The deaths of many Roman emperors were murderous, violent, and more often than not, the outcome of machinations against them. Only a lucky few had a peaceful end to their reign. Nevertheless, some Roman emperors would not pass away without uttering a few famous last words that would be remembered for centuries.
The last words of many Roman emperors, including the first emperor, Augustus, are recorded by ancient historians. You can choose to believe whether these final statements were truly spoken or not, as ancient history is always open to interpretation and analysis. Ancient historians loved to include interesting stories, even if they were not historically accurate. These famous last words seem to sum up these emperors’ contributions to the Empire, while also encapsulating their lives and personalities.
So, when the end is nigh, what do the Roman emperors say?
1. Augustus: The First of the Roman Emperors
“Have I played my part well in the farce of life?” — Augustus
(Suetonius, The Life of Augustus)
Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, was the first in a long line of Roman Emperors. He is credited with solidifying the Empire after the Civil Wars that had ensued from Julius Caesar’s death onward. Octavian’s successive conquests and his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra gave him clout and power in Rome. He was given sole power without contestation.
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Ancient historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus heavily imply that Augustus put on the appearance of being a benign emperor, who was reluctant to hold all these powers. Augustus appeared to support the Republic, the previous form of government, and he claimed that he would eventually restore the Republic to Rome. However, throughout Augustus’ entire time in power, he never returned power back to the Senate, but continued to rule, claiming that he was doing the best for the people and the Empire.
While Rome was indeed successful under Augustus’ rule, his apparent reluctance to hold power was simply a farce. Augustus was very interested in maintaining his hold on power. His arduous efforts securing his line of succession prove he desired to keep power within his family.
Augustus grew to an old age, and on his deathbed, the historian Suetonius claims that Augustus would continually ask if there were any disturbances in the Empire. Satisfied with the answer that there was peace, he finally asked for a mirror and fixed his appearance. Then, Suetonius says that Augustus called his friends and asked them if he had played the farce of life well? And if so, they should applaud. Hence, Augustus finally gave up the façade, and he would exit the stage of life, to the applause of a successful Empire.
“You leave the setting to court the rising sun.” —
Tiberius (Tacitus, Annals)
Tiberius was the second Roman emperor and Augustus’ stepson. He, too, put on the appearance of being a reluctant Emperor, but in the end, his reign came off as much more bitter. Tiberius did seem to very much despise his role in the line of Roman Emperors.
Tiberius was a war hero, and he used his military background to rule Rome. He ruled in moderation at first and helped Rome to increase its treasury to the highest level it had ever been. Throughout his reign, Tiberius experienced many betrayals and insincerity from friends and Senate members. Some of his family members were secretly murdered in the struggle for the succession, and Tiberius’ own son lost his life as a victim of this plotting.
Eventually, Tiberius decided to leave Rome and retire to Capri. In Rome, he left his friend Sejanus in charge. While Tiberius was in Capri, Sejanus plotted to take over, and he censored communications with Tiberius in Capri. The time finally came when Tiberius learned of Sejanus’ deceit and had him executed. After this, Tiberius had a new right-hand man, the Praetorian Prefect Macro.
Towards the end of Tiberius’ reign, when Tiberius’ health was diminishing, Macro began to make moves in support of Caligula, his hopeful successor. This is when Tiberius admonished Macro, “You leave the setting to court the rising sun”. Indeed, Macro was deserting Tiberius to “court” the soon-to-be emperor.
In another act of betrayal, Macro is rumored by ancient historians to have suffocated Tiberius with a pillow. He was later suspiciously favored by Caligula, who took Tiberius’ place as Emperor.
“O dear, I’ve made a mess of it.” — Claudius
Claudius was the fourth Roman Emperor. He was greatly underestimated by his peers because of his unattractive appearance, clumsiness, and sickly body. His family kept him hidden inside most of his life, so he spent most of his time studying. He wrote lots of books that have unfortunately been lost to time, including histories, political arguments, and a book on playing dice.
When Caligula, the Roman Emperor before Claudius, died, the soldiers found Claudius hiding and trembling behind a curtain. The soldiers then proclaimed him emperor, thinking that they could use Claudius as a puppet emperor because he was perceived to be slow and dumb. During his reign, however, Claudius proved to be very smart, and he refused to be directed by the soldiers. He soon became comfortable with his newfound power and would often be quite unsparing in his policies.
In the end, Claudius was probably poisoned by either his wife or a eunuch; he was given mushrooms that caused intestinal problems. According to Seneca, a roman writer and satirist, Claudius soiled himself and moaned, “oh dear, oh dear, I think I have made a mess.” This can be interpreted two ways: one way is literally that Claudius soiled himself, or alternatively, it was because his reign had ended in a bit of a mess. He was fooled by those closest to him, and so his Empire was left in an uncontrolled state.
