Monday, October 11, 2010

What’s in a Cognomen?

That whom we call CAIVS IVLIVS CAESAR
By any other name, would’ve been less famous?

There have been lots of suppositions, since ancient times, about the origin of the cognomen Caesar. The ancients took a passing interest in etymology, though, we have to admit, they were not very good at it.

What we can say with a relative amount of certainty today is that Caesar was probably of foreign origin, since its -er ending is quite unusual in Latin. This led to speculations that it might derivate from the Punic word for elephant – which was probably something like caesai - and to the legend that one of Julius Caesar’s ancestors got this name after killing an elephant in one of the confrontations in the first Punic War.

Caesar used the image of an elephant on some of his early coins, but the image bears lots of possible interpretations, being a symbol of absolute force and domination. Knowing how Caesar turned everything into political propaganda, it’s surprising that he didn't use his brave ancestor more often when talking of his lineage. Maybe an elephant killer was not fancy enough for someone descending directly from gods, or maybe Caesar knew better that there was no foundation for this legend.

The man, the name, the legend.
Apologies for the poor quality of the picture, my hands were shaking in front of such majestic power. Also, the curators from Berlin museum didn't mind the sub-zero temperatures.

Sextus Pompeius Festus says the name comes from a caesaries (referring to someone with thick, curly hair), because children in the family were born with heads covered in hair. The thought must've been painful to Caesar, balding at a young age and painfully conscious of it.

According to Historia Augusta, the etymology is related to a caesiis oculis (“due to the blue eyes"). We know for a fact that Caesar's eyes were black – not that this cancels our this hypothesis, but still, rather funny.

And here is my favorite suggestion: the ultimate encyclopedic authority, Pliny the Elder, thinks the name comes from a caesus (meaning “cut”, thus alluding to a child born by a caesarian intervention). It’s the most tempting of them all for us modern people, because of the clear association we can make between Caesar and caesarian today.

Without a trace of doubt, Julius Caesar himself was not born by a caesarian section – women did not survive after such an intervention, and Caesar's mother was still alive 30 years after giving birth to him. It's not impossible, however, that one of his ancestors was born this way.

Another interpretation that has been given was that a certain Julius Caesar of the 2nd century BC might have been the promoter of the law which allowed doctors to perform a caesarian intervention on mothers, when it became obvious they could no longer save both mother and child, thus sparring the doctors from possible murder charges - considering that the intervention was without a doubt brutal and merciless in those times.

Just as well, the name made a huge career, and became synonymous with the ruler of the Roman Empire, of the German Empire (Kaiser) and Russian Empire (Tsar, also spelled csar).

And in the end, just to clear up a few facts, in the unlikely case the posterity will be faced with the same dilemmas: Caesar’s salad is not directly named after the Roman dictator, but after a US restaurateur named Caesar Cardini. There is however a drink called Bloody Caesar which gives credit to the ancient ruler. It’s made with vodka, clamato juice (a sort of concentrated tomato juice), beef bullion, lime, Worcestershire sauce and horseradish.