The Original Virgin Suicides

When looking at discussions of suicide in the ancient world I have been struck by how different attitudes were then when compared to our own. I guess I always knew this, but had not really thought too deeply upon it. I am reluctant to post some of them, because I think that out of context they could be read harmfully as a support for if not glorification of suicide. At the same time, however, I think it probably does more harm than good not to take a hard look at ancient attitudes.

Here’s an anecdote that is chilling and a bit upsetting. Warning: it contains misogyny as well as reference to suicide clusters. In general, this reminded me of the suicide clusters in Silicon Valley discussed widely a few years ago. But–and I think this is more important–it also points to groups of suicide as an attempt to wrest agency in response to desperation, a lack of agency, and marginalization.

Aulus Gellius, Varia Historia 15.10

“In his first of the books On the Soul, Plutarch included the following tale when he was commenting on maladies which afflict human minds. He said that there were maiden girls of Milesian families who at a certain time suddenly and without almost any clear reason made a plan to die and that many killed themselves by hanging.

When this became more common in following days and there was no treatment to be found for the spirits of those who were dedicated to dying, The Milesians decreed that all maidens who would die by hanging their bodies would be taken out to burial completely naked except for the rope by which they were hanged. After this was decreed, the maidens did not seek suicide only because they were frightened by the thought of so shameful a funeral.”

Plutarchus in librorum quos περὶ ψυχῆς inscripsit primo cum de morbis dissereret in animos hominum incidentibus, virgines dixit Milesii nominis, fere quot tum in ea civitate erant, repente sine ulla evidenti causa voluntatem cepisse obeundae mortis ac deinde plurimas vitam suspendio amississe. id cum accideret in dies crebrius neque animis earum mori perseverantium medicina adhiberi quiret, decrevisse Milesios ut virgines, quae corporibus suspensis demortuae forent, ut hae omnes nudae cum eodem laqueo quo essent praevinctae efferrentur. post id decretum virgines voluntariam mortem non petisse pudore solo deterritas tam inhonesti funeris.

Suicides of public figures cause disbelief because of our cultural misconceptions about depression and about the importance of material wealth and fame to our well-being. While some clusters of suicide can be understood as a reflex of the “threshold problem”, we fail to see the whole picture if we do not also see that human well-being is connected to a sense of agency and belonging. Galen, in writing about depression, notes that melancholy can make us desire that which we fear.

Galen, De Locis Affectis 8.190-191

“But there are ten thousand other fantasies. The melancholic differ from one another, but even though they all exhibit fear, despair, blaming of life and hatred for people, they do not all want to die. For some, fear of death is the principle source of their depression. Some will seem paradoxical to you because they fear death and desire death at the same time.”

ἄλλα τε μυρία τοιαῦτα φαντασιοῦνται. διαφέρονται δὲ ἀλλήλων οἱ μελαγχολικοὶ, τὸ μὲν φοβεῖσθαι καὶ δυσθυμεῖν καὶ μέμφεσθαι τῇ ζωῇ καὶ μισεῖν τοὺς ἀνθρώπους ἅπαντες ἔχοντες, ἀποθανεῖν δ’ ἐπιθυμοῦντες οὐ πάντες, ἀλλ’ ἔστιν ἐνίοις αὐτῶν αὐτὸ δὴ τοῦτο κεφάλαιον τῆς μελαγχολίας, τὸ περὶ τοῦ θανάτου δέος· ἔνιοι δὲ ἀλλόκοτοί σοι δόξουσιν, ἅμα τε καὶ δεδιέναι τὸν θάνατον καὶ θανατᾷν.

In thinking about the impact of agency and belonging on our sense of well-being and relationship to death, I have been significantly influence by this book:

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

If you or someone you know feel alone, uncertain, depressed or for any reason cannot find enough joy and hope to think life is worth it, please reach out to someone. The suicide prevention hotline has a website, a phone number (1-800-273-8255), and a chat line. And if we can help you find some tether to the continuity of human experience through the Classics or a word, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Some Roman Poets Sing the Spring

Horace, Ars Poetica 299-304

…”O, what a savage I am,
Who cleanse myself of bile for the coming of the season of spring!
No one else would make better poems. It is truly
Worth nothing. Therefore, I act in place of a whetstone,
Which can return to steel its edge, but is powerless to cut itself.”

