The Name of Caesar

Gregory DiPippo

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on this day in the year 100 B.C., in the densely populated region of Rome to the north-east of the Forum known as the Suburra. His family, the gens Julia, was one of the oldest Roman patrician families, but had never been particularly prominent in the city’s political life. Like many such families, they claimed a direct descent from the legendary early founders of the Roman people; in their case, Ascanius, the son of Aeneas, to whom they attributed a second name “Iulus”. This tradition was based on the memory that the family had originally come from Alba Longa (now Castel Gandolfo), which was said to have been founded by Ascanius. In this mythology, Ascanius had the goddess Venus as his paternal grandmother, and Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus by the god Mars, as a descendant. By this token, Caesar’s family could claim to have two divinities in its ancestry, and have been part of the destiny of Rome from long before its founding.

The name “Caesar” was a traditional family cognomen, and is said to derive from the fact that one of Julius’ ancestor had been born by Caesarean section. The name would therefore derive from the verb “caedere” and its participle “caesus”, in the sense of “cut.” Since at least the 10th century AD, it was commonly but erroneously thought that the most famous Caesar was himself born in this fashion. In point of fact, it was impossible for a woman to survive the procedure in ancient times, and it is known that his mother, Aurelia Cotta, lived for over five decades after her son’s birth, and died in 54 B.C. at the age of about 75.

(The reconstructed ruins of the Temple of Venus Genetrix, i.e., “the mother” of the gens Julia, built by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. This temple is located just a few minutes walk in one direction from the place of his birth, and a minute’s walk in the opposite direction from the site of his cremation in the Forum, on which his own temple would later be built. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Yellow.Cat, CC BY 2.0)

The collection of imperial biographies known as the Historia Augusta, a source which must be used with caution, reports three other possible origins of the name “Caesar”. Regardless of whether any of these were known or thought of in Julius’ own time, they certainly reflect a tradition that was known by the later 4th century A.D.

“…Caesarem vel ab elephanto, qui lingua Maurorum caesai dicitur, in proelio caeso eum, qui primus sic appellatus est, doctissimi viri et eruditissimi putant dictum, vel quia mortua matre, sed ventre caeso, sit natus, vel quod cum magnis crinibus sit utero parentis effusus, vel quod oculis caesiis et ultra humanum morem viguerit. Certe quaecumque illa, felix necessitas fuit, unde tam clarum et duraturum cum aeternitate mundi nomen effloruit.

… men of the greatest learning and scholarship think that he who first received the name of Caesar was called by this name, either because in battle he slew an elephant, which in the Moorish tongue is called caesai, or because he was born after his mother’s death when her belly was cut open (ventre caeso), or because he was brought forth from his mother’s womb with a thick head of hair (caesaries), or because he had bright grey (caesiis) eyes and was vigorous beyond the wont of human beings. At any rate, whatever be the truth, it was a happy fate which ordained the growth of a name so illustrious, destined to last as long as the world endures.” (Hist. Aug. Vita Aelii, 2, 3-5)

This passage is at the beginning of the life of Lucius Ceionius Commodus, the adopted son and intended heir of the Emperor Hadrian, whom the anonymous author says was the first to receive the name family name “Caesar” as a title. He may very well be incorrect about this fact, and in any case, Ceionius died before Hadrian, and therefore never ruled with this name. However, the author was likely correct to say that the name of Caesar will last as long as the world endures. Apart from Caesar’s pivotal role in the history of Rome, his name was still being used as an imperial title in its German form “Kaiser” and its Russian form “Tsar” only a little more than a century ago. The last known military veterans to serve under the men who held these titles both died in 2008.

(A coin minted by Caesar in 49-48 B.C., with an elephant trampling on a serpent on the obverse. This motif suggests that the story of the elephant given above was also known and promoted by Caesar. Image from Wikimedia Commons by cngcoins(dot)com, CC BY-SA 2.5)

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