Pessinus (Πεσσινούς), Asia-Minor – 2nd century BC
One of the most powerful and beautiful women of her day, the life of the Gallo-Greek Princess Camma is an extraordinary tale of obsessive love, murder and ultimate justice.
Born a princess of the Celtic Tolistoboii tribe in Galatia (today’s central Turkey), Camma was renowned ‘for her form and beauty, but even more admired for her virtues. She was also quick-witted and high-minded, and unusually dear to her inferiors by reason of her kindness and benevolence’ (Plutarch, On The Bravery of Woman. XX Camma*). These attributes appear to have been accompanied by good fortune, for the princess fell in love with, and married, one of the most powerful men in Galatia – a tetrarch called Sinatus. In addition, she was elevated to High Priestess of the Mother Goddess (Cybele-Artemis) at Pessinus – the highest position that could be attained by a woman at that time. It appeared that Camma was truly blessed by the Gods.
However, in true Celtic fashion, what began as a fairy tale soon descended into nightmare.
From afar, the priestess was being observed by her husband’s cousin, another chieftain called Sinorix, whose obsession with her grew until it left the bounds of reason. Seeing Camma’s husband as the obstacle to his desire, Sinorix secretly formulated a plan which culminated in the brutal murder of his rival.
With her husband now disposed of, Sinorix lost no time in consoling the widow and, while wooing her, exerting influence on her family to facilitate a marriage between them. As time passed, it seemed that Sinorix’ sinister strategy had borne fruit for, under intense pressure from her relatives, Camma finally agreed to the union. A marriage, to be held in the temple of the Mother Goddess, was hastily arranged.
The temple at Pessinus (3D reconstruction)
The ceremony was a lavish affair, as befitted two of the highest ranking members of Galatian society, and a union that would cement the political bonds between the clans of Camma and Sinorix. As the celebrations progressed before the sacred alter of Artemis, Camma filled a golden chalice with milk and honey, a traditional drink on such occasions. Drinking deeply and smiling, the priestess passed the chalice to Sinorix, who enthusiastically drained the goblet.
And then, as he watched his new bride collapse on the temple floor, the look on the chieftain’s face turned first to confusion and then to horror. Convulsions began to wrack his body, and through his agony he heard his wife’s cry of joy:
‘I call you to witness, Goddess most revered, that for the sake of this day I have lived on after the murder of Sinatus, and during all that time I have derived no comfort from life save only the hope of justice’.
Turning to Sinorix, she added, ‘As for you, wickedest of all men, let your relatives make ready a tomb instead of a bridal chamber’.
The poisoning of Camma and Sinorix in the temple (Charles Poerson, 17th century)
The poison was slow working, bringing unbearable pain. Through the night Camma suffered, yet held grimly to life until, with dawns light, came word that Sinorix had died in agony. Thereupon the priestess, smiling, followed him into the afterlife…
*The life of Camma is also recorded by Plutarch in Moralia (768 b), and Polyaenus (Strategemata, viii. 39)