Lives of the Caesars

by Suetonius

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"Hail, Imperator, Those About To Die Salute Thee"

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Context: Suetonius, Roman biographer, collected trivia to make his writing interesting as well as informative. Almost all of his Concerning the Lives of the Caesars has been preserved, as well as many fragments of an even larger collection of biographies, Concerning Famous Men. Book V of the former is devoted to the Deified Claudius, and Part 21 describes the shows Claudius sponsored for the populace. He restored Pompey's Theatre, damaged by fire, and gave magnificent games at the Vatican Circus. They included chariot racing, with bull baiting between every five races, panther hunts, and gladiator shows. In his account, Suetonius includes one of Claudius's feeble attempts at humor that misfired. After the combatants in the arena shouted the traditional: "Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant," they pretended to understand his "Aut non," as meaning that they need not risk their lives in the fight. As Suetonius describes the episode Claudius sponsored:

. . . representations in the Campus Martius of the storming and sacking of a town in the manner of real warfare, as well as of the surrender of the Kings of the Britons, and presided clad in a general's cloak. Even when he was on the point of letting out the water from Lake Fucinus, he gave a sham sea-fight first. But when the combatants cried out: "Hail, Imperator, those about to die salute thee," he replied: "Or not," and after that, all of them refused to fight, maintaining that they had been pardoned.

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