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Fri, 25 Jul 2008 16:24:40 -0500
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Death in Ancient Rome. By CATHARINE EDWARDS. New Haven and London: Yale 
University Press, 2007. Pp. xii + 287. Cloth, $35.00. ISBN 

Order this text for $28.50 from Amazon.com using this link and 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

A CJ Online Exclusive: 2008.07.03

Catharine Edwards’ (E.’s) latest book is a thoughtful study of dying in 
the Roman world between roughly the 1st century BC and the first half of 
the 2nd century AD. The introduction (pp. 1–19) analyzes what constitutes 
a Roman death and foreshadows the most important conclusions revealed in 
the remainder of the study. A number of key arguments underlie the 
analysis. The Roman upper classes, or at least those who wrote about the 
topic, were pre-occupied and obsessed with dying. Romans viewed dying as an 
active rather than as a passive process which aimed to reveal, or was 
believed to reveal, the individual’s true character; an honorable death 
required careful preparation with the aim of communicating a message. 
Dying, in other words, was a form of communication. It was accordingly a 
spectacle that required an audience, represented by the process of watching 
gladiators die in the amphitheater, as well as in the very public staging 
of political suicides under the Julio-Claudian emperors.

E.’s introduction is followed by eight chapters that focus on specific 
aspects of dying, including death on the battlefield, the death of the 
gladiator, the philosophy of dying, the culture of suicide (two chapters, 
one dealing with political connotations, the other with theatrical 
aspects), death and the dinner-party, women and suicide, and Christian 
martyrs. The topics are diverse and challenging, but E. successfully 
presents them as key areas of concern for Roman writers of the period. 
There is much to admire in this book, which bristles with careful attention 
to the latest scholarship, and the chapters on women, theatrical images and 
martyrs in particular provide interesting new angles on Roman culture. 
Overall, E. neatly brings out how the Roman literary and cultural 
imagination developed a set of typically Roman attitudes toward dying. One 
might argue with some justification that studying the Roman way of dying 
reveals essential characteristics of what it was to be Roman: the social 
profile was dominated by a desire for honor, control and agency. Yet not 
everything in this volume convinces, mainly because E. has preferred to 
keep her arguments compact and coherent rather than confront a variety of 
possible interpretations. The following points address this issue.

E. frequently emphasizes that the Roman upper classes were not merely 
concerned with the issue of dying, but they were preoccupied, fascinated 
and obsessed with it. A reading of Lucan’s Pharsalia, Tacitus’ Annals 
and Seneca’s Epistulae Morales, to name but a few, suggests that dying 
and death were indeed important issues, but some discussion of what 
constitutes an obsession with dying would have been helpful. In at least 
one case E.’s qualification of the Roman obsession with the moment of 
death is an exaggeration. In her chapter on the death of the gladiator she 
calls attention to the fact that a popular representation of gladiators on 
household utensils frames the moment when a defeated fighter waits for the 
decision of the editor as to whether he will receive the final blow or will 
be granted mercy (pp. 55–9; cf. illustrations on pp. 56–7). E. argues 
that this scene is predominant among visual representations of gladiators 
in combat, especially among those on oil lamps. [n. 1] Georges Ville (who 
was the first to call attention to the imagery) states that it enjoyed 
extraordinary favor, but that is not the same as arguing that it is the 
prevalent image of gladiators in combat. Ville uses the evidence to 
reconstruct a matter of technical significance, the procedure of requesting 
missio, whereas E. uses it to make a cultural statement, claiming that even 
ordinary Romans who owned such representations could imagine themselves as 
instrumental in deciding a gladiator’s fate (p. 59), thus adding to the 
argument that the Romans of this time had a strong fascination with the 
moment of death. It needs to be emphasized that E.’s selection of one 
type of representation as the focus of her argument is not representative 
of how Romans viewed gladiators.