4. Nero: The Most Indulgent of Roman Emperors
“Oh, what an artist dies in me!” — Nero
(Suetonius, Life of Nero)
Nero had one of the most ostentatious and unrestrained personalities of the Roman Emperors. He had an unquenchable taste for the arts and entertainment, which was often interpreted as scandalous by upper-class society. The Roman Emperors were expected to be dignified individuals who represented the ruling class and the propriety of Rome.
However, Nero enjoyed putting himself at the center of entertainment. He joined in musical contests, including those at Olympia, in Greece, and he funded amphitheaters across the Roman Empire. Acting, singing, poetry, and music were all practices that attracted Nero, but estranged him from upper-class Romans because these activities were typically associated with slaves and the common people.
Another account of Nero’s fascination with artistic flamboyance is connected to the false rumor that while Rome was burning, and fires were raging across the city, Nero watched on and played his fiddle. The scene of the great fire acting as a fantastical backdrop to his performance.
The senatorial class’ distaste for Nero eventually escalated to such an extent that he was condemned to death as an enemy of the state. Nero fled the city, but when the army was on the hunt for him, he decided to commit suicide instead of being captured. He was due to be executed in the manner of a slave. Before striking himself, Nero bemoaned the death of his artistic potential, believing himself to be a gift to the arts.
“What are you doing, comrades? I am yours and you are mine!” —
Galba (Suetonius, Life of Galba)
Galba was the first emperor during the Year of the Four Emperors. Galba, Otho, Vitellius, and Vespasian were all emperors during this exceedingly unstable year, 69 CE. Apart from Vespasian, each only held power for a few months before being overthrown. Galba was the first, and since there was no clear-cut succession to Galba, his position was immediately up for contestation.
Galba used the force of the army to claim power in Rome. When Nero committed suicide, Galba used the support of the Praetorian Guard to take control. The Praetorian Guard were a group of soldiers who worked as the personal bodyguard of the Roman Emperors. With their support, individuals were more likely to succeed in attempts at power.
However, Galba’s attitude toward rule ultimately meant that he lost the support of the Praetorian Guard. Galba was an ineffectual leader as he neglected his duties, especially with the army. Usually, the soldiers were paid a hefty sum when a new emperor was instated but Galba forgot or neglected to do this. Then, he was careless with his purges, killing people who threatened him and effectively alienating the rest of the soldiers, which led to mutinies.
The Praetorian Guard and many other soldiers turned their support toward another general, Otho, who murdered Galba and became emperor instead. When the soldiers were coming for Galba to execute him, the historian Suetonius suggests that Galba might have said, “What are you doing, comrades? I am yours and you are mine!”. He then attempted to bribe them with money, but his efforts came to nothing. The soldiers who were once his closest friends and who had helped him to power became his downfall.
“O dear, I think I’m becoming a god!” – Vespasian (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian)
Vespasian’s rule marked the end of the mess of 69 CE and a new beginning for the Flavian dynasty. He helped Rome repair and rebuild itself after the civil wars. Famous building works such as the Colosseum, the Capitol and the Temple of Peace were all begun or restored under Vespasian. Rome became stable once again.
Since Vespasian was attempting to establish his own dynasty, he criticized the Julio-Claudians so that his own line appeared better. This type of propaganda reiterated by historians meant that there were fewer revolts against Vespasian and the Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty.
Vespasian also had a comedic personality that he used until his dying breath. In his final moments, he chose to satirize the Julio-Claudians. Many of the Caesars would rule as though they were gods; a famous example being Caligula, who thought that he was a god on earth and performed horrendous acts just because he could. After their death, the Julio-Claudians had created a pattern of being deified, as the people turned them into gods and worshipped them after death. Hence, when Vespasian was dying of dysentery, he quipped, “Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god!”.
Before the Roman Emperors: Julius Caesar’s Last Words
“You too, Kid?” — (Suetonius, Life of Caesar) or “Et tu, Brute?” — Julius Caesar (Shakespeare, Julius Caesar)
Most often translated as, “You too, Brutus?”, this phrase is an invention of Shakespeare, though it sums up Julius’ emotional final moments. While the Shakespearean version is better known, Suetonius records that Caesar’s final words (in Greek rather than Latin) were “Kai Su, Teknon?”, which roughly translates to “You too, my son?”.
Julius Caesar was a general who fought in the Gallic Wars and defeated his famous rival, Pompey Magnus. He governed as a dictator, and it was this position that earned him the envy of the senators. When their animosity grew, Julius Caesar was murdered by jealous conspirators, who were his fellow statesmen. The senators thought that Julius Caesar was plotting to become a tyrant, and this was in opposition to the ideal government that the senators wanted — a Republic.
Brutus was a close friend of Caesar, and with fifteen years between them, Julius treated Brutus like a son, as he saw him affectionately as the son of his mistress. However, Brutus in the end chose to side with Cato, the enemy of Julius, because he had married Cato’s daughter. Due to this, Brutus also conspired in the plot to assassinate Julius. Caesar’s final words demonstrate the great betrayal of Julius by someone who he had seen as a friend.