…o ego laevus,
qui purgor bilem sub verni temporis horam!
non alius faceret meliora poemata: verum
nil tanti est. ergo fungar vice cotis, acutum
reddere quae ferrum valet, exsors ipsa secandi;

Vergil, Georgics 2.149-154

“Here, spring is endless and summer overtakes other months:
The flocks give birth twice a year; twice a year the trees have fruit.

hic ver adsiduum atque alienis mensibus aestas:
bis gravidae pecudes, bis pomis utilis arbos.

Ovid, Fasti 4.125-132

“And no time of the year was better fit for Venus than spring
In spring the lands shine, the fields are tender in spring,
The grains raises its heads through the broken earth
And the shoot drives its buds in swollen bark.

Gorgeous Venus is worthy of a gorgeous time,
As always, and goes hand in hand with Mars.
In spring she tells the curved ships to go
Over maternal seas because she no longer fears the winter.”

nec Veneri tempus quam ver erat aptius ullum:
vere nitent terrae, vere remissus ager,
nunc herbae rupta tellure cacumina tollunt,
nunc tumido gemmas cortice palmes agit.
et formosa Venus formoso tempore digna est,
utque solet, Marti continuata suo est:
vere monet curvas materna per aequora puppes
ire nec hibernas iam timuisse minas.

Propertius, 4.5.59-60

“While spring is in your blood, while your age is free of wrinkle,
Use it—just in case tomorrow takes the youth from your face.”

dum vernat sanguis, dum rugis integer annus,
60utere, ne quid cras libet ab ore dies

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Villa Dar Buc Ammera, Libya, Roman era mosaic of the four seasons

Don’t Worry, I Read it For You

Macrobius, Saturnalia (Preface) 1-4

“My child Eustathius: nature has imbued our life with many different instincts, but none is greater than the force which binds us to our own children. She has made our need to educate you and raise you so powerful that parents can gain no greater pleasure–if everything goes according to plan–and feel no more savage sorrow, than when they fail. For this reason I have valued nothing more than your education and, because I believe that focused work should be preferred to prolonged diversion–I am intolerant of delays: I cannot wait for you to advance through only the studies you make tirelessly on your own, so I have also made an effort to read for you and to put together whatever I have read spread out among various volumes of Greek and Latin, before and since you were born as a total supplement of knowledge. And, just as if from your own pantry of culture, whenever you need some fact from history which evades other men by hiding in books, or you need to remember some famous deed or saying, it will be easy and efficient for you to find it.”

Multas variasque res in hac vita nobis, Eustachi fili, natura conciliavit: sed nulla nos magis quam eorum qui e nobis essent procreati caritate devinxit, eamque nostram in his educandis atque erudiendis curam esse voluit, ut parentes neque, si id quod cuperent ex sententia cederet, tantum ulla alia ex re voluptatis, neque, si contra eveniret, tantum maeroris capere possent.Hinc est quod mihi quoque institutione tua nihil antiquius aestimatur, ad cuius perfectionem compendia longis amfractibus anteponenda ducens moraeque omnis inpatiens non opperior ut per haec sola promoveas quibus ediscendis naviter ipse invigilas, sed ago ut ego quoque tibi legerim, et quicquid mihi, vel te iam in lucem edito vel antequam nascereris, in diversis seu Graecae seu Romanae linguae voluminibus elaboratum est, id totum sit tibi scientiae supellex, et quasi de quodam litterarum peno, si quando usus venerit aut historiae quae in librorum strue latens clam vulgo est aut dicti factive memorabilis reminiscendi, facile id tibi inventu atque depromptu sit.

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Awkward Correspondence on Paternity: Alexander and Olympias

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 13.iv

A transcript of a letter from Alexander to his mother Olympias; and what Olympias wrote back to him.

