“Roman Death”, that powerful image of the Roman aristocrat falling upon his sword to maintain honor in the face of defeat or disgrace, continues to capture the imagination and represent a signature vision of Roman values even among modern audiences. This notion has been accepted and reinforced by the major recent works on death or suicide in Rome (Hill 2005, Edwards 2007; cf. Grisé 1983, van Hooff 1990), particularly in reference to two chief groups – the defeated military commander and the citizen facing judicial conviction in a court. A rigorous examination of historically attested instances during the Republican period, however, reveals that there are in fact startlingly few ‘military’ or ‘judicial’ suicides that can be securely traced in our evidence before 88 BC. For more than half a century from that point on the phenomenon is closely linked with civil war. The connection is strong enough to consider that suicide, as a notable if not widespread cultural phenomenon, actually originates as a pathology of civil war.
Grounded in a reliance on literary portrayals and moralizing philosophical theory, the prevailing view that there was a long-established Roman tradition of suicide finds little support from a careful empirical analysis. When threatened with conviction, Romans repeatedly opted to survive, in exile if necessary. The few ‘judicial’ suicides that are known, such as D. Iunius Silanus and the questionable case of L. Hostilius Tubulus, seem to involve catalysts beyond simple shame or pudor. Verifiable military suicides are even more rare, particularly among defeated generals who frequently survived to enjoy further success in public life rather than live in disgrace (cf. Rosenstein 1990). Before 88 the only reported cases, Aemilius Paulus and Crassus Mucianus, are in fact quite doubtful. The sources that attest to suicide in these cases are arguably less authoritative than those that describe these as deaths in battle. Such cases are also complicated by the emergence of later laudatory or exculpatory traditions.
Beginning in 88 BC, however, there is a sudden and steep increase in the total number of suicides, rising from 21 cases from 264-88 to 78 over the years 88-31 BC. These figures do not appear to be an effect of the more copious evidence for the civil war period. Years marked by civil violence and later war produce staggering figures compared to calmer periods – 63 of the 78 cases during this period can be directly connected to civil strife. Cases often stem from either proscriptions, instances of aristocrats refusing to submit to rigged legal proceedings (such as Q. Catulus, cos. 102, and L. Merula, cos. suff. 87, according to Appian), or the realization that one’s cause is lost. While motives for suicide must necessarily remain conjectural, one attribution of motive that becomes remarkably prominent in the evidence of the civil war period is an abhorrence of falling into the hands of one’s enemies. It is perhaps unexpected that the evidence shows this fear most prominently when the enemy is a countryman, rather than a foreign foe.
There is a stark discrepancy between these findings and previous conclusions on the ‘tradition’ of suicide among the Romans. In part, this stems from the difference in methodology; there exists a strong literary and theoretical bias in scholarship on the topic that has thus far minimized the significance of actual historical behavior. One must also consider the sheer power of emblematic cases such as Cato, Brutus, and Cassius and their capacity to cast into sharp relief a style of behavior that stands out of all proportion to actual occurrence. This discrepancy should serve as warning of the inconsistencies between theoretical and pragmatic moral thinking in Roman society. It seems likely that Cato’s dramatic suicide and its contemporary reception radically altered the cultural meaning of the practice of suicide, elevating it from essentially a grim phenomenon of civil war into the weighty moral and symbolic act we associate with “Roman Death.”
- Edwards, Catharine, Death in Ancient Rome, Yale 2007.
- Grisé, Yolande, Le suicide dans la Rome antique, Montreal/Paris 1983.
- Hill, Timothy, Ambitiosa Mors: Suicide and self in Roman thought and literature, New York/London 2004.
- Hooff, Anton J.L. van, From authothanasia to suicide: self-killing in classical antiquity, London 1990.
- Kelly, Gordon, A History of exile in the Roman Republic, Cambridge 2006.
- Rosenstein, Nathan, Imperatores Victi, Berkeley 1990.