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Did suicide in ancient Rome require agreement from senate?

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, Suicide of Seneca
Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, Suicide of Seneca

Suicide was seen by the ancient Romans as a law that had no legal consequences. If a Roman citizen wanted to commit suicide, he could do so, with a few exceptions.

Slaves, soldiers and persons sentenced to death for the heaviest crime could not decide on suicide. In each case mentioned, there was a loss for Roman society. In the case of a slave, the owner lost his “property”; a soldier’s suicide was equal to desertion; in turn, legal consent to the taking of life by a criminal convicted of serious offences amounted to depriving the state of the right to hold the individual liable.

Interestingly, Valerius Maximus in his work Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri novem (2, 6.7-8) mentions that in the Greek colony Massalia (present Marseille) there was a custom that the inhabitants of the colony asked the authorities for a positive consideration of their suicide. If allowed, the authorities provided hemlock, which could be drunk or applied to the sword. In this case, the local senate reportedly approached the residents’ request extremely rationally and benevolently, not allowing suicide. Instead, other attempts have been made to address applicants’ problems.

Following this path, there was a similar approach in Roman society – to be able to commit suicide, one had to have a reasonable reason and consent of the senate1. The increasing number of suicides required the authorities to take this approach. Taking your own life without a reason was punished by conducting an unworthy funeral and thus condemning the soul to an eternal journey. According to the Digesta Iustiniani laws from the beginning of the 6th century CE, reasonable arguments for suicide were, for example, constant and severe pain, illness, lunatics, fear of life or loss of honour.

Roman law also regulated the issue of the property after the death of a citizen. If a citizen was sentenced to death, his property passed to the state. To this end, the accused person, who was awaiting trial and sentence, could have avoided the loss of property by the family by committing suicide. This legal loophole was removed under Emperor Domitian (81-96 CE).

It is worth emphasizing that the stoics held the position that man has the right to decide when he wants to leave his earthly life and this is true freedom. This principle was faithful to Seneca the Younger and his wife Paulina, who decided to cut their veins; which they did more at the request of Emperor Nero rather than for fear of losing their honour. Cicero was of the opinion that suicide was a way to get rid of chains; however, he stressed that it is inappropriate to take our own lives when our lives are generally beneficial.

  1. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, 7.4.39
  • Catharine Edwards, Death in Ancient Rome
  • Petitioning for Death: Did Ancient Romans Really Ask for Permission to Commit Suicide?, "Ancient Origins", 27.01.2018
  • Kalman J. Kaplan, Living Biblically: Ten Guides for Fulfillment and Happiness

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