Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

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)

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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.

Us and the Hyperboreans. 3

We said there is a general attraction-repulsion among the people from North and South Europe. Let’s forget the repulsion thing now and let us instead focus on the undoubted attraction we feel for each other – as for our use of the term hyperborean pls read this note.

Beyond
the North Wind

The ancient Greeks dreamed about a mythical people living in a pagan Eden beyond Boreas, the north wind (hyper-Boreas = ‘beyond the north wind’). The Hyperboreans were imagined as perfect and almost god-like.

Thus Pindar in the V century BC:

Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labour and battle they live.

Such a bliss was though difficult to reach:

Never on land or by sea will you find
the marvellous road to the feast of the Hyperborea.

(Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode, translation by Richmond Lattimore; quotes from Wikipedia)

So Hyperborea was like a feast. Hard to tell which real experiences fed the myth but we perceive like attraction vibes coming from the Mediterranean and addressed towards some mythical folk of the north-east.

At least 5 centuries later, the Roman historian Tacitus, in his book Germania about the Germans (full text here) – a group of tribes also coming from the North-East – noted in AD 98: “In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder.” Less myth here but concrete admiration for the Germans’ powerful bodies (and pristine virtues.)

Caesar himself had appreciation for the Germans, if utilizing them in battle is any indication. Ancient Rome was filled with northern slaves who, even though seen as savages, were admired for their aspect and many Roman ladies wore expensive wigs made from their blonde or red hair.

Not Angles, but Angels

That the Mediterranean people found these northern folks attractive is confirmed by a legendary event with some historical ground. If true, it occurred more than 500 years after Tacitus’ time.

As Beda Venerabilis wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Gregory I, a great Pope from a noble Roman family, saw one day a group of children in a slave market of the Eternal City. They looked so beautiful to him that, getting curious and inquiring about them, he was told they were Angli (Angles).

He then so exclaimed with a pun: “Non Angli, sed Angeli”, “they are not Angles, but Angels” and added: “Well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.” Thus, according to Beda, he thought to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and sent Augustine of Canterbury to Britain for this purpose.

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Not much has changed since then. As regards contemporary Britons, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch and Germans (among the rest,) today’s Mediterranean people still see them as different in their bodies, skin, eyes, manners, and these differences are often seductive, beyond a doubt. Exactly as to Gregory, their children look such fair-skinned sweet angels to us. The women and the men we see as provided with a diverse beauty we generally find irresistible.

At 17 I was stunned watching the Irish girls dancing in the Dublin discos. The way they moved their bodies to the rhythm of music was so damn different from our girls’: a ‘lesser grace equals more grace’ type of thing, which almost knocked me out.

Churches as Factories for Marriage

A 45 years old American IT expert, italoamericano, confessed that the Italian and the Irish Americans who often gather in Catholic churches all over the States do feel this reciprocal attraction. “Churches are sometimes like factories for marriages. As far as us Italians– he confirmed – we cannot resist those fair and blue-eyed faces”. He had in fact married an Irish woman. Whether he met her in a church I’m not in a position to tell.

An attraction reciprocal. An American woman of German-English descent had lived in a small town close to Chicago. She said she gazed longingly at those Italians in the days when her catholic mother took her to the local church.

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Ok, basta. Since from serious this post has become gossipy (and voyeuristic) I will redeem myself in the next and last post dedicated to the Hyperboreans.

Hopefully we won’t just talk about the physical qualities we admire in them.

Note. I couldn’t find an appropriate picture with English or German children (for Gregory’s angels.) The image above refers to Swedish girls during Luciadagen (Saint Lucia’s day) on December 13th. It is moving how these “sun starved people” revere Lucia (or Lucy,) the Saint of light born in sunny Sicily (her name coming from the Latin word lux = light.)

During the darkest days of the year they pray Lucia to bring the sun back to them.

(“Lucy is one of the very few saints celebrated by the Lutheran Swedes, Finland-Swedes, Danes and Norwegians in celebrations that retain many indigenous Germanic pagan pre-Christian midwinter light festivals” – Wikipedia)

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Other related posts:
Us and the Hyperboreans. 1
Us and the Hyperboreans. 2