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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in