qualis artifex pereo

what an artist dies with me? --Nero's last words
What an artist dies with me? --Nero's last words

“Qualis artifex pereo” the Roman emperor Nero’s famous last words.  The English translation of this quote I’m comfortable with is: What an artist dies with me (?).  When I looked up each word on an online Latin to English dictionary, I drew up a translation that roughly is: qualis (what kind of an), artifex (artist), pereo (perishes, passes away). What kind of an artist perishes?  I’ve found many other ways this statement is translated.  What a great artist the world loses with my death.  What an artist the world loses with me, or as what kind of artist do I perish.  I have not seen any of these with a question-mark.  I suppose this might be due to the fact that such punctuation wasn’t around (in ancient Rome) &/or most people/scholars don’t regard this statement as a question.

I personally like to think of Nero’s last words as a question, a question asked after his death.  All sum: what kind of artist was Nero?  Well, he seems to have been a poet, actor, singer & charioteer.  We also have the well known image in our mind of him “fiddling” (playing the lyre) & singing the “Capture of Troy” on the rooftop of the palace gazing down on the great fire of Rome. Was this a result of his artistry?  Was this the 1st performance art—on a grand scale?  Who knows?  This scene, however true, IS how the artist/emperor will be remembered (whether its veracity is debated).  Other unsavory images of the artist/emperor come to mind, the matricide of the crafty Agrippina, the persecution & mistreatment of the Christians, & other questionable behaviors.  Again I’ll ask: what kind of artist died when Nero committed suicide?  I’ll say not a very good one.  I don’t really even see him as an artist (usually), rather, I see him as the worst of Roman imperial decadence.  His creativity & supposed talent were somewhat overshadowed & obliterated by his monstrous character.  Who knows, perhaps he was a great singer, actor & artist—I’ll never really know. 

I believe that the artist doesn’t know what he does. I attach even more importance to the spectator than to the artist.”  This quote of Marcel Duchamp’s seems relevant here, because it points to one important factor; how you will be remembered is not entirely in your grasp—even if you ruled the Roman empire.  This question (What an artist dies with me?) becomes a question an artist (or anyone) can ask at the moment of death, but the truth of it will be how one is remembered is simply out of our reach.  How will I be remembered?  How will history judge me?  As Duchamp seems to be saying, the artist doesn’t understand completely the effect s/he will have on an audience.  The audience more or less completes the artwork, the missing variable (for a particular artwork, or the body of an artist’s work) is that it can only be finished with the viewer, and this variable is out of the artist’s control.  I’m trying to reposition the question (What an artist dies with me?) to something more universal & general.  How will anybody’s work be regarded when they are dead?  Whose work gets forgotten, who will be remembered?  Whose work will be overshadowed by their life’s (mis)deeds, their mistakes?  How is someone remembered & for what reasons?  A mediocre artist can be remembered & a great artist can also be forgotten.  Who can say—either way, why or why not?     

Yes, Nero’s last words initially sound selfish & arrogant, but I believe that once the statement is deflated of its ego, there is a strange truth that is revealed.  The truth is, how one is remembered is not (completely) under our own control.  I am not claiming this as new idea, rather a little something to think about when regarding our own lives, the lives of others & even the life of Nero.

 –Aurelio Madrid

15 thoughts on “qualis artifex pereo

  1. Hmm…what about this possible translation or, I guess, interpretation: “What part of me that is the artist will expire when I die?” Or, in a sense, “Will the artist in me die with my body or will it somehow continue on with my soul?”

  2. PEREO is the first person singular. It means therefore “(I) perish” and not “(he/she) perishES” the way you have written it.

    Thus the optimum translation of this exclamation is “What an artist dies in me!”

  3. To clarify, the above is an idiomatic translation arrived at via the more literal “What an artist I die”, or more aptly, “(as) what an artist” in the sense of “such an artist” — hence my preferred final product, “What an artist dies in me!”

    1. “What an artist the world loses with me”
      “What an artist dies with me”

      …among other translations I’ve noted above (as mentioned in the 1st paragraph), how are these all that divergent from your ‘correction’ (“What an artist dies in me!”)?

      Also, I thought I made it clear that I was searching for alternate readings of the phrase. My intent was not to give the last word on what it meant, rather the intent was to explore its meaning. Now you have added to that expansion, to lay yet another reading/meaning into Nero’s last words.

