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The Claudian Letters

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 41 AD, near the end of the fourth year of his reign, the Roman emperor Caligula was assassinated, and his uncle Claudius proclaimed emperor in his place. Long regarded as one of the bad emperors, Claudius’ reputation was revived by the sympathetic, but in many ways fanciful, portrait of him given in Robert Graves’ historical novels I, Claudius (1934) and Claudius the God (1935). These were made into a highly praised and very successful miniseries, starring many of the finest actors of the day, which aired on the BBC in 1976, and on Masterpiece Theater in the United States shortly afterwards.

Before he became emperor, Claudius had spent most of his life as a scholar, and wrote histories of the civil wars that took place in the last years of the Roman Republic, of which several of his own relatives were the protagonists. (He was descended from both Marc Antony and Augustus’ wife Livia.) He also wrote histories of the Etruscans and the Carthaginians, as well as an autobiography and a treatise on dicing games. All of these works have been lost, but are referred to by other writers; Suetonius, e.g., describes his autobiography as “magis inepte quam ineleganter – lacking rather in good taste than in style.” He was one of the very last Romans who could read and write Etruscan, which ceased to be a living language in the first half of the first century A.D.

During his reign, Claudius attempted to introduce three new letters into the Latin alphabet. The best known of these is the digamma inversum, i.e. the Greek letter digamma, which is basically a Latin F, but turned upside-down. It served to represent the consonantal V, which sounded like the modern English W. (It is interesting to note that Claudius apparently saw no need for a special letter to represent consonantal I, which only got its own letter in the form of J in the 1520s.) Another, known as the antisigma, was the equivalent of the Greek Ψ, intended to replaced BS and PS, and the third looked like the left half of a modern capital H.

These new letters never caught on, and were abandoned after Claudius’ death. The digamma inversum appears in a few inscriptions put up in Claudius’ reign, but the precise form of the antisigma (either a backwards C, or a backwards C joined to a regular one), and the precise phonetic value of the half-H, are unknown.

In the picture below, we see an inscription set up by Claudius to commemorate the fact that “having expanded the territories of the Roman people (by the conquest of the island of Britain in 43AD), he expanded and set the bounds of the pomerium.” (The pomerium was an area within the city of Rome; for a variety of legal and religious purposes, only what was inside this boundary was counted as part of the city.) The photographer has highlighted in red two digammata inversa in the last line of the inscription: “AMPLIAℲIT ET TERMINAℲIT.” (i.e. “ampliavit et terminavit”.)

Image from Wikimedia Commons by Pierre Tribhou; CC BY-SA 4.0

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