Dying to Make a Point

Shadi Bartsch

  • Death in Ancient Rome by Catharine Edwards
    Yale, 287 pp, £25.00, June 2007, ISBN 978 0 300 11208 5
  • The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint by Emily Wilson
    Profile, 247 pp, £15.99, August 2007, ISBN 978 1 86197 762 5

Socrates in his cell, drinking hemlock. Cato at Utica, disembowelling himself not once but twice. And Seneca, with cuts in his arms and legs, waiting for the blood to trickle out of his shrivelled old veins. There is a reason these deaths have resonated with writers and thinkers throughout history: why, for example, Joseph Addison would write a drama in praise of Cato; why this drama would be admired by George Washington and imitated by Eustace Budgell; and why the latter’s 1737 suicide note would read: ‘What Cato did, and Addison approv’d,/Cannot be wrong.’ These deaths were meant to resonate. While the immediate reality of the final moments is beyond our grasp, the ancient texts that record them found them memorable: they were taken to be the last exploit, the final stamp, of a life well lived. For their contemporaries, these accounts simultaneously underlined the courage of the one dying, recommended to posterity the worth of his existence and demonstrated his qualification, in the act of dying, to comment on the moral or political condition of the res publica. These characters have stood at times as models of dedication to philosophical or political ideals, at times as examples of pre-Christian misguidedness about the meaning of death, though even Dante, so quick to condemn his fellow Florentines, saved the suicide Cato from his Inferno and made of him a judge of men.

The authors of the histories, speeches and essays that featured such men chose their subjects with care. It is rare to read about the exemplary death of a member of Rome’s urban populace, whose lives were of limited interest to the literate upper classes and were mostly snuffed out by various forms of disease (malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid). It was aristocratic death – most notably aristocratic suicide – that offered itself for political and philosophical appropriation, especially in the turbulent years of imperial Rome in the first century CE. Earlier, among the Greeks, it was above all Socrates, with his deliberate choice to die at the hands of his fellow Athenians, who provided the fuel for an entire industry of posthumous interpretation; among the Romans, brave deaths on the battlefield gradually gave way, in terms of cultural prominence, to an aristocratic and philosophical cult of those who committed suicide: a cult in turn appropriated to some degree by the early Christian martyrs, whose deaths also served to exemplify higher forms of truth than political ones.

This arc from early to imperial Rome provides the organising principle for Catharine Edwards’s excellent book, which takes death and the representation of death as lenses through which to highlight some of the most striking characteristics of Roman culture. In analysing the ancient treatment of death, she shows that it is not only inextricable from other aspects of that culture – military, aesthetic, philosophical, political – but also informed by the persistent idea of dying with (or for) an audience. Death in Ancient Rome deals with gladiators and soldiers as well as senators and generals, but in all cases the emphasis is on the concern of the Roman upper class to stress the exemplary and spectacular nature of such deaths. Spectacle had always been a part of Roman valour: in war, both the ritual act of devotio – in which a military leader sacrifices his life to the gods in order to guarantee a victory – and the doomed bravery of an ordinary soldier depended for their effect on the way they were witnessed; part of the value of the act was its ability to inspire others by self-display. Julius Caesar several times remarks that his soldiers perform more bravely when under his gaze; Roman authors of the early imperial period, on the other hand, examine the non-exemplary deaths of civil war. The heroes of Lucan’s poem Bellum Civile, for example, seek an audience for acts of valour or self-sacrifice that only highlight the savagery of fighting with one’s own countrymen.

