Born to a poor and undistinguished family, the facts of Valerius Maximus’s life remain largely unknown. Attached to the retinue of Sextus Pompeius (consul and later proconsul of Asia during the reign of the Roman emperor Tiberius and part of a literary circle to which Ovid belonged), Valerius accompanied Sextus to the East in the mid 20’s. Valerius compiled a collection of historical anecdotes, Memorable Doings and Sayings, taken largely from Greek and other Latin writers, apparently to be used for teaching students of rhetoric the art of using historical references to embellish speeches. His sources include Cicero [q. v.] and Livy [q. v.]. These anecdotes, grouped in nine books under virtues and vices, described both Roman and foreign practices.
The brief account of end-of-life customs Valerius ascribes to the Massilians (inhabitants of what is now Marseilles, France) involves a practice in which people having rational reasons for ending their lives could apply to the Senate for permission to do so, and with it, have access to the state-maintained supply of the poison hemlock. What is notable about Valerius’s account is his report that two sorts of reasons were recognized as compelling: if one faced severe suffering or other hardship, or if one’s life were going really well and one did not choose to face a later decline. While Valerius is not recognized as a reliable historian and his writings contain many inconsistencies, errors, and contradictions, his work is the only authority for accounts of the Massilians. Similarly, Valerius’s relating of the voluntary death of a woman on the isle of Ceos, an Aegean island Valerius had apparently visited en route to the East with Sextus Pompeius (the customs of Ceos were later the focus of an essay by Montaigne [q.v.]), is also compelling: in her 90s, still in good health and of high rank and good fortune, she nevertheless seeks permission to end her life while still, so to speak, ahead of the game.
Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, Book II, 6, ed. and tr. D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Cambridge and London: Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 2000, alternate English, pp. 167-177. Footnotes deleted. Quotation in introduction from p. 4.
from MEMORABLE DOINGS AND SAYINGS
The same community [the Massilians] is a most strict guardian of morals, not allowing mimes access to the stage, as their themes for the most part involve the enactment of illicit intercourse, lest the habit of watching such things take licence to imitate them. It closes its gates to all who by some pretense of religion seek sustenance for sloth, holding that false and fraudulent superstition should be ousted.
Also, from the foundation of the city there is a sword therein to kill the guilty. It is eroded by rust and scarcely adequate to its function, but a sign that even in the smallest details the monuments of ancient custom are to be preserved. Also two coffins lie before their gates. In one the bodies of freemen, in the other of slaves are carried in a cart to the place of burial without wailing or breast-beating. Mourning ends on the day of the funeral with a domestic sacrifice and a banquet for relatives and friends. For what is the use of indulging human grief or arousing odium against divine power because it did not choose to share its immortality with us?
A poison compounded of hemlock is under public guard in that community, which is given to one who has shown reasons to the Six Hundred, as their senate is called, why death is desirable for him. The enquiry is conducted with firmness tempered by benevolence, not suffering the subject to leave life rashly but providing swift means of death to one who rationally desires a way out. Thus persons encountering an excess of bad fortune or good (for either might afford reason for ending life, the one lest it continue, the other lest it fail) find a finish to it in an approved departure.
I believe this usage of the Massilians did not originate in Gaul but was borrowed from Greece because I saw it also observed in the island of Cea when I entered the town of Iulis on my way to Asia with Sex. Pompeius. For it so happened on that occasion that a lady of the highest rank there but in extreme old age, after explaining to her fellow citizens why she ought to depart from life, determined to put an end to herself by poison and set much store on having her death gain celebrity by the presence of Pompeius. Nor could that gentleman reject her plea, excellently endowed as he was with the virtue of good nature as with all other noble qualities. So he visited her and in fluent speech, which flowed from his lips as from some copious fountain of eloquence, tried at length but in vain to turn her back from her design. Finally he let her carry out her intention. Having passed her ninetieth year in the soundest health of mind and body, she lay on her bed, which was spread, as far as might be perceived, more elegantly than every day, and resting on her elbow she spoke: “Sex. Pompeius, may the gods whom I am leaving rather than those to whom I am going repay you because you have not disdained to urge me to live nor yet to be witness of my death. As for me, I have always seen Fortune’s smiling face. Rather than be forced through greed of living to see her frown, I am exchanging what remains of my breath for a happy end, leaving two daughters and a flock of seven (?) grandchildren to survive me.” Then, having urged her family to live in harmony, she distributed her estate among them, and having consigned her own observance and the domestic rites to her elder daughter, she took the cup in which the poison had been mixed in a firm grasp. After pouring libations to Mercury and invoking his divine power, that he conduct her on a calm journey to the happier part of the underworld, she eagerly drained the fatal potion. She indicated in words the parts of her body which numbness seized one by one, and when she told us that it was about to reach her vitals and heart, she summoned her daughters’ hands to the last office, to close her eyes. As for us Romans, she dismissed us, stunned by so extraordinary a spectacle but bathed in tears.