Suicide in antiquity

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Suicide was a widespread occurrence in antiquity. There were many different forms used and many different reasons for committing suicide. Because taking one’s own life is morally confrontational, there are many different viewpoints on suicide. These viewpoints, although some may consider them modern, took root in ancient times.

History of suicide[edit]

The Oxford English Dictionary places the first occurrence of the word in 1651. However, suicide was seen with much disgust, therefore many[who?] did not put the word in their dictionaries, let alone vocabulary. They used phrases like “self-murder”, “self-killing”, and “self-slaughter” in place of suicide. They felt these phrases more appropriately portrayed how closely it related to murder.[1]

Because suicide was believed to be closely related to murder, many worry about the welfare of the soul for one who has committed suicide. This became a major religious question, and there are many different religious views of suicide.

Eventually, many scientists and doctors considered suicide as a possible illness. The doctors began assuming people committed suicide only when they were mentally ill. There were advantages to claiming it as a medical problem. Instead of condemning the person and looking down on their families, sympathy became the response. “The act was eventually decriminalized: the successful suicide could now be buried and his family was no longer disinherited; the unsuccessful suicide was spared execution”.[1]

However, with these advantages came some disadvantages as well. Al Alvarez in his book The Savage God said, “Despite all the talk of prevention, it may be that the suicide is as rejected by the social scientist as utterly as he was by the most dogmatic Christian”.[2] This referred to the fact that the more people began to recognize suicide as a mental illness, the more they turned away from the idea of it being a morally wrong action or a religious question.

Ancient reasons for committing suicide[edit]

Today the reasons for suicide are many, and the ways to achieve it are broad. In earlier eras, some found it to be the only way to redeem them from failure. Elise Garrison said that many ancient suicidal victims, “[were] determined to regain lost honor and restore equilibrium to society”.[3]

Garrison also refers to the works of Émile Durkheim. She says that Durkheim talks about people being in different types and categories. Determining what category they are in, could decide the reason they would commit suicide. “Durkheim’s categories [are] —egoistic, altruistic, anomic, fatalistic”.[3]

Durkheim explains that egoistic people over think and reflect on everything. They tend to have high knowledge, and don’t integrate into society well. Protestants, for example, may default to an egoistic personality. The altruistic person devalues themselves and treats the opinion of the group very highly. Those who lead a very strict life-style or are a religion that is very strict on obedience (such as Catholicism and Judaism). Self-sacrifice is considered part of altruistic suicide. Anomic suicide can result from someone who does not control or limit their desires. They satisfy every desire, and have no regulation. On the other hand, Fatalistic suicide will usually occur in someone who has high regulation and does not satisfy many of their desires.[3] While these categories apply to suicide today, it is these types of personalities that made people more susceptible to suicide anciently.

In ancient India, two forms of altruistic suicide were practiced. One was Jauhar, a mass suicide by women of a community when their menfolk suffered defeat in battle, the women fearing retribution, rape, enslavement, and worse by the enemy soldiers; the other was Sati, the self-immolation of a widow on the funeral pyre of her husband, or her suicide shortly afterwards, the pretexts varying, whether for emotional, or for religious, or for anticipated economic destitution, especially if elderly, or even compulsion, sometimes a family's avaricious means to more expeditiously redistribute the widow's property.[4]

Suicide in Ancient Greece[edit]

Because suicide was a controversial issue, it was discussed in all of the philosophical schools of the Greco-Roman world. J.M. Rist says, “From the earliest days of the Stoic school the problem of suicide is…a problem of free will”.[5] Each school formed their own opinion on the consequences and moral meanings of suicide. Eventually many Greeks came to consider suicide a heroic act. A.D. Nock said, “there was a certain fascination about self-chosen death”.[6]

Philosophers in Ancient Greece[edit]

One of the many philosophers who developed an opinion on suicide was Socrates. He eventually says of suicide, “a man, who is one of the god’s possessions, should not kill himself ‘until the god sends some compulsion upon him, as he sends compulsion on us at present’”.[5] Socrates did not agree with suicide, unless as he says, god tells him or her to do it. He felt that it condemned the person who committed suicide even though he did so himself. The defense of his eventual suicide is detailed in Plato's written account in the Apology. Though he was sentenced to death by the state, Socrates had the chance to refuse and escape, instead of choosing to drink hemlock.

Another famous philosopher of the Greco-Roman world with strong views on the subject was Plato. We learn from J.M. Rist that, “in the Phaedo Plato allows a very small loophole in his condemnation of the frequent Greek practice of suicide… What ought a man to suffer, asks Plato, if he kills that which is most truly his own… that is, if he takes his own life?”[5] Plato believed that the state and the gods were associated, “Hence crimes against the state are crimes against the gods, and vice versa. When a man kills himself without good reason… he is committing a crime”.[5] This allowed for the state the right to punish. However, this did not imply that suicide was completely unacceptable. If anything, Plato believed that suicide was acceptable under some circumstances.