But the ancient authors find even in the wretched demise of gladiators in the arena some principle worthy of imitation. Prisoners of war, criminals, slaves and professional fighters who hewed at one another or at wild beasts: here is a class of morituri whose deaths might seem as edifying as a snuff film. Nonetheless, low brutes though they may have been (among Roman elites, the term ‘gladiator’ could be used as an insult – i.e. ‘thug’ or ‘scum’), gladiators occupied a polyvalent position in Roman elite culture. They were scum who could die like heroes, the lowest of the low, but they always had an audience for their deaths; the gladiator who stretched his neck out to meet the blow became a model for the noble death. For the less philosophically inclined spectators, Edwards suggests that sadistic voyeurism probably trumped any notion that the self-control involved in not watching was preferable. In Plato’s Republic, Leontius fights the urge to look at a pile of executed criminals and, in succumbing, damns his own eyes for their greedy desire. St Augustine famously condemned this pleasure in his account of his friend Alypius, who was converted into an avid fan of the games after a single glimpse of the slaughter: ‘As soon as he saw the blood, he drank in the savagery. He did not turn away, but fixed his gaze and drew in the madness without knowing it, and he revelled in the criminal conflict and was drunk on the pleasure of the gore.’

When the Stoic philosopher Seneca used gladiators as exemplars it was because even these lowly deaths could be appropriated to the ends of a philosophy that claimed that life was in essence a dress-rehearsal for death. It’s hard to imagine, today, embracing Socrates’ claim in the Phaedo that the purpose of philosophy is to learn how to die, a sentiment that Seneca echoes in reminding us that freedom is but a decision away. As he memorably puts the notion (in De ira), ‘You ask what the path to liberty is? Any vein in your body!’ It’s true, though, that suicide as the logical way out of a difficult life is an idea that some moderns have endorsed. In his ‘Essay on Suicide’, David Hume thought it would be strange for God to deny us an option that even a malaria mosquito could inflict; Georges Poulet disagreeably proclaimed that death by one’s own hand is the only act that avoids the twin perils of a meaningless existence and a chance death; and thinkers from John Donne to Schopenhauer have mounted various lines of defence. But in general, as Philippe Ariès argued in The Hour of Our Death, we now generally treat death not as the ultimate test of our courage or convictions, but as the inevitable and unpleasant culmination of our waning years. From the sociological point of view, we tend to assume, in line with Durkheim, that suicide represents a kind of personal or psychological failure, the outcome of an individual’s maladaptive integration with his or her social group. Modern medicine usually considers suicide an issue of mental health, a choice in the face of depression or mental illness, even when those problems stem from real-life tragedy. Perhaps modern parallels to Roman elite suicides are rather to be found in examples of self-immolation as a conscious form of political protest: Thich Quang Duc in South Vietnam in 1963, or Jan Palach in 1969 after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia.

First-century Roman senators who killed themselves also used their deaths as a form of communication. As Timothy Hill suggested in Ambitiosa Mors (2004), a calm and well-planned suicide testified ‘to an individual’s ability to act as an exemplary moral witness within Roman society’. In other words, a Roman senator who killed himself – even, or especially, if he did so at imperial command or imperial hint – demonstrated by his death his moral qualification to criticise the regime, directly or obliquely. Cato, when he committed suicide after the defeat of the republican army rather than survive to be pardoned by Caesar (or so our sources would have it), made it clear that he found death preferable to mercy from a man who had no right to grant it. Later Stoics followed his lead, often explicitly invoking him or modelling their deaths on his. Upper-class political resistance to the emperor thus clothed itself in the garb of philosophy and made a virtue of voluntary or enforced self-removal from the mortal coil. But there was a pragmatic reason, too: from the reign of Tiberius onwards, suicide in anticipation of condemnation (except in cases of treason) was a way to vouchsafe the privileges that went with natural death; Tacitus tells us that some nobles killed themselves when facing trial to avoid confiscation of their property by the emperor.

