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Senicide, or geronticide, is the abandonment to death, suicide, or killing of the elderly.


Societal views and legal repercussions have varied greatly in regards to senicide.

Van Hoof, writing in 1990, examines 87 reports of older people in classical antiquity who have committed suicide.[1] Of these suicides, he claims 20 were motivated by impatience, 17 by humiliation, 12 by vanity, and ten by suffering. Van Hoof also provides statistics for the manner of the suicide, both successful and unsuccessful. Starvation was the most widely used, accounting for 18 of the 61 cases available. Suicide via the use of weapons was second most prevalent making up 13 cases, followed by the use of poison in 11 cases.[2] The use of various methods (seven different methods are reported in all) suggests that no particular technique was believed to be the most proper or entirely condemned. However, that Athens had a law focusing on suicide by hanging indicates that this manner of suicide was especially disdained, perhaps because the death was intimately connected with a structure that could not be easily removed, such as a tree. Thus, the act of purification, should it be deemed necessary, would be more difficult to perform.

Ancient Greece & Rome[edit]

Senicide as an institutionalized practice, however, seems to be much less common in ancient Rome and Greece. Parkin provides eighteen cases of senicide which the people of antiquity believed to happen.[3] Of these cases, only two of them occur within Greek society, one within Roman society, and the rest falling outside of these two cultures. One example that Parkin provides is of the island of Keos in the Aegean Sea. Although many different variations of the Keian story exist, the legendary practice may have begun when the Athenians besieged the island. In an attempt to preserve the food supply, the Keians voted for all people over 60 years of age to commit suicide by drinking hemlock.[4] The other case of Roman senicide occurred on the island of Sardinia, where human sacrifices of 70-years-old fathers were made by their sons to the titan Cronus.

The case of institutionalized senicide occurring in Rome comes from a proverb stating that 60-year-olds were to be thrown from the bridge. Whether or not this act occurred in reality was highly disputed in antiquity and continues to be doubted today. The most comprehensive explanation of the tradition comes from Festus writing in the fourth century AD who provides several different beliefs of the origin of the act, including human sacrifice by ancient Roman natives, a Herculean association, and the notion that older men should not vote because they no longer provided a duty to the state.[5] This idea to throw older men into the river probably coincides with the last explanation given by Festus. That is, younger men did not want the older generations to overshadow their wishes and ambitions and, therefore, suggested that the old men should be thrown off the bridge, where voting took place, and not be allowed to vote.

Philosophical views on senicide[edit]

Ancient philosophical thoughts varied greatly in this respect. Plato bifurcates suicide in Laws: although killing oneself out of grief, misfortune, or state injunction is acceptable, to commit suicide “owing to sloth and unmanly cowardice” requires purification rituals and demands that the body be buried without an epitaph.[6]

Aristotle viewed suicide as an unjust act: “when a man in violation of the law harms another (otherwise than in retaliation) voluntarily, he acts unjustly.”[7] Thus, for a man to harm himself, Aristotle reasons, is an unjust act.

Pythagorean doctrine held that all creatures were being punished by the gods who imprisoned the creatures’ souls in a body. Thus, any attempt to alter this punishment would be seen as a direct violation of the gods’ wills.[8] In the fourth century BC, the Hippocratic Oath was developed and reads, “I will not give a fatal draught to anyone if I am asked, nor will I suggest any such thing.”[9] Through the lens of the Hippocratic Oath, euthanasia by means of a fatal draught was forbidden. However, one of the most famous examples of deviation from this code occurred when the physician of Seneca, a philosopher and tutor of Nero, provided the scholar, who was 69 years old at the time, with poison for one of his many failed attempts at suicide.

Religious views of senicide[edit]

The societies of antiquity viewed suicide and euthanasia very differently from modern culture. Although factors such as better medical and psychological insight have affected contemporary society's view of suicide and euthanasia, much of the shift in opinion of these forms of death occurred because of the change in religion—that is, Greco-Roman society was dominated by pagan religions that did not categorically condemn suicide and euthanasia.

