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Political suicide was a tactic which was sometimes used in Ancient Rome by people who were unfortunate enough to find themselves in a literal life-and-death struggle with the Roman Emperor. For example, someone might chose to commit suicide rather than risk or allow themselves to be convicted and/or executed. Since such an action could have political overtones, such a death was generally referred to as a "political suicide".

Although not unheard of in other parts of the Roman era, political suicide became particularily common after the fall of the Roman Republic and during the time of the Roman Emperors (roughly 27 BCE to roughly 400 CE). Although the actual power wielded by different Emperors varied, many of them were absolute dictators in all meaningful respects with true and quite literal power of life-and-death over essentially everyone they dealt with.

A short example should illustrate just how absolute this power was: a Roman by the name of Fulvius is reported to have greeted the Emperor (probably Caligula) with the words "Hello, Caesar!". The Emperor's response of "Goodbye, Fulvius" was apparently sufficient to cause Fulvius and his wife to commit suicide.

The act of committing political suicide could be useful or at least somewhat attractive to the "victim" in a number of ways including:

  • committing political suicide was, in some sense, the ultimate act of defiance as it deprived the Emperor of the ability to execute the "victim" (i.e. they and not the Emperor got to make the final decisions regarding their life). This notion of "cheating the hangman" can take on extraordinary importance. For example, Hermann Goering's successful "political suicide" immediately prior to his scheduled execution at the conclusion of the first round of the Nuremberg Trials shortly after the end of the Second World War was considered by many to be a significant "defeat" of sorts suffered by the Allies (i.e. the enemies of the Nazis) and if your enemy suffers a defeat then, at least in some sense, you've enjoyed a victory.

  • it simply isn't possible to "force" someone to "voluntarily" commit suicide. Consequently, if someone under sentence of death commits suicide either in defiance of the Emperor or with at least the non-interference of the Emperor's men then they (prior to the act) and their family (after the act) may be able to reconcile themselves to the fact that the suicide was, in some sense, "voluntary".

  • a Roman involved in such a life-and-death struggle with someone as all-powerful as a Roman Emperor really had few options available to them: they could commit suicide or they could allow themselves to be executed. Given these rather stark choices, choosing one's method of departure from this world could easily seem rather appealing.

  • a Roman's personal reputation was quite important to themselves and others. Consequently, committing suicide before a guilty verdict was rendered left at least some doubt that the "victim" might actually have been innocent in the eyes of the court (whether or not they were innocent in fact was, of course, quite irrelevant).

  • the assets of an executed individual were often seized by the state whereas the assets of a victim of suicide were more likely to be inherited by the victim's intended heirs.
Political suicide could also be useful from the Emperor's perspective:
  • if the Emperor was trying to rid himself of someone who had a difficult-to-ignore group of supporters then being able to claim that the person committed suicide "voluntarily" could be quite important (even better if it happened to be true).

  • if an accused party committed suicide prior to a final verdict being rendered then any uncertainty over the final verdict and/or the need to "influence" the final verdict was avoided. Note that since such a suicide could easily be beneficial to both the victim and to the Emperor, getting a "deal" worked out between the parties was a distinct possibility (e.g. the victim commits suicide before the end of the trial or possibly even before the charges are made public in exchange for the Emperor suppressing the charges and/or voicing "regret" that his "friend" has passed away).

  • even an "involuntary" suicide could be useful to the Emperor as the cause of death would still be "suicide" rather than "execution" and the Emperor would then be in a position to express "regret" at the passing of a "friend" as a way of deflecting or totally avoiding criticism of the event.

  • the Emperor might find it useful to "allow" someone to commit suicide instead of being executed. Such an act could even be portrayed as an act of clemency even though the end result was the same - the "victim" died in accordance with the wishes of the Emperor.
The "game" could get quite complicated:
  • Plautius Silvanus was a Roman of some stature who seems to have thrown his wife out of an upper story window. Shortly after the "event", he was sent a dagger by his grandmother. Since the grandmother was a friend of the Emperor, Plautius "got the hint" and commited suicide.

  • Sejanus apparently wished to rid himself of Drusus, the son of the Emperor Tiberius. He is said to have warned Tiberius to not accept any drink offered to him during a meal he was about to share with Sejanus and Drusus (the implication was, apparently, that Drusus may try to poison him). A cup was, of course, offered to Tiberius who passed it on to his son. Drusus drank the contents of the cup and died as a result.

    If the story is true, Drusus almost certainly committed suicide as he must have known from the context of the situation that the cup contained poison. He had little choice in the matter as refusing to drink from the cup would have resulted in his execution as it would have been interpreted as admitting that he knew that the cup contained poison (i.e. a confession that he was trying to kill his father even if he wasn't actually trying to do so). On the other hand, Drusus may have also been "murdered" by his father since his father, the Emperor, certainly didn't have to pass the cup to his son. On yet another hand, Drusus may have been murdered by Sejanus who could have simply fooled Tiberius into believing that his son was trying to poison him (i.e. Sejanus may have been the source of the poisoned cup).

    It should be noted that this story was related by Tacitus who expressed some skepticism about whether or not the story is true.

  • Upon being condemned to die, one of Nero's victims slashed his wrists as a demonstration of his willingness to commit suicide (i.e. he established his bravery). He then forced his guard to kill him thus transforming the "voluntary" suicide into an execution (of sorts). Since he died in a confrontation with authority, he also gained prestige for having died "in combat" (of sorts). In contrast, the Emperor lost prestige because it was necessary to execute the "victim" and lost further prestige because the "victim" was clearly both brave and died "in combat".
It should not be forgotten, of course, that the end result in every case was the same in the sense that the "victim" ended up dead.

