Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.09.16

Dagmar Hofmann, Suizid in der Spätantike: seine Bewertung in der lateinischen Literatur. Altertumswissenschaft 18.   Stuttgart:  Franz Steiner Verlag, 2007.  Pp. 250.  ISBN 9783515091398.  €44.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Anton J.L. van Hooff, Nijmegen University, The Netherlands (
Word count: 2848 words

Christian Europe used ancient suicide to define its own condemnation of 'self-murder', whereas enlightened Western thinkers discussed the exemplary cases of Cato Minor and Seneca to challenge the prevailing taboo. The focus was mainly on these and other outstanding examples, on the reflections by ancient philosophers, especially Plato and the Stoa, and on the role of Augustine in establishing the Christian condemnation. Yvonne Grisé and the present reviewer have furnished the discussion with a more factual basis by gathering many hundreds of cases 1. Recently Timothy Hill has made an important contribution to the topic by showing that in the ancient mind suicide was not a separate category, the real distinction being that between an infamous death and an ambitiosa mors 2. According to Hill, the relative silence that set in after Seneca's exemplary suicide is to be ascribed to a changing society in which there was no place for the old 'glory seeking death'. Others have argued that the growing rejection as shown by Neo-Platonism and Christianity, especially by Augustine, is responsible for the virtual disappearance of the self-killing in the sources. These established views are now challenged by the dissertation of Dagmar Hofmann.

In the Preface the author calls this a study on the existence and historical setting of suicide ethics in Latin West of late antiquity (7). To her surprise the results did not always meet her expectations.

In a volley of questions on p. 10 the aims of the study are summed up. It intends to question the turning point Augustine assumedly meant, to place the church father in the context of the unfolding debate among Christian writers as well as pagan thinkers, and to establish the relation between the theoretical views and the representation of cases in the texts. Rightly Hofmann remarks (14) that the low quantity of suicides recorded by the sources does not mean a lesser frequency. And she is also right in her criticism that in existing studies on self-killing late antiquity is only marginally discussed. Too much focus has been on Christian martyrs. By including non-Christian reflections and cases she hopes to broaden the view (16). It is not to be expected that there was a general ethics of suicide: moral judgments were always dependent on the context of time and circumstance (20). This variety is reflected in the heterogeneous picture of the cases recorded in the literary sources (21).

Part II 'Die theoretische Auseinandersetzung mit der Suizid in der Spätantike' starts with the preconditions set by classical antiquity. In philosophy, according to the author, the Stoa had the most permissive attitude towards self-killing (28). Seneca is put forward as its main advocate, which is questionable--see below. Epiktetos has more reserve, showing according to Hofmann a mixture of Stoic and Platonic thought (33). Neo-Platonism, the dominant philosophy of late antiquity, rejects self-killing almost without any qualification. The aim of a philosopher is to reach an 'ascetic death', not one brought about by violence, so Porphyrios argues (35). The moral escape that a divine order may account for a self-killing is completely ignored by Macrobius (38), an indication of the hardening of Neo-Platonist standpoint. Olympiodoros brings in a new argument: a philosopher, who wishes to be like God, is obliged to take care of his own body as well as of his entourage, without distancing himself from apatheia (39/40). Later Neo-Platonists are even more outspoken in their condemnation of suicide, indicating that they are already Christians.

II.3 'Suicide in Christianity' begins by sketching the Christian assessment of self-killing before Augustine. Saint Paul felt the urge to leave life, but he decided to remain in the flesh on behalf of the Christian community (Phil.1.21). The permissibility of suicide becomes a hot issue in the debate on martyrdom. Clemens Alexandrinus holds that a martyr may not provoke his death, for in this way he promotes the evil in his persecutor. He makes him a beast (48-9). Lactantius is the first to relate suicide to the fifth command 'Thou shalt not kill' (Epit.59.5), but he still resorts to the Platonic argument that only God rules life and death (50-1). In Ambrosius' view everyone has to serve Christ as the king at the post accorded to him. Killing oneself is leaving one's post, but the Milan bishop excepts women who put an end to their life to prevent rape by the executioner. The preservation of chastity is also for Hieronymus the only moral ground for laying hands upon oneself (51-2). It is noticeable that this question only becomes an issue after the end of the persecutions. Obviously some stories about female martyrs worried the Christian theologians.

Augustine is really revolutionary with his outright rejection of suicide under all circumstances for all people with his notorious dictum "qui se ipsum occidit, homicida est" (Civ.1.17). All the praise spent on Lucretia was wrong, for her suicide was a sin (53 and on p. 114 "Als eigentliche Schuld der Lucretia sieht er einzig ihren Suizid an.") Here Hofmann overlooks an essential link in the argument, as will be argued below. Augustine in De mendacio of 394/395 already says that no guilt is worse than 'homicide against oneself' (53). It is only the just cause that makes a martyr, an attack on the false martyrs revered by the heretic Donatists. But what about Samson and the Christian female martyrs who sought death? Augustine's rather helpless solution is that they acted on God's instigation.

