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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 April 2015

F.S. Naiden
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
E-mail address:


The people of classical Athens did not regard suicide as a crime committed by the victim. Instead, the Athenians regarded suicide as a crime committed by the instrument that the victim used, or by the victim's hand as opposed to the victim himself. This non-human agent was culpable, just like non-human agents were blamed for accidental deaths. Although suicide victims were innocent, inanimate agents were guilty. In Sophocles' Ajax, for example, the sword that the hero turned upon himself was blamed for his death. The Athenian response to suicide was more about objects than it was about people.

Research Article
Copyright © The Classical Association 2015 

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I thank members of the Classics Department at Edinburgh University, especially Mirko Canevaro, for their criticism when this essay was presented to them in a lecture.


1 Suicide in general: Hirzel, R., ‘Der Selbstmord’, Archiv für Religionswissenschaft 11 (1908), 75104Google Scholar, 243–84, 417–76; Améry, J., Hand an sich legen: Diskurs über den Freitod (Bonn, 1976)Google Scholar; Aigner, H., Der Selbstmord im Mythos (Graz, 1982)Google Scholar. In antiquity: van Hooff, A.J.L., From Autothanasia to Suicide: Self-Killing in Classical Antiquity (London, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, with bibliography for other ancient societies at p. xiv n. 14. In Greece: Garrison, E., ‘Attitudes towards suicide in ancient Greece’, TAPhA (1994), 133Google Scholar, with bibliography at p. 1 n. 1, and Groaning Tears: Ethical and Dramatic Aspects of Suicide in Greek Tragedy. Mnemosyne Supp. 145 (Leiden, 1995). Suicide and popular morality: Dover, K., Greek Popular Morality (Oxford, 1974), 168–9Google Scholar. Suicide and Greek religion: Bremmer, J., The Early Greek Concept of the Soul (Princeton, 1983), 91104Google Scholar. A linguistic study with some Greek evidence: Daube, D., ‘The linguistics of suicide’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1.4 (1972), 387437Google Scholar. G. Schiemann, in Neue Pauly s.v. ‘Suizid’ (Stuttgart, 2002), 11.1093–4 confines himself to philosophical sources.

2 Pace MacDowell, D., Athenian Homicide Law in the Age of the Orators (Machester, 1963), 1219Google Scholar, there was no exception to this practice, save for slaves, and for the use of ἀπαγωγή to the Eleven as a substitute for a δίκη φόνου; see Kidd, I., ‘The case of homicide in Plato's Euthyphro’, in Craik, E.M. (ed.), Owls to Athens: Esays on Classical Subjects Presented to Sir Kenneth Dover (Oxford, 1990), 213–21Google Scholar.

3 Since both the family and the Archon basileus made proclamations ordering the killer to avoid ‘the things laid down by law’. Proclamation by the family: Antiph. 6.35; Dem. 47.69. By the Archon: Arist. [Ath. Pol.] 57.2; Poll. Onom. 8.90. A summary account: MacDowell (n. 2), 24–5.

4 Antiph. 5.11.

5 Plut. Ant. 70.

6 Pl. Phd. 61d: Πῶς τοῦτο λέγεις, ὦ Σώκρατες, τὸ μὴ θεμιτὸν εἶναι ἑαυτὸν βιάζεσθαι;

7 Pl. Phd. 61e: Φιλολάου ἤκουσα … ὡς οὐ δέοι τοῦτο ποιεῖν· σαφὲς δὲ περὶ αὐτῶν οὐδενὸς πώποτε οὐδὲν ἀκήκοα.

8 Lys. 12.96: φονέας αὑτῶν ἠνάγκασαν γενέσθαι καὶ οὐδὲ ταφῆς τῆς νομιζομένης εἴασαν τυχεῖν.

9 Garrison (n. 1 [1994]), 8, with discussion at pp. 5–9 of Aeschin. 3.244, Plut. Them. 22.2 and LSAM 154, and with a similar conclusion about burial, but with a focus on attitudes, not Athenian law.

