As Augustus lay dying in his bed in Nola, near Naples, on 19 August 14 AD, he asked those around him whether he had played his part well in the comedy of life before reciting the final lines from a Greek comedy by the playwright Menander:
“Since the play has been so good, clap your hands, and all of you dismiss us with applause.”
Dismissing the retinue around his bed, the 75-year-old emperor then kissed his wife Livia, telling her to live “mindful of their marriage”, and biding her farewell before bringing the curtain down on his mortal stage. Augustus’s death has been exactly as he’d hoped it would be—easy. Apparently, whenever he heard of someone who had died a good death (εὐθανασία or “euthanasia” as the ancients called it) he would wish the same for himself and his loved ones.
It was also nothing if not theatrical. This wasn’t so much because Augustus was a fan of the stage—at least not as much as some of his later successors. It’s because, as he hinted at himself until his last moments his life had been nothing but an act. The great British historian Ronald Syme once described Augustus as a chameleon: his appearance might have changed over time, but his substance remained the same. It’s a powerful analogy, bringing to attention an often-overlooked aspect of Augustus’s character.
Augustus was essentially a warlord. Coming to power through indiscriminate murder, merciless brutality, and civil war, he held onto it by ruthlessly putting down his enemies and creating and a well-oiled propaganda machine that would have put the state of Orwell’s 1984 to shame. The image we have of the pious, peaceful, avuncular emperor is more a product of effective propaganda than a reflection of history.
Augustus’s whole life had been an act of, what the Romans called, dissimulatio: keeping up appearances and concealing one’s real thoughts and emotions behind a public mask. He carried this right up to the end. Days before his death, his body wrecked by diarrhea and a digestive infection, he sat through the entirety of a quinquennial gymnastic contest to fulfill his public duty.
On his deathbed, he requested a mirror so he could rearrange his hair, and repeatedly asked is there was any trouble on the streets because of him. Augustus’s entire life had been about projecting his image as a fundamentally good, moral, family-centered emperor. It’s little surprise that death was no different.