Cutting Their Veins: Suicide & Shame in Tacitus’s Annals (Gray Wood, 2018)

Abstract: During the final Julio-Claudian reigns, many Romans took their own lives; some were forced by imperial decree, others by shame. This paper examines not only the circumstances behind many of the suicides in Tacitus’s Annals but also the attitudes Tacitus expected Romans to hold concerning them. How one meets suicide is of utmost importance. Tacitus overwhelmingly praises Seneca the Younger for the dignity and resolve with which he took his own life, while others, such as military tribune Faenius Rufus, are condemned for meeting their fate with grovelling and lamentations. Of special note are those instances when a Roman failed to commit suicide–does this show a lack of Roman virtue or is it simply not befitting that figure’s station? Finally, the willingness with which so many Romans killed themselves indicates the importance of adhering to social traditions.  The alternative–being executed–was the lot of a soldier or a commoner, not an aristocrat. If a Roman was to die, it would be in a way that granted the citizen eternal fame. Tacitus establishes a clear-cut link between virtue and death in Roman society, granting us insight into how Roman behavior was closely intertwined with cultural expectations.


In his Annals, Tacitus rarely relates a natural death to the reader. The violent reigns of the

final Julio-Claudian emperors saw many Romans, both vile and virtuous, take their own lives.

Suicide figures so prominently in Tacitus’s account that the modern scholar may glean much

about its meaning in Imperial Roman society. Suicide showed resolve to the Roman eye,

especially when one’s actions have disgraced not only himself but the state. But this

interpretation is complicated by the many compulsory suicides forced upon prominent Romans

during the reigns of Nero and Claudius, leading to several questions. What does failure—or

success—in the deed mean for one’s legacy? Why did some even refuse suicide and accept

execution? The answers lie in an underlying pattern, where the method of suicide and death

could either exalt those Tacitus deems ‘good’ or condemn those he deems ‘bad’. By intertwining

the character of his subjects with how they meet their fate, Tacitus conveys suicide as a way to

recover from shame—a fate worse than death—for vile and virtuous Romans alike.


The character of a Roman was apparent in how they approached their fate; degenerate

Romans often dallied or failed in the task, whilst conservative Romans met their fate with

resolve. Failing to commit suicide conveyed a lack of moral integrity, and Tacitus reserves the

most graphic description of this for Messalina, the emperor Claudius’s third wife. Her wanton

and lusty behavior would “capriciously tamper with the Roman government,” as shown by her

ill-fated attempt at a palace coup against Claudius (Tacitus, Annals, 12.7). She represented the

worst excesses of Imperial women and, and Tacitus offers an account of her death that, in no

unclear terms, highlights her lack of Roman virtue. When the executioners came, Messalina’s

mother urged her “to seek death with honour” by committing suicide, but she fumbled so

cowardly with the blade that the impatient tribune overseeing the deed stabbed her (Tacitus,

Annals, 11.37-38). For this pathetic clinging to life, Messalina condemned her memory to

ignominy, a fate far worse than death for any Roman.


Messalina’s example stands in stark contrast to one of the figures Tacitus has the highest

praise for: Seneca, whose suicide occupies five chapters of Book Fifteen. Despite Seneca’s

refusal to join Gaius Piso’s plot, Nero demands his suicide. But the tribune sent to deliver the

sentence states that “he had recognized no signs of apprehension [from Seneca], and no distress

in his language or expression” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.61). The amount of time he takes before

committing suicide is not spent grovelling at the tribune’s feet or begging forgiveness for a crime

he did not commit; rather, Seneca “called for the tablets of his will”, showing attention to his

duties and obligations so that all would be well after his death (Tacitus, Annals, 15.62). Even his

suicide was hampered by an honorable and conservative way of living: “his spare diet, allowed

only slow escape for the blood” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.63). And, at the very end, Seneca

demonstrates Roman piety and a concern for the state’s future by offering his blood as “a libation

to Jupiter the Liberator;” a thinly veiled wish for Rome to be freed from Nero’s bloodlust

(Tacitus, Annals, 15.64). Tacitus’s lengthy account of Seneca’s suicide is the gold standard for a

proper Roman death; he exemplifies conservative Roman virtues and is mindful of his duty to his

family, state, and gods.


The resolution to commit suicide socially exonerated a Roman of their previous

misdeeds, restoring honor to names Tacitus otherwise records as marked by shame. Outside of

those that Nero forced upon innocent Romans, suicide functioned as an admission of guilt for the

disgraced to their fellow Romans. Poenius Postumus, a Roman officer stationed in Britain during

Boudicca’s uprising, did not join his Second Legion with the Fourteenth and Twentieth Legions

when they put down the revolt, perhaps fearing that the Britons were too strong to handle; in

doing so, Tacitus writes that “had cheated his own legion of…glory and violated military

procedure by disobeying his commander’s orders” (Tacitus, Annals, 14.37). Such a display of

cowardice was hardly befitting Rome’s military tradition, so Postumus killed himself to save

face. This admission of guilt should be seen as a positive one, indicating remorse for his fault; by

taking his own life, a degenerate Roman could display a strength of character that would improve

public opinion of him. This distinction also applied to those who chose to commit suicide

independent of any crime. Caninus Rebilus, a prominent Roman noted for his “effeminate

predilections,” committed suicide as he reached old age (Tacitus, Annals, 13.30). Tacitus writes

that this shocked many Romans, for they did not believe that a man thought lacking in masculine

virtue could muster the resolve to kill himself—those who scorned him for a lack of character in

life would find his death worthy of praise. Postumus and Rebilus’s suicides betray a Roman

cultural notion that suicide could expiate one of the shame incurred by his life’s misdeeds or

immoral practices.


