Contrary to views in the Judaeo-Christian world, Graeco-Roman attitudes toward suicide held that it could be acceptable under certain circumstances. While some condemned it, such as the Pythagoreans, suicide most often occurred when one’s honor was irretrievably lost, and the individual confronted great public shame. It could also be associated with political protest, if one refused submission to tyrannical authorities. On the other hand, as an answer to petty misfortunes, suicide was frowned upon as a cowardly and disgraceful act. Though it was not commonly represented in the art of antiquity, the suicides of famous historical figures such as Socrates, Cleopatra, Sophonisba, and Lucretia became favorite subjects of later artists, writers, and music composers.
Some scholars believe suicide was fairly commonplace in the Greek and Roman world, at least up through the Early Imperial period. Of the thirty-two extant Greek tragedies, suicide figures prominently into thirteen examples. During the second century B.C.E., compulsory suicide became the preferred method of execution for the Roman elite. Eschewing imprisonment and a public trial, white-collar criminals were allowed to return to their families with the stipulation that they would kill themselves within one day. This provided the convicted a dignified, private death befitting his/her class. Mandatory suicide was later taken to the extreme by the emperor Nero who became infamous for sending daggers to the dinner tables of his political adversaries.