  4. I believe it’s worth mentioning another translation; “Artifex” could also mean “artisan”, “artificer”, “craftsman”. According Suetonius, just before his death, he asked his freedman to “dig a grave in his presence, proportioned to the size of his own person, collect any bits of marble that could be found, and at the same time bring water and wood for presently disposing of his body [the water was for washing his corpse and the fire for burning it]. As each of these things was done, he wept and said again and again: “Qualis artifex pereo””. In this case, he could be saying “What artisan dies in me”, or “What artisan I am in my dying which would be a lamentation that such an artist as himself was dying like an artisan…

    That is the view of Edward Champlin in his “Nero”, page 51, which I particularly agree makes sense.

  5. from the Gay Science of Nietszche:

    Last words, — It will be recalled that the Emperor Augustus
    — that terrible man who had as much self-control and could be
    as silent as any wise Socrates— became indiscreet at his own
    expense when he uttered his last words. For the first time he
    dropped his mask by implying that he had worn a mask and
    played a comedy: he had played the father of the fatherland
    and wisdom on the throne — well enough to create the illusion!
    Plaudite amid, eomoedia finita est!* 6 The idea of the dying
    Nero — qualis artijex pereol™ — was also the idea of the dying
    Augustus: an actor’s vanity, an actor’s garrulity! Truly the
    opposite of the dying Socrates!

    But Tiberius died silently: this most tormented of all self-
    tormentors was genuine and no actor. What may have passed
    through his mind in the end? Perhaps this: “Life — is a long
    death. Fool that I was to shorten the lives of so many! Was I
    made to be a benefactor? 1 should have given them eternal
    life: then 1 could have watched them die forever. For that I
    had such good eyes: qualis spectator pereoV 3 * When after a
    long struggle with death he seemed to recover his strength
    again, it was considered advisable to suffocate him with bed
    pillows; 31 he died a double death.

  6. What a load of American sounding rubbish. Latin is a very precise language, and not open to infantile re-interpretation. What an artist dies in me is correct, well known and really does not need silly glosses.

    1. …wow! what an arrogant way of addressing my work. I’m not interested in shutting off re-interpretation simply because some snotty comment is made that has no credibility. such a narrow-minded view point mostly harms those who require it of others. I’m encouraged to continue re-interpreting as I wish, in spite of eve mclaughlin’s puritanical admonitions.

  7. Well, the problem with going the route you’re going is that you’re changing the meaning of the words arbitrarily, which of course anyone is free to do, but then it’s not really reinterpretation in that case, it’s speculation on what the sentence would mean if the key verb were conjugated differently. It would be like saying what if “Cogito ergo sum” really said “It thinks therefore I am” then arguing that it’s a valid “reinterpretation” of the original statement, which of course it isn’t; “cogito” in Latin has only one meaning. Of course, one could validly interpret “Cogitat ergo sum” or “Cogito ergo est” as separate statements all day (the latter could be the philosopher Berkeley’s motto), but obviously, a language can’t mean whatever one wants it to; this is especially true with Latin (and Greek), whose grammar-obsessed writers and speakers placed a very high premium on precision of meaning.

    1. …& are we not allowed to speculate on the last words of nero, or any more on descartes’ famous quote?

      …your limited way of thinking about my thoughts, my writing, nero, & descartes is likewise dulled by the “grammar-obsessed” nature of your critique. I’m reminded of the latin proverb “caesar non supra grammaticos” which suggests that not even ceasar has control of grammar itself (nor do you & likewise, nor do I!)

      …& like eve mclaughlin, your arrogance belies your concern for precision, hurrah & euge!

      1. I would reply with Aurelius non supra grammaticos, because you’re clearly assuming the role of Caesar in that quote. One is of course free to speculate on whatever one wishes, but the act of speculation doesn’t automatically render those speculations valid. It’s also more than a stretch to call anyone grammar-obsessed simply because they point out that a certain word in a certain language has a definite meaning in that language. If for example someone writes “I am happy” and I decide to interpret that sentence as “They are happy,” it’s incorrect regardless of the magnitude of the tantrum I throw when someone points this out.

        You seem to be suggesting that your speculations are intrinsically beyond criticism, and thus that any criticism is a personal affront to you, which isn’t so much absurd as just plain silly. I take that back: it’s Trumpian — saying something that’s demonstrably incorrect, then when someone points out your error, taking it really personally and becoming unduly defensive, insisting that it’s not an error, then doubling down on that error in the hope that repetition will make it correct.

        In other words: sorry dude, you mistranslated the sentence in question and ascribed a meaning to it that exists only in your imagination. Defensively maintaining that you’re infallible because your speculations are to be taken as sacrosanct is not the way grownups argue.

  8. …!!!…
    (…un-sanctimonious eye-roll & deep sigh…)


    (…deep breathe!!!….)

    (…& another deep breath…)

    …& thank you for the comments!

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