Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)


A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.

31 thoughts on “Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

  1. An impressive review of suicide through the ages. However I still differentiate between chosing not to suffer through a useless and hopeless medical treatment and outright suicide. In my book, the former is a lucid and responsible way of facing a terminal sickness and death in a dignified manner, the latter is a cop out. Looking at it from an honour point of view is a nice rationalisation but a rationalisation none the less.


      1. “In my book” is just an expression meaning “in my mind” or “in my personal values”. No print is involved.


  2. @Paul

    Ah ok. English is so damn rich. Cet écrit est une espèce de massacre, I recognize it. Il y a douzaines de morts. Je voulais vous répondre mais j’ai bu du Limoncello et puis j’ai vu ‘Love in the Afternoon’ (1957) with my wife, starring Audrey Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Maurice Chevalier and directed by Billy Wilder. Delightful. I will reply tomorrow caro amico.


    1. I looked at Wikipedia. That limoncello sounds very good but could probably play tricks on you as any of those fruit alcools. Well, iassou.


      1. Why ‘play tricks’, it’s just made of water, lemon skins and alcohol. I guess we add very little sugar, or it’d get too sweet. Many non home-made limoncelli are too sweet.


  3. This is quite a thesis on taking one’s own life, a bit slanted on the “noble” side. Here, in Oregon, we have an end of life choice that is quite controversial in other parts of the country. I can see that dying rather than surrendering will always appeal to the classicists.

    On another note: thanks for becoming a follower.


  4. @Paul

    I wanted to show that there are different ways (of considering any form of suicide) which go back to our roots. Of course I considered a wider angle and shifted from the Eluana-Schiavo cases., even though Montaigne at the end considers extreme pain as a good cause for ending life.

    Allow me to say that antiquity is not something literary, it is a concrete civilization partly surviving. If in a modern context the sense of honour of Lucretia is alien, it is less so in so-called backward rural villages of southern Europe, where honour suicides and killings were (and are) not unknown.

    This can maybe explain why the described suicides were mostly not a cop out. They should be seen in their different context. A guy like Cato was not a coward, his will was like steel and he was a true Stoic.

    And even today, I’ve always wondered who died better, Hitler or Mussolini (a horrible dilemma, I ask for pardon, which I cannot solve)


    1. Yes, MoR, honor suicides and killings are still the order of the day in many coutries in Asia and Africa and in remote (backward?) villages in some part of Europe, even in France. To me, however, it still makes no sense. As for your dilemma, I can’t help you solve it. Hitler fled his responsibilities to his country and the world, Mussolini somehow paid the price. God will solve the riddle in the end.
      As for Antiquity as much respect as I may have for that era and it’s people I pretend that the mores then current are not relevant today. And please don’t shoot me.


  5. @Paul

    Ok, I won’t shoot you, I promise, ah ah ah.

    Well, I don’t know Paul. Here in Europe religion is waning, people are trying to understand what their values are (have you ever heard of the weird *Temples of Damanhur* in northern Italy, dug in the alpine rock not far from Turin? Someone said it’s the eighth wonder of the world.)

    Personally, I prefer to get back to our Greco-Roman roots, which is not a barren exercise on something dead, ancient thought being totally incorporated in modern thought. As for Stoicism, human equality and brotherhood or natural law are elements of its legacy. And I wish I had a better knowledge to tell you how much of the American constitution is ‘ancient’. (I’m digressing, but not too much I hope)

    Even in my weird for-fun exploration of science (invited in this by my friend Extropian) I recently found this (Calabrian, by the way) connection between Pythagoras and the modern theories of the universe (Kitty Ferguson, The Music of Pythagoras, 2008. Outstanding, especially for those who love music).

    We can ‘make sense’ of the universe, said Pythagoras and Einstein. Is there affinity between our rationality (math etc.) and the universe? Amazing theme.

    I mean, WE are the ancients Paul …

    Well, as date of birth, you and me, we surely are.

    (I’ll skip the Hitler’s dilemma. The man is too hideous)


    1. MoR, date of birth for me is 15 March 1931 and I was steeped in classicism and Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. A potent mix. However over the years I have taken leave of organized religions but not of the values I got from that environment. As many seem to have done, I have not thrown the baby with the bath water. This being said I have not reversed to Paganism.
      There was an article recently, on the BBC site, if I’m not mistaken, about your Northern Italy Pagan friends and their grottos. Interesting but not for me.
      As for the Stoicists, I respect their opinions like I respect other point of views but suicide is not my cup of tea to solve any problems wether of honor or health or a way to escape execution…let the tyrant kill me, I will not give him the pleasure of doing it for him.
      As for being “Ancient” that notion is intriguing. I guess some of the values I still adhere to may make me Ancient, but I also feel modern and with my time. I’m sure you do too, otherwise what would we be doing here.


  6. @Paul

    Paul, my date of birth is 1948, we belong to the same half century. I feel modern too and I also feel that we basically agree.

    Although there are at least 2 differences:

    1) I am agnostic, I don’t mind if there isn’t anybody superior up there looking after us (although how can I know) and I think that if this Being exists there’s no evidence that he really cares for us;

    2) belonging to the 2 opposite sides of the pond we might have a different perception of what is change & continuity in history. I’ll explain only the former point. The latter on a later reply.

