apocolocyntosis

This is a heck of a word… ¿un poco loco, no? Such a concatenation could be a lexical cynosure or could be a bit of cynicism. Does it belong in a classical apostrophe – or is it more of a verbal colonic or collyrium? Is it language heightened to its apotheosis, or is it more ridiculous than sublime? Does this word even have any collocations, or is it an appendix on the language (or perhaps a colophon)? It is colourful, but while it may suggest cyan, it seems a bit more on the purple side, really…

Actually, though, it’s orange. That’s the colour of pumpkins.

I’ll explain. This word really has one noted collocation, a title… in Latin: Apocolocyntosis divi Claudii. The English translation is typically The Pumpkinification of the Emperor Claudius.

The Romans, you see, had developed a habit of declaring deceased emperors to have become gods. Transformation into a god is apotheosis, a Latin word that’s really a Greek word taken into Latin basically unaltered.

But some of the emperors were not such great guys. Anyone who has watched or read any of I, Claudius by Robert Graves – or any of quite a few other works on Rome of the time – knows that, for instance, Caligula (who, to be fair, was not deified) was just about the most insane person you could even imagine running a country. Well, his successor (and uncle) – Claudius – wasn’t such a splendid guy, either, especially not if you asked the Roman stoic philosopher and playwright Seneca. And even if you didn’t ask him, he said so. In the Apocolocyntosis.

Seneca certainly didn’t like the undermining of divinity by according it to such venal people as Claudius. So he wrote a satire on the apotheosis of Claudius. In it, Claudius goes to Olympus to make his case for deification. But his many crimes are noted, and he is escorted to Hades. On the way down, he passes a funeral procession for him filled with lowlifes mourning the end of the perpetual Saturnalia under him. In Hades, he is met by the various friends he had had murdered, and his punishment is determined: to spend eternity trying to throw dice in a box with no bottom. (He liked to roll the dice, it seems. Well, alea jacta est… Oh, wrong emperor.) But then Caligula shows up, declares that Claudius used to be his slave, and hands him over to become a law clerk in the underworld.

This word, thus, is a parody of apotheosis – in fact, it’s a Greek construction represented in Latin, just like apotheosis. It wasn’t Seneca who came up with the word, though – it was a later author, Dio Cassius, who gave the work that title. I’m sure Cinderella came much later than Dio Cassius, but I do like the image of a carriage meant to carry Claudius to Olympus turning into a pumpkin.

We may know, as the Romans did, de mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum – say nothing but good of the dead. But sometimes the praise is not altogether merited. To say the least. And sometimes we must observe that some purported sublimity is not just subliminally ridiculous. A word such as apocolocyntosis is a nice way of saying, “Well… aren’t we special.”

Seneca was just the right person to write such a satire. The general trend of thought you get from his writings is that the world was perfect until people screwed it up, and civilization is entropy. We should also note that he was banished to Corsica by Claudius. On the other hand, he made a point in the Apocolocyntosis of sucking up to the next emperor. (Well, at first, anyway. A decade later he was accused of plotting to assassinate him and was directed to commit suicide, which he did.) Oh, you may have heard of the next emperor, too: Nero.

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