Edwards also discusses the invocation of death at Roman dinner parties, especially in an Epicurean context – eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you die – and devotes a chapter to the few female deaths represented in Roman history and their frequent eroticisation at the hands of male authors. In a final chapter on Christian martyrdom she points out, following Lucy Grig’s Making Martyrs in Late Antiquity (2004), that Augustine wanted the written Christian accounts of martyrs giving up their lives to be taken up as an alternative to the actual watching of gladiatorial fights or criminal executions. His hope was that these accounts might pry the faithful away from the dangers of voyeuristic pleasure: they are the ‘better spectacles’ – meliora spectacula – for the faithful. Perhaps surprisingly, Christian martyrdom may have taken its cue from the pagan glorification of noble suicide, especially in the sense of dying to make a point: as Edwards puts it, ‘the death of a Christian martyr could be read as bearing witness to a larger truth, the truth of resurrection of the body, the truth of God.’ Augustine, who condemned Cato’s act, also connects pagan suicide and Christian martyrdom: if the Decii consecrated themselves to death in order to appease the anger of the gods with their blood and deliver the Roman army, the holy martyrs should not take pride in spilling their blood for their faith.

Emily Wilson’s book The Death of Socrates provides an interesting counterpart to much of this discussion of the Roman way of death. Socrates’ death, of course, was not a suicide but the result of a sentence passed by an Athenian jury. Wilson surveys the possible causes of the sentence, acknowledging Socrates’ connection to the anti-democratic Thirty Tyrants but also stressing his presentation of his religious radicalism as an ideal form of piety. There’s a reason for the uncertainty: Socrates’ decision not to leave Athens but to remain in his cell and accept his death sentence rendered him, even in antiquity, subject to conflicting interpretations. We are most familiar with Plato’s Socrates; especially Plato’s description of his teacher’s last days in the Phaedo, in which Socrates presents his views on the immortality of the soul. Both Plato and Xenophon suggest that Socrates’ acceptance of death was the logical outcome of his thinking. But even this leaves room for confusion, since Socrates’ famous claim in the Apology is that he will obey ‘the god’ at all times over his fellow citizens, whereas in the Crito he seems to identify his interests with the interests of precisely those fellow citizens: he refuses Crito’s offer to help him escape by emphasising his obedience to the laws of the city.

As Wilson points out, we are missing many of the other ancient reactions to the man, such as the unflattering accounts of Polycrates’ Prosecution of Socrates and Aristoxenus of Tarentum’s biography. At Rome, he won a mixed reception; Cato the Elder, for one, apparently called him a big chatterbox who tried to destroy the laws and customs of his country. Other Romans also had their doubts: after all, Cato died a military death for the republic, but Socrates died for a philosophical principle – and talked incessantly until the moment of his death. Cicero contrasts Cato’s deeds to Socrates’ (mere) words and finds in Socrates a dangerous precedent for civil disobedience. For the first-century Stoics, at any rate, one way of getting round the problem of Socrates’ life was to focus on his lack of fear before death, indeed his embrace of it. Seneca takes the view that ‘hemlock made Socrates great’, while Epictetus found the memory of Socrates in death more useful to the world than the things that he did and said when alive.

Much of Wilson’s book treats the subsequent reception of Socrates from late antiquity to the present. The church father Tertullian claimed that Socrates did not really understand the immortality of the soul; John Chrysostom criticised the manner of his death. But Marsilio Ficino, the Italian humanist, compared Socrates to Jesus, and Erasmus famously praised him in his Enchiridion and the Praise of Folly; in Godly Feast one interlocutor goes so far as to exclaim: ‘Holy Socrates, pray for us.’ And for Montaigne, too, Socrates was the paradigm for man’s search for self-knowledge.

The Enlightenment seems to have accentuated a different aspect of his character, remaking Socrates in the image of teacher and public intellectual, and he later came to represent ‘not the pleasures of intellectual friendship, but the solitude of the intellectual who resists social conformity’. In his Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Hegel remarked that Athens was right to condemn him, but Socrates right to resist; the tragedy is that both were right. Nietzsche, on the other hand, in The Birth of Tragedy found Socrates too rational to allow for tragedy’s existence at all: ‘The image of the dying Socrates, as the human being whom knowledge and reasons have liberated from the fear of death, is the emblem that, above the entrance gate of science, reminds all of its mission – namely, to make existence appear comprehensible and thus justified.’ In our own day, Socrates has been invoked both against totalitarianism – as in Popper’s Open Society and its Enemies and Roberto Rossellini’s 1970 film Socrate – and against democracy, most famously in I.F. Stone’s 1988 Trial of Socrates.

