Sunday 12 November 2017

Suicide in Rome - by Antonia Senior

This week, I have been thinking about suicide.

Not, I promise, my own. I have been thinking about Roman suicide. There was a surge in suicides among Roman aristocrats under the Julio-Claudian Emperors. Suicide was a political act; and in imperial Rome, all politics must be understood in relation to the Emperor. Historian Paul Plass argues that this was game theory suicide, in which execution masqueraded as suicide. The victim could undermine the potency of the Emperor’s intent by claiming libertas – freedom - in the act of self-killing. It was a complicated dance, understood by all, in which the “first and central axiom in the political logic of suicide is the Emperor’s power”.

For the self-killing to fit into this exchange of power and agency, it was necessary to stage a "good” death. The contrast between a noble death and a deluded death is a pre-occupation of Seneca’s, and is visible in a constant theme in his drama and his philosophy.

This impression of an age with a morbid flavour is compounded by the sources. Our primary sources for the suicides in the reigns of the early emperors are Tacitus, Suetonius and Cassius Dio; all of them writing significantly later than the events they describe. Tacitus, in particular, is pre-occupied with political suicide.

It is clear, however, that for both early imperial writers and the later chroniclers, there were some familiar tropes that distinguish a good death. The first is the notion that death reveals the man. It is not enough to die, one must die well.

Bravery is crucial. Tacitus labours the duration of certain suicides, including that of Seneca, who takes an age to saw sufficient wounds in his wrists. He reveals a begrudging admiration for Petronius, whose subversive, drawn out death is a riot of feasting and excess.

Seneca: took his time

For Seneca, emulating Cato who himself emulates Socrates, it is important to die a thinking, philosophical death. Suicide is a reasonable response for a stoic who wishes to lay claim to freedom. “Do you ask where the path to freedom lies? It flows through every vein in your body,” says Seneca in his work On Anger. Historian Miriam Griffin argues that philosophy provided the etiquette and style for suicide, as well as a justification.

But how do you tell the difference between a virtuous free death and a deluded death. A “protocol of death” should be followed, to reinforce the notion that the self-killer is reclaiming freedom and virtue, rather than succumbing to morbidity. A good dinner, calm words with chosen friends, calmness in the act; all are ingredients. But there must be an audience. How else can witness be borne that reason triumphed despair? There is a theatricality necessary, then, to the political suicide.

To kill yourself in Imperial Rome meant comparing yourself to those who had gone before. For Seneca, a habitual user of exempla to define and encourage moral behaviour, it was not sufficient to emulate Cato and Socrates, he had to outdo them and become himself an exemplum.

The ultimate witness for the act of self-killing is the Emperor. Suicide was an important pre-emptive strike to avoid the Emperor’s humiliating offer of clemency. Clemency, as understood in its imperial context, was to be avoided – it is a pointed expression of the Emperor’s power and the powerlessness of the pardoned. To deprive the Emperor of a chance to offer or withhold clemency, is to assert freedom in the face of power.

This attempt to carve a vestige of virtue and freedom out of an imperial system which denies their possibility is the key to understanding stoic suicide. Stoics faced a fundamental tension between their commitment to nature and wisdom, and their necessary involvement in the public life of the state. A rational death allows this tension to be resolved. The details matter. Form matters; in part to resolve the central paradox of Roman political suicide. If suicide is the free choice of a free man, then what is suicide if the Emperor orders it?

Nero’s suicide escapes this central paradox –,at the moment of his death, he was still, theoretically, the Emperor. No-one ordered his death, although events suggested it as a rational course of action. The sources are hostile to Nero, and it is no coincidence that he bungles his suicide. No calm dinner for him, no noble witness. A ditch, a freedman, a failure of nerves. Nero begs his freedman to do the job for him, and thus shouts to posterity that he is less than a man. 

Nero: botched job


1 comment:

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating post, Antonia - thankyou!