10 Pl. Phd. 115b–c: θάπτωμεν δέ σε τίνα τρόπον; Ὅπως ἄν, ἔφη, βούλησθε, ἐάνπερ γε λάβητέ με καὶ μὴ ἐκφύγω ὑμᾶς.

11 Isocrates' suicide: [Plut.] X orat. 837e. Burial: 838b.

12 Thuc. 1.138.4; Ar. Eq. 83–4; Plut. Them. 31.6.

13 Thuc. 1.138.5; Plut. Them. 32.4.

14 Plut. Them. 23.4. Buried in Attica, but secretly: Cic. Brut. 11.43. Athenians who were not suicides, and were punished for treason in the same way: Archipolemos and Antiphon ([Plut.] X orat. 834b); Phrynichus (Lycurg. In Leocr. 112–3). General statements: Xen. Hell. 1.7.22; Isoc. 20.6.

15 Plut. De mul. vir. 249c.

16 Plut. Nic. 28.5.

17 Diod. Sic. 18.46. A third instance of this sort of wickedness: Philistus (16.16.4).

18 Soph. Aj. 829–30, 1047–8, 1140.

19 Soph. OT 1446–8, 1476; Eur. Supp. 980–1.

20 Thus E. Pfister, Der Reliquienkult im Altertum. Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorarbeiten 5.1 (Heidelberg, 1905), 116, based on Eur. Heracl. 598–9 and Strabo 8.377, where there is a stream named after her at Trikorythos; Paus. 1.32.6 reports such a stream at Marathon. See A. Lesky, in RE, vol. 14 s.v. Makaria (1), 622–3.

21 Menoeceus at a city gate in Thebes: Paus. 9.25.1. Phaedra in the shrine of Hippolytus at Troezen: Paus. 2.32.4. Deianira at Argos, where the tomb was shown to visitors: Paus. 2.23.5.

22 Antigone: Sallustius, hyp. Soph. Ant. Haimon is a common heroic name (as noticed by O. Kern, in RE, vol. 7 s.v. Haimon [9], 2218), but other persons under this name cannot be linked to the legendary Theban Haimon. A different view: Segal, C., Sophocles' Tragic World: Divinity, Nature, Society (Cambridge, MA, 1995)Google Scholar, 132, holding that the failure to mention the burial of Eurydice, Haimon and Antigone is a sign of disorder at Thebes.

23 Unfavourable because used by women: Loraux, N., Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, tr. Forster, A. (Cambridge, MA, 1991), 910Google Scholar. Because used in executions: Cantarella, E., I supplizi capitali in Grecia e Roma (Rome, 1991), 47–8Google Scholar.

24 A convenient conspectus of this familiar evidence: Van Hooff (n. 1), Chapter 2, ‘Modi moriendi’.

25 Paus. 1.18.2; Plut. Thes. 22.5.

26 Plut. Thes. 22.7.

27 Aspalis, commemorated by an ἄγαλμα (Ant. Lib. 13); Charila (Plut. Quaest. conv. Graec. 293e), transformed similarly; and Erigone, who received offerings at the Anthesteria (Hyg. Fab. 130.4). A different view of these suicides: Cantarella (n. 23), 11–13.

28 Aeschin. 3.244: τὰ μὲν ξύλα καὶ τοὺς λίθους καὶ τὸν σίδηρον, τὰ ἄφωνα καὶ τὰ ἀγνώμονα, ἐάν τῳ ἐμπεσόντα ἀποκτείνῃ, ὑπερορίζομεν, καὶ ἐάν τις αὑτὸν διαχρήσηται, τὴν χεῖρα τὴν τοῦτο πράξασαν χωρὶς τοῦ σώματος θάπτομεν. So also Dem. 23.76.

