Rome – Day 3: Supplicium and surprises

Since I am a pilgrim in this world, today I walked up Pilgrim Street, Via del Pellegrino, for to seek some good old fashioned Roman street fare.  At the end of the Via del Pellegrino you find an ancient stone and inscription in the side of a building housing a hardware store.  Across the way on the next corner was my destination, but I had to admire the inscription for the thousandth time.

Here you see the very stone and a supplì, which might surprise you.

First, the food.  I picked up a couple supplì – rice balls filled with something and deep fried to crunchiness.   The classic supplì “al telefono” has cheese inside, which makes each bite sort of stretchy, like telephone wires.  The little shop, nearby, where I bought these surprisingly good little balls of joy, is called Supplizio, which is from Latin supplicium, which means “death sentence”.  Perhaps they think their supplì are to die for?   That wouldn’t be a surprise, because they are really good.  Supplicium by the way, comes from supplex, which we see in our Latin prayers, as in “Supplices TE rogamus…” the beginning of the canon, and in many orations.   Supplex is complicated, since it involves an etymological tension between plico and plecto.  But, supplicanti parce, Lector. Oro supplex. I digress. The Italian word for the little, friendly rice ball, supplì, comes from French, surprise, because, like these posts, you never know what you are going to find inside. Hence, the Romans had the gumption to be way ahead of Forrest.  And speaking of Surprise, “Which its a fried rice ball!”, Killick would shout to the Captain after they exercised the great guns.

What’s going on here on this chiseled rock?

This is an ancient pomerium marker for Rome’s sacred city limits.  Tradition has it that Romulus defined the first sacred perimeter with oxen and a plough.  The furrow was sacred as all furrows tend to be when there is a sense of the sacred.  The pomerium was pushed outward by various Emperors.   By law, no one holding imperium, the command of troops, could pass that boundary without losing his command, which was a way to prevent generals with pietas from marching on Rome.  If they passed the boundary, everything they did would be illegal and sacrilegious.

Pompey the Great, for example, stayed outside when he returned to Rome and built the great stone theater (the first in stone in Rome) which had his residence and a meeting place for the Senate.  He made the Senators come to him.  Where I sit, writing, I can nearly peer out the window to see a place where some of the remains of Pompey’s buildings are found.  I ate at a place where you can see part of the foundation.  My seminary, on the other side of the buildings, including Sant’Andrea, is where the colonnade was where Julius Caesar was killed.   Not the sort of supplicium he would have wanted.

Here’s the stone. Doesn’t that look like… “I, CLAUDIUS”?


Which is:

Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, son of Drusus, Supreme Pontiff, having Tribunician power for the ninth time, having imperium for the sixteenth time and being Consul for the fourth time, Censor, Father of the Fatherland, once the border of the Roman people grew, enlarged and defined the pomerium.

There are a few of these stones still around.  One is at Santa Cecilia in Trastevere, my original stomping ground in Rome in whose streets I began to drink in all my bad words in my adopted language.

What is interesting here, on this stone, is an example of poor stuttering Claudius’ interest in linguistics.  First, speaking of Caesar, Claudius used an archaic spelling in “CAISAR” which proves to us how it was pronounced at the time.   Also, you see here one of the three letters he invented for the Roman alphabet. This is for your super nerdy Just Too Cool file.

Keeping in mind that at the time the “v” was not the voiced labiodental fricative “v” but more like its mysterious bilabial approximant “w”, so that vinum was “weenum”, “v” filled the function of both “v/w” and the vowel “u”, thus VINVM for vinum.  Claudius created a letter for the “v/w” consonant: which is in this inscription in the last line [a]MPLIAℲIT TERMINAℲITQ (i.e., ampliavit terminavitq[ue]). That is so cool. (This was one of my foci in grad school.)

It never really caught on.  BUT! … There it is!  Is that not COOL?!?