It is often hold that with Augustine the Christian taboo on suicide was established. However, in Christian literature after Augustine there is almost complete silence on the topic. There were only warnings against exaggerated ascetic practices that could damage the body (60). So Johannes Cassianus tells the story of the monk Heron who as a result of his excessive askesis was obsessed by a 'devilish illusion' which made him throw himself into a well (61/62). So he became a 'biathanatus'. This word in Greek originally meant 'one having a violent death', but it got the pregnant meaning of a suicide (it was still used by John Donne in his notorious posthumously published defense of self-killing).

Too readily it is assumed that the triumph of Christianity was reflected in secular law. As in other parts of her study, in II.4 'Suizid in der Gesetzgebung' Dagmar Hofmann demonstrates the continuity with pre-Christian times. Self-killing in itself was never punishable (as it was in English law until 1961 and in the Republic of Ireland till 1993). Only when the defendant committed suicide in the course of a trial did the question arise of whether this could be regarded as a confession of guilt. Hanging oneself caused especial suspicion. But only if no other good reason, like poor health, could be assumed, would the suicide be regarded as guilty of the crime. Even slaves were accorded the right to 'rage against their own body'. There is no evidence whatsoever that this neutral attitude in Roman law was changed in later Christian times (71).

But what about Church law (II.4.2)? Even here there is no major breach. Church councils denied the title of martyr to those who had provoked their death by destroying idols (Council of Elvira ca. 300). Nor was someone who killed himself in insania or for other personal grounds to be regarded a martyr, as the Council of Carthago ruled CE 348. This ruling dealt with the problem of the false, i. e. the Donatist, martyrs (74).

Another field in which the problem of self-killing posed problems was that of burial. The Council of Orléans CE 533 ruled that those who had been killed in some crime could be buried unless they had laid hands upon themselves. Hofmann rightly connects this ruling with Roman secular law: self-killing could be regarded as a confession of guilt, but nevertheless she sees here a Christian innovation, for which she has no satisfactory explanation. However, already earlier pagan cemeteries had rulings excluding suicides (by hanging). So the continuity is even greater than Hofmann assumes, which only strengthens her main argument.

Only as late as the twelfth century is Augustine's view canonized. The Decretum Gratiani explicitly says "se ipsum autem perimere nulla legis auctoritate alicui permittitur" (78).

So the Christian innovations are limited to casual appeals to the fifth commandment by Lactantius and Augustine. Occasionally self-killing is morally condemned by ascribing it to insanity or devilish rage (by the Second Council of Arles).

The third part, 'Die literarische Darstellung von Suizid in der Spätantike', discusses concrete cases. Following the pattern of the first two parts the author looks back at classical times, wondering whether the famous models of suicide were reassessed. This was not really the case. Tertullian argues that the Christian martyrs surpass the pagan examples, implicitly taking the traditional respect for granted. It is only Lactantius who makes Cato Minor a homicide (96). Emporius, author of uncertain, but late date, uses Lucretia still as fitting material for rhetorical exercise (107-8). It is Augustine who is the first to blame Lucretia for her self-killing. She was too eager for secular fame and by her suicide she made herself guilty. Augustine's negative picture would last for many centuries--only at the end of the Middle Ages was Lucretia rediscovered as a 'holy pagan', a model of chastity. The nature of martyrdom was the main issue in the discussion on suicide in late antiquity. Highly intriguing is the case of Agathonike. In the older Greek version she throws herself in a holy impulse on a pyre that was prepared for other martyrs. In the later Latin story she is put on the pyre by the persecutors. Hofmann is inclined to follow the view that the Greek story constitutes a shortened version (122), but the essential difference, i.e. spontaneity versus inflicted death, cannot be explained as the result of an abridgment. The Latin version adapts the story to the then prevalent taboo on suicide.

We already saw that after the end of the persecutions there was discussion whether women who had laid hands upon themselves to preserve their chastity could be regarded as martyrs. Hofmann argues convincingly that the view held by Ambrosius and Hieronymus that chastity excused their deed has to be seen as a reflection of the glorification of ascetic virginity. Ambrosius suggests that Pelagia, one of the worrying instances, did not throw herself from a roof, but jumped into the water, thus undergoing a kind of baptism (129). Johannes Chrysostomos only alludes to the way she died by saying that through divine intervention she escaped the hands of the soldiers. Augustine to whom chastity is not a causa iusta can only explain the case by assuming divine instigation (134).

Augustine is so reluctant to approve self-killing because he wants to picture the Donatist martyrs as despicable suicides. The Donatist bishop Marculus whom his followers regarded as a martyr, having been thrown from a cliff by Constantine's soldiers, was in the orthodox view a suicide. Christian rumor had it that he had thrown himself (137-8). This spurious case is generalized in the story that numerous Circumcelliones, the fundamentalists in the Donatist church, leapt from rocks to gain the status of martyrs, but any concrete example is missing (139). It is clear that the Donatist problem determined Augustine's view on the question of suicide. Maybe he was responsible for the wording of Honorius' edict to persecute these heretics. Anyway he defended the measures, which for him had nothing to do with persecution, but was just healing the sick (146). The jumping Donatists were driven by furor inspired by the devil (148). But had not Christ rejected Satan's challenge to throw himself from the pinnacles of the temple? And did the Gospel not have the story of the demons that having been driven out went into pigs that threw themselves from the cliffs? Hofmann compares the discussion with the topical debate on suicide bombers: terrorists or martyrs (149 n. 500).