29 Arist. [Ath. Pol.] 57.4: δικάζει δ᾽ ὁ βασιλεὺς καὶ οἱ φυλοβασιλεῖς, καὶ τὰς τῶν ἀψύχων καὶ τῶν ἄλλων ζῴων.

30 Poll. Onom. 8.120: τὸ ἐπὶ Πρυτανείῳ δικάζει περὶ τῶν ἀποκτεινάντων, κἂν ὦσιν ἀφανεῖς, δικάζει δὲ καὶ περὶ τῶν ἀψύχων τῶν ἐμπεσόντων καὶ ἀποκτεινάντων. προειστήκεσαν δὲ τούτου τοῦ δικαστηρίου οἱ φυλοβασιλεῖς, οὓς ἔδει τὸ ἐμπεσὸν ἄψυχον ὑπερορίσαι.

31 Plut. Them. 22.2: πλησίον δὲ τῆς οἰκίας κατεσκεύασεν … τὸ ἱερόν, οὗ τὰ σώματα τῶν θανατουμένων οἱ δήμιοι προβάλλουσι καὶ τὰ ἱμάτια καὶ τοὺς βρόχους τῶν ἀπαγχομένων καὶ καθαιρεθέντων ἐκφέρουσιν. Cut down: καθαιρεθέντων, mistranslated as ‘executed’ at LSJ s.v. καθαιρέω II.1.

32 LSCG 154b.33–6: [αἰ δέ τίς κα ἔν τινι δάμωι ἀπάγξηται σχοι]νιδίωι, ὁ ἰδὼν πράτιστον καταλυσά-|[τω τὸν νεκρὸν καὶ εἵματι κατακαλυψάτω· τὸ] δὲ ξύλον ἐξ οὗ κα ἀπάγξηται, ἀπο-/[ταμὼν ἐξενεικάτω καὶ κατακαυσάτω καὶ τ]ὸ σχοινίον ὁ ἰδών· αἰ δέ κα ἱερεὺς ἴδηι,/[τὸμ παριόντα πράτιστον κελέσθω ταῦτα πο]ιεῖν. Supp. Herzog, HGK 8.

33 As translated by Harris, E., ‘“In the act” or “red-handed”? Apagoge to the Eleven and furtum manifestum’, in Cantarella, E. and Thür, G. (edd.), Symposion 1997: Vorträge zur griechischen und hellenistischen Rechtsgeschichte (Vienna, 2001), 7588Google Scholar (= Democracy and the Rule of Law in Classical Greece [Cambridge, 2006], 373–93Google Scholar).

34 Other views of these trials: MacDowell (n. 2), 85–7, comparing these trials to inquests, and Nilsson, M., Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, vol. 1 (Munich, 1967 3)Google Scholar, 100, saying that the hand of the suicide was cut off because it was the hand of a murderer who might, since unburied, roam the earth and kill again. So also Garland, R., The Greek Way of Death (London, 2001 2)Google Scholar, 98.

35 Hyp. fr. 79 apud Harp. s.v. Ὀξυθύμια: πολλῷ ἂν δικαιότερον ἐν τοῖς ὀξυθυμίοις ἡ στήλη σταθείη ἢ ἐν τοῖς ἡμετέροις ἱεροῖς. Phot. and Hsch. s.v. Ὀξυθύμια give both meanings; Lex. Vin. s.v. gives only the meaning of ‘wood’, whereas Etym. Magn. and the Suda s.v., and Poll. 2.231, give only the meaning of ‘leavings’.

36 Eup. fr. 132 K–A: ὃν χρῆν ἔν τε ταῖς τριόδοις κἀν τοῖς ὀξυθυμίοις προστρόπαιον τῆς πόλεως κάεσθαι τετριγότα. ‘Polluter’: Aeschin. 2.158.

