BMCR 2005.09.09

Ambitiosa Mors. Suicide and Self in Roman Thought and Literature

, Ambitiosa mors : suicide and the self in Roman thought and literature. Studies in classics ; v. 10. New York and London: Routledge, 2004. 1 online resource (xi, 335 pages).. ISBN 0203492846 $80.00.

Was suicide a ‘Roman death’ as the modern usage suggests? This is — in my rewording — the question Timothy Hill sets himself in this monograph. Right from the start he stresses the otherness of the Roman notions: “the words ‘suicide’ and ‘self’ must both be systematically redefined if they are to prove useful to the interpretation of Roman culture” (p. 1). Self-killing among the Roman elite was not the “grim, isolated act” which the modern notion of suicide conveys. Romana mors was rarely associated with depression; at most it was ascribed to resignation (p. 2). The “profound discrepancy in perspective” (p. 3) is the author’s main reason for exploring the phenomenon, which according to him is best covered by the phrase ambitiosa mors, the rather derogatory expression found in Tacitus’ Agricola 42.

Hill builds his analysis on collections and tabulations of data which he feels have been adequately done by others.1 He promises to bring a different approach by locating the point of the disjunction between the modern and ancient discourses on self-inflicted death. The modern notion of suicide does not cover both Cato and Socrates, whereas in the ancient paradigm there is no fundamental distinction between the two noble deaths. The gulf between the modern and the ancient concepts is also demonstrated by the wide variety of Latin circumlocutions, some of which Hill lists on p. 6, although leaving out, strangely enough, the central phrase mors voluntaria. 2

Modern writers have simply applied the Durkheimian socio-psychological model to the ancient sources (p. 7). Therefore they have wrongly suggested that the Roman aristocracy labored under an artificial and fundamentally wrong-headed conception of suicide (p. 9). However, the central dynamic governing the practice of Romana mors was the motive of honor. The way it was brought about was of secondary importance, suicide being just one way. A ‘Roman death’ was “any death possessing implications for the social standing of the deceased” (p. 11).

The second distortion is the result of a different notion of the self. The modern world thinks of a person in terms of a self-constituting subject. This is the concept of Descartes, but Hill stresses that this Cartesian view is not the way ancient individuals saw themselves (p. 15). Therefore, Levinas’ view that the self always exists before the other has much more relevance (p. 16), for the Roman self was purely socially defined (p. 17). Consequently, an individual should fulfill his or her aristocratic persona in an exemplary fashion. The distinction was not between a self-inflicted and a natural end, but between an honorable and a dishonorable death (p. 19). The main consideration was the self-preservation of the persona. Suicide was a public statement.

After the introductory Chapter 1, which we have summarized quite extensively for its programmatic character, the book falls into roughly two halves: 1) Late Republic until the death of Vergil; 2) authors active during the remainder of the Julio-Claudian Principate.

Chapter 2 deals with Cicero. He is not interested in the rights and wrongs of taking one’s own life but discusses it as an act that might show that one is true to one’s own nature. This was the case with Cato Uticensis: “Since nature had endowed Cato with an unbelievable moral gravity … it was right for Cato to die rather than look upon the face of a tyrant” (Off. 1.122). The rigidity of Cato’s character meant that his voluntary death could only serve to demonstrate the absolute incompatibility of Caesar’s rule with the ethical ideals of the Republic (p. 71).

Epicureanism (Chapter 3) questions this Stoic view by its fundamental distrust of any easy identification of the political with the natural order. The Roman Epicurean par excellence, Lucretius, however, agrees with the Stoicizing ideas of Cicero in viewing the ethics of self-killing as grounded in the self, seen as an objectively definable entity, the most fundamental characteristic of which is the ability to act as a moral witness within the res publica (p. 85).

Chapter 4 has a long discussion on the correct reading of the Roman love elegy, ending with the statement that it “is, in Levinasian terms, an ‘assembling of oneself’ before another” (p. 101). Hills warns against an individualizing reading of the elegists. They are always aware of their aristocratic audience which adheres to the values of Roman honor. Killing oneself from love was not a noble end. Therefore, in all the passion that the elegist expresses there is no question of him artificially hastening his own end.

Vergil’s Dido, discussed in Chapter 5, is Dido moritura (“Dido soon to die”). She becomes the victim of her “increasing inability to constitute a valid social persona for herself” (p. 24). It is the persona Dido who has to die. “Dido’s death, then, is accordingly described by Vergil as in a sense not even Dido’s act, and in the night before her suicide the queen becomes an almost passive character” (p. 120).

