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Spelling Legitimacy: Claudius, Orthography and Re-Foundation

Joseph R O'Neill

Arizona State University

The emperor Claudius added three new letters to the Roman alphabet. Why he chose to intervene in Latin orthography remains controversial. Suetonius (Claud. 41.2) mentions the new letters in his account of Claudius’ intellectual pursuits, leading to the tendency of modern scholarship to dismiss Claudius’ letters a mere curiosity (Malloch 2013: 217-18). Tacitus, however, mentions Claudius’ orthographical intervention in the context of the revival of the censorship (Ann. 11.13.2). I suggest that this placement provides valuable clues about Claudius’ program of self-presentation. I propose that Claudius’ antiquarian interests provided the inspiration, not the motive, for his intervention in Latin orthography. When seen in the context of the revived censorship—which Tacitus places during the 800th anniversary of the foundation of Rome (Ann. 11.11.1), the very year Claudius reproduced the Secular Games—Tacitus’ mention of the new letters under the year 47 CE, and his digression into the history of the alphabet (Ann. 11.14) provide evidence of Claudius invoking a legitimizing discourse of re-foundation inspired by Augustan precedent.

I begin with a brief discussion of Augustus’ deployment of a discourse of re-foundation, which he drew from the legitimizing discourses of Hellenistic kings honored in their time as savior-founders (Angelova 2015: 4). Claudius seems to be the first of the principes to recycle systematically major elements of Augustus’ ideological program, and I argue that the discourse of re-foundation played a central role. But whereas Augustus had significant military accomplishments on which to build his claim of having saved and re-founded Rome, Claudius had to look to various acts of renewal—in the 800th anniversary of Rome’s founding, Claudius revived the censorship, an event bookended by the celebration of the Secular Games on the one hand, and his pomerial expansion on the other.

Proceeding from F. X. Ryan’s argument that Claudius’ orthographical intervention is inextricably tied to his censorship (1993: 611-13), I show that Tacitus’ inclusion of the new letters among Claudius’ munera censoria reveals that the revived censorship roots Claudius’ legitimacy in the Roman past, linking him to not only Julius Caesar (Levick 1978: 79-80), but also his distant ancestor Appius Claudius Caecus, who is credited with the rhotacization of medial S in Roman names (Humm 2005: 196-7). Tacitus’ digression into the history of the alphabet then situates Claudius’ legitimacy even farther back. Tacitus writes that over time, improvements were made to the Greek alphabet, with letters added by the likes of Cecrops and Cadmus—figures associated with acts of foundation. Tacitus then claims that the Greek alphabet was brought to Italy where it was further improved by figures like Evander, who was ruling at the site that one day would be Rome. Tacitus seems to be creating a chain of associations that links alphabetic innovators and foundational figures, from Cecrops, Cadmus, and Evander, to Appius Claudius, and Julius Caesar, to Claudius the censorial princeps.

I also analyze some examples from the epigraphic record in order to demonstrate that there was a method to Claudius’ alphabetic madness. I expand upon Revilo Oliver’s analysis to show that Claudius was purposefully repurposing obsolete archaic Greek letters (1949: 253). I argue that rather than merely reaching into history for solutions to contemporary problems—as the “imperial pedant” was wont to do (Oliver 1949: 254)—Claudius was consciously making orthography a distinctive feature of his legitimizing discourse. Claudius seems to be attempting to situate himself among a cadre of founder-spellers from Greek and Roman history.

None of this is to suggest that Tacitus thought so very highly of Claudius. The context in which Tacitus first mentions Claudius’ munera censoria is the onset of Messalina’s affair with C. Silius. Tacitus’ criticism of Claudius largely depends on the centrality of the censorship to his self-presentation. And Claudius’ new letters are a prominent, and visible component of the reimagined censorship. In a way, the new letters help Claudius spell out the legitimacy of his principate.

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Materiality of Writing

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