Polemo’s Last Words

13 May 2010


The last words of famous people are an interesting subject for a book. Not a book full of quotes – that already exists – but a book that explains why some of them are so well-known. Some are inspiring indeed, like George Harrison’s “love one another”, which summarizes his career pretty adequately. Others are interesting because we don’t know what was meant: did Von Stauffenberg shout something about sacred Germany or secret Germany? Was Goethe seeing the light (“mehr Licht”) or did he say that his bed was uncomfortable (“mir liegt”)? Some were never spoken at all: the man who noted that Casanova had declared he had lived as a philosopher but died as a Christian, was not present – why did he invent it?

We seem to love emotions (Caesar’s disappointed “You too, my child?”) and humor, and are willing to alter the story a bit to create a joke: Vespasian’s last words were not that he feared becoming a god (more…). On the other hand, we do not like obscenities. Although many people believe otherwise, Leonidas’ remark – although technically not his last words – that that Xerxes could “come and take it” did not mean that the great king ought to fight to obtain the Spartan’s weapons (more…), and Socrates’ remark about a cock was not just about a sacrifice (more…).

Laodicea's Syrian Gate

And sometimes, people really make a show of it, like Polemo, the great sophist, or concert orator. These people were incredibly popular and knew how to manipulate the audience by acting as if the world was their stage, all nations were their fans, and they were the greatest actors alive. When you read about them in PhilostratusLives of the Sophists, you get the impression that they were collectively suffering from a histrionic personality disorder.

Now Polemo had had an illness for quite some time already when he ordered his tomb to be build outside the Syrian Gate of Laodicea. When it was almost finished, he announced his approaching death and went to the tomb, followed by a great many people, who saw him entering his tomb. There, he ordered the mason to finish his job: he wanted to die of inedia, not eating and drinking any more. His last words, no doubt carefully prepared, were that the mason ought to hurry a bit, because Polemo did not want the sun to see him reduced to silence.

The place where this pathetic incident took place, is now a parking lot.

Common Errors (26): Et tu, Brute?

2 December 2009

Daggers on a coin of Brutus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

The last words of Julius Caesar are often quoted as Et tu Brute?, “You too, Brutus?” They are also quoted as Tu quoque, Brute?, which means the same. The second variant has been sufficiently popular to make logicians apply these words to a well-known logical fallacy (“pot calling the kettle black“).

That those famous last words are quoted in two versions, already suggests that something’s gone wrong. They cannot both be correct. As it turns out, the expression “Et tu Brute” has been coined by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1); they are not the dictator’s final words, though, because he reflects upon his own death in characteristic third-person, “Then fall, Caesar”.

That leaves us with Tu quoque, Brute. But Caesar probably did not even say that. According to Suetonius, he just sighed, or said something in Greek:

When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” (καὶ σὺ τέκνον;)

[Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 82.2]

<Overview of Common Errors>