Monday, January 27, 2003

Cato and His Heirs: Roman Ideals of Suicide

In this mornings lecture Dr. Fagan described Catos graphic suicide. I had never heard the details before. He apparently fell on his sword. His servants heard his moans and found him and sewed him up and bandaged him. When they left him alone, he ripped off the bandages pulled out the stitches with his fingers then yanked out his own intestines. Now that was a determined man!

Suicide has been supported by a number of prominent Roman writers and philosophers:

Seneca, a passionate defender of suicide, writes that "the wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can" and adds that "the best thing which eternal law ever ordained was that it allowed us one entrance into life, but many exits" (Epistulae 70.4; 70.14). Similarly, the elder Pliny writes, "the chief consolation for natures imperfection in the case of man is that not even for a god are all things possible - for he cannot, even if he wishes, kill himself, the supreme boon that nature has bestowed on man among all the penalties of life" (Natural History 2.27). Lucan extols "the glory of suicide" arguing that "no mans life is too short if it affords him time to contrive his own death" (Pharsalia 4.478-80). For Lucan, suicide is sweet and fitting, but "only those whose onrushing fate is already upon them are granted this revelation: those who will go on living--the gods keep them in the dark, that they may endure to live on: death is a blessing!" (Pharsalia 4.517-20). The Stoic philosopher Epictetus uses elaborate metaphors to endorse suicide: "Above all, remember that the door stands open. Do not be more fearful than children. But, just as when they are tired of the game they cry, "I will play no more," so too when you are in a similar situation, cry, "I will play no more" and depart. But if you stay, do not cry." Similarly, he later adds, "Is there smoke in the room? If it is slight, I remain. If it is grievous, I quit it" (Discourses 1.24-25).
Roman writers advocating suicide often praised it as a path to freedom. For Lucan this can mean a freedom from fear of death itself: "Make death your choice, and all fear vanishes" (Pharsalia 4.485). For Seneca, life is nothing but "bonds of slavery" subjugating men to the whims of Fortune. However, although "Fortune has all power over one who lives--she has no power over one who knows how to die" (Ep. 70.6). Lucan agrees: "It is no arduous feat to escape slavery by ones own hand--weapons were granted that none need live as slave" (Pharsalia 4.576-8). Plutarch has Cato express a similar sentiment when his sword is brought to him the evening before his suicide: "Now I am master of myself," he declares (Lives, Life of Cato the Younger, pg. 959). Seneca eloquently sums up this idea of suicide as an expression of freedom in De Ira:


In whatever direction you may turn your eyes, there lies the means to end your woes. Do you see that precipice? Down that is the way to liberty. Do you see that sea, that well? There sits liberty--at the bottom. Do you see that tree, stunted, blighted and barren? Yet from its branches hangs liberty. Do you see that throat of yours, your gullet, your heart? They are ways of escape from servitude. Are the ways of egress I show you too toilsome, do they require too much courage and strength? Do you ask what is the highway to liberty? Any vein in your body (3.15.4)."

However, suicide was not universally accepted by Roman society:

"To a defeated Roman general, all his options other than suicide were effectively fates worse than death. If he had been defeated by a non-Roman enemy, he faced capture and likely execution--both unbearable humiliations. If his enemy was another Roman faction, he faced either execution and its attendant humiliations (such as having his head paraded through Rome), or else, perhaps worst of all, clemency from his conqueror. Roman aristocrats, who prided themselves on being utterly equal to their peers, could not abide being beholden to anyone for anything, and what debt could be greater than owing another ones very life? Avoiding the dishonor of being pardoned was probably one of Catos primary motives for committing suicide, as Caesar prided himself on his clemency. Indeed, Caesar is supposed to have said, upon learning of Catos suicide, "Cato, I grudge you your death, as you have grudged me the preservation of your life" (Plutarch, Cato the Younger 959). "