There is a very famous quotation from one of the Roman authors to the effect that the best death is the one for which you can choose the time, and the second best is the one that comes unexpected. For some reason I am not able to find the source. Surely one of our expert Latinists can help me out.

  • 1
    That first part sounds very Senecan to me, in case that helps anyone in their search.
    – Draconis
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 16:21
  • 1
    Here's half an answer (from Montaigne): For this reason it was that Caesar, being asked what death he thought to be the most desired, made answer, "The least premeditated and the shortest."—[Tacitus, Annals, xvi. 15]—
    – Hugh
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 17:10
  • 1
    Montaigne (or the editors) have got the Tacitus ref. wrong.
    – Hugh
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 19:41
  • Is it a commentary on Socrates?
    – Hugh
    Commented Jan 29, 2019 at 19:44
  • 1
    @Hugh The editors did indeed get it wrong. It's Suetonius, not Tacitus. I about gave up looking for it before it struck me that it sounded much more like something Suetonius would write than Tacitus.
    – cmw
    Commented Apr 2 at 22:37

1 Answer 1


The quote comes from Suetonius' Vita Divi Iuli 87 (and not Tacitus):

et pridie quam occideretur, in sermone nato super cenam apud Marcum Lepidum, quisnam esset finis vitae commodissimus, repentinum inopinatumque praetulerat.

And the day before his murder, in a conversation which arose at a dinner at the house of Marcus Lepidus, as to what manner of death was most to be desired, he had given his preference to one which was sudden and unexpected. (trans. Rolfe)

However, those thinking that this sounded like Seneca are probably thinking of his Epistulae Morales 70.12:

Vitam et aliis adprobare quisque debet, mortem sibi. Optima est, quae placet.

A man should make his life praiseworthy to others, but his death praiseworthy to himself: the best [death] is the one he chooses. (from Ker 2009)

Yet Seneca seems to say the opposite. The best life isn't unexpected, but according to one's wishes. I suppose it's possible that "going unexpected and quickly" could be part of your wishes, but Seneca's thoughts seem more to indicate choosing the time and place and manner in which one would die.

Yet there is some celerity to death. The preceding sentences concern how a quicker arrival of death (once you're about to die) might be preferable to prolonging life:

From Gummere's translation:

Moreover, just as a long-drawn out life does not necessarily mean a better one, so a long-drawn-out death necessarily means a worse one. There is no occasion when the soul should be humoured more than at the moment of death. Let the soul depart as it feels itself impelled to go; whether it seeks the sword, or the halter, or some draught that attacks the veins, let it proceed and burst the bonds of its slavery. (op. cit.)

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.