Aristotle also believed that suicide was agreeable in some circumstances. He felt that, “taking one’s own life to avoid poverty or desire or pain is unmanly… or rather cowardly”.[5] Although he believed this, he also felt that it was allowed if the state ordered it. The case of Socrates was an illustration of this statement.

Stoic approaches[edit]

Stoicism encompassed the belief of most of the Greeks when it came to suicide. The Stoics, like Plato and Aristotle, believed that suicide was wrong except under certain circumstances. Zeno believed that, “god gives the sign for an individual’s departure”.[1] It is only in this circumstance that suicide is acceptable. When god has given the sign, then and only then is it morally acceptable to end one's life. This is the belief because it is after the sign is given that god has allowed life to be ended; this is because the work or duty of that person has been achieved.

Biblical accounts[edit]

The Christian Bible, Old and New Testaments, has five accounts of suicide recorded.[1]

Examples in the Old Testament[edit]

One account is that of Samson. Samson had been blessed by the lord with great strength but had lost this blessing. He was then imprisoned by the Philistines. Samson was brought before the Philistines to entertain them and leans against the support pillar of the temple they were all in and prayed to God for strength and God answered his prayer. With his newfound strength Samson knocks down the pillar causing the temple to fall down on himself and 3,000 Philistines.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Death of Saul (detail), 1562.

Another story is the tale of King Saul and his armor bearer. After being fatally injured by some Philistines, King Saul asked his armor bearer to kill him. But when his servant refused, he took the sword and fell on it. Then his aide, being so distraught at the death of his king, he too took the sword and killed himself (1 Sam. 31:4-5). In this context, King Saul is committing suicide because he believes he will die anyway, so he wants to end his pain sooner. His servant, on the other hand, kills himself out of devotion and respect to his king.

The third account is that of a servant of King David’s son, Absalom. His name was Ahithophel. He hanged himself because Absalom did not take his advice. The fourth was Zimri. He was treasonous and proclaimed himself king after murdering King Elah. When the army would not follow him, he locked himself in his quarters and set fire to them.

Examples in the New Testament[edit]

The most widely known recorded suicide in the Bible is probably the story of Judas after his betrayal of Jesus. "And he cast down the pieces of silver in the temple, and departed, and went and hanged himself" (Matt 27:6). St. Augustine said of this incident, “He did not deserve mercy; and that is why no light shone in his heart to make him hurry for pardon from the one he had betrayed, as those who crucified him were to do. In that despair, he killed himself”.[7]

Bible teachings[edit]

These different accounts of suicide do not have much additional commentary, so it is not clear what teachings come from them. However, because of the lack of details, many assume that in ancient Israel, suicide may have been considered a natural thing, or even considered heroic.[1]

Scholars are constantly involved in debates concerning the doctrine taught in the Bible concerning suicide. Augustine taught that, “there is no legitimate reason for committing suicide, not even to avoid sinning…. When Judas hanged himself, he increased rather than expiated the crime of that accursed betrayal”.[7] The only problem with Augustine’s claim is that it does not specifically say, in the Old Testament or New Testament, the doctrine relating to suicide.


  1. ^ a b c d e Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Print.
  2. ^ Alvarez, Al. The Savage God. New York: Random House, 1972. Print.
  3. ^ a b c Garrison, Elise P. (1991). "Attitudes Towards Suicide in Ancient Greece". Transactions of the American Philological Association. 121: 1–34. doi:10.2307/284440. JSTOR 284440.
  4. ^ Vijayakumar, Lakshmi (2004). "Altruistic suicide in India". Archives of Suicide Research. 8 (1): 73–80. doi:10.1080/13811110490243804. PMID 16006390.
  5. ^ a b c d e Rist, J.M. Stoic Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Print
  6. ^ Nock, A.D. The Spread of Christianity. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952. Print.
  7. ^ a b Whelan, Caroline F. "Suicide in the Ancient World: A Re-Examination of Matthew 27:3-10" Laval théologique et philosophique vol. 49, iss. 3, 1993, p. 505-522. Hyperlink ""

Further reading[edit]

  • Gourevitch, Danielle. "Suicide among the sick in classical antiquity." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 43.6 (1969): 501-518.
  • Papadimitriou, John D., et al. "Euthanasia and suicide in antiquity: viewpoint of the dramatists and philosophers." Journal of the Royal Society of medicine 100.1 (2007): 25-28. online
  • Van Hooff, Anton J. L. From autothanasia to suicide: Self-killing in classical antiquity (Routledge, 2002).