The initiation of the process of political suicide could also be used to open up the opportunity for negotiation or prolonged emphasis of one's views. For example, Nerva resolved to starve himself to death. Refusing the pleas of his friend, the Emperor Tiberius, to save himself, Nerva used his prolonged death by starvation as a stage upon which to air his displeasure with the Emperor's policies.

Of course, it should be noted that the "victim" wasn't always provided with the opportunity to commit political suicide and even the method of starving oneself to death could be prevented while still keeping the "victim" alive by force-feeding the "victim".


The notion of clemency opens up an entire new vista of tactical possibilities. Firstly, it should be noted that the power of clemency is, in some sense, the ultimate power as it is the ability to grant someone their life (i.e. it is the ability to grant the true "gift of life" to someone). As a consequence, a grant of clemency to someone who had clearly wronged the Emperor was generally interpreted as a MAJOR act of mercy on the part of the Emperor (i.e. he'd get at least a few dozen bonus XPs for granting clemency to such an individual).

This leads to a number of fascinating possibilities which are illustrated by the following examples:

  • Cato committed suicide in order to prevent the Emperor from granting him clemency. The Emperor tried to salvage a bad situation by claiming that he regretted Cato's death and that he had intended to grant clemency to Cato. The attempt failed as Cato had managed to undercut this expression of regret by earlier making it clear that he, Cato, intended to committed suicide explicitly to prevent the Emperor from granting clemency. Cato's suicide also had the effect of preventing the Emperor from executing him (i.e. the Emperor's will was denied regardless of whether he intended to grant clemency or to carry out the execution).

    Cato's prestige was subsequently increased even more when Seneca remarked that Cato would no more ask another man for death than for life.

  • The Emperor Nero and Seneca later had a major falling out. Upon learning that Seneca seemed to have no intention of "easing" the Emperor's burden by committing suicide, Nero sentenced Seneca to death. Fearing that Nero would win the struggle over prestige by then granting him clemency, Seneca committed suicide explicitly to deprive Nero of the ability to grant clemency. If the ability to grant clemency is the ultimate power then denying the Emperor the ability to grant clemency was, from Seneca's perspective, a victory clearly worth dying for.

  • the Emperor might wish to offer a grant of clemency to the "victim"'s relatives. This ability to offer clemency to relatives could be and sometimes was blocked by the relatives committing suicide. For example, when Caecina Paetus was arrested, his wife, Arria, stabbed herself and then removed the blade and handed it to her husband with the now immortal sentence "Paetus, it doesn't really hurt". Arria had established her views on this point earlier when she had confronted a widow who had chosen to be a witness rather than to die with her husband with the sentence "I should listen to you who are still alive, though your husband died in your arms?".


The "game" of political suicide was played with the highest possible stakes - one's own life. It was a deadly serious "game" which generally ended up with winners and losers even though the identity of the winners and the losers was sometimes less than clear (e.g. a "victim" who denies the Emperor the ability to grant clemency by committing suicide is a "winner" of sorts but still ends up dead).

One final example: Petronius committed suicide over a span of a number of hours by repeatedly opening and closing his veins and even taking short naps from time to time. This parody of suicide made a mockery of the entire process of "voluntary" suicide. His final insult to Nero was his will in which he listed Nero's "crimes" instead of including the almost mandatory praise of the Emperor.

In closing, I'd like to urge you to remember the original (true?) meaning of the term "political suicide" the next time that you read about a politician who's done something stupid and contemplate the "courage" and "integrity" that they display when they almost certainly refuse to resign and seek re-election.

P.S. I will grant that politicians sometimes commit political suicide because the action that they take is simply the right thing to do even though it will cost them major political support (i.e. there are politicians who are prepared to put their principles ahead of their political future).


A couple of notes are in order:
  • I despise Hermann Goering and everything that he stood for. That said, his suicide was (probably) a political suicide which, unlike the examples from the Roman era, the readers of this writeup will either already be familiar with or will have no difficulty becoming as familiar with it as they wish to become. On the other hand, like at least some of the other examples in this writeup, a case can be made that Goering's suicide was an act of cowardice (i.e. he took the easy way out because he was afraid of being hanged and/or tired of being afraid of being hanged) and was not, as such, an act of political suicide.

  • Nothing, absolutely nothing, in this writeup should be interpreted as encouraging actual suicide. I sincerely hope and pray that nobody who ever reads this writeup ever finds themselves in a situation even remotely resembling that faced by those who have committed suicide in the past. I can thank my lucky stars that I can't even imagine what it would be like to truly contemplate my suicide (in any context) and my heart goes out to anyone who find themselves in a place where they feel that they must contemplate such a horrific act. Should I even get the chance to know that it is imminent, I know that I'll face my death with the sort of sheer terror that only such a "state transition" can cause.


The primary source (by far) of this writeup is The Game of Death in Ancient Rome / Arena Sport and Political Suicide by Paul Plass, copyright © 1995 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, ISBN 0-299-14574-3. Some quite minor clarifications and such were obtained from a handful of pages on the 'net.

In particular, each of the Roman era examples in this writeup are taken from Plass' book although they've been re-worded and, in some cases, re-organized and condensed in order to be useful in the context in which they appear herein.

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