37 Soph. Aj. 1024–6: πῶς σ᾽ ἀποσπάσω | πικροῦ τοῦδ᾽ αἰόλου κνώδοντος, ὦ τάλας, ὑφ᾽ οὗ | φονέως ἄρ᾽ ἐξέπνευσας;

38 Schneidewin: τοῖδε. Spurious: Morstadt ad loc., followed most recently by Finglass ad loc.

39 Soph. Aj. 815–23: ὁ μὲν σφαγεὺς ἕστηκεν ᾗ τομώτατος | γένοιτ᾽ ἄν, εἴ τῳ καὶ λογίζεσθαι σχολή, | δῶρον μὲν ἀνδρὸς Ἕκτορος ξένων ἐμοὶ | μάλιστα μισηθέντος, ἐχθίστου θ᾽ ὁρᾶν· | πέπηγε δ᾽ ἐν γῇ πολεμίᾳ τῇ Τρῳάδι, | … | ἔπηξα δ᾽ αὐτὸν εὖ περιστείλας ἐγὼ | εὐνούστατον τῷδ᾽ ἀνδρὶ διὰ τάχους θανεῖν. | οὕτω μὲν εὐσκενοῦμεν.

40 Pattern: Cohen, D., ‘The imagery of Sophocles: a study of Ajax's suicide’, G&R 25.1 (1978), 2436Google Scholar, notably 32, where he says the sword ‘has a separate identity’. Personification: Meautis, G., Sophocle: essai sur le héros tragique (Paris, 1957)Google Scholar, 43. An aberration: Buxton, R., ‘Weapons and day's white horses: the language of Ajax’, in de Jong, I. and Rijksbaron, A. (edd.), Sophocles and the Greek Language (Leiden, 2006), 123Google Scholar, at 20 n. 15. A sacrificial instrument: Garrison (n. 1 [1995]), 52. A view similar to the one expressed here: Stanford, W.B., Sophocles: Ajax (London, 1963), 166–7Google Scholar, noting that Teucer is implying that Ajax died at the hands of an enemy, and not his own.

41 Soph. Aj. 658–9.

42 Hirzel (n. 1), 265–8, holding that most classical Greeks did not disapprove of suicide, but that Athenians did, and that later more Greeks did – a developmental scheme. Earlier, Schopenhauer, A., Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, vol. 1 (Leipzig, 1844)Google Scholar, 69 schematized Greek suicide according to the manner of death, poison being approved, but not violent means. E. Norden held that disapproval was early, general and persistent – and thus that unburied suicides were numerous among the ἄωροι (‘Vergilstudien’, Hermes 28 [1883], 360–406, at 376). Recently, Améry (n. 1), 576 held that the Greeks distinguished between Selbstmord, which they disapproved, and Freitod, which they approved – an ethical and psychological distinction. Most recently, Garrison (n. 1 [1994]), 2 draws ethical distinctions like those first proposed in Plato's Laws (as below).

43 Philostr. Her. 188, referring to Chalcas' denying a funeral pyre to suicides; Artem. 1.4; Suda s.v. Κυνήγιον.

44 Massilia: Val. Max. 2.6.7d. Ceos: Val. Max. 2.6.8. Cyprus: [Dio Chrys.] 64.4, doubted by Hirzel (n. 1), 268. Thebes: Zen. 6.17, citing Aristotle, but only to say that suicides receive no honours.

45 Serv. Aen. 12.603.

46 Quint. Inst. 7.4.39.

47 Wacke, A., ‘Der Selbstmord im römischen Recht und in der Rechtsentwicklung’, ZRG 97 (1980), 2677Google Scholar. The first (and still useful) compendium of the Roman evidence: Geiger, A., Der Selbstmord im klassischen Altertum (Diss. Augsburg, 1888)Google Scholar, Chapter 2 §3.

48 CIL 14.2012, a grant of land for the burial of all but suicides, with parallels at Friggeri, R., The Epigraphic Collection of the Museo Nazionale Romano at the Baths of Diocletian (Rome, 2001), 175–6Google Scholar and Bodel, J., ‘Graveyards and groves: a study of the Lex Lucerina’, AJAH 7 (1994), 1333Google Scholar, at 74.