“In the majority of the records of the deeds of Alexander and rather recently in the book of Marcus Varro, which is called “Orestes” or “On Insanity”, we find that Olympias, the wife of Philipp, most cleverly replied to her son. For, when he wrote to his mother, “King Alexander, the son of Zeus Ammon, sends his greetings to his mother Olympias”, she said “My son, hush! lest you defame me or incriminate me before Juno! She will certainly allot me some great harm once you have confessed in your letters that I am her husband’s adultress.” This courtesy from a wise and prudent woman to a boastful son moderately and elegantly warned him that his puffed-up belief, which he had inflated from great victories, the charms of praise and from successes beyond belief–the idea that he was the offspring of Zeus–ought to be abandoned.”

Descripta Alexandri ad matrem Olympiadem epistula; et quid Olympias festive ei rescripserit.

In plerisque monumentis rerum ab Alexandro gestarum et paulo ante in libro M. Varronis, qui inscriptus est Orestes vel de insania, Olympiadem Philippi uxorem festivissime rescripsisse legimus Alexandro filio. 2 Nam cum is ad matrem ita scripsisset: “Rex Alexander Iovis Hammonis filius Olympiadi matri salutem dicit”, Olympias ei rescripsit ad hanc sententiam: “Amabo”, inquit “mi fili, quiescas neque deferas me neque criminere adversum Iunonem; malum mihi prorsum illa magnum dabit, cum tu me litteris tuis paelicem esse illi confiteris”. 3 Ea mulieris scitae atque prudentis erga ferocem filium comitas sensim et comiter admonuisse eum visa est deponendam esse opinionem vanam, quam ille ingentibus victoriis et adulantium blandimentis et rebus supra fidem prosperis inbiberat, genitum esse sese de Iove.

The Best Things The Gods Gave Us (Aelian, Varia Historia 12.59)

“Pythagoras said that man received these two finest things from the gods: to tell the truth and to do good deeds. And he added that both of these things resemble the works of the gods.”

Πυθαγόρας ἔλεγε δύο ταῦτα ἐκ τῶν θεῶν τοῖς ἀνθρώποις δεδόσθαι κάλλιστα, τό τε ἀληθεύειν καὶ τὸ εὐεργετεῖν· καὶ προσετίθει ὅτι καὶ ἔοικε τοῖς θεῶν ἔργοις ἑκάτερον.

Dressing Up or Dressing Down, Vanity Abounds (Aelian, Historical Miscellany 9.35-6)

“When Diogenes went to Olympia and observed some young Rhodians dressed very finely, he laughed and said “That is vanity.” When at the same time he came upon some Spartans in poorly made and filthy coats, he said, “This is a different kind of vanity.”

Διογένης ἐς ᾿Ολυμπίαν ἐλθὼν καὶ θεασάμενος ἐν τῇ πανηγύρει ῾Ροδιακούς τινας νεανίσκους πολυτελῶς ἠσθημένους, γελάσας ‘τῦφος’ ἔφη ‘τοῦτό ἐστιν.’ εἶτα περιτυχὼν Λακεδαιμονίοις ἐν ἐξωμίσι φαύλαις καὶ ῥυπώσαις ‘ἄλλος’ εἶπεν ‘οὗτος τῦφος.’

“When Socrates saw that Antisthenes was always making the ripped section of his cloak obvious, he said “Won’t you stop showing yourself off to us?” “

῾Ο δὲ Σωκράτης ἰδὼν τὸν ᾿Αντισθένη τὸ διερρωγὸς τοῦ ἱματίου μέρος ἀεὶ ποιοῦντα φανερὸν, ‘οὐ παύσῃ’ ἔφη ‘ἐγκαλλωπιζόμενος ἡμῖν;’

It seems that Socrates and Diogenes might have been some  of the first proponents of #normcore. Certainly the former might wonder if the unexamined cloak is worth wearing…

Aelian? Claudius Aelianus was a third-fourth century BCE author who in addition to writing “On the Nature of Animals” made a collection of historical (literary, mythical, etc.) oddities and anecdotes less polished than the Saturnalia of Macrobius or the Attic Nights of Aulus Gellius, but no less fascinating.

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