Just as a shameful Roman could show resolve and regain honor through suicide, so could

an honorable Roman prove a disappointment through shameful actions when faced with death.

The violence that Nero resorted to upon uncovering Gaius Piso’s conspiracy caused many an

honorable—if unjust—deaths in the face of tyranny, like martyrs for the Roman state. But not all

met their fate with Seneca’s dignity and grace; rather, some committed suicide in ways that

tarnished their reputation. The worst example lies in Faenius Rufus, a military prefect in the

conspiracy whose “lifestyle and reputation won him general approval,” Tacitus initially records

(Tacitus, Annals, 15.50). But when faced with execution, Rufus’s virtue crumbles; despite the

good examples of his fellow centurions, who “did not disgrace themselves in facing execution,”

he “did not have the same resolve, and even entered lamentations in his will” (Tacitus, Annals,

15.68). Tacitus sees these lamentations as indecorous self-pity in the moment at which a Roman

should be most solemn and resolute. Even should a Roman display virtue in his life, he can still

ruin his image if he does not hold the strength when the stakes are highest.


One of the most intriguing questions left in the Annals is why Nero would choose suicide

as a means of dispatching his rivals—why not execute them outright? Although Nero displayed

little regard for Roman custom and tradition, even he knew that outright executing public

citizens was seen as barbaric and overly brutal. In fact, one of the most tragic of Nero’s murders

was that of Plautius Lateranus, who was one of the few conspirators not given the option for

suicide. Instead, “with such speed as not to allow him to embrace his children…he was rushed to

a location reserved for punishments of slaves and butchered at the hands of the tribune,”

(Tacitus, Annals, 15.60). For a consul designate, this was a shocking and pitiable end; compared

with the drawn-out suicide of Seneca in the very same chapter, Lateranus had no chance to set

his affairs in order and met a disgraceful end in the same way as slaves. Perhaps even Nero knew

that such a vile end would greatly inflame public opinion against him; he could not get away

with outright execution like he did for Agrippina, who was clandestinely murdered. If he were to

publicly kill the conspirators, it would have to be in a manner befitting their ranks. That is why

Nero ordered the military tribune Subrius Flavus and other military conspirators to be executed;

judging by the amount of detail given to the execution process described in passage 15.67,

Tacitus shows us that military men were customarily executed rather than forced into suicide—

understandably, since placing a sword in the hands of a capable man could not end well for the

executioners. This explains why their executions were not considered lamentable when

Lateranus’s was: the condemned were given opportunity for their death to adhere to Roman

social traditions, which made their deaths more honorable and palatable. Tacitus expressly

acknowledges this desire for “the posthumous fame of illustrious men: as in their funerals they

are kept apart from the common burial, so too in the historical record of their end let them be

granted, and let them retain, their own memorial” (Tacitus, Annals, 16.16). In highly stratified

Roman society, dominated by different customs and rituals between ranks, certain ends were

more befitting of an aristocrat than a commoner. This is why the majority of the condemned

accepted their fate without lashing out against the Emperor: Gaius Piso, despite being stirred by

many supporters to take to the streets and rally the soldiers and citizens to his cause, instead

resigned himself to his fate (Tacitus, Annals, 15.59). If he knew he were to meet the same

disgraceful fate as Lateranus, would he have remained passive? Likely not. Suicide was an

honorable method of death in Roman social tradition, which is why so many, preferring it to a

shameful end, killed themselves willingly.


Tacitus’s account of suicide in Roman society affords modern scholars a greater

understanding of how the practice was viewed by Imperial Roman society. From him we learn

that how a Roman lived their life was often intertwined with how they met their fate: typically,

vile Romans like Messalina reaffirmed their vices by failing to take their own lives, whereas

virtuous Romans like Seneca conducted themselves with the same strength of character at death

as they showed in life But Tacitus reminds us that suicide was still an option for disgraced

Romans, since shame was a powerful motivator for any Roman mindful of his legacy. Poenius

Postumus and Caninus Rebilus met their fate with as much resolve as Seneca, even though they

were considered disgraced by their actions and lifestyles; on the other hand, Faenius Rufus, an

otherwise honorable Roman, disgraced himself by showing self-pity. Their example showed that

suicide was a way to regain some honor in the eyes of their fellow Romans; had they not taken

their own lives, their legacy would be marked by shame. Finally, the very prominence of suicide

showed Romans’ acute awareness of their social status. Prominent Romans saw suicide as a

proper end befitting someone of their class and rank—if they knew they were going to die, they

much preferred suicide to being slain at the hand of the Emperor’s lackeys. Suicide at least

allowed them a chance to display virtue and resolution in the face of injustice and tyranny. By

examining the suicides of his historical subjects, Tacitus conveys his judgments of their character

to his Roman readers, proving the link between a Roman’s virtue and how he conducts himself at


Works Cited

Tacitus. The Annals. Translated by J.C. Yardley, Oxford University Press, 2008, New York.