III.3 deals with the suicides of emperors and other rulers. Once more the author starts with one of the classics, the suicide of Nero. It continues to be pictured as the fitting end of a tyrant. Even Orosius does not deviate from the established pattern. Only later Christian authors stress that Nero's self-murder was God's punishment for the first persecutor of the Christians. He is included in the series of the notorious persecutors who had a terrible death, being eaten by worms or killing themselves. In the case of Julian the Apostate attempted self-murder is suggested by Gregory of Nazianzus to add to the negative picture (162). But what about the suspicious death of a would-be Christian emperor, Valentinian II, in CE 392? Was it murder or suicide? Ambrosius' funeral speech does not allude to the way Valentinian died. It only says that he had no fear of death and that undoubtedly he entered paradise although he had not been formally baptized. The delicate reference to the emperor's death makes Hofmann inclined to assume a self-chosen death (174), for a good emperor is not expected to kill himself--with the noticeable exception of Gordian (179).

But in the struggles for power the losers are the more ready to kill themselves--preferably by hanging, a sign of their guilt as in the case of Palladius and Remigius (188). Besieged people who have lost hope go on to kill themselves--by leaping from city walls. According to Hofmann Ammianus Marcellinus compares the terror regime by the deputy prefect Maximinus to the siege of Miletus by the Persians in 494 BCE (193). She says that numerous senators killed themselves to escape torture and execution. In fact there is only one case: Hesychia, a Roman lady who suffocated herself in a feather bed (Amm. Marc. 28.1.47, related on p.201). There is a minor misinterpretation of Ammianus here: actually he is afraid that in telling the story of the sufferings he will make himself hated,like Phrynichos with his tragedy on the seizure of Miletus (Amm.28.1.1-4).

In four pages part IV summarizes the results. There is much more continuity in the assessment of suicide as is generally assumed. This outcome is the more convincing as it contradicted the author's own expectations. Augustine must not be regarded as a turning point, but as an important, but unique exception (211). Only in the twelfth century did his outright condemnation of suicide become part of Church law. Rightly Dagmar Hofmann calls for further investigation into Augustine's influence in the intermediate period and thereafter. Indeed there are many gaps in our knowledge. For my part I would like to know what happened to suicida, a hateful neologism of Hugo of Saint-Victor, made CE 1177, but only re-emerging 1656 in Caramuel's Theologia Moralis where for the first time suicidium appears (already in 1643 Thomas Browne has the English suicide). Is this a matter of continuity or a regeneratio spontanea?

Anyway, Hofmann's modest conclusions are the convincing end of an exemplary study, which has all the qualities of a German dissertation without the familiar flaws of the genre (such as repetitiveness and excessive documentation). It is closed by an extensive bibliography and several indices. Throughout, this dissertation is a model of expository prose. Translations in the running text can always be checked in the hundreds of footnotes that give the full Latin or Greek original. As many of the Christian texts are not readily available this is a very useful service to the reader. Only note 245 on p.76 has some errors in the text of the Council of Braga.3

Only on some minor points do I disagree with the author. Firstly she does not seem aware of the fact that Seneca is exceptional among the Stoics in his hailing of suicide. In Epiktetos we do not have a certain mixture of Stoic and Platonic thought (33), but a return to the orthodox view that self-killing is only permitted if the sage is absolutely sure that his death is in the order of things.

Secondly Hofmann overlooks an essential link in the chain of Augustine's argument on Lucretia's self-chosen death. Augustine wonders whether she is among the innocent who "hating the light, brought death upon themselves" (Virg. Aen. 6.434ff)? "But perhaps she is not there, because in killing herself it was no innocent which she killed, but one conscious of guilt (my Italics). For suppose (a thing only she herself could know) that, although the young man attacked her violently, she was so enticed by her own desire (etiam sua libidine inlecta) that she consented to the act and that when she came to punish herself she was so grieved that she thought death the only expiation. Yet not even in this case ought she to have killed herself, if she could have offered a profitable penitence to false gods." (1.19). So the holy Church Father rather infamously suggests that it was lust that made her feel guilty: what tradition praised as the model of a shame suicide he reduces to a despicable self-murder out of a bad conscience.

Anyway, this well organized dissertation answers numerous questions as well as raises many new ones, the unmistakable marks of solid scholarship.


1.   Yvonne Grisé, Le suicide dans la Rome antique, Montréal/Paris 1983; Anton J.L. van Hooff, From Autothanasia to Suicide, London/New York 1990.
2.   Timothy Hill, Ambitiosa Mors: Suicide and Self in Roman Thought and Literature, London/New York 2004, rev. BMCR 2005.09.09.
3.   'De his qui sibi quaecumque violentia mortem inferunt...vel quolibet modo violentiam inferunt mortem' should be read as quacumque and violentam.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2008
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:33:10, Friday, 03 April 2009