Hostname: page-component-848d4c4894-4rdrl Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-06-16T19:23:36.205Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Philosophy, Cato, and Roman Suicide: II*

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 September 2009


II. Just as suicide has been, and is, practised in all sorts of societies, from the most primitive to the most civilized, so there has probably never been a social code that sanctioned it absolutely without conditions. In primitive societies there are often deep-seated superstitions about βιαοɡάνατοι, victims of violent or untimely death. It is a fear of the ghost, which it is thought will be vengeful or troubled and not rest in peace. Special modes of burial with denial of ordinary burial rites, originally an expression of this fear, are attested for Greece and possibly for early Rome. But whatever regulations of a religious kind once obtained in Rome, they seem to have lapsed by the historical period. It has, however, been suggested that the persistence of such feelings may partly explain the fairly frequent cases of mutual killing recorded right into the Empire. The Emperor Claudius, celebrated as an antiquarian, proposed to remove from the senate rolls a man who was said to have stabbed himself (Suet. Cl.16).

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 1986

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



1. Greece: Arist. N.E. 5.1138a13; Aeschines, , Ctes. 244Google Scholar; Rome: Servius on Aen. 12.603; Pliny, , N.H. 36.24, 107Google Scholar, though the sanction may have been limited to suicide by hanging: see Grisé, Y., Le Suicide dans la Rome antique (Montreal–Paris, 1982), pp. 127–56Google Scholar.

2. E.g. Petreius and Juba (B. Afr. 94); Roman soldiers among the Frisii (Tacitus, Ann. 4.73.4). The explanation is that of Bayet, J., ‘Le suicide mutuel dans la mentalité des romains’, L'Année sociologique 1951, 35ff.Google Scholar = Croyances et rites dans la Rome antique (Paris, 1971), pp. 130ffGoogle Scholar. Yet I find the alternative explanations of Grisé, , op. cit., pp. 99ffGoogle Scholar. more convincing: most of these suicides were of soldiers for whom the sword is the obvious method and simulated combat appropriate. Further, the sword is more quickly and accurately employed by another: this latter consideration applies also to suicides carried out by one's slave or friend.

3. E.g. Appius Claudius the decemvir: Livy 3.58.6; C. Papirius Carbo in 119 B.C.: Cicero, , Brutus 103Google Scholar.

4. E.g. P. Crassus Mucianus in 131 B.C. (V. Max. 3.2.12); M. Aemilius Scaurus in 102 B.C. (V. Max. 5.8.4); cf. Cicero, , Sest. 48Google Scholar.

5. Bayet, J., op. cit., 44Google Scholar, accepted by Jal, P., La guerre civile à Rome (Paris, 1963), p. 173Google Scholar and MacMullen, R., Enemies of the Roman Order (Cambridge, Mass., 1967), p. 5Google Scholar.

6. Cicero, when he first heard of the deaths of the Republicans in Africa in July of 46 (before the celebration of the triumphs in the autumn), wrote ‘ceteri quidem, Pompeius, Lentulustuus, Scipio, Afranius foede perierunt. At Cato praeclare’ (Fam. 9.18.2). The others mentioned had been murdered but Metellus Scipio committed suicide by stabbing himself and falling overboard when his ship was about to be captured, and, in later writers (Seneca, , Ep. 24.9–10Google Scholar; Quintilian, 5.11.10), his death is celebrated as comparable to Cato's. It is possible that Cicero did not yet know the circumstances of his death, on which our evidence is discrepant: he may have thought he had been killed (as implied in B. Afr. 96.2) or that his suicide had been accomplished by drowning (as in Livy, , Per. 114Google Scholar), a means not esteemed by the Roman upper classes (Grisé, , op. cit., p. 113Google Scholar). Alternatively, he may already have decided that suicide in these circumstances was only appropriate to Cato because of his character, as he says in Off. 1.112, where, however, only the alternative of surrender is considered.

7. As is suggested by the fact that Appian, B.C. 2.101 comments on the omission of Pompey's death from this exhibition. This omission is not a reason for seeing in Caesar's action a bid for popular favour rather than a display of vindictiveness, for, though Appian may be right to emphasize Pompey's popularity in this context, it was more important that he had been deceived and murdered by Egyptians – their punishmeńt was displayed. The defeat of the allied city of Massilia was also put on show (Cicero, , Phil. 8.18)Google Scholar.

