Narratives of Noble Death
We all have to die, but few of us are given the express choice, as was Achilles, of either living a long but inglorious life or a short, glory-filled one. How one faces death, and for what causes one will die, powerfully mark one's identity, one's sense of who one is. The most precious thing one possesses is one's life, and to give away one's life is to give away one's treasure. The noble death, then, is to spend what one owns, one's life, for something other. In this chapter, I have chosen seven stories about such noble deaths. The first three deal with individuals giving their lives for the safety of their people. The second four discuss more philosophic choices for undergoing death.
In the first group, I have placed stories from Pompeius Trogus, Livy, and 2 Maccabees. The work of Pompeius Trogus, who wrote at the time of Augustus, is preserved in the faithful epitome made by Marcus Junianus Justinus in the third century CE. The story concerns Codrus, allegedly king of Athens in the eleventh century BCE. Livy, who also wrote at the time of Augustus, reproduces traditions about the history of Rome. The narrative here presented recounts the action of Publius Decius Mus, Roman consul, during a war with the Latins in 340 BCE.
These first two stories are drawn from traditional material—Decius may not even have been present at the battle—but their appearance and propagation by these Augustan historians evidences their enduring value as examples of publicmindedness. The final selection in this group consists of the stories told in 2 Maccabees of the Judean martyrs. These martyrs endured persecution during the Hasmonean revolt of the mid–second century BCE. Written down in 2 Maccabees in the late second century BCE, these stories are elaborately told and were very influential in later Christian writers.