M Claudius Marcellus and T Valerius were the new consuls. I find in the annals Flaccus and Potitus variously given as the consul's cognomen, but the question is of small importance.
This year gained an evil notoriety, either through the unhealthy weather or through human guilt. I would gladly believe —and the authorities are not unanimous on the point — that it is a false story which states that those whose deaths made the year notorious for pestilence were really carried off by poison.
I shall, however, relate the matter as it has been handed down to avoid any appearance of impugning the credit of our authorities.
The foremost men in the State were being attacked by the same malady, and in almost every case with the same fatal results. A maid-servant went to Q. Fabius Maximus, one of the curule aediles, and promised to reveal the cause of the public mischief if the government would guarantee her against any danger in which her discovery might involve her.
Fabius at once brought the matter to the notice of the consuls and they referred it to the senate, who authorised the promise of immunity to be given.
She then disclosed the fact that the State was suffering through the crimes of certain women; those poisons were concocted by Roman matrons, and if they would follow her at once she promised that they should catch the poisoners in the act.
They followed their informant and actually found some women compounding poisonous drugs and some poisons already made up.
These latter were brought into the Forum, and as many as twenty matrons, at whose houses they had been seized, were brought up by the magistrates' officers. Two of them, Cornelia and Sergia, both members of patrician houses, contended that the drugs were medicinal preparations. The maid-servant, when confronted with them, told them to drink some that they might prove she had given false evidence.
They were allowed time to consult as to what they would do, and the bystanders were ordered to retire that they might take counsel with the other matrons. They all consented to drink the drugs, and after doing so fell victims to their own criminal designs.
Their attendants were instantly arrested, and denounced a large number of matrons as being guilty of the same offence, out of whom a hundred and seventy were found guilty. Up to that time there had never been a charge of poison investigated in Rome.
The whole incident was regarded as a portent, and thought to be an act of madness rather than deliberate wickedness. In consequence of the universal alarm created, it was decided to follow the precedent recorded in the annals.
During the secessions of the plebs in the old days a nail had been driven in by the Dictator, and by this act of expiation men's minds, disordered by civil strife, had been restored to sanity. A resolution was passed accordingly, that a Dictator should be appointed to drive in the nail.
Cnaeus Quinctilius was appointed and named L. Valerius as his Master of the Horse. After the nail was driven in they resigned office.