From Fortean Times 154 (Januar 2002):

Fort tantalisingly remarks (Books, p653), "There are data of strange suicides that I shall pass over."

Many writers, from Aristophanes (Frogs, vvll8-35) on, restricted self-immolation to hanging, hemlock, jumping, and knives. In their decalogue, David Wallechinsky/Irving & Amy Wallace, The Book of Lists (Bantam, NY, 1978), pp461-2, put poison first, hanging second, jumping seventh, knives nowhere. Happily for this column, ancient suiciders were more inventive.

Sappho leapt from the Leucadian Cliff through unrequited passion for a ferryman. Why should antiquity's most famous lesbian kill herself for a man.' Would Jeanette Winterson plummet from the Millennium Dome for a bus-driver.'

Lots of lovelorn men and women chose this popular plunge. A failure stands out. Nireus jumped, fell into a fisherman's net, was pulled out with a casket of gold, for which he promptly litigated against his rescuer (Photius, Library, ch190 para153h).

The Athenian Themistocles drank bull's blood, thus exciting the admiration of his royal Persian host (Plutarch, Life of Themistocles, ch31 panû).

Zeno the Stoic held his breath (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Philosophers, bk7 ch28). &, did Licinius Macer while On trial for extortion (Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds & Sayings, bk9 ch 12 pare î ). The unphilosophic courtesan Lais swallowed an olive-pit (Photius, ch190, paral46b).

At Sestos, through love of his girl owner, an eagle cremated itself on her pyre (Pliny, Natural History, bk10 ch6 paral8). Romans fall monotonously on their swords in Shakespeare. Not that easy: Caw had to complete the job by manually digging out his own entrails (Plutarch, Life of Cato, ch 10 para6).

The popular bleeding yourself to death in your bath was parodied by comic novelist Petronius who over dinner repeatedly had his wrists cut and bandaged whilst hearing the day's gossip (Tacitus, Annals, bkl6 ch19 para2).

Porcia and Servilia ingested live coals (Plutarch, Life of Brutus, ch53 pare5; Velleius Paterculus, History, bkl ch88), a method revived in Stephen Fry's The Tennis Star's Balls.

Herennius Siculus banged his head on a wall until dead, Caldus Caelius smashed his in with a chain (Velleius, bk2 chs7&120).

Seneca (Letters, no70 para20) reports a gladiator choking himself on the latrinal sponge-on-a-stick, thus anticipating the Japanese woman who swallowed toiletpaper - National Post (Toronto), 12 Mar 1999.

Suicide was sometimes a morbid fad. Ptolemy banned philosopher Hegesias's lectures advocating it, fearing population decline (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, bk 1 ch83); Roman jurist Ulpian (Digest, bk28 chi sect6 para7) deprecated the "self-glamorising suicides of certain philosophers"; the Lanuvium burial-club voted (AD 136) to deny funerals to suiciding members (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions, vll4 no2l 12).

Yet straightforward words for the deed were rare in Greek (modern has 'autoktonia'), non-existent in Latin - `suicidium' is 18th-century, in classical Latin it would mean killing a pig. "Suicide" entered English in 1643 via Sir Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, bkl ch44, though statistics were not kept till the mid- 19th century; cf. Olive Anderson, Suicide in Victorian and Edwardian England, Clarendon, Oxford, 1982).

Barry Baldwin
(reprinted with permission of the Author; blame any typically graphic transcription errors on dm, who this week had to contend with an OCR program which insisted on rendering "Pliny" as "Puny")