Talking about suicide: The Roman Civil Wars

Recently, I quickly taught about the Roman civil wars.  I mentioned Cato the Younger killing himself at Utica, Brutus and Cassius’s suicides at Philippi, and Antony and Cleopatra’s suicides after the Battle of Actium.  During my first class about the civil wars, I started to feel awkward talking about all these suicides, and I wondered how the students were reacting.  During the second class, I omitted the word “suicide” and just called it a death.  Yet this also felt disingenuous and it reminds me of the modern social stigma against talking about suicide and against people who have committed suicide.  So how do we talk about this difficult topic in a better way?  Or, first, why should we even talk about it?

Why suicide matters

  • According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, “In 2013 (the most recent year for which full data are available), 41,149 suicides were reported, making suicide the 10th leading cause of death for AmericansIn that year, someone in the country died by suicide every 12.8 minutes.”
  • According to the same group, “In 2013, adolescents and young adults aged 15 to 24 had a suicide rate of 10.9.”  So 10.9 out of 10,000 people aged 15-24 committed suicide.
  • Our students are going through stressful major life changes, no matter what age they are in: whether it is middle school, high school, or college.  Stress and hopelessness can trigger suicidal thoughts.
  • Personally, I have seen the confusion and the anguish undergone by the people who love other people who killed themselves.

Discussing Suicide in the Ancient WorldAjax suicide vase

Like sexual violence, suicide is often mentioned in our sources, including as historical events.  During the Trojan War, Ajax kills himself because he lost the competition for Achilles’ armor to Odysseus.  In the Aeneid, Dido kills herself after Aeneas leaves Carthage at the order of Jupiter.  During the Roman civil wars, many people kill themselves, as mentioned above.  So how do we talk about this topic in a sensitive way?

There is a tension here that seems specific to historians and students of literature.  In its recommendations for educational videos about suicide, the American Association of Suicidology recommends that you do not fixate on people who committed suicide and why they did so.  But, it may feel disingenuous to say and is impossible to deny that Ajax, Dido, Brutus, and Cassius killed themselves.  We almost have to talk about these suicides.

There are two strategies that I have thought about while looking at materials about suicide prevention:

  1. Talk about the differences between our culture and Roman culture.
  2. Slip some of the suicide prevention ideas into the lecture or discussion.  Many of my ideas are derived from this lesson plan developed to go along with a PBS “In the Mix” video. The National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention says that the goal of talking about suicide should be to “promote hope, connectedness, social support, resilience, treatment, and recovery.”

Here’s how that might look with a quick discussion of the Roman civil wars:

  • Discuss how Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Pompey fled and was defeated at Pharsalus. Pompey fled towards Egypt and was assassinated.
  • Caesar pursued the remaining supporters of Pompey, including Metellus Scipio and Cato the Younger in Africa.  After Caesar won the Battle of Thapsus, Cato killed himself.  Ask “Why did Cato kill himself but Pompey?” This subtlely calls attention to the fact that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary solution and is not the only option.
  • After Caesar was assassinated, various political events resulted in Brutus and Cassius fleeing Rome to seek support in the East and Antony besieging the assassin Decimus Brutus in Mutina, then being besieged by Octavian and the consuls.  After the siege of Mutina, Antony allied himself with Lepidus and then with Octavian.  Mention how these episodes show people making connections and alliances where possible in order to stay alive and preserve their position — a comment on interconnectedness, resilience, and seeking help.
  • Octavian and Antony then pursue Brutus and Cassius to Philippi where the Liberators are defeated and commit suicide.  Here you can ask “Rather than giving up hope and killing themselves, whom could Brutus and Cassius have asked for help?”  This question risks either encouraging giving up hope or preserving it–and hopelessness did have something to do with the suicides of Brutus and Cassius–but it does emphasize the importance of asking for and seeking help.
  • From a planning perspective, it allows you to pivot towards Sextus Pompeius, whose importance during the civil wars has received more recent scholarly attention (here and here).  You can talk about how Sextus tried to be a hero of the Republic and greatly influenced events in Rome, even receiving temporary recognition/legitimation from the Triumvirs and Senate.  For suicide prevention purposes, it is also nice that he was executed by Antony rather than killing himself.  This emphasis on Sextus hints that Brutus and Cassius’s suicides are preventable, gives more historical credit to an important historical figure, and potentially heroizes someone who could have helped Brutus and Cassius.
  • After Sextus’s defeat, it became a standoff between Antony and Octavian.  After the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra killed themselves.  Here is a good place to distinguish between modern and ancient cultures.  Cleopatra certainly–and possibly Antony–committed suicide to avoid being led through the streets of Rome in Octavian’s triumph at the end of which she would have been ritually killed.  This would have been very humiliating for a resilient monarch in a culture that placed a great emphasis on shame and honor.  We can mention, or ask our students questions to show, how this shame/honor-based culture is not as prominent now (at a time when we encourage people to be themselves).