But a question remains – and the paucity of our evidence is a handicap here. When the exemplary quality of any death is introduced by tendentious authors, to what degree do we acquiesce? Both Edwards’s book and this review, of course, in devoting so much time to a few prominent deaths, buy into the notion of their importance; we are talking not so much about ‘death in ancient Rome’ as the ideological use of death among the Roman elite – and for that matter, the Greeks before them and Western history after them. Did ‘Sanctus Socrates’ really drink hemlock without a single shudder of fear, a single thought for his family, all in order to show his belief in the immortality of the soul or his obedience to the laws of Athens? Does Tacitus in his Annals describe Seneca’s measures to kill himself, each one failing after the other, in order to mock his last efforts (as Wilson would have it) or to praise his determination? Cato comes down in the tradition as a hero, but not without a bump or two: the account in Plutarch has him rather bungling his death, stabbing himself too shallowly and knocking over an abacus; in a fit of bad temper the previous night, he hit a slave. Seneca’s highminded account in his epistles has none of this. Later readers, too, did not always fall into ideological line. Stoic suicide is mocked by Martial, the self-immolation of the philosopher Peregrinus meets similar treatment in Lucian and the jurist Ulpian criticised Stoic suicide as a form of ostentatious self-display, iactatio. Similarly, Tacitus dismisses the political suicides of Domitian’s era as ambitiosa mors, self-advertising deaths, while Marcus Aurelius argues that one’s death should not be dramatic display (nor, he says, should it be caused by mere obstinacy, as with the Christians). As Edwards noted in an earlier article on the afterlife of Cato, even the laudatory tradition surrounding Cato’s death could fail to impress: John Hughes, in the preface to his 1708 English translation of Fontenelle’s Dialogues of the Dead, calls the whole thing a show of false bravery and concludes dismissively that we have here ‘the Cowardice of an uneasie Spirit that cou’d bear Life no longer, when attended with Disappointment’.

What about other kinds of suicide? Speculation could focus on the emotion we call depression. Can we see its shape lurking in the Roman notion of taedium vitae, disgust with life, which Ulpian offers as one cause of suicide? Such deaths are hardly philosophical: indeed, Seneca tells us that contemplating philosophy is what brings on the dejection in the first place. He describes the feeling as a disdain for life (vitae fastidium), a weariness of seeing and doing the same things ad infinitum. Other ideologies of suicide may lurk in antiquity as well. Leaving aside the elegiac poets, whose examples of death for love are mostly mythological, we find praise of the easy death from none other than the emperor Augustus. ‘For generally whenever he heard that someone had died quickly and without suffering,’ his biographer Suetonius reported, ‘he prayed for a similar euthanasia for himself and his family.’ Other suicides may have been passed over unmentioned because they are not exemplary. Anton van Hooff has argued that the ancient stigma against death by hanging means it was probably under-reported; we do know that some nobles took poison instead of doing the manly thing with a dagger or knife. And the elder Pliny identifies the ongoing pain of bladder-stones, stomach pains and headaches as common cause for suicide.

We will never know the truths about these noble deaths; no journals survive to detail the last moments of the dying. But a sobering counterpoint, at least to Roman military heroes and Christian martyrs, is provided by the private thoughts of several of the Japanese kamikaze pilots of World War Two. Hailed by their nation as self-sacrificing heroes, these young men reportedly went to their deaths with eagerness, but at least a few did not buy into the glory of their deaths. Nakao Takenori had read the Phaedo before his death and wrote: ‘The last writing by Socrates, in which he praises the beauty of the world after death, makes me want to live rather than die.’ Despite ideology and philosophy, men who die bravely perhaps remain simply victims.