Return to Miscellanea

Appius Claudius Caecus and the Letter Z

"In the first place he built the Appian Aqueduct, as it is called, from a distance of eighty stades to Rome, and spent a large sum of public money for this construction without a decree of the Senate. Next he paved with solid stone the greater part of the Appian Way, which was named for him, from Rome to Capua, the distance being more than a thousand stades. And since he dug through elevated places and levelled with noteworthy fills the ravines and valleys, he expended the entire revenue of the state but left behind a deathless monument to himself, having been ambitious in the public interest."

Diodorus Siculus, Library of History (XX.36)

The Latin alphabet derived from the Etruscan, which was adopted from the Greek of colonists who had settled at Cumae in Campania. An indication of this borrowing is that the sound of k was conveyed by three different letters: gamma (G) before e and i, kappa (K) before a, and koppa (Q) before u (as can be seen in their names: ce, ka, qu). In Latin, kappa soon became redundant, except in the archaic spelling of such words as Kalendae (the first day of the Roman month), and was dropped from the alphabet. And Q was restricted to cases in which it preceded u. Principally, it was gamma, the third letter in the Greek alphabet and represented by the letter C in Latin, that conveyed the sound of k.

But C also had the sound of g and, since gamma already represented k, a new letter was added to distinguish between these two values. Plutarch (Quaestiones Romanae, LIV) attributes its introduction (in the third century BC) to Spurius Carvilius Ruga, a freedman whose grammar school was the first to charge a fee and the first Roman to divorce his wife (Plutarch, LIX). By adding a stroke to C, Carvilius created the letter G to denote the sound of k. Its older value survived, however, in the abbreviations for Gaius (C.) and Gnaeus (Cn.). The seventh letter in the Latin alphabet, G took the position originally held by Z (zeta), which had no equivalent value in Latin and was discarded.

The introduction of the new letter also has been attributed to Appius Claudius Caecus, Roman censor in 312 BC. According to Martianus Capella (De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, III.261), "Z was abhorrent to Appius Claudius, because it resembles in its expression the teeth of a corpse," that is, in sounding the letter, the lips pulled over the teeth looked much as they would in the rictus of death. More prosaically, the loss of Z likely was due to rhotacism, in which the s sound it represented was transferred to r (for example, Fusius becoming Furius; cf. Plutarch, LIV), a replacement that consequently made the letter unnecessary.

Suetonius relates in De Vita Caesarum (LXXXVIII) that, in constructing a cipher, Augustus would substitute AA for X (cf. Dio, LI.3.7, where he substitutes for each letter the next one after it.). By the beginning of the first century AD, then, this was the last of twenty-one letters in the Latin alphabet. (Suetonius also comments on the spelling habits of the emperor, remarking that "He does not strictly comply with orthography, that is to say the theoretical rules of spelling laid down by the grammarians, seeming to be rather of the mind of those who believe that we should spell exactly as we pronounce.")

Indeed, X still was the last letter when Quintilian wrote the Institutio Oratoria later in the century. There, he questions whether the Latin alphabet is not lacking some necessary letters (y and z), which have to be borrowed from the Greek, and comments on the redundancy of others, such as k and q (I.4.9). In the chapter on orthography (I.7), he extends his complaint to Gnaeus and that "the abbreviation of the praenomen does not represent the pronunciation." Nor, he argues, should K be written for initial C when it precedes a, regarding the letter as superfluous: "As for k, my view is that it should not be used in any words except those which it stands for even if it is put by itself. I mention this because some hold that it is obligatory when a follows, although we possess c, which is capable of passing its force on to any vowel." Later, Quintilian laments the absence of y and z in the alphabet, and remarks on the harshness of Latin "because we lack the two most pleasing of the Greek letters, one vowel and one consonant, the sweetest sounds in their language. We borrow these when we use Greek words, and when this happens, the language at once seems to brighten up and smile, as in words like zephyrus and zopyrus. If these words are written in our letters [sephurum and sopurus], they produce only a dull barbarous sound" (XII.10.27).

After the conquest of Greece in the first century BC, Z (and Y) was reintroduced into Latin but only to convey the sound of zeta in transliterated Greek loan-words. Even though the letter then was in use, sources such as Quintilian (and Cicero, De Natura Deorum, II.93) demonstrate that its formal placement in the alphabet did not occur until later. When it did, the letter Z (together with Y) was relegated to the end of the alphabet, its original place having been taken by G.

