‘The well-born man must live well or die well,’ says Ajax in Sophocles’s play named after that character. Humiliated by his failed attack on his own leaders, the mythical Greek warrior and scourge of the Trojans decides to end his life at the point of his own sword. The tradition of heroically virtuous suicide spread from the theatre into real life, but never lost its histrionic edge. When Plato wrote up Socrates’s execution by hemlock in 399 BC he recast it as, in effect, a suicide, since the great philosopher had passed up the opportunities both to propose an alternative punishment at his trial and to escape from prison afterwards. Socrates too (according to Plato in Crito) said that he preferred death to living in a less than moral way. For the Greeks, suicide was an art form.
Emily Wilson is the author of The Death of Socrates, a fine book on that death and its cultural resonance through the ages. There was a certain inevitability that she would turn next to the Roman philosopher and playwright Lucius Annaeus Seneca, who fashioned so much of his life –