Ovid, prolific though he is in his references to suicide, is rarely entirely original (p. 124). Also, the Dido (Chapter 6) who speaks in Heroides 7 is essentially Vergil’s. However, she differs in questioning the reliability of social perception. For Hill, she is the first embryonic example of a separation between the individual and the persona, a schism that was to dominate the portrayal of suicidal psychology throughout the Julio-Claudian period and beyond.

With Chapter 7, “Seneca: philosopher and dramatist”, we reach the second half of Hill’s study. Seneca’s values are those of Cicero, but he believes the aristocratic milieu to be irredeemably corrupt. To him suicide is often the only escape from the dilemma between personal ethics and social perception: non sumus in ullius potestate, cum mori in nostra potestate est. Hill calls Seneca “obsessed with suicide” and “suicidocentric” (p. 146). For Seneca self-killing is a stock response to almost any conceivable situation (p. 147). Compared with the earlier Stoics, the range of acts potentially contrary to Nature has expanded enormously, and the individual must accordingly have recourse to suicide more frequently (p. 147). So, when disease threatens the individual’s ability to live in accordance with Nature, suicide is the course of wisdom (p. 151). For Cicero personal and public nobility were two aspects of the same quality, but for Seneca there “is simply no direct contact between virtue as it is internally generated and virtue as it is publicly expressed” (p. 152). The individual might discover his or her own virtue and make this known to others, in particular by an ostentatious self-killing (p. 180). This is what Cato did: “The value of Cato’s suicide does not lie for Seneca in the strictly political commitments it embodies. In Seneca’s view, the civil war in which he died was waged between two tyrants, and the outcome therefore a matter of indifference” (p. 179).

The chapter also contains a lengthy discussion of Seneca’s Phaedra, in which Hill stresses that the drama is about a rhetorical persona that the playwright explores. So there is no authentic Phaedra with a psyche; she is only the embodiment of furor and pudor that result in suicide.

The core of the book is Chapter 8, which deals with “The Concept of the Political Suicide at Rome”. The “mass self-slaughter amongst the elite”, as Hill calls it (p. 193), the dozens of suicides reported by Tacitus and other writers on the Early Principate, is shown to be a means of indelibly defining one’s social persona, a concept already touched on in the introductory chapter (p. 26). In this chapter Hill tries to reconstruct the Roman understanding of self-killing: “our evidence on Roman suicide can only be interpreted coherently if ‘suicide’ is understood with regard to the Roman context not primarily as a ‘self-inflicted death’, but rather as a death that serves to establish one’s status as a moral witness in the community” (p. 184). To us the phrase liberum mortis arbitrium might sound like an oxymoron — how can an enforced suicide be voluntary? — but for the contemporaries there was no paradox, for they understood it as the right to choose a death worthy of a free man (pp. 195 and 197). The fact that the phrase entered the legal vocabulary of imperial rescripts proves that no irony was felt.

The ancients did not psychologize suicide. The sources seldom ascribe the suicidal decision to fear of a threatening situation that might result in suffering. Instead these suicides are depicted as being committed from a fear of shame and a love of honor (p. 198). Of course lower classes are not able to give proof of the moral qualities that are the hallmark of the elite. When ‘plebeian’ suicides appear in our sources, the motivation is presented as despicably low, in the ancient perception (p. 199) — I would add as well the methods that commoners chose for inflicting death, namely hanging and leaping to one’s death.

The attention aristocratic suicide attracted in Seneca’s time is to be ascribed to the conflict between the two disparate domains of honor-as-ethics and honor-as-influence. Seneca and his contemporaries were fascinated by the attempt to reconcile once again these two elements of the aristocratic persona (p. 208). The crisis of the time, so Hill concludes at the end of this crucial chapter, “is seen not so much in the eagerness with which its members embraced death as a means of self-constitution, as in the fact that even this drastic means of expressing one’s fidelity to the ethical aesthetic was often felt itself to be insufficient” (p. 212).

In Chapter 9, Seneca’s nephew Lucan is depicted as having views similar to those of his uncle, only bleaker. Petronius, the subject of Chapter 10, is seen as a skeptic aristocratic who lacks ethical essence. Accordingly, the characters of his Satyricon play with a multiplicity of personae as the need arises (p. 244).

The book ends with a short “Epilogue: Roman Suicide after Nero”, in which it is argued that after the Julio-Claudian dynasty there was a pronounced rejection of the authority of aristocratic and social audiences. Ethics were to be founded in natura at both the individual and the universal level. So Romana mors disappeared. The role of suicide in public life can be seen to have slowly dwindled during this era (p. 255). It disappears from the historical record. What we find now is the family-oriented, self-chosen death in the letters of the Younger Pliny (p. 257).

