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An Emperor Makes His Mark: Claudius’ New Letters in the Epigraphic Record

Melissa Huber

Duke University

Among the many idiosyncrasies attributed to Claudius is the antiquarianism he publicized in changes to Rome’s alphabet and orthography, among other displays. Most celebrated of these were the introduction of three new letters to the alphabet, which both Suetonius and Tacitus discuss.  The two authors, who wrote over fifty years after Claudius’ death in 54 CE, speak as though the new letters were used ubiquitously and universally in Claudian Rome. Suetonius, remarking that Claudius wrote a book advocating the letters while still privatus, says that once he became princeps (in 41) the innovations easily spread and could still be seen in many books, records, and building inscriptions (Claud. 41.3). Tacitus, who notes the letters in a digression on the alphabet while reporting Claudius’ censorship from 47-48 CE, remarks that the new letters were in use during Claudius’ reign but not thereafter, although still evident in legal inscriptions on fora and temples (Ann. 11.14).  Two of the three letters survive in the epigraphic record, with the Claudian digamma (Ⅎ), fashioned to stand in for a consonantal u, appearing more frequently; some inscriptions also preserve an archaized spelling of Caesar, with an “ai” instead of “ae.”

This paper examines inscriptions installed in Rome during Claudius’ reign so as to explore this emperor’s effects on the capital city’s monuments, including permanent records made through monumental writing. The purpose of the new letters has been previously treated: for example, Oliver 1949 considers the linguistic function of each letter. Others, swayed by Tacitus’ narrative, tie the public use of the new letters and archaizing spellings to Claudius’ censorship, the point in his reign when his power was more solidified (Momigliano 1961, Levick 1990, Osgood 2011).  Ryan 1993 expanded on this, arguing that Claudius wanted thus to connect himself with fellow censor and ancestor Appius Claudius Caecus, who as censor may have added the letter z to the alphabet.  But in fact, imperial inscriptions in Rome with Claudius’ letters and archaizing spellings reveal that the process was not the product of a single moment, and that the changes were not evenly implemented even on an individual inscription.

One instance is the Porta Maggiore, on the eastern side of the city and marking the dedication of the Aqua Claudia and Aqua Anio Novus in 52 CE (CIL 6.1256 = ILS 218). The monumental arch is decorated in Claudian rusticated style, and the dedicatory inscription uses the archaized Caisar in the imperial titulature. Despite dating four years after Claudius’ time as censor, however, the text does not use the Claudian digamma for its main verb, curavit. In contrast, seven extant inscriptions, marking the extension of the pomerium in 49 CE and apparently produced by the same workshop (Edmonson 2015), use the archaized Caisar and the Claudian digamma in the verbs ampliait and terminait (e.g. CIL 6.31542 = ILS 5924a). Similarly, the fragmentary CIL 6.40417, which celebrates Claudius’ rebuild of a small religious monument identified as the Curiae Veteres and in the Colosseum valley near the Roman Forum, dates the renovation between 51 and 54 CE. It uses both the archaized Caisar and curait with the Claudian digamma.   

These and other discrepancies suggest that Claudius focused on disseminating the orthographic changes on religious or boundary markers more than on large monuments.  In any case, however, review of the actual epigraphic record reveals a less autocratic Claudius than is often portrayed.

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Materiality of Writing

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