Barry Baldwin ~ Top This

Reprinted with kind permission of Barry Baldwin himself, who years ago had to endure yours truly as a student. Errors in transcription naturally accrue to the latter.

(Partly inspired by an essay on modern literary suicides posted by Alastair McCartney, 24 September 2009, the Ready SteadyBook website. For other ancient self-toppings see FT154:21. Otherwise, Yolande Grisé, Le Suicide dans la Rome Antique (Paris, 1982) and Miriam Griffin in Greece & Rome 38, 1986, pp64-77)

The propriety of doing yourself in as much debated in Greece and Rome. Some big names condemned it, e.g.,  Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, bk5 para 1138a4f, and elsewhere, and Virgil (Aeneid, bk6 vv434-9). Others advocated or condoned, such as Plato Laws, bk9 paras 873C-D) and Seneca (Letters, no. 70). Ambivalences also attend. Socrates havers in the Platonic Phaedo (para 61C), the reading of which inspired one Cleombrotus  to leap to his doom (Callimachus, Greek Anthology.,bk7 no471) — trust this column will not thus affect any FT reader. Epicurus was said to have disapproved  (Seneca, The Happy Life, ch19), yet Diogenes Laertius  (Lives of the Philosophers. bk10 ch15) says he eventually committed suicide, as did his most famous Romain follower the poet Lucretius (the Eusebius-Jerome Chronicle for 54 BC), thereby giving Tennyson a lurid poem.

Suicide sometimes approached morbid cult status among eggheads. Ptolemy banned Hegesias’s enthusiastic lectures on it, fearing population decline (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, bk1 ch83) – Auden’s denial that poetry influences anything does not apply here. Roman jurist Ulplan (Digest, bk 28 ch3 sect6 para7) deprecated the “self-glamorising suicides of certain philosophers”.

Ulpian was thinking chiefly of Stoics, whose founder Zeno (Diogenes Laertius, bk7 ch.28) had suicided by holding his breath. Seneca’s self-immolation (Tacitus, Annals, bk15 chs 61-4) was high on theatrics (right). Having severed his velns (along with wife Paulina, who was forcibly saved on Nero’s orders; Arthur and Cynthia Koestler), he chafed at the delay, vainly (after veinly) drank hemlock, then entered a sauna where he suffocated. His nephew, the poet Lucan, expired reciting verses on a dying soldier from his Pharsalia epic (Tacitus, Annals, bk15 ch72).

Stoics had no monopoly on this sort of thing. Some (Diogenes Laertius, bk8 chs 67-74-various versions competed) said poet scientist Empedocles (a proto-Darwin) jumped down Mt Etna to encourage belief in his divinity by vanishing — a theme for Matthew Arnold’s Empedocles on Etna. The Cynic Peregrinus (details in Lucian’s pamphlet), whose variegated career included writing some now unidentifiable Christian texts, barbecued himself at the Olympic Games of AD 165 — this would enliven our modern dreary spectacles.

Romans fall monotonously on their swords in Shakespeare.  Not that easy . Cato Plutarch’s biography ch70 para6) had to complete the job by manually digging out his own entrail.

Other public finales include Sappho’s jump from the Leucadian Rock (Greece’s Lovers Leap) through unrequited love, and the orator Demosthenes’s (Plutarch’s Life, chs 29-30) special poisoned pen or venom concealed in his belt — prefiguring modern cyanide capsules.

Some went out quietly, self-starvation the favourite method: Atticus (literary friend of Cicero – Nepos’s Life chs. 21-2) and poet Silius Italicus (Pliny, Letters, bk 3 no7 para1), both suffering from incurable diseases;  also historian Cremutius Cordus (Tacitus, Annals, bk4 ch 35 para5).

Petronius (Tacitus, Annals, bk 16 ch 19) tops the grand guignol parade, having his velns cut, sewn up, and re-cut during a sumptuous last supper, smashing a precious goblet coveted by Nero, and composing for that emperor a lubricious account of his debaucheries.

Though the was neither philosopher nor writer, I can’t leave out Pontia, possibly Petronius’s daughter, who after conviction for filicide opened her veins at a drunken party and danced herself to death — puts a new meaning to The Last Waltz.

“There are data of strange suicides that I shall pass over” -Fort, Books, p653, teasingly.


Classical Corner 139: Fortean Times 278 (August, 2011), p. 23.

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