8. Amply attested in the case of Cato: Appian, , B.C. 2.99Google Scholar; Plut, . Cato Minor 72.2Google Scholar; Caesar 54; Dio, 43.12.1.

9. In view of the long tradition, not only Roman but foreign, of suicide in the face of defeat that Grisé demonstrates, it seems an odd suggestion that Caesar expected the crowd to view these suicides as a desertion of military duty (pp. 164, 270).

10. Cf. Seneca, Elder, Contr. 10.3.5Google Scholar; Suas. 6.2; Dio, 43.10.3 whose interpretation is even less philosophical.

11. The parallels between Cato's death and that of his biographer Thrasea Paetus, both in reality and in the literary representations, and their relation to Socrates death and its celebration in the Phaedo are well brought out by Geiger, J., Athenaeum 57 (1979), 6166Google Scholar. The disquieting aspects of Cato's behaviour (see n. 20 below), however, still favour the idea that Seneca used Socrates as his direct model, though, as I have argued throughout this paper, Cato's inspiration is vital to the fashionableness of these theatrical scenes.

12. Plut, . Brutus 40.4ffGoogle Scholar. μἠ ὅσιον echoes Phaedo 62A). Brutus was an adherent of the Old Academy, a Platonist in the new dogmatic style introduced by Antiochus of Ascalon (Cicero, , Brutus 149Google Scholar; 322; Fin. 5.8). Moles, J., Latomus 42 (1983), 767ffGoogle Scholar. argues for the authenticity of Plutarch's story and suggests that Cicero was here implicitly replying to Brutus, who may have discussed the issue in his Cato, written in 46/45 B.C. (it was being copied in March 45, Cic. Att. 12.21.3), or in private conversation. If Brutus really invited Cicero to write his Caιo, as Cicero claimed (Orator 35), the idea could have been expressed in a letter to Cicero, but Caecina's scepticism (Fam. 6.7.4) deserves to be taken seriously.

13. When Cicero first heard of Cato's death, he described it as ‘necesse’ (Fam. 9.18.2), but this is probably not an allusion to Socrates' ἀ νάγκη rather, as Shackleton-Bailey ad loc. says, Cicero either did not know or did not credit Caesar's wish to pardon Cato (above, n. 8). By the time he wrote De Officiis, after Caesar's murder, he seems to have believed it (as 1.112 implies) and to have found another justification for his own failure to commit suicide like Cato (see below, n. 15).

14. For the importance of the doctrine of personae in this context, see Seneca, pp. 381–82. Cato seems to have made the distinction himself: Appian, , B.C. 1.98Google Scholar; Dio, 43.10.5; Plut, . Cato Minor 64.3–5Google Scholar; 65.4–5; 69 (in speaking to his philosophers).

15. Plut, . Cato Minor 65.4Google Scholar; 66.4; Cicero, , Fam. 9.18.2 (see above, n. 13)Google Scholar; 7.3.4 (Shackleton-Bailey, however, dates this before Cato's suicide but without any compelling reason); 4.13.2.

16. The sword is here preferred as a ‘Roman death’, though poison and starvation were not generally despised by the Roman upper class, as the examples of Atticus, Corellius Rufus, and Seneca show. Probably it was felt to be the appropriate method for soldiers and commanders (as Cato was at the time): note the suicide of a Roman soldier by the sword, celebrated as a victory over disease in Greek epigrams of the first century A.D. (A.P. 7.233 = Gow-Page, , Garland of Philip, Apollonides 20Google Scholar; A.P. 7.234 = Gow-Page, , op. cit., Philip 31Google Scholar; cf. A.P. 9.354 = Page, Leonidas of Alexandria 31). This might support the identification of Martial's Festus with C. Calpetanus Rantius Quirinalis Valerius Festus who had a distinguished military career, as does the hostility of Pliny and Tacitus who would be eager to discredit a close friend of Domitian (so Chilver, G. E. F., A Historical Commentary on Tacitus' Histories I and II (Oxford, 1979), p. 259)Google Scholar.

