Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

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A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.

Us and the Hyperboreans. 3

We said there is a general attraction-repulsion among the people from North and South Europe. Let’s forget the repulsion thing now and let us instead focus on the undoubted attraction we feel for each other – as for our use of the term hyperborean pls read this note.

Beyond
the North Wind

The ancient Greeks dreamed about a mythical people living in a pagan Eden beyond Boreas, the north wind (hyper-Boreas = ‘beyond the north wind’). The Hyperboreans were imagined as perfect and almost god-like.

Thus Pindar in the V century BC:

Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labour and battle they live.

Such a bliss was though difficult to reach:

Never on land or by sea will you find
the marvellous road to the feast of the Hyperborea.

(Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode, translation by Richmond Lattimore; quotes from Wikipedia)

So Hyperborea was like a feast. Hard to tell which real experiences fed the myth but we perceive like attraction vibes coming from the Mediterranean and addressed towards some mythical folk of the north-east.

At least 5 centuries later, the Roman historian Tacitus, in his book Germania about the Germans (full text here) – a group of tribes also coming from the North-East – noted in AD 98: “In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder.” Less myth here but concrete admiration for the Germans’ powerful bodies (and pristine virtues.)

Caesar himself had appreciation for the Germans, if utilizing them in battle is any indication. Ancient Rome was filled with northern slaves who, even though seen as savages, were admired for their aspect and many Roman ladies wore expensive wigs made from their blonde or red hair.

Not Angles, but Angels

That the Mediterranean people found these northern folks attractive is confirmed by a legendary event with some historical ground. If true, it occurred more than 500 years after Tacitus’ time.

As Beda Venerabilis wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Gregory I, a great Pope from a noble Roman family, saw one day a group of children in a slave market of the Eternal City. They looked so beautiful to him that, getting curious and inquiring about them, he was told they were Angli (Angles).

He then so exclaimed with a pun: “Non Angli, sed Angeli”, “they are not Angles, but Angels” and added: “Well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.” Thus, according to Beda, he thought to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and sent Augustine of Canterbury to Britain for this purpose.

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Not much has changed since then. As regards contemporary Britons, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch and Germans (among the rest,) today’s Mediterranean people still see them as different in their bodies, skin, eyes, manners, and these differences are often seductive, beyond a doubt. Exactly as to Gregory, their children look such fair-skinned sweet angels to us. The women and the men we see as provided with a diverse beauty we generally find irresistible.

At 17 I was stunned watching the Irish girls dancing in the Dublin discos. The way they moved their bodies to the rhythm of music was so damn different from our girls’: a ‘lesser grace equals more grace’ type of thing, which almost knocked me out.

Churches as Factories for Marriage

A 45 years old American IT expert, italoamericano, confessed that the Italian and the Irish Americans who often gather in Catholic churches all over the States do feel this reciprocal attraction. “Churches are sometimes like factories for marriages. As far as us Italians– he confirmed – we cannot resist those fair and blue-eyed faces”. He had in fact married an Irish woman. Whether he met her in a church I’m not in a position to tell.

An attraction reciprocal. An American woman of German-English descent had lived in a small town close to Chicago. She said she gazed longingly at those Italians in the days when her catholic mother took her to the local church.

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Ok, basta. Since from serious this post has become gossipy (and voyeuristic) I will redeem myself in the next and last post dedicated to the Hyperboreans.

Hopefully we won’t just talk about the physical qualities we admire in them.

Note. I couldn’t find an appropriate picture with English or German children (for Gregory’s angels.) The image above refers to Swedish girls during Luciadagen (Saint Lucia’s day) on December 13th. It is moving how these “sun starved people” revere Lucia (or Lucy,) the Saint of light born in sunny Sicily (her name coming from the Latin word lux = light.)

During the darkest days of the year they pray Lucia to bring the sun back to them.

(“Lucy is one of the very few saints celebrated by the Lutheran Swedes, Finland-Swedes, Danes and Norwegians in celebrations that retain many indigenous Germanic pagan pre-Christian midwinter light festivals” – Wikipedia)

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Other related posts:
Us and the Hyperboreans. 1
Us and the Hyperboreans. 2

Us and the Hyperboreans. 2

In the British character Italians may perceive elements of brutality. This for example appears when they become angry and yell, both the men and the women. It is a cry sometimes unpleasant and almost repugnant to us, sorry to say that. It is not clear whether it is us who are too soft or them too hard.

A young girl very close to my family, Claudia, who had studied one month in Cambridge, England (see image above,) was walking one day on a street of that lovely town – she told us. Being unexpectedly captured by a shop-window and stopping in wonder in front of it, her rapture was suddenly (and rudely) shattered by a cutting rebuke – ‘STUPID GIRL!!!’ – yelled with such hardness by a middle-aged woman whose hasty walking had apparently been blocked by the girl’s sudden halt.
Despite Claudia’s outspoken character, she stayed frozen on that same spot for a few seconds, aghast.

