A Father's Honor Killing In The Roman Forum

by Walter Muzzy, August 14, 2005 (original post)

I have just taken info translated by ancient writers and rewritten it into a trip report of the site and of the events to make it easier to follow. There are always minor variations but I try to go with the most likely, most interesting or the most scandalous. I am assuming that the Tribunal (trial) took place on the first ancient Rostra which was located in front of the Curia (built 400 years later). It just makes sense, it was held in the open-air Roman Forum and that was *the* speaker's platform back then. Plus the Shrine of Venus Cloacina is nearby and off to the side which fits in the story. Regards, Walter


The scant remains of the 'Shrine of Venus Cloacina' are easily and very often missed in the Forum. It's true purpose is a mystery to us and even to those in Julius Caesar's day (100 - 44 BC). It marks the spot where the underground Cloaca Maxima (great drain/sewer) enters the Forum. Traditionally this cult is associated with the Sabine King Titus Tatius, who in legend battled Romulus over the 'Rape of the Sabine Women', made peace and then co-ruled Rome with Romulus (753 BC).

It's believed that it was first built to mark the stream that flowed into the marshy Forum area and this stream was a pre-peace boundary between the Romans and Sabines tribes. Or that a sacred myrtle (evergreen shrub with a nice aroma) grew there and before the Rome-Sabine battle warriors from both sides rubbed these myrtle leaves on their bodies to purify themselves. Which is a bit hard to believe that two opposing armies laid down their arms and frolicked around in the shrubbery together :-) .

It was open air shrine with two female cult statues in it, Venus and Cloacina. Cloacina comes from the Latin verb 'cluere' which means to purify or cleanse. And Cloacina is also one of the titles of Venus, so both statues are of Venus. An ancient coin shows one statue holding a sword in one hand and a myrtle branch in the other.

Let me first point out where these events took place in the Roman Forum. Go to sights.seindal.dk/img/orig/888.jpg This event took place in 449 BC so many of these buildings are still centuries in the future. And the original ones (like the Temple of Castor and Pollux (three topped columns in the foreground) and Temple of Saturn at the left edge of photo) that did exist back then have been rebuilt more than once each time on a grander scale. But they know the locations of where these events took place, even though there is nothing physically remaining above ground that we can see from that era. This story takes place in the center of the photo which is the western end of the Roman Forum where the citizens will gather, to the left of that lone tree is where the Rostra once stood and where the judge over this trial will preside and to the right of that tree is where a tragedy will take place.

In the lower right-hand corner are the remains of the Temple of Divus Julius (Julius Caesar), now on each side of this temple are streets plus a short one in front of the temple. Those streets form a rectangle in the center of the photo, that is the Roman Forum Square. Now the street to the right of the temple that goes to the arch is the one we are interested in.

The ruins alongside the right side of that street are the remains of the Portico of Gaius and Lucius Caesar and to the right of that are brick walls. Those walls are the remains of the 'Tabernae Novae', these were shops on two levels where the money-changers (bankers) carried out business. But those remains are from about 10 - 1 BC, in 449 BC in that location there were retail shops. Probably just wooden stalls/booths that sold everyday items (meat, veggies, fish, etc).

On the street in front of these shops there was a small circular shrine called the 'Shrine of Venus Cloacina'. Looking at the Forum photo, about 3/4 of the way down that street to that tree you can see three people standing and just to the right of them a small white circle. This circle is a marble ring (2.4 m diameter) and all that remains of the 'Shrine/Sacellum of Venus Cloacina' which when you come to it will look like this sights.seindal.dk/img/orig/8262.jpg. A better photo without the grass :-) is here, and this photo is a closeup of the sign that relates the story of what happened here in 449 BC.

Now just to the left of that tree in that open space is where the Rostra (speaker's platform) was back then. And I'm fairly certain that is where the Tribunal (trial) was held, with the judge upon the Rostra and the plaintiffs, defendants, witnesses before him and behind them the spectators in the Forum Square.

The Players are:




Virginia is a young schoolgirl (14-16?) and her school is in one of the booths alongside the Roman Forum.

One day Appius sees Virginia for the first time, perhaps in this very Forum as she is on her way to school and he on his way to help run (and steal) an Empire.