If you haven’t seen I, Claudius… ohhhh are you in for a treat. This is an old series, but one of the best things ever done, IMHO.  The book(s) by Robert Graves are good, but the TV series is amazing.  US HERE – UK HERE  Even now the theme runs in my mind.  And a hilariously terrifying moment with Caligula comes to mind… because the Synod is going on and I imagine this to be happening in the Sala Nervi… or perhaps somewhere in the Casa Santa Marta, given some of the characters around that place these days.   The video, if you don’t remember:  HERE  It’s … ludicrously ghastly. Performed, surely, by certain Jesuits. They’ve been summoned to Caligula and they think they are going to die … another analogy for the mercy of the moment.

#Synod2018 = “Let all the poisons that lurk in the mud hatch out.”

And, since it is October, here is another inscription, but from 1775.  This is not one of the famous “no littering” signs from His Excellency the Monsignor of the Streets.  This one says that Pius VI graciously gives (he is at the moment happily reigning) permission to carts that hauled eggs and chicken to vendors at the Pollarola and Paradiso not to pay taxes.

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  1. I, Claudius is superb TV — what the medium should be. The novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God are also superb. Robert Graves was a master of English prose.

    It’s interesting to compare and contrast the characters as they appear in the books versus how they are portrayed in the series. I think the series cleans up many of the characters — even Livia — by blunting the edges of their pagan mindsets, making them more palatable to an audience that still had largely Christian sensibilities. The pagans did not have the same notions of virtue that Christians have, which shows in the novels more than in the series. The book I, Claudius has Claudius describing his grandmother Livia as an embodiment of virtue in its most disagreeable form, illustrating the belief, unthinkable in Christianity, that that one can be simultaneously wicked and virtuous.

  2. Titus says:

    [A]t the time the “v” was not the voiced labiodental fricative “v” but more like its mysterious bilabial approximant “w”, so that vinum was “weenum.”

    This has always sounded suspiciously like self-important German claptrap when I have heard it (in numerous places) previously. If you find it a convincing theory, Father, those among your readership who enjoy such things would be edified by your further commentary on it. I would be willing to change my opinion.

    [See my other comment. There is good evidence. The thing is, that w and v can be quite close, depending on lip rounding. We use variant spellings to figure these things out.]

  3. LeeGilbert says:

    Father, you write, “Keeping in mind that at the time the “v” was not the voiced labiodental fricative “v” but more like its mysterious bilabial approximant ‘w’, so that vinum was ‘weenum'” This heinous attempt to confuse me with facts would have me believing that Caesar said, ” Wennie, weedie, weekie.” Never! The “CAISAR” abomination was obviously inscribed by some Graecophile social climber and should not be taken too seriously. We Catholic plebs have always been averse to these pretensions, preferring the manly “victor” to the effeminate “wictor.” “Christus Jesus Wictor?” Never!

    Seriously, with no scholarly warrant that I know of, I have always thought that the common people spoke Latin as we do in the Church, but that the upper crust to distinguish themselves from the vulgar mob spoke differently, under the influence of their Greek slave paidagogues and superior Greek culture. Is this out of the question?

    [Just as today there are accents even within cities, there would have been accents in ancient Rome. However, the dominant style of speech would have prevailed, just as it does today. An interesting feature of Roman speech all through the centuries is how consistent it was across classes. You can also make comparisons between spelling variants in inscriptions and in early Latin comedy, such as Plautus. For more check out W. Sydney Allen, Vox Latina.]

  4. Mariana2 says:

    I actually didn’t quite believe my teacher re the pronunciation Caisar. Well, well…

  5. Q7 says:

    What an ironic but at once comforting coincidence that you should mention the “I, Claudius” BBC series, Father! So I am not the only one!

    Provoked by all the recent scandals in the Church (and state), I had checked the “I, Claudius” series out of my library a few weeks ago to re-watch it. It had been DECADES since I had seen it but it had made such a severe impression on me then that all the recent events brought it (unfortunately) to mind again. I also wanted my kids to see just how quickly Rome unraveled after the morals of her leadership descended to the self-serving, power-grabbing, manipulative, deviant, perverse, domineering, and finally violent — because it’s being reenacted before our eyes in all too living color! As it was, I still had to dismiss my teenagers because it became too graphically disgusting to watch and I did not want their minds to dwell there.

    I have only one disc to go now and I find myself reluctant to watch it. For as Malchus found out, when Peter takes his sword to you, the only refuge you have is Our Lord. May He not tarry.

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