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Ancient and modern

Assisted dying? Ancient religion was all for it

Death was certainly not welcome. But control was

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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