Titus Livy lived during the turn of the first century A.D. and in Book 8, Chapter 8 of The History of Rome, he relays the story of some sort of plague that was ravaging Rome in 331 B.C., afflicting many of Rome's "leading citizens". He says that his sources conflict on what happened that year, but the story he relays is that a female servant approached one of the Roman authorities and offered to tell him the cause of the deaths in the city, so long as she was granted immunity. The consuls and senate agree, so she tells them about a conspiracy of women who are poisoning people. Not only this, she leads the authorities to several women who were apparently caught in the act of making the poisons. When the women were brought to the Forum, they said the concoctions were medicinal, so the Forum had the women drink the potions, which led to all of their deaths. When the authorities arrested the slaves of the women, the slaves gave testimony that led to the convictions of 170 other women.

The roughly 500 words contained in that chapter are the only ancient references I can find to the story, and words there are pretty vague. That being said, modern interpretations, such as this BBC article tend to take the position that the women were scapegoated and that this story of the women dying after they drank their mixtures was added later on, of course, I don't know what basis they have for saying this, given the paltriness of what's written in Livy. Now, I don't doubt that Livy doubts the account because, when introducing the story he says:

[3] one thing, however, I should be glad to believe had been falsely handed down —and indeed not all the authorities avouch it —namely, that those whose deaths made the year notorious for pestilence were in reality destroyed by poison; still, I must set forth the story as it comes to us, that I may not deprive any writer of his credit.

Seemingly even more egregious, I have found repeated mentions that try to make the incident out to be some form of early form of feminism, with some details that I cannot verify. For example in an article on Unfortunate History, it says that the "majority" of deaths experienced during this outbreak were from the ruling class, and "the dead were also mostly (if not all) men". Again where are people getting this? According to Livy, he seems to suggest that other sectors of society were coming down with the illness, but it was only when the "leading citizens" of Rome started to fall ill that the servant woman went to the authorities. I could be reading it wrong, though. According to the above linked translation, it says:

[4] when the leading citizens were falling ill with the same kind of malady, which had, in almost every case the same fatal termination...

I think a more easily understood translation is that of [D. Spillan, A.M., M.D., Ed. from 1857. It says:

When the principal persons of the state were dying of similar diseases, and all generally with the same result, a certain maid-servant undertook...

This appears to be the ONLY mention of the victims of the malady. In the first case, women could also be citizens, and in the second case, it says "persons", which I assume was gender-neutral.

The story is historically important for two different reasons. First, if this was a true poisoning ring, it possibly represents the first recorded incident of serial murder, nearly a couple hundred years prior to the next recorded serial murderer, Liu Pengli (144-116 B.C.). Second, it appears to represent the first recorded instance of a type of plea agreement. Some authors argue that plea deals did not arise until the middle of the nineteenth-century. Of course, if Livy is the only source for this story, then both of these distinctions become highly suspect.

So, my question is, what other ancient references do we have for this alleged poisoning ring? According to Livy, he is referencing others. Did any of these sources survive? Are there any references by other authors to these sources? Are there any hints in Livy as to who and what these sources were?

To be clear, the BEST answer to this question would be a link to Livy's sources. Secondarily, any reference to the murder conspiracy by any source NOT quoting Livy would be good. Tertiarily, I'll take any reference to the incident other than Livy, but still quoting Livy, so long as there is some commentary. And finally, I will take ANY academic writing that examines the events in detail, even if Livy is their only source.

  • 4
    Sources for that period are very sparse.
    – Mark Olson
    Feb 17 at 21:55
  • 2
    I'll be quite surprised if your primary or secondary objective is fulfilled. There are certainly some modern academic discussions though, here's one that looks promising but I only read the abstract so far: openaccess.wgtn.ac.nz/articles/thesis/…
    – Brian Z
    Feb 17 at 22:33
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    Pagan has a book on conspiracy theory that touches upon it, and few books on poisoning recommend this but in general this is understudied because what you see in Livy is what you get. There's not really much more to it than that. However, you might want to head over to Latin, because the crux of your understanding will hinge on the Latin meaning of the words, not the English.
    – cmw
    Feb 18 at 14:29
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    @BrianZ Interesting, despite an annoying amount of typos. Thank you, I am reading that now. Feb 19 at 12:47
  • Mass murder, rather than serial killing, and the tropes bear striking similarity to medieval antisemitic libels, of bubonic plague being allegedly caused or spread by Jews poisoning water fountains. If it sounds like a witch hunt, and it looks like a witch hunt, then it probably is precisely that.
    – Lucian
    Apr 19 at 1:16


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