Appius Claudius Caecus is recognized as the first personality in Roman history and his tenure as censor, which began in 312 BC, as a political sensation. In that year, he constructed both the Via Appia, which Statius (Silvae, II.2.12) called the "queen of long-distance roads," and the first Roman aqueduct, the Aqua Appia, both of which he audaciously named after himself.

He undertook these projects, says Livy (IX.29), when his colleague resigned the censorship after its eighteen-month term, ashamed of how Appius had conducted himself in revising the senatorial lists. The expectation, complains Frontinus in De Aquis Urbis Romae ("The Aqueducts of Rome"), was that Appius would do the same, but he did not and instead contrived to retain his position for five years. Thus, "the honour of giving his name to the aqueduct fell to Appius alone, who, by various subterfuges, is reported to have extended the term of his consulship, until he should complete both the Way and this aqueduct" (I.5). The aqueduct had the lowest elevation of any in Rome and supplied the Circus Maximus and low-lying parts of the city.

Indeed, the list of senators drawn up by Appius was regarded as both willful and partisan, and Livy records the complaints regarding "the unscrupulous way in which vacancies in the senate had been filled up, men having been passed over who were far superior to some who had been selected, whereby the whole senatorial order had been sullied and disgraced. They declared that the selection had been made solely with a view to popularity and out of sheer caprice, and that no regard whatever had been paid to the good or bad characters of those chosen" (IX.30). Many were freedmen and their introduction to the Senate transferred control from, in Livy's words (IX.46), "the uncorrupted part of the people, who favoured and supported men of integrity and patriotism," to "the lowest of the populace." One, Gnaeus Flavius, secretary of Appius, was the first person to publish an account of legal procedures ("actions in law" or legis actiones) something that had not been readily accessible to plebeians before. As a result, he was elected aedile (the two magistrates responsible for the maintenance of public buildings, purchase of grain, and regulation of festivals), even though he was the son of a freedman. In that position (304 BC), he had displayed in the Forum a calendar indicating the dies fasti, those days on which legal business was permitted.

In 280 BC, Greeks and Romans met for the first time at Heraclea and, although Pyrrhus was victorious, the cost was such that he despaired of surviving another such battle (hence the term "Pyrrhic victory"). When Cineas, his principal advisor, came to Rome to discuss peace terms, which the Romans were inclined to accept, it was Appius, old and blind and carried to the Senate in a litter, who vehemently demanded that Pyrrhus withdraw from Italy, saying that Rome would not negotiate until he did. In the Life of Pyrrhus, Plutarch has Cineas return to his master, saying that "the senate seemed to him an assembly of kings, and as for the people, he feared lest it might prove that they were fighting with a Lernaean hydra" (XI).

This speech, exhorting the Romans not to make peace with Pyrrhus, was the first to be preserved in written form and so became the foundation for Latin prose composition. The dictum Faber est suae quisque fortunae ("Every man is the architect of his own fortune"), which was quoted by Sallust in his "Speech to Caesar on the State" also is attributed to him.

His cognomen, Caecus, means "blind," which had several explanations. Diodorus (XX.36) relates that Appius professed to be blind and remained at home to avoid reprisals from a hostile Senate after he had left office. Livy considers it to be divine retribution. Having allowed the family which traditionally was responsible for the sacrificial worship of Hercules to transfer that responsibility to the servants of the temple, Appius, himself, "some years afterwards was struck with blindness by the unforgetting wrath of the gods" (IX.29).

References: Quintilian: The Orator's Education (2001) translated by Donald A. Russell (Loeb Classical Library); Diodorus Siculus: Library of History (1954) translated by Russel M. Geer (Loeb Classical Library); Frontinus: Stratagems, Aquducts (1925) translated by Charles E. Bennett and Mary B. McElwain (Loeb Classical Library); Statius: Silvae (2003) translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey (Loeb Classical Library); Livy: The History of Rome (1912) translated by Rev. Canon Roberts (Everyman's Library).

Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction (1985) by Geoffrey Sampson; The Triumph of the Alphabet: A History of Writing (1953) by Alfred Charles Moorhouse; The Alphabet: A Key to the History of Mankind (1948) by David Diringer; The Origins of Writing (1989) edited by Wayne M. Senner; The Cambridge Ancient History: The Rise of Rome to 220 BC (1985) edited by F. W. Walbank, A. E. Astin, M. W. Frederiksen, and R. M. Ogilvie.

Return to Top of Page