I hope this summary does justice to the rich and in many ways provocative book that Hill has written. He is right in stressing that the mere fact that somebody laid hands upon himself was not the element that made a death noticeable or worthy. Sometimes our sources simply say occidit, he died, in cases of self-inflicted death. However, Hill could have clarified the point he makes by adducing cases of premature death that meet the standards of ambitiosa mors. Instead he refers only to Socrates. The direction he points is undoubtedly correct: it does not make sense to tackle ancient self-killing by taking as sole starting point the Christian concept of self-murder. Ancient self-killing should be seen as part of the general problem of good and bad dying.3

Some of Hill’s factual remarks are debatable. Do Valerius Maximus, Tacitus and Seneca really furnish us with data on “an immense number” of Roman suicides (p. 20)? In my collection of cases of ancient self-killing the cases reported by these writers account for some 140 out of 1313 instances of (para)suicide, at best a substantial number. The present number of 1313 cases is a considerable increase over the 960 instances I gathered in my 1990 monograph, on which Hill relies, apparently unaware of the subsequent publications.

As my new data comprise less official and more popular, even romantic cases taken from novels that explore emotions, there is a certain shift away from “Roman death”, although “shame” ( pudor) is still by far the dominant motive emerging from the sources. This pudor is anything but a Durkheimian category, which Hill says I used in collecting and sorting the ancient data on self-killing (p. 264, note 32), even though on the very pages to which Hill refers I call Durkheim’s and other modern psychological and sociological models a “Procrustean bed”, not applicable to ancient data. It is for this very reason that for my chapter on causae moriendi I resorted to Roman jurists who have made up lists of imaginable grounds for mors voluntaria to categorize the motives in accordance with antiquity’s own paradigm: pudor (aeris alieni), inpatientia doloris, iactatio (demonstrative self-killing by philosophers), taedium vitae and (mala) conscientia.

Finally, it is not clear to me why the author avoids the traditional anthropological concept of shame culture, preferring Levinas’ idea of the multiplicity of roles. The relevance of this highly modern notion to the ancient materials is nowhere apparent.

As to the form of the book, there are some minor points to make. First, the politically correct usage of he/she and his/her produces anachronistic and sometimes hilarious effects: “Because the sage’s actions are all internally motivated, he or she does not fear death and does not seek to prolong his or her own life” (pp. 40-41). Also, sometimes too much space is spent on a discussion of a specific literary work or genre. For instance, ten pages discussing the proper understanding of Roman elegy are followed by just three pages on suicide in this genre; the analysis of Seneca’s Phaedra also takes a disproportionate number of pages. Only a few errors need correction.4

Ambitiosa mors is an ambitious book, which sometimes has an unpleasant pedantic tone. However, it fully realizes its claim to deepen our understanding of ancient suicide by making self-killing practices of the Roman elite of the Early Principate part of the ancient category of good dying, euthanatein in the classical sense.


1. By Yvonne Grisé, Le suicide dans la Rome antique, Montréal 1982, and by the present reviewer: Anton van Hooff, From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity, New York and London 1990 (also available as an e-book).

2. Hill is not aware of the work done in the field of vocabulary such as my “Self-murder, a new concept in search of a Latin word”, in G.J.M. Bartelink et al. (edd.), Eulogia, Mélanges offerts à Antoon Bastiaensen (Steenbrugge 1991), pp. 365-375, and “Voluntary death in Latin”, in A.P. Orbán and M.G.M. Van der Poel (edd.), Ad Litteras. Latin Studies in Honour of J.H. Brouwers (Nijmegen 2000, ISBN 90-373-0573-3), pp. 143-161.

3. In this respect the young German scholar Tobias Arand should be mentioned, who wrote a detailed study about the shameful death of emperors: Das schmähliche Ende. Der Tod des schlechten Kaisers und seine literarische Gestaltung in der römischen Historiographie (Frankfurt am Main 2002). On the good death of good emperors see my “The imperial art of dying”, in Lukas de Blois et al. (edd.), The Representation and Perception of Roman Imperial Power. Proceedings of the Third Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Amsterdam 2004), pp. 99-116. On euthanatein see “Ancient euthanasia: ‘good death’ and the doctor in the Graeco-Roman world”, Social Science and Medicine 58 (2004), pp. 975-985.

4. The Greek print unpleasantly mixes bold and normal lettering. On p. 258, the paragraph beginning with ‘Knowledge’ should be in normal size font. On p. 201, Prusis should be read as Prusias. The Valerius Atticus of p. 186 is presumably Valerius Asiaticus.