According to Roman tradition, the Roman Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54) was one day strolling through the city of Rome when he learned that a certain scholar named Nonianus (presumably the historian, Marcus Servilius Nonianus) was performing a public reading. This interested the emperor because Claudius, before and after becoming emperor, was said to have been a prolific historian, himself. In fact, Claudius was said to have written works such as a forty-three-volume history of Rome, an eight-volume history of Carthage, a twenty-volume history on the Etruscans, a piece defending the late Roman orator Cicero, a book about the alphabet, and an eight-volume autobiography. Therefore, one historian to another, Claudius was naturally curious to hear Nonianus speak.
By the time Claudius reached the venue of the reading, Nonianus had already begun his oratory. Out of respect to the historian, Claudius apparently wanted to keep a low profile and tried to inconspicuously sneak into the audience. Yet, his appearance, of course, did not go unnoticed. Instead, the incident apparently became famous, and was remembered over generations. The tale was even briefly referenced in a letter written by Pliny the Younger (c. 61/62-113), who wrote, “[I]n our fathers’ time the Emperor Claudius was walking on the Palatine when he heard voices and asked what was happening; on learning that Nonianus was giving a reading he surprised the audience by joining unannounced” (Letters, 1.13). Marcus Servilius Nonianus eventually died in the year 59. His published works, unfortunately, have been lost.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Cropped section from The Age of Augustus, the Birth of Christ, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (c. 1824 – 1904), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the Getty Museum.jpg).
- The Letters of Pliny the Younger, translated by Betty Radice. New York: Penguin Classics, 1963, 1969.
- The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius, translated by Robert Graves and edited by James B. Rives. New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.