Dying had the potential to reveal an individual’s character, in the way 
he or she faced death as well as in how a self-inflicted death was chosen. 
E. illustrates this throughout the book (p. 5), although the idea is 
particularly associated with the writings of Seneca (p. 87). But dying out 
of character appears to have been an equally appealing image to Roman 
writers. Sallust’s portrayal of Catiline (pp. 29–31) could have been an 
excellent point of departure for such a discussion. Another important case 
is that of the emperor Otho. E. refers to negative reports in Tacitus about 
him (p. 38), but without marking them out as a complicating factor. The 
fact of the matter is not that Tacitus finds Otho’s suicide admirable (p. 
38), but that his suicide is so out of character. This interest is not 
unique to Tacitus, even though his account of the Pisonian conspiracy teems 
with similar examples, including that of the freedwoman Epicharis, whose 
life-style had been consistently non-virtuous until she became involved in 
the conspiracy, but who died heroically without revealing the names of the 
other conspirators (p. 204). [n. 2] In both cases E. acknowledges that a 
contradiction between life and exit from life exists, but she never uses 
this material to revisit the question of dying in character. This raises 
the question of what constitutes the norm, and how the contradiction should 
be resolved or at least addressed. This also suggests that E. occasionally 
misunderstands a key scene. Seneca’s dying scene has sometimes been read 
negatively, but E. prefers to see his death in Tacitus as a model of the 
admirable suicide. Seneca’s death is slow and excruciatingly painful, and 
he is forced to change strategy several times; an expert on suicide, he is 
somehow incapable of killing himself. [n. 3] In contrast, there is the 
uncomplicated and almost blissful suicide of L. Antistius Vetus and his 
family, who share a single sofa and knife between them. Fate observed the 
right order, with the two eldest individuals dying first (Tac. Ann. 

The behavior E. studies in her book, and especially the cult of political 
suicide under the Julio-Claudians, seems concentrated in a relatively short 
space of time. This requires an explanation, and E. provides one that in my 
view does not entirely convince. She argues that the Roman upper class 
preoccupation with dying and with dying well was the result of the gradual 
demilitarization, that is, the gradual removal of senators from the 
battlefield (p. 7). This development was accompanied by a countertrend in 
which senators are more exposed to the political tensions brought about by 
the establishment of monarchy. Stripped of the possibility of advertising 
their glory and earning a reputation on the battlefield, senators were now 
thrown back on the domestic front. If this is correct, it would mean that 
in the days of the Republic a man’s value was primarily established on 
the battlefield, as a commander of soldiers, while in the 1st century AD 
many senators had no battle experience. I am not convinced that in the 
middle and late Republic the military ideology was so dominant as to shape 
senatorial identity to the exclusion of other fields, such as rhetoric and 
politics. Nor do I not know of any way to measure the reduced involvement 
of senators in military deployment, let alone to examine its impact on the 
senatorial mentality. In any case, E. never demonstrates that those who 
committed suicide were excluded from military affairs. The same argument 
has been used to explain the popularity of the gladiatorial games in the 
1st century AD. The similarities between soldiers and gladiators (cf. pp. 
51–3) can then be used to explain the rising popularity of the one 
through the absence of the other. Overall, however, I do not believe that 
exposure to war had declined between the 1st century BC and AD. What had 
changed was the political situation with the establishment of a monarch who 
was more dependent on personal publicity than the regime he had come to 

This book offers a number of important insights in the cultural world and 
literary imagination of imperial Rome. It is an engaging study, which 
builds on a wide range of scholarship and stimulates further thinking about 
death and dying in ancient Rome. With all the material on suicide, 
gladiators and attitudes toward dying combined in one volume, the question 
why the Romans developed their thinking in the way they did becomes even 
more urgent.

University of Wisconsin at Madison  

[n. 1] George Ville, La gladiature en Occident des origines à la mort de 
Domitien (Rome, 1981) 410–15, with the reference to “faveur 
extraordinaire” on p. 410.
[n. 2] For a good discussion of this phenomenon, cf. A. La Penna, “Il 
ritratto paradossale da Silla a Petronio,” RFIC 104 (1976) 270–93.
[n. 3] Cf. most recently Willy Evenepoel, “The Philosopher Seneca on 
Suicide.” AncSoc 34 (2004) 217–43.

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