperor Justinian in the sixth century CE, over 200 years after Modestinus lived. Who knows how many re-iterations the tale may have undergone over the centuries through dozens of translations?
Some historians suspect the punishment wasn’t actually carried out in reality. After all, getting a dog and an ape into the same sack would not be an easy task. Many argue it was only used as a threat designed as a deterrent to terrify anyone who even thought of killing their parents. Others believe it involved tying the accused up in a leather sack but perhaps didn’t involve the addition of other beasts.
Whatever its origins, it appears that the punishment of the sack may have had a renaissance during the late medieval and early modern periods in parts of Europe, at a time when many were revisiting the old ways of great ancient civilizations for inspiration.
Historian Florike Egmond writes that poena cullei had its “heyday” during the 15th, 16th, and early 17th centuries, but was widely known in various parts of the German-speaking countries, the Netherlands, France, Spain, and Italy from 1200 CE until the middle of the 18th century. She says the last record of the punishment being administered comes from Germany towards the end of this period in the early 1700s.
So who knows, if your great-great-great-great-great-great-grandparent lived around Central Europe and took the decision to kill their parent, perhaps they were subjected to this truly bizarre means of execution.