As in the case of the murder of the Vestals, outbreaks of witch-hunts leveled against the matrons of Rome cluster around times of external threat and internal danger. Thus in 491, the cult of Fortuna Muliebris was founded, open only to univirae, celebrating the salvation of Rome by the mother and wife of Coriolanus. In 331, a year of plague, twenty patrician wives were charged with a city-wide poisoning conspiracy. The women were forced to drink the drugs that they claimed were beneficial and of course died – an obvious trial by ordeal. A further one hundred seventy matrons were executed as a result of the subsequent investigation. In 296, the cult of Plebeian Chastity was founded. In the following year, an unknown number of matrons was found guilty of adultery, fined, and the money used to build the temple of Venus Obsequens as a warning to adulteresses. In 215, following the disaster at Cannae, the Oppian law was passed, the temple of Venus Verticordia dedicated, and the Vestal Virgins Floronia and Opimia ex- ecuted, together with more explicit human sacrifice. In 213, there was a suppression of foreign cults and an unspecified number of wives exiled for adultery. In 204, there was the trial by ordeal of Claudia Quinta, charged with adultery. In 186, the Bacchanalia crisis erupted when unknown numbers (in the thousands) of women were executed by family tribunal or the state. In 184, there was a further series of poisoning trials, involving both men and women. In 180, Hostilia Quarta was condemned for poisoning her husband in order to advance her son by an earlier marriage, while in Rome and environs, three thousand people were found guilty of poisoning. In 154, Publilia and Licinia were accused of poisoning their husbands, tried by family tribunals, and strangled. In 113, following the condemnation and execution of the Vestal Virgins, the temple of Venus Verticordia was rededicated.
Two questions arise: Why was this fear directed against matrons, women at the center of society, rather than solely against the old, the widowed, the unprotected, or other societally marginal women, as in the European witch craze? And why was the charge of adultery the expression of that fear?
These eruptions of rage against women reveal a profound fear at the core of Roman society. In brief, the role of Woman as Sign has led to the role of Woman as Stranger: the very interchangeability and exchangeability on which Rome was based necessitated that a woman still be attached to, and be a member of, her father’s family for her to have value as an exchange. As a result, she was still a stranger in her marriage family and feared as a stranger, that is, as a potential traitoress to her new family, as a potential witch to her husband and poisoner of his children. This fear, though best known to folklore as centering on the figure of the step-mother, was not confined to her. Rather, since for Rome the children were the husband’s, both legally and biologically, all mothers were stepmothers, fostering another’s children. Anthropological data from a variety of cultures demonstrate the way in which accusations of witchcraft are frequent against brides brought into virilocal or patrilineal villages.
For Rome, a single example may serve to illustrate this nexus of adultery, poisoning, and betrayal. According to Plutarch (Rom. 22.3), the laws of Romulus specified that a husband may divorce his wife only for poisoning his children, counterfeiting his keys, or adultery. This very marginality of women, as we have seen, makes them the perfect victims. In times of panic, the society can easily be restored to health by the sacrifice, exile, or punishment of wives, who are central to the family yet not fully members of it; who are necessary to produce children yet expendable; who are, in short, human but less than human. Yet why do Girard’s objections to women as the ideal sacrificial victim not apply? The execution of a wife would appear to be fraught with the dangers of reciprocal violence from either her birth family or her marriage family, which Girard noted.
Here we can see the role that the charge of adultery played. Adultery of a wife was the betrayal of all her male relatives, both by birth and by marriage. Only for adultery did both husband and father have the right, indeed the duty, to kill a matron. Only the charge of adultery could sever a woman from both her agnatic and her marriage families. The list in the Appendix makes clear the prevalence of the theme of conspiracy. We hear not of individual women put on trial but masses. We are told not of monstrous women acting alone but in consort, and not merely with adulterers, but more terrifyingly with the other outsiders, with slaves and foreigners, and most terrifyingly, with each other. They formed an anti-society, an underground where women were adulterous and poisoned their husbands, even their children. They created a witch-world whose values were distorted parodies of the values of patriarchal society: women as active, rather than passive; as sexual subjects, rather than sexual objects; as murderers, rather than victims. Thus the magical and liminal functions of women were not confined to the Vestal Virgins. Female sexuality under male control was the basis of and paradigm for keeping society under control. Yet in times of crisis, the society turned on those elements, which it feared would threaten social stability, the very categories it created in order to have stability at all. The unpenetrated virgin and the well-regulated wife both embodied the city in the symbolic universes of sympathetic magic and ideological praxis.
Holt N. Parker, “Why Were the Vestals Virgins? Or the Chastity of Women and the Safety of the Roman State” (2004)