Friday, January 31, 2014


The Campus Martius – in Italian, Campo Marzio – is the heart of old Rome. Largely spared the indiscriminate demolitions of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, its ancient fabric harbors many a fugitive remembrance of things past: here, in a propitious moment, it is possible to have a fleeting impression of the Rome that captivated Gibbon and Goethe, Byron and Stendhal.

One of the oldest streets of the quarter is Via del Pellegrino, which forms part of a network of ancient roadways whose layout is fossilized in the modern street-system. In the days of the Julio-Claudian emperors, these roadways traversed green fields that opened to the west of the porticoes, theaters and baths for which the Campus Martius was famous. Today they are dark and evocative alleys etched into the dense accretion of the mediaeval city. At the northwest end of Via del Pellegrino, set into the façade of an undistinguished building, is a block of stone inscribed with the following text:


Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, son of Drusus, Supreme Pontiff, vested with the Tribunician power for the ninth time, Consul for the fourth, Censor, Father of his Country, upon the enlargement of the territory of the Roman people increased and delimited the pomerium.

The stone was excavated on the opposite side of the street. Unlike most such artifacts, which are almost invariably removed to museums, it was set up at a location near its find-site. The left side is damaged: in the transcription, the lower-case characters enclosed in brackets represent lost text. These portions can be restored with confidence from the text that survives in various degrees of preservation on a handful of identical stones commemorating the same occasion.

That occasion, as the inscription declares, was the Emperor Claudius’ extension of the pomerium – Rome’s sacred boundary. In antiquity, the pomerium formed the religious limit of a city that had been augurally constituted – that is, one whose territory had been ‘inaugurated’ by the public diviners (augures) who interpreted the will of the gods. The number of such cities was quite small: it included Rome herself, her Latin neighbors and her colonies – those cities, in other words, which shared the characteristic foundation-ritual of the ancient Latin peoples. In that ritual, a bullock and a heifer were yoked to a plow, and a furrow was drawn around the site of the new town. The pomerium was identified with the ridge of earth raised by the plow-share on the inner side of the furrow. According to tradition, it was Romulus himself who had traced the original pomerium of Rome.

As evidenced by his interest in the archaic and obsolete pomerium, Claudius was a man of scholarly – if not indeed pedantic – disposition. He is said to have written a monograph on the Etruscans and, improbable as it may seem in an emperor, we have it on the authority of Suetonius and Tacitus that he devoted considerable attention to the matter of spelling-reform. In the present inscription, a clue to his concern with the matter is seen in the archaic spelling CAISAR instead of CAESAR. Historical linguists in fact confirm that as early as the first century BC, the pronunciation of the diphthong AE – originally pronounced something like the English aye – had already begun to mutate into the vowel heard today in the Italian Cesare and the French and Spanish César. The unfamiliar spelling favored by Claudius was evidently intended to ensure that the imperial name at least would be pronounced correctly!

This nicety did not exhaust the emperor’s orthographic zeal. According to the historians, he went so far as to introduce three altogether new characters into the Latin alphabet: Ⅎ, Ͻ and Ⱶ. Each addressed some deficiency in the traditional spelling of Latin. For example, the word vinum (‘wine’, pronounced weenum) was written VINVM – that is, the letter V did double duty for the consonant sound W and the vowel sound U. The Claudian letter Ⅎ disambiguated the spelling by providing a distinctive symbol for the consonant: ℲINVM. In the present inscription, the new letter appears twice in the last line: [a]MPLIAℲIT TERMINAℲITQ (i.e., ampliavit terminavitque, with suspension of the final syllable).

The letter Ͻ was introduced to represent the combination PS, which was sometimes spelled PS, as in auceps (‘bird-catcher’) and sometimes BS, as in caelebs (‘unmarried’). In the Claudian orthography, these became AVCEϽ and CAELEϽ.

Finally, there was a Latin vowel that in pronunciation fell somewhere between the sound of U and I. Thus we find variations in spelling such as monimentum / monumentum and maximus / maxumus. In the Claudian system, these words are represented as MONⱵMENTVM and MAXⱵMVS.

Spelling-reform has a reputation for failure – a reputation corroborated by the fortunes of Claudius’ effort. The new characters are found with some frequency in the inscriptions of his own reign; thereafter, all three fell into complete and permanent disuse. Nevertheless, in a development that would doubtless have pleased the emperor, in 2006 the Claudian letters were included in version 5.0.0 of Unicode.