Now it doesn’t really matter who was right, the English woman (more likely) or the young absent-minded (and possibly unruly) 17-years-old Italian girl. What I’m focusing on here is the nastiness of that cry – Claudia is a splendid imitator – and the lack of humanitas and sympathy we sometimes perceive in some Northern European people, despite their correctness and civic manners (surely greater than ours: see a conversation with Alex, a Briton, and other persons in Alex’s blog.)

Manchester United’s Din of War

Let me remember an impressive football game between Juventus and Manchester United played a few years ago at the Old Trafford stadium. In that occasion the United fans showed such a wild reaction against the psychological blow delivered to them by a first-minute scorching shot by Alessandro Del Piero – he elegantly dribbled sideways and scored (see below) – that the whole episode how can I ever forget.

The stadium was suddenly struck dumb. All, I mean ALL, United fans (50,000? 60,000?) were like annihilated and remained totally silent for several minutes. Such a terrible silence, such an impressive collective affliction we didn’t suspect what it soon would lead to.

After a while here in fact comes a low-pitched grumbling first, like an unnatural deep buzz, followed by a crescendo of shouts screams bellows against the Italian team, which kept growing and growing and became so deafening that the Juventus players, made incapable to reason, their morale disrupted, ran into total defeat.

I was bewildered and indignant! All seemed so unfair, brutal!

Therefore how could I not think – I’m obsessing-obsessed – about that awful din of war addressed to the Roman legionaries of Caius Marius by the German Teutones and Ambrones (comrades of the Cimbri) whose number – writes Plutarch, probably exaggerating – was limitless and covered a vast plain.

Here is Plutarch describing that dreadful sound:

“Here was lamentation among them all night long, not like the wailings and groanings of men, but howlings and bellowings with a strain of the wild beast in them, mingled with threats and cries of grief …. The whole plain was filled with an awful din, and the Romans were filled with fear, and even Marius himself was filled with consternation.” It was 102 BC, the night before the terrible battle of Aquae Sextiae.

I couldn’t but think about that famous night while I was watching the total disbandment of one of the best soccer teams in the world.

A Human Avalanche

Well, the Romans’ peasant’s endurance was surely tougher than Juventus’ (looking for a base consolation, am I not.) Being petrified by that shocking sound and not able to sleep (the Romans,) the following morning they nevertheless pulled themselves together and wiped out their enemies with a double attack from the front and from behind.

The battle and the following one near Vercellae (modern Vercelli, Italy) ended up with the total annihilation of the human avalanche who had terrorised the nations of the Empire (Mommsen).

I know all this happened 21 centuries ago, I know I’m digressing and it’s surely unfair to see in today’s English fans the grand-children of those first German hordes
[Alex observes: “Being from the UK, I am considered by the Italians to be someone from an Anglo-Saxon culture ... you’ll be happy to hear that I rarely wear fur.”]

And yet, believing as much as I do that even the most far-away past can be alive in our present, that din from the United fans …

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In the end, since it’s not only British-like to grant the honours of war to courage, we’ll admit the United fans were not totally unfair (they were only a bit,) and most of all, leaving football trivia behind, we feel like paying the humblest of tributes to the brave Cimbri and Teutons and especially to their unbelievably fierce and ferocious women.

So here are Plutarch’s words (Life of Marius), not for the faint of heart:

“(Acquae Sextiae) the Romans kept slaying them until they came in their flight to their camp and waggons. Here the women met them, swords and axes in their hands, and with hideous shrieks of rage tried to drive back fugitives and pursuers alike, the fugitives as traitors, and the pursuers as foes; they mixed themselves up with the combatants, with bare hands tore away the shields of the Romans or grasped their swords, and endured wounds and mutilations, their fierce spirits unvanquished to the end.”

“(Vercellae?) The fugitives, however, were driven back to their entrenchments, where the Romans beheld a most tragic spectacle. The women, in black garments, stood at the waggons and slew the fugitives — their husbands or brothers or fathers, then strangled their little children and cast them beneath the wheels of the waggons or the feet of the cattle, and then cut their own throats. It is said that one woman hung dangling from the tip of a waggon-pole, with her children tied to either ankle.”

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Related posts:

Us and the Hyperboreans. 1
Us and the Hyperboreans. 3
Humanitas
Isn’t the British Trojan Horse a Short-sighted Animal?
(around which an extensive discussion developed about the UK vs Italy and Europe)
Ups and Downs
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

Us and the Hyperboreans. 1

In Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds I had a discussion with the Commentator about how South and North Europeans see one another. Since I was planning a few posts on this topic, such a discussion can work as a starting point. Texts are abridged and edited a bit.

The Commentator

[This post] further reinforces my suspicion … of this attraction between Italy and Germany. It seems Roman civilization had a great influence on this.

Which brings me into another question. England (UK) was invaded by both Romans and Germanics (Angles, Jutes, Saxons). Yet, I do not feel there is anything that connects Britain to Italy in any way. In fact, I usually get the distinct feeling the UK has a somewhat condescending (if not superficial) view of Italy. You read it in their history books and in some cases how they interpret Italian soccer.

