Suicide in Byzantium

Apostolos Karpozilos, University of Ioannina, Fellow 2005–2006

Of the material I have gathered on suicide incidents during the Byzantine millennium, the historical sources have proved by far more instructive and informative, although the recorded instances are not as numerous as one might have expected. To be sure, the sources of the earlier period, that is from the fourth to the sixth century, have yielded more material than the later centuries. Most of the incidents involve individuals in high political or military positions, who committed suicide in anticipation of death and/or in the fear of cruel torture at the hands of their captors. The question that arises is whether suicide was more widespread in the earlier than in the later centuries and whether the cases under consideration suggest a pattern; or differently said, whether inflicting death upon oneself was more socially acceptable during the period of transition from paganism to Christianity. In Late Antiquity, self-inflicted death seems to have been part of a code of honor or a moral duty in case of defeat and disgrace. The recording of attempted and successful suicides by well-known persons, defeated or otherwise disgraced, was considered “normal,” whereas in later periods such incidents were perhaps considered taboo and may have been suppressed. The same seems to be the case with collective suicides either among heretics or among the oppressed populace: the phenomenon is confined to Late Antiquity up to the eighth century. The suicides recorded in historical sources by and large resulted from extreme situations, in the face of defeat and in fear of confinement and torture.

The cases mentioned in the hagiographic texts, on the other hand, are of a different kind. The individual is described as struggling against daemonic powers and invisible forces that drive him to self-destruction, but in the end he is rescued by the timely intervention of divine agency. These kinds of stories, unreal as they may be, nevertheless indicate the way suicide was perceived and understood by a large segment of the society. A more sophisticated approach was inclined to interpret it, of course, as the product of a primitive mind, overburdened with passions, as Manuel Palaiologos theorized.

We also encountered instances of attempted suicides by women either in love or in distress. Judicial records attest to the fact that suicidal incidents of women under extreme stress were not uncommon. As for suicides among the lower classes, like soldiers and slaves, only general statements about them are found in the sources—the anonymous poor driven to suicide out of desperation, whereas in legal texts contain only a few inferences regarding soldiers and slaves. The impact of a suicidal act within a community is described in some detail only in one instance, which makes it clear that the act was socially condemned and severely affected the relatives of the deceased. Yet, instances of indignities inflicted upon the body of a victim of suicide or arbitrary confiscation of his property—practices attested in western documents—are not witnessed in the Greek sources.

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