To fall on one's sword is the price one pays for having great power, then losing it. This form of noble suicide is a way of having the last word, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. It works, sometimes, but it is getting rarer and rarer nowadays, and the gesture is usually symbolic.
Bush is a Texan, not a Roman. It was the Romans who set us this stark example.
Prominent Greeks occasionally committed suicide, usually by poison, like Themistocles who supposedly killed himself by drinking bull's blood in 460 B.C. rather than make war on his native city of Athens. Cleopatra and her asps are another non-Roman instance of suicide.
But the Romans were the great self-extinction artists of antiquity, and they offer a lurid gallery of very public suicides over a relatively short period of time — a little over a century — that still resonates through history.
First there was Mettius Curtius, a Roman knight associated with an early miracle in the Roman Forum. A chasm opened up, and an oracle said Rome was doomed unless the best things the Romans possessed were cast into it. Curtius mounted his horse and galloped into the abyss, sacrificing his life for the city.
Next: the consul Regulus, who was captured by the Carthaginians in the first Punic War and sent back to Rome to urge peace. Regulus not only did the opposite, inciting the Romans to keep fighting; he returned voluntarily to Carthage and was tortured to death, supposedly by being rolled downhill in a nail-studded barrel.
But the heyday of Roman suicide falls between about 50 B.C. and 70 A.D.
Among the most famous are Brutus and Cassius, who were part of the plot to kill Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. A civil war broke out, Brutus and Cassius were defeated at Philippi and both fell on their swords rather than be taken alive. Shakespeare immortalized their deaths.
"Come now, keep thine oath; Now be a freeman, and with this good sword, That ran through Caesar's bowels, search this bosom," Cassius tells Pindarus, his slave. "Stand not to answer: here, take thou the hilts; And when my face is cover'd, as 'tis now, Guide thou the sword. (Pindarus stabs him.) Caesar, thou art revenged, Even with the sword that kill'd thee."
Brutus dies shortly afterward:
"I prithee, Strato, stay thou by thy lord. Thou art a fellow of a good respect; Thy life hath had some smatch of honor in it. Hold then my sword, and turn away thy face, While I do run upon it. Wilt thou, Strato?"
STRATO: "Give me your hand first. Fare you well, my lord."
BRUTUS: "Farewell, good Strato. (Runs on his sword.) Caesar, now be still; I kill'd not thee with half so good a will."
This isn't just theater. Plutarch confirms this really happened. Yet both deaths are overshadowed by that of Cato of Utica who, having lost the final battle for the Roman Republic to Julius Caesar in 46 B.C., stayed up all night reading Plato's Phaedo, the dialogue on the immortality of the soul, then stabbed himself in the morning.
It wasn't an easy demise.
"His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand," Plutarch relates. Attendants rushed in.
"They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding, but that he still had his eyes open and was alive; and they were terribly shocked. But the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound.
"Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died."
The transition from Republic to Empire in Rome caused a wave of suicides, spread out over about a century, from the death of Cato to the suicide of the emperor Nero himself in 69 A.D. Prominent senatorial families found themselves targeted for treason and execution, for their opposition to imperial rule.
There is a common thread through some of these deaths. When certain people cannot accept a new order of things, they choose to die instead.