Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Lost Last Words of Julius Caesar

What were Julius Caesar’s actual last words when he was being assassinated? In this article, I will propose that we can recover them. They were heard, but they have been misunderstood for over 2000 years.

On the Ides of March, the 15th, in the year 44 BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a group of conspirators which included Caesar’s close friend Marcus Brutus. Many people have been taught that his famous last words were Et Tu, Brute, meaning “You also Brutus?” But this Latin phrase was only popularized centuries later by William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1, Line 77). The Roman historian Suetonius tells us that Caesar groaned at the first blow but then said nothing. (Divus Iulius 82.2: ad primum ictum gemitu sine voce edito) But then Suetonius adds, “Although some have handed down that when Marcus Brutus was rushing at him he said kai su teknon.”That’s Greek for “You also, child?” (Divus Iulius 82.2: etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: κα σ τέκνον)

Now, the scene must have been pure chaos. Whether people were part of the conspiracy or not, they were all likely shouting and rushing about in the confusion of the moment. And so,  there were people who didn’t hear Caesar say anything. And perhaps that’s how some would have wanted Caesar to die--stoic and silent in the face of death. Other people apparently believed they heard him say something when Brutus was rushing at him with a dagger. And they reported his words as kai su, teknon.

If one were to compile a collection of what people tend to say when under a sudden and unexpected physical assault such as Caesar was experiencing, we would not be surprised to find that, in such a shock, a number of random things might be said. But many would certainly respond to such an attack by calling out things to the effect of “Please, don’t do this. Please stop.” And we may also find that many people, fearing death, might turn to prayer in that moment.

I theorized that perhaps Julius Caesar, despite all the battles he had endured in his career, might, in that unexpected attack, respond in exactly that fashion. And if he were to do so, he might have been more likely to respond in his native language of Latin and not in Greek.  And so, I looked at the sounds of the Greek phrase kai su, teknon to see whether they might match, in some substantial way, the sounds of a Latin utterance more in keeping with what a person being stabbed might say.

First off, the final syllable, non, is the Latin word for ‘no’, or ‘not’. What if his last actual word was simply, No! The rest of Kai su, teknon seems to echo the Latin phrase quaeso te which literally means “I beg you.” But quaeso te can also mean, simply, ‘please’.
Quaeso te is attested in a prayer in the writings of the Roman playwright Plautus, who writes:
Apollo, quaeso te...   “Apollo, I beg you...” (Mercator 678)

So, let’s imagine in the chaos of that situation, Caesar has already been stabbed several times. Now his friend Brutus is rushing toward him with a dagger. And Julius Caesar, in shock physically and emotionally, blurts out, in Latin: “ I beg you!  No!”

In Latin, what he would have said was Quaeso Te! Non!  

As Brutus was rushing to kill his own friend, people who understood the emotional impact of this act were predisposed to hear Caesar’s words as somehow a reflection of that moment.

And thus it happened that people in the crowd misheard:
Quaeso Te! Non!      as 
Kai su, teknon.  

In the end, we’ll never know. But I suggest that a reinterpretation of the sounds that were reportedly heard from Caesar that day can indeed be reconstructed into a Latin phrase that Caesar plausibly could have uttered as his actual last words.