Remember, you will die. Well that’s a cheery way to start an article, innit? When Roman generals rode through the city during their triumph, a slave rode on back of the chariot with them. The slave held a wreath over the general’s head, and as they proceeded the general received the cheers and applause of the city. His army marched behind in full arms. The spoils of war, captives, and enemy leaders in chains displayed the military prowess of Rome, and the honor bestowed on the general for such victories was enormous. The Imperator himself wore a purple toga and regalia associated with the ancient Roman kings. The general offered sacrifice at the temple to Jupiter. He was as close to a king or divinity as the Romans allowed under the Republic. And to remind the general of their place, the slave whispered in his ear during the parade, “memento mori”. So goes the legend. The phrase has entered our vernacular, and Christian art and literature from the Middle Ages has made pretty wide use of the concept, usually depicting it with skulls—because Christians back then were a bit more metal. One should also look to Shakespeare for memento mori scenes, because Shakespeare is fucking awesome. Case in point, “Alas poor, Yorik, I knew him well”.
How much of this is reality, and how much is fabricated nonsense? Say it with me now, “we don’t know”. Let’s start at the top; does this sound like something the Romans would do? Actually, yes, for the most part. The Romans had some “modest” virtues, and a bit of humility and moderation were good things. The state itself was set up under the premise that no single individual could hold absolute power—which is why Rome had two Consuls. As mortals, the gods had the power to reverse anyone’s good fortune, and were known to do so. Despite the lavishness of the procession, it ends with a sacrifice, the spoils of war being dedicated to the people, the Senate, and the gods. It would seem natural that as a successful general was hailed, there would be some sort of warning against letting such acclaim go to his head; Romans like Cincinnatus tended to be of the iconic type that discouraged autocracy and monarchy. On the other hand, Romans like Julius Caesar tended to be of the iconic type that got stabbed.
Tertullian is our source for the phrase, discussing why he will not call the Roman Emperor God. His argument is that the Emperor is not God, merely man, and even the ancients—in his case meaning the old Roman Republic—appreciated that fact, “Those who call him ‘god’ deny what he is, ‘emperor’; if he is not a man, he is not an emperor. That he is a man is even brought to mind during a triumph in his lofty chariot. It is suggested to him in the rear: Look behind you! Remember you are man!’” (Apologeticus XXXIII). So that’s it, right? Open and shut case? Nah.
These are the people who dominated the world, and are known for orgies, excess, empire, and decadence. A little humility is understandable, but a slave constantly reminding a general, during his moment of glory, that his shit in fact does stink? That’s just plain gullibility. A closer look into the Tertullian quote is warranted, and remember to apply a few liberal servings of skepticism. Tertullian was a 2nd century AD Christian author writing about a 2nd century BC aspect of pagan Roman society. The availability of research and knowledge about the Republic is reasonably suspect among later authors like Tertullian; they didn’t have Google or Wikipedia after all. No earlier author confirms Tertullian, and he gives no clear source for this information. In short, we shouldn’t accept this just using Tertullian as the evidence.
Despite the Tertullian quote not having a reference, it does seem to be based on some truth of how a Roman triumph went. Livy gives the details of a few Roman triumphs, which shows us the typical procession. Pliny reveals few details too. Between the two of them, we have a decent picture. Pliny (Natural History 33) tells us that the triumph started as an Etruscan tradition, and that the Romans adopted some of their customs. The crown of gold held over the head of the general was one of them. It is also notable that Pliny notes (I really need a thesaurus) a public slave as sharing the chariot with the general. No mention of the slave speaking though, let alone anything as humbling as “memento mori”. Livy (5.49) does mention some talk at the general’s expense, but it is by the soldiers, rather than the slave. He states that during the triumph of Camillus, his troops chanted some “lovely jests” which “soldiers are wont to bandy”. Likewise, Livy says the soldiers similarly shouted some “rude verses” during the ovation of Valerius “with their accustomed license”. It should be noted enregistered (found a thesaurus) an “ovatio” is not the same as a “triumph”; we can think of it as the silver medal, so we shouldn’t get overly excited by Livy, since it’s possible more license was given to mock the silver medal winners as opposed to the gold medalists. This sort of jesting by the soldiers is supported by Suetonius (Jul. 49, 51) and Martial (I.4). So it seems there was plenty of license to poke fun at the general, by the soldiers at any rate.
Given the Republic’s primary claim to fame—that it wasn’t a monarchy—it makes sense that during a military triumph, some license would be given to bring the general back down to earth as a none-too-subtle reminder that he served the state, not the other way around. Given that this jesting came from the general’s own soldiers, the message of mortality might still be there; more than a few later emperors learned the hard way not to piss off their soldiers if they wanted to remain emperor—and alive—for any decent amount of time. The evidence suggests a slave does ride with the general and holds a wreath or crown over the victor’s head. It does not appear, however, that the slave said anything to him. The Tertullian quote might be a bit of an embellishment on his part to make his point, or what became a sort of urban legend among people of the day. Our “memento mori” seems to be a bit of a mix between legend and truth.
To prove the point that things often get misquoted over time and that history acts as one giant game of telephone, I put one misquote right at the start of this article. The Shakespeare line is “Alas poor Yorik, I knew him, Horatio”. Ok, I lied. There’s really two. For those diligent and bored enough to click on all the links, you’ll note that Tertullian actually writes, “Respice te post! Hominem te memento!”