Ancient Rome’s Suicide History

History |

Ancient Rome is a place that people cite as extremely historically significant. A lot of things and systems originated in Rome including the Senate, something that loosely resembles the modern congresses and parliaments of the world. A little known fact about Romans is that they weren’t allowed to commit suicide, except when they were. 

Both Romans and Greeks had a relaxed, ethical and even laissez faire attitude toward the concept of suicide and its consequences to the afterlife. Romans didn’t see suicide as a general offense to the law. The approach to the question of suicide had to do more with truthless pragmatism rather than emotion. Titus Livy of the colony of Massalia (presently this place still exists as as Marsilles) avoided breaking any sort of moral or physical laws around suicide by simply following the law. In order to commit suicide, there was a loophole. You could commit suicide legally if you applied to the Roman senate and your appointment was approved. If their reasons were good enough, the Roman senators that were approved were given a position and a free amount of hemlock to kill themselves with. It was only forbidden in three cases.

People who were accused of capital crimes, soldiers and slaves were not allowed to commit legal suicide via Senate appointment. It seems like a crazy sentence to read right? Could you imagine if this was an American law in present day? People can barely win elections with all the money in the world. For people who want to commit suicide, they’d never be approved. If the accused killed themselves prior to a trial and conviction, the state would lose something. They wouldn’t be able to seize their property and the loophole could only be closed in a certain circumstance. The only historical evidence of this happening was with Domitian in the 1st century AD. He decreed that those who died prior to trial didn’t have any legal heirs. The soldier suicides were treated like desertion. If slaves killed themselves within six months of purchase, surprise, their owners would get a refund from the person who owned them before.

Romans never really approved patriotic suicide or death as an alternative to dishonor. The Stoics decided that death was a guarantee of personal freedom and a way out of a horrible existence that could not be tolerated further. Cato the Younger killed himself after the Pompeian cause was defeated during the Battle of Thapsus. He had a virtuous death and the famous Seneca who had succumbed later followed his example to seven crazier circumstances. He had to be ordered to do this under suspicion of being involved in a Pisonian conspiracy to kill Emperor Nero. 

There is definitely a line that has been drawn by the Romans between the virtuous suicides and reckless ones. These were referred to as suicide for private reasons. Mark Antony was widely disapproved of because he killed himself for love, and not a “just” cause. 

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Autumn Mcleod

Senior Writer

Autumn came to us really wanting to break away from the politics that came with working for major news sites. She leads our positive story writers in creating the best, engaging stories out there. She is an enthusiast of all things from the roaring twenties.