    1) My agnosticism. I confess I feel some void since I used to sincerely pray Jesus and my guardian angel (as my mother taught me) until I was 12. Then I stopped. I attribute to this imprinting – not to Jesus’ power – the fact that when I go to bed I often need to read deep books, and I found that classics, poetry etc. work well for me, they give me peace and help me counter today’s superficiality.

    Am I a neo-pagan? No Paul, I am not. Art and thought suffice. I am well aware I’m not such a great intellectual, but my approach suits me. I’m content with it. Religion(s) to me are only important as elements of past and present cultures. These cultures my voracious mind needs to explore – this is why I learned a few languages after all – with the naiveté of a child sometimes, I will admit.


    1. We are not so different. Yes, I believe in a God…but I can not be sure there is one, this is called faith, naïve? Maybe.
      As for continuity well on this side of the pond, as you say, we keep on speaking European languages, we learn European history since our roots are out there. Even our monuments are, very often European inspired, for instance the Catholic cathedral in Montreal, Marie-Reine-du Monde, is St-Peter Basilica redux even to Bernini’s torsados over the Altar.
      We may look at diversity and developpment with less apprehension than Europeans though and we question the past maybe more easily, it is less heavy on us, what is 600 years compared to Rome’s over 3000? We can not say as Serbia’s foreign minister during the most recent Balkan’s war: “My country has too much History!”


  7. I can never stop by here at your blog for only a short moment as I do with the others. You make us contemplate and think too much! haha! ..and I’ve only had a single espresso thus far, so excuse me.
    I have always wondered what would have happened to Judas Iscariot if he had not hung himself after betraying his Lord.
    I have also heard myself say that if I ever had to enter an old age home and had no quality of life, then please, someone have mercy on me and kill me! But then again, I am too much of the curious type and want to know the endings to stories. The “natural” end.


    1. Oh Maryann, I feel sometimes these musings so useless, life is such a miracle it should be enjoyed simply.

      Of course Maryann I agree. The “natural” end is always the best. I only think one should be free to decide whatever he/she wants to do of his/her last phase, in case it is ‘very’ critical. One is not free here in this.

      The Judas Iscariot’s example is very good, and another very hard dilemma.


      1. Some time ago, a man driving over a bridge saw a woman clearly about to jump off it. He stopped, talked the woman out of her plan and drove her to an hospital. Last week, the same woman killed her two young daughters, left in her car and, falling asleep at the wheel, so she said, drove into a road pillar. She survived and is now undergoing a psychological assessment so as to know if she is fit to stand trial for double premeditated murders.
        The man who saved her now needs help because he blames himself for the childrens death claiming, had he allowed the woman to jump, the children would still be alive.
        The father, a suspected mafioso has been on the lam for the last two years after a police spectacular operation against the Rizzuto family of mafiosi.
        Same dilemma as Judas’s.


          1. “The majesty and tremendous implications”? MoR, the driver was doing his Christian duty and in so doing was an extension of Christ in western traditional thinking. So, you are a royalist? Mamma mia!


  8. You knew what you were getting yourself into with this… copious worms oozing out of can.
    Il post è eccezionale, colto e zeppo di nozioni, informazioni e stimoli. Grazie, sei tu er maggister.
    Per te limoncello su AO&P e vinello su little forks. Buon fine settimana


    1. Yes, worms like tentacles about to choke me. Eccezzzzionale, mo’ esageramo, eppoi maggister…
      From your blog it seems you are in Sorrento or something. Beata te! I’m stuck here in the eternally cool city.
      GRAZIE per il limoncello (e vinello). Ieri sera ho brindato a te. I have two posts in mind I cannot postpone: the third one will be dedicated to your Limoncello. But the quantity of sugar in your recipe puzzles me.


  9. Well “majestic” just sounded so dramatic and a bit demeaning..latin enthousiasm certainly. Mind you I have nothing against royalty nor for, I’m neuter on that subject. I guess I’d better try and find some Limoncello…or maybe just settle for Ouzo.


    1. Demeaning? I thought ‘majestic’ was ennobling instead. In any case, go to Lola’s blog. Her last post is on Limoncello. She has a highly refined cuisine knowledge. In case you want to buy some, be sure it is from Sorrento, Amalfi, Capri, Positano, Vietri, I mean somewhere from the Sorrentine Peninsula (Campania.) More likely it’s not that awful sweetish liquor they usually sell. And of course Ouzo is not inferior, and probably much much older.


      1. The word “majestic” is not demeaning per se. It’s use to hint a superiority between the Iscariot and the actors of the event I narrated could be interpreted as demeaning for for them. It made them seem less important human beings.
        As for Ouzo I don’t know how old it is but it seems the name was given by the Italian “uso Massilia” written on the transport cases.


      2. Paul, I was not saying Iscariot is majestic, Gosh no, and the other people humble in comparison.

        I meant the WHOLE final tragic scene of Christ betrayed by one of his disciples, and this disciple killing himself afterwards, and also Christ’s death, ALL THIS, and its consequences (implications), to my non religious mind seem more important historically than the episode of those people whom I surely pity: being non religious doesn’t mean being a monster.

        For a Christian any man helping another man is an extension of Christ, you say. I understand the profound ethics of all this and all the good deeds it can engender. Nonetheless, for a non Christian, the two episodes have a different weight altogether.

        If I disappear, Paul, the world will not change. Christ’s death instead has changed many things.


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