Suicide in the Roman Empire

The Death of Seneca by Luca Giordano

For the last few months, I’ve been learning about the Roman Empire.  I’ve been doing this voluntarily.  I hope this doesn’t mean I’ve developed a brand new mental illness.  Anyway, in studying about the lives of Roman aristocrats during the reigns of the first five Caesars, I couldn’t help but notice that there was a suicide happening every other day, especially during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14 CE to 37 CE.)

It turns out that people weren’t more depressed in Roman times than currently.  Laws were much different.  If you were executed, the government took all of your property and belongings, leaving nothing for your family to inherit.  But if you committed suicide, your family was allowed to inherit.  During the reigns of some Emperors, there was a wait of a few days between sentencing and execution.  This gave the condemned enough time to “do the honorable thing” and commit suicide.

Methods of suicide were pretty grim and showed how determined these people were to die.  They included:

  • Falling on your sword (I’ve always wondered how this was accomplished.  How did the sword stay up as you were falling?  Did you take a running start?)
  • Poison (not done very often)
  • Starving yourself to death (now that takes willpower, since the body can survive on just water for about a month)
  • Slitting the veins in the wrists AND ankles (One accused Senator, during his trial, quietly asked for a stylus and managed to do the deed with it.)
  • Jamming a dagger into your chest or throat (the latter was supposedly how Nero committed suicide, but there are conflicting accounts as to how and when he died)
  • Pissing off the Empress (Guaranteed death!)

The most bizarre suicide I’ve read about was that of Nero’s third tutor, the legendary orator and playwright Seneca the Younger.  After he retired from advising Nero, he was convicted as being a part of a conspiracy to kill Nero.  He was given the option to commit suicide.  He took it — and his young wife, Pompeia Paulina, who was not convicted of any crime.  Seneca and his wife slit their wrists and ankles.  After a few hours, the wife passed out but Seneca managed to revise his latest book.

Realizing that he was taking too ling to die, he went into his bathhouse so the warm water would make him bleed faster and stop clotting up.  Roman bath houses consisted of three baths — cold, warm and hot.  After an hour or so, Seneca was still alive in the warm bath and went to go into the hot bath.  He finally died — from suffocation.  The steam was so thick he choked.

What about the wife?  She survived because Nero heard about the wife’s actions and commanded that she be kept alive.  She stayed alive for a few more years, but ancient historians note that for the rest of her life, she was “very pale.”  I bet!


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