Death Without Dishonour: Suicide in the Ancient World

Robert Garland takes an unusual look at attitudes to death in ancient Greece and Rome.

The Roman historian Livy reported that in the Greek colony of Massalia (modern Marseilles) there existed a custom whereby anyone wanting to commit suicide merely sought the permission of the senate and, if his reasons were judged adequate, was provided with the poisonous drug hemlock free of charge.

Such a liberal and understanding attitude towards suicide contrasts sharply with the one which has prevailed in Britain for centuries and which to some extent continues to exist today. It was as late as 1823 that the practice of driving a stake through the body of a suicide and then burying it at the crossroads was finally abandoned, but it was not until 1961 that the Suicide Act finally abrogated a law that had been in force in England and Wales since 1554 which declared suicide to be a criminal act. Clearly the moral evaluation of suicide has changed very slowly over the years, and, even in the case of those furnished with reasons which the ancient Massalians would have judged to be adequate, our own society, rightly or otherwise, is not prepared to connive openly at self-destruction. Why then did the ancient world take so much more lenient a view?

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