Some scholars believe suicide was fairly commonplace in the Greek and Roman world, at least up through the Early Imperial period. Of the thirty-two extant Greek tragedies, suicide figures prominently into thirteen examples. During the second century B.C.E., compulsory suicide became the preferred method of execution for the Roman elite. Eschewing imprisonment and a public trial, white-collar criminals were allowed to return to their families with the stipulation that they would kill themselves within one day. This provided the convicted a dignified, private death befitting his/her class. Mandatory suicide was later taken to the extreme by the emperor Nero who became infamous for sending daggers to the dinner tables of his political adversaries.
University of Missouri
-Suicide in Graeco-Roman Society
While some of the ancients may have been concerned about their personal fate and destiny of the afterlife, the Romans were mostly preoccupied of the image and legacy they left behind in the minds of other people and the shame and disgrace they may have caused or cause to their family and the other generations to come.
Suicide and Death by Execution in Ancient Roman Life To the Roman nobility, courage and dignity were of utmost importance. When one`s life had been tarnished with a disgraceful or shameful act, suicide represented a manner of “rectifying” the error and “regaining” some of the dignity lost in the public eye.
The Greek tragedians in antiquity were the first to use nearly all of the literary forms which exist nowadays: tragedy, comedy, epic and romance.2 The three tragedian giants were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.Aeschylus, who was regarded as the father of tragedy, was born in Elefsis in c. 525 BC and died in 456 BC. He was the earliest of the dramatists whose work has survived; his famous predecessors included Thespis, Pratinos, Phrynichus and others whose works have been lost. The performances were of a religious origin, and were part of the cult of Dionysos.3It has been estimated that Aeschylus wrote between 70 and 90 tragedies, but only seven have come down to us. Some are very well known, such as Seven against Thebes and the Oresteia (consisting of Agamemnon, Choephori and Eumenides), which is the only surviving trilogy and which represents not only Aeschylus' greatest achievement,4 but is most probably among ‘the greatest work[s] of dramatic art ever created.’5In the Aeschylian classic drama Prometheus Bound4-6 one of the characters, Eos, who has become desperately entrenched in psychological problems, says that it is better for one to die than to suffer every day. It appears that Aeschylus was not against euthanasia. ‘It were better to die once and for all than to drag out my lingering days in anguish.’7aSophocles8-11 was born in c. 495 BC and died in 406 BC; his family was of very comfortable means. A handsome and successful athlete and musician, he enjoyed the high esteem of his fellow citizens, holding both political and religious office. Sophocles' profound respect for the gods resulted in his strictly negative viewpoint with regard to euthanasia. He believed that life was the highest good given to mankind by the gods.Seven Sophoclean tragedies have survived, spanning some 40 years or more.8 Sophocles was the recipient of numerous awards for his plays. In Antigone10 he states that nobody is so silly as to wish to die: ‘Who prays to die is mad.’ ‘No man is so foolish that he is enamoured of death.’7b However, in another play, The Women of Trachis,11 he refers to the dilemma presented by assisted euthanasia: The protagonist Heracles, who is suffering from unbearable pain, asks his son, Hyllus, to help him end his life: ‘Lay my body thereupon and kindle it with flaming pine-torch. And let no tear of mourning be seen there.’7c Hyllus complains that in so doing, he will ‘become a murderer’ and will be showing disrespect to the gods. ‘What a deed dost thou require of me my father that I should become the murderer guilty of thy blood.’7c ‘Father, father, how can you? You are asking me to be your murderer, polluted with your blood.’ And Heracles replies: ‘No, I am not. I ask you to be my healer,’11 or ‘(be) healer of my sufferings, sole physician of my pain.’7cEuripides, who was born on the island of Salamis in c. 480 BC and died in 406 BC, was the most modern of the three dramatists; he wrote more than 100 plays, of which 18 have survived and others are known in fragments. Among his innovations were the introduction of realism and a machine appearing from the heavens, out of which comes a god: when the play proceeds to its conclusion, this divine being seems to resolve the impasse, offering a solution.Unlike Sophocles, Euripides won few awards.12-16 He believed that man is responsible for his actions and on at least two occasions in his plays, individuals seek euthanasia. In Iphigeneia in Taurica, Orestes, who suffers psychologically, tries to put an end to his life by starving himself to death. He writes:12,13 ‘Fasting before his shrine I cast me down and swore to snap my life threat, dying there I.’ However, Euripides admires life and his attitude is one which is against euthanasia. In his play Iphigeneia in Aulis14 he writes: ‘Ill life o'er passeth gracious death.’ And lastly, in his play The Madness of Hercules,15,16 he puts the following words in the mouth of his hero: ‘Yet, thus I have mused—how deep soe'er in ills—shall I quit life and haply prove me craven?’ Or, ‘I will be strong to await death.’16