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In Ancient Rome, when people wanted to commit suicide, they applied to the Senate and, if their petitions were approved, were given free hemlock.

Neil Patrick

In general, the pagan world, both Roman and Greek, had a relaxed attitude towards the concept of suicide. In Rome, suicide was never a general offense in law, though the whole approach to the question was essentially pragmatic. This is illustrated by the example given by Titus Livy of the colony of Massalia (the present-day Marseilles), where those who wanted to kill themselves merely applied to the Senate, and if their reasons were judged sound they were then given hemlock free of charge. It was specifically forbidden in three cases: for those accused of capital crimes, soldiers, and slaves. The reason behind all three was the same – it was uneconomic for these people to die.

The death of Seneca (1684), painting by Luca Giordano, depicting the suicide of Seneca the Younger in Ancient Rome. Source:Wikipedia/Public Domain

The death of Seneca (1684), painting by Luca Giordano, depicting the suicide of Seneca the Younger in Ancient Rome. Source:Wikipedia/Public Domain

If the accused killed themselves prior to trial and conviction, then the state lost the right to seize their property, a loophole that was only closed by Domitian in the 1st century AD, who decreed that those who died prior to trial were without legal heirs. The suicide of a soldier was treated on the same basis as desertion. If a slave killed himself or herself within six months of purchase, the master could claim a full refund from the former owner.

detail from 'The Death of Socrates' by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) Source:Wikipedia/Public Domain

Detail from ‘The Death of Socrates’ by Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825) Source: Wikipedia/Public Domain

The Romans, however, fully approved of what might be termed “patriotic suicide” – death, in other words, as an alternative to dishonor. For the Stoics, a philosophical sect which originated in Greece, death was a guarantee of personal freedom, a way out of an intolerable existence. And so it was for Cato the Younger, who killed himself after the Pompeian cause was defeated at the Battle of Thapsus.

This was a ‘virtuous death’, one guided by reason and conscience. His example was later followed by Seneca, though under somewhat more straitened circumstances, as he had been ordered to do so on suspicion of being involved in the Pisonian conspiracy to kill Emperor Nero. A very definite line was drawn by the Romans between the virtuous suicide and suicide for entirely private reasons. They disapproved of Mark Antony not because he killed himself, but that he killed himself for love.