Many modern Christians do not accept the practice of suicide or senicide, holding that only God should have control over a person's life and death.[10]

Senicide by culture[edit]


The Heruli were a Germanic tribe during the Migration Period (about 400 to 800 CE). Procopius states in his work The Wars, that the Heruli placed the sick and elderly on a tall stack of wood and stabbed them to death before setting the pyre alight.


In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, the illegal practice of senicide - known locally as thalaikoothal - is said to occur dozens or perhaps hundreds of times each year.[11]


A common belief is that the Inuit would leave their elderly on the ice to die.[12] Senicide among the Inuit people was rare, except during famines. The last known case of an Inuit senicide was in 1939.[13][14][15]


Ubasute (姥捨, abandoning an old woman), a custom allegedly performed in Japan in the distant past, whereby an infirm or elderly relative was carried to a mountain, or some other remote, desolate place, and left there to die. This custom has been vividly depicted in The Ballad of Narayama (a 1956 novel by Shichirō Fukazawa, a 1958 film, and a 1983 film).



In Nordic folklore, the ättestupa is a cliff where elderly people were said to leap, or be thrown, to death. While the practice has no historical evidence, the trope has survived as an urban legend, and a metaphor for deficient welfare for the elderly.

Senicide in fiction[edit]

Works of fiction which have dealt with senicide include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Van Hoof, Anton; From Autothanasia to Suicide. (London: Routledge, 1990) 35.
  2. ^ Van Hoof 35
  3. ^ Parkin, Tim; Old Age in the Roman World. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2003) 265.
  4. ^ Parkin 264
  5. ^ Parkin 267
  6. ^ Plato. Laws (9.873a). 29 October 2006.
  7. ^ Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics (5.11) Archived 2007-03-10 at the Wayback Machine. 29 October 2006.
  8. ^ Garland, Robert; The Greek Way of Death. (London: Duckworth, 1985) 98.
  9. ^ The Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything. BBC. “The Hippocratic Oath.” 29 October 2006.
  10. ^ Mystakidou, Kyriaki, Efi Parpa, Eleni Tsilika, Emmanuaela Katsouda & Lambros Vlahos; “The Evolution of Euthanasia and its Perceptions in Greek Culture and Civilization.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 48, no. 1 (2005), 95. 21 October 2006
  11. ^ Magnier, Mark (January 15, 2013). "In southern India, relatives sometimes quietly kill their elders". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved January 6, 2019.
  12. ^ "Did Eskimos put their elderly on ice floes to die?" The Straight Dope (May 4, 2004)
  13. ^ "Senilicide and Invalidicide among the Eskimos" by Rolf Kjellstr�m in Folk: Dansk etnografisk tidsskrift, volume 16/17 (1974/75)
  14. ^ "Notes on Eskimo Patterns of Suicide" by Alexander H. Leighton and Charles C. Hughes in Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, volume 11 (1955)
  15. ^ Eskimos and Explorers, 2d ed., by Wendell H. Oswalt (1999)

Further reading[edit]

  • Aristotle; Nicomachean Ethics (5.11).
  • BBC, “The Hippocratic Oath.” an episode of The Guide to Life, the Universe, and Everything.
  • Garland, Robert; The Greek Way of Death. (London: Duckworth, 1985) 98.
  • Mystakidou, Kyriaki; Efi Parpa, Eleni Tsilika, Emmanuaela Katsouda, & Lambros Vlahos; “The Evolution of Euthanasia and its Perceptions in Greek Culture and Civilization.” Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, vol. 48, no. 1 (2005), 95.
  • Parkin, Tim; Old Age in the Roman World. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 2003) 265.
  • Plato. Laws (9.873a).
  • Plutarch. Themistocles.
  • Van Hoof, Anton; From Autothanasia to Suicide. (London: Routledge, 1990) 35.
  • Tehelka: