Last Words

Sculpture by Gjon Mili (1965)

Last words. – One will recall that the emperor Augustus, that frightful man who has as much self-control and who could be as silent as any wise Socrates, became indiscreet against himself with his last words: he let his mask fall for the first time when he made it clear that he had worn a mask and acted a comedy – he had played the father of the fatherland and the wisdom on the throne well enough to create the proper illusion! Plaudite amici, comoedia finita est!1 The thought of the dying Nero – qualis artifex pereo!2 – was also the thought of the dying Augustus: actor’s vanity! Actor’s prolixity! And truly the opposite of the dying Socrates! But Tiberius died silently, this most tormented of all self-tormentors – he was genuine and no actor! What might have passed through his mind at the end? Maybe this: ‘Life – that is a long death. What a fool I was to shorten so many lives! Was I made to be a benefactor? I should have given them eternal life: that way, I could have seen them die forever. That’s why I had such good eyes: qualis spectator pereo!3 When after a long death-struggle he seemed to recover his strength, it was considered advisable to smother him with pillows – he died a double death.

  1. ‘Father of the Fatherland’ was an honorary title bestowed by the Roman Senate on the emperor Augustus. In his biography (chapter 99) Suetonius reports that these Latin words (= ‘Applaud my friends, the comedy is over!’) were among the last Augustus spoke on his deathbed.
  2. ‘I die, what a loss to art!’
  3. ‘I die, but what a good observer I was!’