Roman creativity when it came to punishing those who murdered their fathers astounds me.

If found guilty of parricide (killing your father) in ancient Rome, you'd be sewn into a leather sack with a viper, a dog, a monkey, and a rooster then flung into a body of water to drown. 

This form of punishment was known as poena cullei (from the Latin 'punishment of the sack').

Poena cullei was used for more than 400 years until the 3rd century, when it fell out of use.

I can't imagine why.

Constantine revived poena cullei during his reign, with only serpents to be added in the sack. Well over 200 years later, Emperor Justinian reinstitute the punishment with all four animals, and poena cullei remained the statutory penalty for parricides for the next 400 years, when it was finally replaced for good with death by fire.

So many thoughts about this:

  • How did they ever decide upon these four particular animals?
  • What was it like to be in the sack with a monkey, dog, viper, and rooster during the actual sewing of the sack? None of these animals strike me as calm and cool under pressure. "Tempest in a teapot" is the descriptor that comes to mind.
  • How big (or small) was the sack?  
  • How did the seamstress ever get the sack sewn shut?
  • Though I oppose the death penalty - and think this form of the death penalty sounds especially horrific - I actually feel worse for the dog than the convicted murderer in this circumstance. The monkey and rooster and viper, too (to a lesser extent), but why throw in an animal as loyal and friendly as a dog?
  • What was it like in that sack for each of the participants? What the violence primarily animal-on-man, or was there animal-on-animal violence taking place as well? Was the primary cause of death for all involved drowning, or were one or more of the creatures inside the bag dead before they even hit the water?
  • What was the worst of the animals in terms of the man? Oddly, I think it might have been the rooster. The viper might bite, but in comparison to the dog and monkey, its bite would be nothing, and its poison wouldn't have time to impact the man in any way. The monkey and the dog would be panicked, of course, and probably prone to biting and scratching, but the rooster strikes me as the kind of animal that would be especially dangerous in a confined space like a sack. 
  • Was this a punishment witnessed by spectators (as many Roman punishments were), and if so, why? Once the sack is shut, what was there to see? A roiling mass of leather with the occasional scream or bark or cock-a-doodle-doo? Perhaps if the sack had instead been made from a strong mesh, it would be worth watching, but even then, once they hit the water, I have to imagine the sack sank fast. 
  • Despite the oddity and horror of this peculiar form of the death penalty, it may have been preferable to its eventual replacement. Being burned alive does not sound fun and is supposedly one of the most painful ways to die. Being bitten and scratched and incessantly pecked by a rooster before drowning alongside all of those animals sounds awful, but convicted murderers may have actually yearned for the animal-filled sack as the flames blossomed around them and began roasting their flesh. 

Cat Heaven snuck up on me and made me cry.

If you’re a cat lover or a book lover or a person who suffers from an ongoing existential crisis or simply a human being, Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant is a book that you will love as you possibly weep.


My daughter, Clara, is named after a character in The Van Gogh Café – also by Rylant – and while I love that book for obvious reasons, I love this one so much more.


I picked it up and read it to Clara before bed, not knowing what was hiding between the pages. It snuck up on me, finding a way into my heart by the third page and sending me for an emotional loop.

Rylant also wrote Dog Heaven, but I’m almost afraid to read it. As much as I love my cat, I’ve owned dogs for much of my life, and I’ve buried more than I care to remember, oftentimes as a child as the result of my parents’ atrocious disregard for their safety.

I fear that Dog Heaven may be too much for me.

Cat Heaven is a beautiful book with beautiful images by Rylant herself. Buy it. Make it the gift that you give ever cat lover you know this year.

Bad news for cats and dogs and goldfish everywhere

Eternal Earth Bound Pets, the company of atheists who sought to care for pets left behind on Earth following the Rapture, has gone out of business due to a lack of clients.

Apparently the true believers have no qualms about leaving their pets behind to starve when they join Jesus.

Either that or they have faith that when push comes to shove, God will reconsider his position on dogs and cats and include them in the Rapture.