But this is not a love story, it's a tragic story of an older man's lust for a young girl. And his lust knows of no bounds, it will bring about the ruin of powerful men, deaths of evil men, the death of an innocent, a lifetime of anguish for a loving father and push this fledgling Empire to the brink of Civil War. Now Appius has got to be at least 50 years old if not older, he was a Consul for the first time 22 years before these events! He has power, an aphrodisiac that makes it easy to have affairs with other women and money to afford concubines, pay high class prostitutes and buy young slave girls. So venting his sexual desires and lust should be no problem for him.

But Appius' has only one maddening desire and that is for Virginia. He tries to win her love with presents and promises. He is very rich and one of the most powerful men in Rome, so he can offer her anything except marriage (it's illegal for a Patrician to marry a Plebeian until 439 BC). She would have to be his concubine but she would live a life of vast luxury in the Roman upper class. Her present life and probably her future is modest but she, like her parents, are very honorable, honest and moral people. She is also engaged to Lucius Icilius (a Plebeian) and probably in love with this young man.

She outright refuses all of Appius' advances and there is nothing he can do as she is the daughter of a free Roman citizen. Only her father has absolute legal rule over her life...and even her death.

Appius hatches a plot with his Client Marcus Claudius to seize her by perverting the law. Marcus will claim that she was the daughter of one of his slaves (there by his property which he can then give to Appius) and that the Centurion Virginius and his wife stole the infant away at birth. Marcus decides to seize her in the Forum when she is on her way to school accompanied only by her nurse-maid (this woman was probably also her wet-nurse when she was an infant and most likely a slave). He goes up to her and tells her that she is his slave that was stolen at birth and she must follow him to his house. If not he will have her forcibly carried off. The poor girl is terror-stricken and speechless but the maid starts screaming for help.

A mostly Plebeian crowd gathers around them and listens to both sides. The crowd knows and respects both her father and her future husband. And they know that if the girl is taken away as his slave she will most likely be sexually violated. If it is later proven that she is not his slave her life would be ruined with the loss of her virginity, probably never to be married. The crowd *demands* that Marcus must take his claim to court, he has no choice but to agree or risk this mob's anger.

A Tribunal is quickly arranged before the Decemviri and guess who the unbiased judge is, not other than Appius! He and Claudius have rehearsed everything already. After Claudius gives his testimony Virginia's family and the crowd demands that Virginius must be summoned to give his version in defense of his daughter. It is also one of the laws that Appius has helped write in the 'Twelve Tables'.

Appius agrees to allow Virginius to be summoned but says that Virginia is to remain in Claudius' custody. This outrages her Grandfather (Numitorius) and her future husband (Icilius) because she will be Claudius' slave and his property until then. Numitorius and Icilius threaten violence even at the cost of their own lives right 'then and there' in the defense of Virginia's honor. Appius has no choice but to change his ruling or risk this crowd turning into an angry riotous mob. So the court is adjourned. Virginia is allowed to remain in the custody of her family and messengers are sent to the Front to summon Virginius to this trial. Appius sends men either to intercept the messangers or to order the General not to let Virginius leave the Front but they fail.

Virginius arrives two days later, the trial is to be held in the open Roman Forum. Virginius arrives in the early morning with his daughter. He implores everyone he meets to help him by telling them that this perversion of justice could also befall them and that he is at the front lines every day defending them and their families in battle. Icilius is also working the crowd trying to rally support. But it's a 'Kangaroo Court' and Appius of course rules in Claudius' favor. His victory is just hours away and then he will possess her. Nothing can stand in his way now, or so he believes! Virginius speaks out, threating violence against this outrageous verdict and tries to rally the crowd to uprise. But to no avail, perhaps it's because they believe justice has been rendered or perhaps it's the armed men nearby ready to defend Appius and his ruling!

