At the siege of Masada, a group of heavily outnumbered Jewish soldiers elected to commit suicide en masse, rather than to be captured by the besieging Romans, who would probably have committed them to a tortuous death by crucifixion. Such an action is highly unusual, almost unique in the annals of history.

During the Spartacus slave revolt, some 6,000 rebels were captured and crucified. Why did they choose this over death in battle? (As rebelling slaves, they were outlaws, not foreign prisoners who could expect to be allowed to live.) And why might this be true of others in similar straits (e.g. partisans captured by Nazis in World War II)?

  • $\begingroup$ +1, good question. I do notice a common theme from the examples you have provided - it seems that the knowledge of impending torture is not worth the risk, so they ended their battle on their terms. $\endgroup$ – user3554 Sep 17 '13 at 10:02
  • $\begingroup$ The Sicarii did not "fight to death", they committed suicide on the grounds of religious fundamentalism. This is not a unique event in history - The Battle of Saipan is one example, Hitler's suicide is another. To the best of my knowledge, historically there is nothing to suggest that the Spartacus slaves did not attempt to fight to death - they may have been captured during battle or some had no means to fight. Ditto for the partisans. $\endgroup$ – Izhaki Sep 19 '13 at 23:17
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    $\begingroup$ But if your question is why soldiers reject suicide in favour of surrender despite knowing they will be killed. It can be explained that between certain death and next-to-certain death, a rational person will choose the latter. $\endgroup$ – Izhaki Sep 19 '13 at 23:20
  • $\begingroup$ I simply think the "killed anyway" part is seldom so obvious or apparently inevitable to the soldiers in question. So the answer is: because we are hardwired for survival. $\endgroup$ – user3116 Sep 28 '13 at 8:12

Why does prey, when caught in the jaws of an animal whose bite and build is powerful enough to carry them, cease to struggle? I remember an old quote from psychology, recounting first-hand, a lion attack. I cannot find it now. The narrator said that once the lion had him in its mouth, it shook him (physically) and thus disoriented him. He said that he felt no pain, and he said that it must have been because of adrenaline. I forget how, I think a local intervened, but he survived to describe the experience.
Why does a fish, when laid on ground, cease to struggle? Yet waggle when touched and escape when released? Morale?
Why do bucks, when vying for supremacy by engaging in contests of strength, not aim to kill their opponent? This case is slightly different, because the foe is conspecific. While humans understand the concept of mutually-assured destruction, animals seem to understand this too, and that it's evolutionarily folly when fighting one's own species.

Sorry for an incomprehensive answer, but I hope my insight spurs the ultimate answer.

  • $\begingroup$ A very good answer about the way animals act, which may explain "normal" human behavior. The idea of "selling your life dearly" seems to be a human emotion, and then only among those who are indoctrinated that the enemy are "beasts," "subhuman," "will eat you alive," etc. During the "Pacific" part of World War II, the Japanese death/suicide rate on Tarawa and Okinawa was something like 99%, killing or wounding one American for every 2 dead Japanese. $\endgroup$ – Tom Au Sep 25 '13 at 16:24

They felt doomed and had no more physical fight left in them. The only way they knew to stick it to the enemy was to commit suicide. They knew if they were to fight they will be slaughtered, giving the enemy a boost in confidence. If they were to be captured they would be publicly executed which also provides the enemy with a boost in confidence. Rolling up on an army that just committed suicide rather than face you would give a morale boost but not as much as actually conquering them. In the end they denied the enemy of the full satisfaction of their victory.

  • $\begingroup$ The soldiers at Masada did what the question "expected." But the question was, why is this so exceptional, and why don't (most) other soldiers in similar straits behave this way? $\endgroup$ – Tom Au Sep 25 '13 at 21:32
  • $\begingroup$ I'm willing to bet peer pressure plays a role. You would think a normal human being given the chance to live a little longer would take it because it also gives them a chance to escape. I would imagine they they were both very tight knit groups and a small sub group had the idea mentioned in the answer. When that small sub group acted on that more began to follow. Just like the Anonymous raids on Scientology a few years ago. It all started with one post on 4Chan, a few people picked up on it then a few more and eventually there were thousands of people trying to take down Scientology. $\endgroup$ – Four_0h_Three Sep 26 '13 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ "Hive Mind" is what the Anon's call it. $\endgroup$ – Four_0h_Three Sep 26 '13 at 13:54

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