Some of the suggestions in the above paragraph are, perhaps, too subtle or greater fixations on suicide prevention than we might want to do in a class about the Roman civil wars.  It is afterall a very important this period for Roman history and there may be other themes you want to stress.  And stressing too many themes while telling a complex story may not work out well.  However, this plan does offer several ways to connect suicide prevention with important historical questioning: why did X event happen? who else could have helped Brutus and Cassius?  did Brutus and Cassius know this? why did they not know this?  how do cultural differences influence historical actions in ways we cannot account for with our own culture?

Other general suggestions:

  • Talk with the school’s guidance counselor or counseling center to see if they have advice on how to teach it.
  • Do not treat it flippantly.  The suicide of Ajax is not the most important episode from the Trojan War so it is easy to gloss over, but if a student asks why or how he died, do not just say “Oh, he killed himself.”  You can talk about how just before his death he suffered from a delusion in which he killed many sheep and he killed himself because he felt that killing the sheep had diminished his honor, in a very honor/kleos based society.  You could  also mention that there were not mental health experts to help Ajax like there are today.
  • Have resources about stress and depression management available.  There are some good online resources, many of which are listed below, but you should also guide students to trained mental health professionals.
  • During our discussions (and class, in general), we should also be conscious of various warning signs of suicidal people (from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Tool Kit): “feeling like a burden to others, sleeping too little or too much, acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly, increasing the use of alcohol or drugs, talking about feelings of hopelessness, searching for methods online, talking about wanting to die, withdrawing or feeling isolated, talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.”

And what if we notice one of our students shows these warning signs or one of our students talks about suicide or approaches us after class and mentions suicidal thoughts?

According to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Tool Kit, which talks about if a friend shows suicidal thoughts:

  • “Ask directly if your friend is thinking about suicide.
  • “Be willing to listen. Allow their expressions of feelings, and accept those feelings.
  • “Be non-judgmental. Don’t debate whether suicide is right or wrong, or whether feelings are good or bad. Don’t lecture on the value of life. Focus on being present with their feelings.
  • “Get involved. Become available. Show interest and support.
  • “Check in with your friend regularly. Schedule times to talk for the next week when you will both be available, to see how they are doing.
  • “Don’t act shocked. This will put distance between you. Be patient with yourself and the situation.
  • “Don’t be sworn to secrecy. Seek support.
  • “Offer hope that alternatives are available but do not offer glib reassurance.
  • “Take action. Remove means, such as guns or stockpiled pills
  • “Get help from agencies specializing in crisis intervention and suicide prevention.
  • “Encourage (and offer to accompany) your friend to seek help and support from a crisis specialist, therapist, doctor and/or clergy member.
  • “Show them the safety or “crisis coping plan” on the Lifeline web site, and talk together about [how] your friend can use this to help him/her to cope in these difficult moments.”

Other Resources for Teachers and Students

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