Sunday, September 19, 2004


Last Words

In his record of Socrates' trial (Apology 39c, tr. B. Jowett), Plato records how the philosopher, condemned to death, referred to the common belief that the final words of someone about to die had special meaning:
And now, O men who have condemned me, I would fain prophesy to you; for I am about to die, and that is the hour in which men are gifted with prophetic power.
We see a similar belief in other ancient writings, for example at Homer, Iliad 24.743-745 (tr. R. Lattimore), where Andromache in her lament for her husband Hector, killed in battle, says:
You did not die in bed, and stretch your arms to me, nor tell me some intimate word that I could remember always, all the nights and days of my weeping for you.
Andromache's lament is not all that different from Tacitus' words about his father-in-law (Agricola 45.4-5):
In addition to the grief at a lost parent, this increased the sorrow of me and his daughter, the fact that we were not able to sit by him in his sickness, to care for him in his decline, to get our fill of looking at him and embracing him. We would surely have received his last wishes and words to fix deeply in our hearts.

sed mihi filiaeque eius praeter acerbitatem parentis erepti auget maestitiam, quod adsidere valetudini, fovere deficientem, satiari vultu complexuque non contigit. excepissemus certe mandata vocesque, quas penitus animo figeremus.
We actually have the very last words of Socrates, recorded by Plato (Phaedo 118a, tr. B. Jowett):
Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius; will you remember to pay the debt?
These last words, commanding animal sacrifice, are disappointing to some. Asclepius was a Greek god of medicine and healing. In his commentary on this passage, John Burnet says, "Socrates hopes to awake cured like those who are healed by enkoimesis (incubatio) in the Asklepieion at Epidaurus." In other words, Socrates hoped that death would cure him of what Alexander Pope called "this long Disease, my Life." The temple of Asclepius at Epidaurus was the Lourdes of antiquity. Those wishing to be cured slept overnight in the sanctuary. In his very useful Database of Greek Animal Sacrifice, Robert Simms (a former classmate of mine) lists sacrifices to Asclepius recorded in ancient inscriptions. Roosters aren't among them, but in his fourth Mime Herondas has a woman say that she sacrificed a rooster to Asclepius because she couldn't afford the customary cow or sow.

But back to famous last words. The seven last words (actually seven last utterances) of Christ are these:
  1. Luke 23.34: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
  2. Luke 23.43: "To day shalt thou be with me in paradise."
  3. John 19.26-27: "Woman, behold thy son...Behold thy mother."
  4. Mark 15.34 (Matthew 27.46): "God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
  5. John 19.28: "I thirst."
  6. John 19.30: "It is finished."
  7. Luke 23.46: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
Composers have often set these seven last words of Christ, in Latin, to music.

In his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius records some famous last words, of which the most notable are:Pliny the Younger, Letters 3.16, tells the story of Caecinius Paetus, guilty of a failed conspiracy against the emperor Claudius. His wife Arria plunged a dagger into her breast and handed it to her husband with the words, "It doesn't hurt, Paetus" (Paete, non dolet).

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