From 1822-1849, The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, a monthly magazine of literature and culture, was published in London. Today, we turn to a section of its September 19, 1829 edition titled “The Comedy of Life.” Below, I have reprinted “The Comedy of Life” for your enjoyment.
“The Comedy of Life” from The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction
The world is the stage; men are the actors; the events of life form the piece; fortune distributes the parts; religion governs the performance; philosophers are the spectators; the opulent occupy the boxes; the powerful the amphitheatre; and the pit is for the unfortunate; the disappointed snuff the candles; folly composes the music; and time draws the curtain.
Reminding Me of the “Last Words” of Augustus
The passage made me think of the famous last words of the first Roman Emperor, Augustus. Augustus breathed his last on August 19, 14 AD, after having dominated the Roman world since his defeat of Marc Antony at Actium more than four decades earlier. Few Romans alive at the time of Augustus’ death could remember a time when he was not at least a significant player on the Roman political scene, and that fact played no small part in Augustus’ transformation of Roman politics and society.
(For those who like Roman history, see our content on the last Roman Emperor in the West and in the East.)
Suetonius’s Account of Augustus’s Last Words
In his Lives of the Twelve Caesars, Suetonius provided the following account of Augustus’ last words (Alexander Thomson tr.; Greek text omitted):
“Upon the day of his death, he now and then enquired, if there was any disturbance in the town on his account; and calling for a mirror, he ordered his hair to be combed, and his shrunk cheeks to be adjusted. Then asking his friends who were admitted into the room, “Do ye think that I have acted my part on the stage of life well?” he immediately subjoined,
If all be right, with joy your voices raise,
In loud applauses to the actor’s praise.”
To be sure, while Augustus’ asking for applause are often reported as his last words, Suetonius did not portray them as such, at least in this translation. Suetonius continued:
“After which, having dismissed them all, whilst he was inquiring of some persons who were just arrived from Rome, concerning Drusus’s daughter, who was in a bad state of health, he expired suddenly, amidst the kisses of Livia, and with these words: “Livia! live mindful of our union; and now, farewell!” dying a very easy death, and such as he himself had always wished for.”
Thus, Suetonius reports that Augustus’ last words were to his wife – who some suspect of having poisoned him – “Livia! Live mindful of our union; and now, farewell.” While those are fine last words, it is not difficult to see why Augustus’ inquiring whether those around him enjoyed his performance as Emperor, and asking for their applause if they had done so, are reported as his last words.
Speculating that Augustus Would Have Found “The Comedy of Life” to be Agreeable
In any event, I think that Augustus would have found the Mirror’s “The Comedy of Life” piece pleasing, especially given his sense of humor as time drew the curtain on his reign. Fortune – through familial connections, wealth, and favor, gave Augustus the opportunity to seize a grand part in the amphitheater of Roman life. Augustus, through cunning, ambition, and ruthlessness, most certainly made the most of that role, for better or worse. But there can be no doubt that he played his dramatic part well, and for that reason, the author of “The Deeds of Divine Augustus” was likely as confident as ever that he would receive applause as he exited the stage.