17. Pliny, , Ep. 5.5Google Scholar; 8.12.4; note his own efforts in this vein: 3.16; 6.16; 7.19. Marx, F. A., Philologus 92 (1937), 83ff.CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schunk, P., Symbolae Osloenses 39 (1964), 38ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18. On this literature, see recently Zecchini, G., Athenaeum 58 (1980), 39ff.Google Scholar; Fehrle, R., Cato Uticensis (Darmstadt, 1983), pp. 280ffGoogle Scholar. The death of Cato in April of 46 B.C. was already described by Cicero in his laudatio (Seneca, Elder, Suas. 6.4)Google Scholar which he started to write in May or June (Att. 12.4), and in extended form, for it seems to have included Cato's attempt to dissuade his son and Statillius from imitating him (Priscian, , GLK II. 510.19)Google Scholar. As the work was apparently finished in July/August 46 (Att. 12.5.2) before Caesar's triumph (though Caesar did not see it until the spring of 45), it is reasonable to suppose that Cicero already defended Cato's suicide there, probably along the lines of Tusc. 1.74 and Off. 1.112. It must also have been treated in the other eulogies and attacks on Cato (above, n. 12), including one by the Gallus, Epicurean Fadius (Fam. 7.24.3)Google Scholar. All of this literary activity may be the inspiration behind Nepos' extended treatment of Atticus' death which already exhibits some of the classic features of the later literary tableaux, especially as this biography has many elements of encomium. For other possible effects of Cato's death, via Atticus' encouragement, on Nepos' literary activity, see Geiger, J., Cornelius Nepos and Ancient Political Biography, Historia Einzelschriften 47 (1985), pp. 82, 84, 106Google Scholar.

19. Gill, C., CQ 23 (1973), 25ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

20. Cato's irascible conduct, contrary to Stoic ἀπάθɛια, which surfaces at times in Plutarch's account (Cato Minor 67.2; 68.3–5) and was emphasized by Benz, E., Das Todesproblem in der Stoischen Philosophie (Tübinger Beiträge zur Altertumswissenschaft 68 (1929)), p. 118Google Scholar, helps to guarantee the truth of the account for which Plutarch's immediate source was Thrasea Paetus. His ultimate sources could include eye-witness accounts, according to Geiger, , op. cit., 6567Google Scholar.

21. The jurists for the period from Trajan on were concerned, for financial reasons, to exclude from the legal privileges that death before condemnation could secure, suicides carried out in consciousness of guilt and expectation of condemnation. Therefore they were often content to lump respectable reasons such as illness, poverty, shame under the heading taedium vitae. This usage is akin to that of Latin writers generally (e.g. Pliny, , N.H. 2.63.156Google Scholar) and is distinct from the philosophers' use of the phrase to condemn an irrational distaste of life (Seneca, , Ep. 24.22; 78.25Google Scholar). This is discussed by Grisé, , op. cit., pp. 72–3; 260Google Scholar.

22. The promise to tell his friends what he discovered about the nature of the soul through dying was carried out in a further elaboration of the story in Plutarch, , Mor. frag. 211 SGoogle Scholar.

23. Seneca uses examples of servile suicide to illustrate contempt for death even among the lowly (e.g. Ep.70. 19ff.; cf. 24.11); the suicide of a freedwoman of Augustus' daughter Julia (Suet, . Aug. 65.2)Google Scholar and that of the freedwoman Epicharis (Tac, . Ann. 15.57,2Google Scholar) are used to show up ignoble conduct by their betters. The possibility of suicide, always a problem for insurance schemes, was worth mentioning in the regulations for the burial club of Lanuvium (ILS 7212, II.3–4) in A.D. 136: on the ‘men of modest means, slave and free, who joined such clubs’, see Hopkins, K., Death and Renewal (Cambridge, 1983), pp. 211ffCrossRefGoogle Scholar.

24. Grisé, , op. cit., pp. 5357Google Scholar, though she makes clear her awareness of the selective character of our evidence, concludes that the increase in the number of suicides, attested by our sources for the period 100 B.C. to A.D. 100, was actually limited to those members of the upper orders whose lives were most affected by the political upheavals of that period.

The methods of suicide do seem to have been socially differentiated: hanging, drowning and jumping off heights were normally eschewed by the upper classes (Grisé, , op. cit., p. 94)Google Scholar.