49 Wacke (n. 46), 48, questioning the legal value of the Quintilian passage.

50 Daube (n. 1), 392, 399–401.

51 A selection of images of Ajax's death: Jenkins, I., ‘The earliest representation in Greek art of the death of Ajax’, in Clarke, A. and Gaunt, J. (edd.), Essays in Honour of Dietrich von Bothmer (Amsterdam, 2002), 153–6Google Scholar, at 153 n. 1, with references. Rare: Van Hooff (n. 1), 177, based on the material reviewed in the dissertation of Davies, M., Studies on the Early Traditions of the Oresteia Legend in Art and Literature with Related Studies on the Suicide of Ajax (Diss. Princeton, 1971)Google Scholar, Chapter 6.

52 Il. 22.275–7.

53 Hdt. 8.37.2–3: θῶμα μὲν γὰρ καὶ τοῦτο κάρτα ἐστί, ὅπλα ἀρήια αὐτόματα φανῆναι ἔξω προκείμενα τοῦ νηοῦ· τὰ δὲ δὴ ἐπὶ τούτῳ δεύτερα ἐπιγενόμενα καὶ διὰ πάντων φασμάτων ἄξια θωμάσαι μάλιστα. ἐπεὶ γὰρ δὴ ἦσαν ἐπιόντες οἱ βάρβαροι κατὰ τὸ ἱρὸν τῆς Προνηίης Ἀθηναίης, ἐν τούτῳ ἐκ μὲν τοῦ οὐρανοῦ κεραυνοὶ αὐτοῖσι ἐνέπιπτον. So also Callisthenes, FGrHist 124 F 22a (Theban Heracles).

54 Cleomenes: Hdt. 6.75. Accidental death caused by a divine agent manifested as σημήια: Hdt. 6.27.

55 Pl. Leg. 9.873c: ὃς ἂν ἑαυτὸν κτείνῃ, … μήτε πόλεως ταξάσης δίκῃ, μήτε περιωδύνῳ ἀφύκτῳ προσπεσούσῃ τύχῃ ἀναγκασθείς, μηδὲ αἰσχύνης τινὸς ἀπόρου καὶ ἀβίου μεταλαχών, ἀργίᾳ δὲ καὶ ἀνανδρίας δειλίᾳ ἑαυτῷ δίκην ἄδικον ἐπιθῇ.

56 Pl. Leg. 9.873d: τάφους δ᾽ εἶναι … κατὰ μόνας μηδὲ μεθ᾽ ἑνὸς συντάφου … ἐν τοῖς τῶν δώδεκα ὁρίοισι μερῶν τῶν ὅσα ἀργὰ καὶ ἀνώνυμα θάπτειν ἀκλεεῖς αὐτούς, μήτε στήλαις μήτε ὀνόμασι δηλοῦντας τοὺς τάφους.

57 Codex juris canonici Inst. 3.10: pro his qui quocumque praetextu voluntarie ferro, vel veneno, vel suspendio, vel quolibet modo sibi mortem inferunt, nullam in oblatione iaciendam esse commemorationem, et ecclesiastica eos debere carere sepultura non aliter atque illos qui pro suis sceleribus impaenitentes moriuntur.

58 I owe this comparison, and this citation, to Edward Harris.

59 Stat. 4 Geo. IV c. 52.

60 MacDonald, M., ‘The secularization of suicide in England, 1660–1800’, Past and Present 111.1 (1986), 50100CrossRefGoogle Scholar proposes that the number of suicides deemed non compos mentis rose in response to family wishes to keep the property of the deceased.

61 Sale of weapons: Indiana Code of Laws, 35.47.3. Sale if weapons unclaimed: Revised Code of Washington State, 63.32.010. Distribution of weapons: Newark Advocate 1/4/2013 (NJ), Eau Claire Leader-Telegram 4/25/2012 (Wisc.).

62 Coshocton Tribune 1/10/2013.

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