tip off

Leaders who have ‘fallen on their sword’

With Gordon Brown’s resignation following the UK Election, there’s much talk of the man having “fallen on his sword” — although, perhaps not to the ends he’d wished.

Rather vivid phrase that, “to fall on one’s sword’, and one that got me thinking. I’d vaguely known that the phrase had its origins in the Classical era and that it meant, in the loose, modern fashion, to sacrifice one’s position or power for a greater good. However, I was curious to know whether it was something real — were there Greeks and Romans who’d gone and chosen to skewer themselves, and why?

Turns out, there are records of it occurring in the Roman period. Plutarch, Greek historian and author of the early blockbuster celebrity biography, The Parallel Lives,  points to Brutus as one of the first recorded practitioners of the act. He’d gotten into hot water by being part of the conspiracy to have Julius Caesar killed. Following Caesar’s death, Brutus and his co-conspirator Cassius were involved in a bloody year-long civil war as Octavian, Caesar’s successor, sought to punish those who’d had the architect of the Roman Empire turned into a human pin-cushion in the Senate.

After a fairly good run, with an early victory or two, Brutus’ luck ran out at the second Battle of the Philippi. His legions routed, Brutus saw that there was no chance for escape. Plutarch, in what may be an early example of a historian covering his arse, alternately has him grabbing his sword and plunging it into his entrails or getting his trusted lieutenant, Strato, to do the job for him.

So there is at least some evidence that the practice of falling on one’s sword was something that actually happened, at least in Rome at the birth of the Empire. Reading up on the practice, however, reveals that it wasn’t strictly confined to that time — other cultures refined the practice, polished it, made it their own.

The most obvious example would have to be the practice of seppuku, from the folks who also brought you the banzai charge and the kamikaze attack — the Japanese. Tied inextricably with the Japanese warrior code of Bushido, seppuku was an act of ritual suicide that was undertaken by samurai in a range of situations — from avoiding the shame of being defeated or captured in battle, all the way down to being ordered to do so by the local feudal lord (or daimyo) for looking at his daughter funny.

The act, like many rituals in Japanese society of the medieval and early-modern periods, was highly structured and planned to the last detail. The disgraced or humbled samurai would bathe, dress in white and eat a last meal before sitting down to write a death poem — last words, written in the tanka style (imagine a haiku, with another two lines of seven syllables each slapped on the end).

Once this was complete, the samurai would undo his kimono and draw his tanto, a very sharp, short blade, which he’d plunge into his abdomen. It was at this time, while the samurai was enduring what must be unendurable agony, a trusted friend would decapitate the samurai. Those friends were often chosen for their ability with a sword, as the ability to sever the head with a single blow, while leaving the head attached by a small piece of flesh, was highly prized. I’d guess that a quick death was a neat side-effect.

When considering it all, it appears that Mr Brown got off lightly. While having ended his political career for the sake of his party, he doesn’t have to contend with any kind of failed coup, like Brutus, nor is he bound by a strict warrior code like the samurai. While certainly an act of sacrifice, he still has time to ponder, scowl, grumble and throw things at the occasional staffer who crosses his path. I think that’s progress.

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  • 1
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t all these examples be well predated by the recording of the death of King Saul circa 1010BC?

  • 2
    Kevin Jones
    Posted Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    My memory is that Sophocles wrote a tragedy about Ajax who, literally, fell on his sword. In fact it may be worth looking at the play closely for political parallels.

    Ajax cracked it big time because he didn’t get Achilles’ weapons and spoils of war after Achilles’ died. (They went to Odysseus, the mongrel) Ajax slaughters a flock of sheep in a madness and then is struck with grief and shame over his actions. He goes to the beach, plants his sword in the sand and falls on it, to his death. Bi-polar, anyone?

    Curiously according to The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature, “A Latin version of this tragedy was played at Cambridge before Queen Elizabeth in 1564”

    An English version was performed before Queen Elizabeth II in 2010.