Virginius sees now all is lost and his daughter is destined to be Appius' slave. He turns to Appius and asks forgiveness for his words saying that he has suffered much as a father in this case. He begs Appius if he can question Virginia's nurse-maid in this matter to see if he also has been deceived and is in fact not her real father, and in knowing this fact he would be more content with the verdict. Appius agrees to his request, he has nothing to lose. Virginius leads Virginia and her nurse-maid off to the side and away from the crowd. He takes his daughter over to the Shrine of Venus Cloacina. He knows he cannot let his free-born daughter become a slave to this vile man. Realizing that a lifetime of dishonor and degradation awaits his young beautiful child, he reaches into a nearby butcher's booth and grabs a knife. And with these words "My daughter, there is but one way I can make thee free" he drives the knife into her breast. And with his dead child lying at his feet, he looks to Appius still sitting on the Rostra and says "With this blood Appius, I devote yours and my life to eternal damnation".

Appius orders him to be arrested but no one attempts to seize him. With the bloody knife still in his hand and his heart full of vengeance Virginius leaves the city with a band of followers. Icilius and Numitorius pick up Virginia's lifeless body to show it to the people saying "see what that villain Appius has done to this innocent child, forcing her own father to take her life to save her honor". The crowd rallies to Icilius and Numitorius side. The women are shouting "Is this the reward for raising children with modesty and purity"? The men are shouting for the disbanding of the Decemviri and more liberties and freedom for the Plebeians. Appius orders Icilius to come before his Tribunal, Icilius refuses, Appius orders his arrest and imprisonment. As Appius' men (Lictors) try to arrest him a violent struggle breaks out. The Lictors are driven back, Appius in fear of his life sneaks away unnoticed and returns to his home. His day did not turn out as he expected!

Virginius returns to his army camp and rallies the troops to his cause. Following not their Generals, but only Virginius, they march on Rome as a mutinous army. They setup camp on the Aventine Hill and are soon joined by *all* the Plebeians (men, women and children) in Rome. In the city the streets are deserted, the Senate and Patricians fear for their lives... Civil War! The Plebeian army has just one demand of the Senate and that is that the ten Decemvirs be burned alive!

The Senate realizes that allowing the common people to roast aristocrats whenever something goes wrong will set a very bad precedent, especially for the Senators :-) , so a compromise is reached. Each Decemvir will be tried in court and be punished according to his crimes. Eight of the ten are exiled and their property confiscated. And two will not live to hear their verdict, Spurius Oppius and Appius.

For Oppius it was more for what he didn't do to stop Appius from abusing his power. He probably would have got off with exile and confiscation but a soldier with 27 years of service to his country and eight commendations for outstanding bravery testified that he had been wrongly judged by Oppius. The man wearing all his decorations tore open his clothes to show the whip scars Oppius had ordered. Oppius was taken to prison and committed suicide before the trial ended. Appius put up a good defense, he came from an honorable family plus he was one of the framers of the 'Twelve Tablets'. His powerful uncle Gaius Claudius defended him even though he knew he was guilty and wrong for abusing his power. His uncle was more concerned about the family name and the precedent this would set with those riff-raff Plebeians. Appius probably stood a decent chance of getting off with his life but Virginius tearfully begged the court (senate) to remember *his* hideous act he committed and his dead innocent daughter. Plus the Claudii Clans backdoor politics to force a favorable decision like forcing three Plebeian Tribunes and others to fear for their lives. I doubt that the Patrician Senate really cared very much about the death of a Plebeian's daughter and the abuse of power that brought it about.

But someone must be sacrificed to end this threat of civil war. So why not the man who brought this whole mess about! Appius realizes he has lost the case and all hope is lost, the day before sentencing he commits suicide in his cell by strangulation (which I assume means he hung himself).

Claudius is also tried and found guilty but for some reason Virginius didn't request the death penalty for him? His property is confiscated and he is exiled to Tivoli.

Ancient writers say that Virginia was avenged in the exiles and deaths of her accusers. An innocent child dreaming of love, marriage and raising a family... tragically caught up in a World of powerful men... a World at her age she cannot possibly understand. Revenge?...did she even live life long enough to have that emotion which is born out of hate in her?

Next: "The city which had taken the whole world was itself taken"
[Home]   [Disclaimer]                       copyright (c) 2012-2024 by Jeff Bondono (email: Jeff.Bondono@gmail.com)                         [Walter's Tours of Ancient Rome]