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History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empir

Suicides are enumerated by Virgil among the unfortunate

his children, by this civil

death; and he might still be happy in every rational and sensual enjoyment, if a mind accustomed to the ambitious tumult of Rome could support the uniformity and silence of Rhodes or Athens. A bolder effort was required to escape from the tyranny of the Caesars; but this effort was rendered familiar by the maxims of the stoics, the example of the bravest Romans, and the legal encouragements of suicide. The bodies of condemned criminals were exposed to public ignominy, and their children, a more serious evil, were reduced to poverty by the confiscation of their fortunes. But, if the victims of Tiberius and Nero anticipated the decree of the prince or senate, their courage and despatch were recompensed by the applause of the public, the decent honors of burial, and the validity of their testaments. [205] The exquisite avarice and cruelty of Domitian appear to have deprived the unfortunate of this last consolation, and it was still denied even by the clemency of the Antonines. A voluntary death, which, in the case of a capital offence, intervened between the accusation and the sentence, was admitted as a confession of guilt, and the spoils of the deceased were seized by the inhuman claims of the treasury. [206] Yet the civilians have always respected the natural right of a citizen to dispose of his life; and the posthumous disgrace invented by Tarquin, [207] to check the despair of his subjects, was never revived or imitated by succeeding tyrants. The powers of this world have indeed
lost their dominion over him who is resolved on death; and his arm can only be restrained by the religious apprehension of a future state. Suicides are enumerated by Virgil among the unfortunate, rather than the guilty; [208] and the poetical fables of the infernal shades could not seriously influence the faith or practice of mankind. But the precepts of the gospel, or the church, have at length imposed a pious servitude on the minds of Christians, and condemn them to expect, without a murmur, the last stroke of disease or the executioner. [Footnote 204: Polyb. l. vi. p. 643. The extension of the empire and city of Rome obliged the exile to seek a more distant place of retirement.]

[Footnote 205: Qui de se statuebant, humabanta corpora, manebant testamenta; pretium festinandi. Tacit. Annal. vi. 25, with the Notes of Lipsius.]

[Footnote 206: Julius Paulus, (Sentent. Recept. l. v. tit. xii. p. 476,) the Pandects, (xlviii. tit. xxi.,) the Code, (l. ix. tit. l.,) Bynkershoek, (tom. i. p. 59, Observat. J. C. R. iv. 4,) and Montesquieu, (Esprit des Loix, l. xxix. c. ix.,) define the civil limitations of the liberty and privileges of suicide. The criminal penalties are the production of a later and darker age.]

[Footnote 207: Plin. Hist. Natur. xxxvi. 24. When he fatigued his subjects in building the Capitol, many of the laborers were provoked to despatch themselves: he nailed their dead bodies to crosses.]

[Footnote 208: The sole resemblance of a violent and premature death has engaged Virgil (Aeneid, vi. 434--439) to confound suicides with infants, lovers, and persons unjustly condemned. Heyne, the best of his editors, is at a loss to deduce the idea, or ascertain the jurisprudence, of the Roman poet.]

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