Petitioning for Death: Did Ancient Romans Really Ask for Permission to Commit Suicide?
Cases of suicide are known to have occurred in ancient Rome, as they have been recorded by ancient writers. But there are many questions surrounding this subject that have yet to be fully answered. A couple of common ponderings related to this subject are: Did Romans really have to ask the Senate for permission to take their own lives? Why did the famous couple Mark Antony and Cleopatra commit suicide?
There is much reliance on written sources to gain an understanding of this matter, which is not without its problems. For instance, whilst ancient authors wrote about the suicides of famous figures, those committed by the common people (assuming they did occur) were not. Additionally, written sources may represent the views of certain individuals, rather than that of the community as a whole. On top of that, at times it is up to the modern reader to make his / her interpretations about these writings. In any case, this article will attempt to shed some light on the issue of suicide in ancient Rome.
‘The death of Seneca’ (1684), painting by Luca Giordano, depicting the suicide of Seneca the Younger in Ancient Rome. ( Public Domain )
‘Memorable Doings and Sayings’
First of all, various sources online have claimed that ancient Romans could make a petition to the Senate if they wished to commit suicide. Once the Senate approved the petition, the person would be given a vial of poison made from hemlock to kill themselves with. These sources claim that this account comes from Livy’s History of Rome . This, however, is a misattribution, as it is actually found in Valerius Maximus’ Memorable Doings and Sayings .
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‘Cicero Denounces Catiline’ by Cesare Maccari (1889). ( Public Domain ) Representation of a sitting of the Roman Senate.
In this work, Valerius wrote that it was the inhabitants of Massalia (an ancient Greek colony that is known today as Marseille) who had this practice. Furthermore, Valerius mentions that the Massalian Senate would temper their investigation of the petition with wisdom and goodwill, instead of rashly granting petitioners the right to commit suicide. The senators would also endeavor to find alternative measures to help the petitioners out of their difficulties. It is unknown, however, as to either the frequency of such petitions, or the efficacy of the alternatives to suicide that were provided by the Senate.
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Whilst the story regarding the practice of petitioning for the right to commit suicide does not come from Livy, this ancient writer did record many cases of suicide in Roman history. One of these, for example, is that of Lucretia, the wife of Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus. Collatinus, along with Lucius Junius Brutus, overthrew the Roman monarchy, and served as one of the first two consuls of the Roman Republic. Lucretia was raped by Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus. Having told her husband and father about that which had happened, she committed suicide by stabbing her heart with a dagger, rather than continuing to live with shame and dishonor. As a result of Sextus’ deed, Coolatinus was spurred into action, and it contributed to the downfall of the Roman monarchy.
Lucretia. ( Public Domain )
Perhaps one of the most famous cases of suicide in ancient Rome is that of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. In 30 BC, Mark Antony had been defeated by Octavian (the future Augustus) at the Battle of Alexandria. In order to avoid being captured alive, and wrongly believing that Cleopatra had taken her own life too, the Roman triumvir committed suicide by stabbing himself with his sword. According to Plutarch, the wound did not kill Antony immediately, and he later died in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra committed suicide soon after. Although the exact manner of her suicide is still not entirely clear, many ancient historians have alleged that she did so by allowing herself to be bitten by a poisonous snake.
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A late 19th century painting of Act IV, Scene 15 of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra: Cleopatra holds Antony as he dies. By Alexandre Bidas. (Folger Shakespeare Library/ CC BY SA 4.0 )
For the defeated enemies of Rome, the options were limited. They could either commit suicide, hence escaping capture and further humiliation, or allow themselves to be captured, and paraded in Rome as a trophy of war. Whilst Antony and Cleopatra chose suicide, their children, Alexander Helios, Cleopatra Selene II, and Ptolemy Philadelphos, were brought back to Rome as trophies of war. It is probable that for many of the defeated enemies of Rome, dying with freedom was preferable to living in chains, thus making suicide the more desirable option.
Top image: ‘Lucretia’ by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Lucretia’s suicide is a well-known example of suicide in ancient Rome. Source: Museo Soumaya .
By Wu Mingren
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