Ancient and modern

Assisted dying? Ancient religion was all for it

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

There is something mildly unexpected about religious groups’ hostility to euthanasia. After all, in the ancient world one of the major differences between e.g. Christians and pagans was that Christians were renowned for welcoming, indeed rejoicing at, death. Pagans found this incomprehensible.

Not that pagans feared the afterlife. Although, in the absence of sacred texts, there were no received views on the matter, Greeks reckoned that if the gods were displeased with you, they would demonstrate it in this life rather than the next.

Initiates into the Eleusinian Mysteries were promised a prosperous afterlife, but Diogenes the cynic retorted: ‘Do you mean that Pataikion the thief will enjoy a better afterlife than [the great Theban general] Epaminondas, simply because he has been initiated?’


The point about the ancients is that death was certainly not welcome, because it was only in life that you made your mark. So Agilea in her epitaph urges her husband Oppius not to fear Lethe: ‘for it is foolish constantly to fear death and so throw away the joys of life’.

But when death beckoned, pagans wanted to remain in control. Dependency was for slaves and no-hopers, and the way one died — your choice of death — revealed the true stature of the person.

For Pliny the younger, suicide was among life’s greatest gifts, especially for those who were suffering. But such a death was not just for philosophically-minded aristocrats. The gladiator who, rather than face death in the ring, suffocated himself by thrusting down his throat the sponge with which he wiped his bottom was hailed for showing the utmost contempt for death.

NFFNSNC is commonly found on tombstones: ‘I was not, I was, I am not, I don’t care’ (Latin homework: reconstruct the original). That proclaimed, in pagan terms, a victory over death, as Christians also did. In both cases, it was a matter of staying on top.

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  • DavidPollock

    Not all the ancients believed in a life after death. Epicurus (whose attitude was summed up in the epitaph Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo abbreviated as the article says to NFFNSNC) wrote ‘…death is nothing to us. All good and evil consists in sensation, but death is deprivation of sensation’ and his Roman follower Lucretius wrote: ‘You have nothing to fear in death. Someone who no longer exists cannot suffer, or differ in any way from one who is not born’ (and also Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum). The Stoic Seneca joked: ‘So death is having all these tries at me, is he? Let him, then! I had a try at him a long while ago myself. ‘When was this?’ you’ll say. Before I was born. Death is just not being. What that is like I know already. It will be the same after me as it was before me. If there is any suffering in death, there must have been suffering also in the past, but actually, we felt no suffering then.’ So also the philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius: ‘A little while and you will be nobody nowhere, nor will anything which you now see exist, nor any of those now alive. Nature’s law is that all things change and turn, and pass away, so that in due course, different things may be.’
    It is a comforting belief, not the opposite, and equally supportive of Agilea’s attitude as the Homeric belief of a bloodless semi-existence after death.

  • Bryan J. Maloney

    “Ancient religion” also routinely used slaves, too, and it was certainly on board with the use of slaves by others. Therefore, the same justification in favor of reviving slavery is equally valid!

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