Act of Suicide and Shame and Disgrace in Ancient Rome and Japan
For the Greeks and Romans one’s honor and reputation were highly valued and they were often not only limited to life itself but also entailed repercussions followed after death.
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 Roman court was aware of and “considerate” about this issue. As a result, the most disgraceful manner to die was death by execution, for example, strangulation or beheading. In the worst case scenarios, the bodies would be thrown down the Tarpeian Rock.
This punishment was often reserved for the most heinous crimes and criminals or, in the case of (supposed or suspected) treason or corruption, it might have represented a political motive or statement. In other cases, people who were suffering from physical or mental problems or disabilities were also killed in this manner as they were said to be cursed by the gods.
Suicide and the Option of Redemption in Ancient Rome
When Roman officials – and often the Emperor would be consulted in these matters – had any consideration for the criminal, then the criminal might be given the opportunity to “redeem” themselves with the “option” of suicide.
In such cases, the person would be told that they are facing the death penalty and will be given a certain period of time to take the “honorable” path, i. e. the act of suicide. Should they do so, they would not be deemed a “coward” since they will have faced the penalty at their own hands.
Certain sentences were in fact “forced” suicides. Failure to comply then represented even greater shame and disrespect. Likewise, if a soldier or general failed miserably in one of their campaigns due to either an error in judgment or even worse, cowardice, suicide represented a necessary escape in the Roman minds.
Seppuku or Harakiri and the Japanese Act of Suicide
The view of suicide to redeem oneself and one`s acts in the eyes of the public has not been limited to the Romans only. The act of seppuku or harakiri in Japan is another example of suicide as a manner of saving one`s dignity in the face of disgrace and failure, and it shows that such ideas were not limited geographically nor culturally. In fact, the obligatory seppuku was a very similar method of punishment for “disgraced” criminals.
In the Western tradition suicide has generally been considered a taboo and its act is said to be met with harsh punishment in the afterlife. Suicide has been even considered an act of cowardice as it may represent an escape from one`s responsibilities instead of dealing with the consequences of one`s actions.
Graves, Robert. I Claudius: From the Autobiography of Tiberius Claudius. New York: Random House, 1961.
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