The Divine Comedy of Roman Emperors’ Last Words

In the end, godlike aspirations often met with all too human final moments.

One of the funniest works of Roman literature to survive—and the only one that has ever made me laugh out loud—is a skit, written by the philosopher Seneca, about the Emperor Claudius’ adventures on his way to Mt. Olympus after his death. Titled “Apocolocyntosis Divi Claudii” (“The ‘Pumpkinification’ of the Deified Claudius”), it recounts how the Roman Senate declared that the dead Emperor was now a god, complete with his own temple, priests, and official rites of worship. The deification of emperors was fairly standard practice at the time, and the spoof claimed to lift the lid on what really happened during the process.

Read more from Mary Beard in the New Yorker here.