  • 3
    Andrew Kensy
    Posted Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    My year nine Latin teacher (so, a less than entirely reliable source) told my class that Romans disgraced to the point of suicide, usually after unsuccessful combat, would dig the handle of their sword into the ground and throw themselves upon it. A sword, even the short sword used by legionnaires, would have been too long with which to stab oneself.

  • 4
    Sancho
    Posted Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 5:24 pm | Permalink

    I won’t pretend to be an expert on Japanese tradition, but there’s reason to believe the warrior code of Bushido is largely, well, bollocks: http://ci.nii.ac.jp/naid/110006178651/en

    As the comic analysis says, “The whole thing started with an honest, if retarded mistake by a historian named Nitobe Inazo, who based his 1905 book Bushido: The Spirit of Japan on rules written for samurai. This is the equivalent of reading a high school handbook and determining that teenagers live by a strict code of attending class, and turning weed dealers in to the cops.”

    The samurai were probably about as loyal and honourable as Blackwater.

  • 5
    Socratease
    Posted Thursday, 13 May 2010 at 9:09 pm | Permalink

    ^ I recall something similar and thinking that my Latin teacher ought to consider using it himself.

  • 6
    SBH
    Posted Friday, 14 May 2010 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    According to Plutarch the Romans were particularly fond of offing themselves when their side was ten goals down and eight minutes left on the clock. One eastern king (the name escapes me now) captured by the romans, was ridiculed for failing to suicide and thereby letting the romans drag him shamefully through the streets.

  • 7
    Posted Friday, 14 May 2010 at 1:35 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if you’d call it progress, Mike. I think the threat of a good sharp sword in the guts might do wonders for the moral fortitude of some of our glorious leaders. And a good beheading for the loser of the next election would improve things no end in the following term.

    I would also be happy to volunteer my services to Steve Fielding if he needs a “trusted friend” for the samuri ceremony

  • 8
    Elan
    Posted Friday, 14 May 2010 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    It isn’t a perfect solution though Jane Shaw. I mean, think of the damage Tony Abbott could do to that poor helpless sword.

    Perhaps a wooden stake?

  • 9
    Sancho
    Posted Friday, 14 May 2010 at 11:45 pm | Permalink

    I’ve always thought that politics would be a lot cleaner and pragmatic if there was a possibility of the party leaders resolving partisan issues through one-on-one combat.

    Beazley would have been PM for decades, and it would be a hundred kinds of awesome to watch him versus Tony Abbott the boxer.

  • 10
    Posted Friday, 14 May 2010 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    @elan That is a very good point (did you see what i did there? I crack myself up) . Perhaps we should also include some crosses and holy water?

    And @sancho I like your thinkin’. It should appeal to Abbot, going back to armed combat, letting god decide etc. As much awesome as it would be watching Beazley/Abbot boxing, imagine Ruud/Abbott swordfight - to the death - on ETS/Climate Change/Asylum Seekers/Miner’s Tax/You’re A bigger Bastard Than ME!

    I’d buy tickets for that.

  • 11
    Sancho
    Posted Saturday, 15 May 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    My political fantasy fight card is:

    * Latham VS Tuckey (MMA/freestyle)

    * Abbott VS Beazley (Queensbury rules)

    * Whitlam VS Menzies (Royal gala bout)

    * Bishop VS Gillard (solid striker v clever mover)

    * Rudd VS Howard (bantam-weight undercard)

  • 12
    Mark Duffett
    Posted Monday, 17 May 2010 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    @sancho, yep, like it.

    But seriously, it still seems to me that the origin of the phrase ‘fallen on their sword’ is at least as likely to be biblical as classical.

  • 13
    MIKESTUCHBERY
    Posted Monday, 17 May 2010 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I think this needs a frontpage article.

    DEADLIEST WARRIOR: Aussie Pollie Edition

    In this series we use the knowledge of experts and sophisticated simulation software to determine the outcome of clashes between some of the most feared bureaucrats to walk the Earth…’

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