[…] I realize there are some Germans that hold similar views (I read somewhere that the Italian community has never been accepted in Germany) but as a general discussion, where does Britain break off from Germany when it comes to Italy?

Man of Roma

First of all, when dealing with foreigners, one has to accept bias and some sort of racism, this not being avoidable, for a number of reasons. Every person should be proud of his/her heritage, without becoming a nationalist though. […]

Thus said, I think there is a general attraction-repulsion among the folks from North and South Europe. This includes the UK and Germany and other northern European people vs South Europe and vice versa.

It is in fact a two-way thing [we'll focus on repulsion now]: not only many North Europeans dislike us, but it is also many of us disliking them. We (Italians, Spanish, Portuguese etc.) admire some of these people’s qualities, but we generally disapprove of their lack of taste and style and often see them as a bunch of depressed (and rude) drunkards. Of course this is not my view but there is some truth in this (like there is some truth in the flaws North foreigners see in us).

Goethe, a great lover of Italy, – Kennst du das Land … Do you know the land where the lemons bloom? - writes at the end of the XVIII century that he forgives ‘the Northern people who criticize Italy because these people (the Italians) are really so different from us’. It is interesting how he explains this ‘difference’ and his Italian Journey is a great book also from this point of view (see above Goethe as painted by Karl Joseph Stieler).

How can in fact exist an easy mutual understanding between the people of the Mediterranean and the Hyperboreans, namely the northern folks living in a realm of clouds, rain, cold and darkness? Such diverse climate (together with a different history) is a potent factor for creating marked differences in behaviour, mood, disposition of soul etc., all of which makes intercourse difficult (Hyperboreans is how the Greco-Romans called the people living ‘beyond Boreas’, eg the North wind, and it is sometimes used to indicate folks from cold climates in general).

I read somewhere that the Italian community has never been accepted in Germany.
I’d say the Germans have now worse problems with non-EU immigrants. In any case they had this invasion of such different people, the Italians from the Mezzogiorno, it is understandable. And there is always a difference of attitude (towards the Italians) between the so to say romanized Germans and the non romanized ones. In many parts of Northern and central (Protestant) Germany [where the Romans never arrived: see my post Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds] Italians are often disliked, it is true. The Protestant Germans, the Dutch etc. for example, didn’t want the so called Club Med (Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece) to become part of the Euro zone. They basically said: “These places are just nice for a vacation, that’s all …”.

Where does Britain break off from Germany when it comes to Italy.
Well, Germans are our neighbours, while Britain is far. But I would say Britain breaks off from the entire Continent. They are islanders, they do not feel European in my opinion [a few Brits said this also here], and many people from the Continent (Italians included) return this feeling and find it hard to love them, I don’t see how it could be otherwise, since the British feel superior to continentals, not to mention Southern continentals.

But I wouldn’t say “there is nothing that connects Britain to Italy in any way.” First of all their literature is often like a hymn to Italy (take Shakespeare, Byron or E. M. Forster with his A Room with a View). Additionally many seem today very attached to their Roman past. There is like a Roman frenzy now in Great Britain. Tomorrow [last July 22] the British Museum opens up an exhibition on the Roman emperor Hadrian, the one who built the Hadrian’s Wall. Very complex and modern personality, Hadrian (see the exhibition trailer). Hundreds of UK web sites celebrate Ancient Rome. Roman.Britan.org is one of them. Also popular culture and movies (King Arthur, The Last Legion etc.) reveal like a (subterranean?) feeling that they are (well, they were) somewhat the heirs of the Romans.

Finally Italy is admired by them in many other ways, and I am convinced – also because many Brits told me – that they are a bit envious: our culture and history are richer, our food and clothing better, our towns immensely more beautiful, people here possess more charm, joy of life etc.. Ooopss, I forgot the climate lol.

Thus Byron sang in a period – the beginning of the XIX century – when Italy was at the top of her decline while Great Britain was at the apex of her world power:

The commonwealth of kings, the men of Rome!
And even since, and now, fair Italy!
Thou art the garden of the world, the home
Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;
Even in thy desert, what is like to thee?
Thy very weeds are beautiful,
thy waste
More rich than other climes’ fertility;
Thy wreck a glory, and thy ruin graced
With an immaculate charm that cannot be defaced.

[I love Byron, certainly not because he likes Italy, no, not for that]

As regards soccer, well, we won the World Cup, not them. Someone told me Italians are now upset because Perfidious Albion is hiring a lot of young promising Italian players. We pay a lot to raise them, then they arrive and buy them. No, I wouldn’t say they don’t like our soccer, it’s just they realise it is so different from theirs. Soccer, like any other sport, is revealing. We really ARE different people.

So what, is that a problem? Differences create richness & complementarity. They make the world a better place to live in.

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If you want to know more:

Us and the Hyperboreans. 2
Us and the Hyperboreans. 3

But also:

Isn’t the British Trojan Horse a Short-sighted Animal? (around which an extensive discussion developed about the UK vs Italy and Europe)
Ups and Downs
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

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