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.

Peter Fray

Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.


Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey