Few people realize how much a part of our lives is Julius Caesar. He, who was said to have had quite the ego, would undoubtedly be shocked but perhaps gratified to learn that even 2,000 years later people are still invoking his name.
Gaius Julius Caesar, like all Romans, had a tripartite name, that is, his name had three parts. A person in the English-speaking world might also have three names – first, middle, last, but the Roman “tria nomina” was different. Take Caesar’s name:
- Gaius is a praenomen (“given name”, plural praenomina),
- Iulius is a nomen (“gens or clan name”, plural nomina), and
- Caesar is a cognomen (“family name within a gens“, plural cognomina).
No one knows exactly what Caesar originally meant. It is thought it might perhaps have meant “hairy” just as Caepio meant “onion-seller”, Balbus meant “stutterer” and Cincinnatus, so often applied to George Washington by his classical-loving contemporaries, meant “curly-haired.” The mind boggles to think what cognomen people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Herman Cain, Rick Perry or Scott Walker might have earned in ancient Rome.
But back to Caesar. Caesar’s name was, for him, merely a name. And likewise for his adopted son, his nephew Octavian, who took his name as part of his inheritance (Caesar made him his beneficiary in his will). Gaius Octavius Thurinus became at Caesar’s death Gaius Julius Caesar until the Senate awarded him the honorific “Augustus” in 27 B.C.E., when he became Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus.
It took only a century for Caesar’s name to evolve into a title. By the time known as the Year of the Four Emperors (68/69 C.E.), Caesar was being used a designator of imperial office. When Tiberius was adopted by Augustus he became a Caesar as well but Claudius wasn’t adopted, and he still chose the name on his accession. It was important by then to be a Caesar if you wanted to rule; even usurpers in the Year of the Four Emperors took the “name” though they had no right to it. In the later empire, an emperor-designate would be called “Caesar” while the senior emperor was called “Imperator.”
The Eastern Roman Empire, usually called Byzantine by historians (though the “Byzantines” themselves continued to call themselves Romans – Romaioi - much to the chagrin of modern Greek nationalists) continued to employ Caesar as a title and even conferred it on extraordinary foreign leaders. When the Ottomans destroyed the Roman Empire finally in 1453, they continued to use Caesar’s name – Sultan Mehmed II was also “Caesar of the Roman Empire” (Kayser-i-Rûm).
You might remember a couple of modern versions of the famous name cum title:
Kaiser in Germany;
Tsar/Czar in Russia – and of course, in American English.
The American Empire, like the Roman, places great value on Caesars. We have Caesars of this and Caesars of that. America is a land of Caesars and wannabe Caesars. This is not a good thing, since Caesars are inimical to democracy and to republics. Caesars (save for one Roman emperor only, who preferred his cabbage patch to his crown) do not go back to farming. Americans appreciated George Washington’s choice to go back to Mt. Vernon with good reason, and so should we.
Our czars are usually presidential appointees – we’re all familiar with the idea of having a “jobs czar” and so forth – an easy way of saying this Caesar’s responsibility is creating jobs. As in Rome, a czar might or might not have Senate approval. Sometimes, the media uses the term (a process begun at least as early as the 1930s) as a handy form of reference – shorthand for whatever long-winded official title the person may have. Nixon created a drug czar and an energy czar, and liberal/progressive hero Elizabeth Warren was once called “oversight czar” (in 2009).
It is interesting given the great debt owed by the Founding Fathers to the Romans that Caesar should have been ignored by them (remember how they hated any trappings of royalty) but come back to us out of distant Slavic lands as “czar” – distant enough sounding from Caesar and far-removed enough across time to be acceptable and to become part of our accepted nomenclature (from the Roman nomen/name).
In this day and age of highly fueled mix of religion and politics, the idea of rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s takes on new meaning when you consider that Caesar is still (literally) with us. We do still literally render unto Caesar. Some of us might say we have too many Caesars. It seems you can’t spit without hitting one.
President George W. Bush, ironically, fancied himself a new Pompey, Caesar’s deadly enemy, and like Pompey tried to use an international crisis (eastern terrorists in both cases) as catalyst to set himself up as “first citizen” back home. We’re fortunate his adventure ended with less bloodshed than the historical Pompey’s but as in the Roman Republic his imperial “rule” has changed the nature of the American Republic by creating an imbalance between executive and legislative.
Probably more than a few Americans heaved a sigh of relief when George W. Bush actually relinquished his presidency, which had come all too close to resembling the consulship of Caesar.
In the Roman Republic, the legislative (the Senate) lost that contest. It was not specifically Caesar’s fault. Caesar was merely part of the process and not its end (Octavian/Augustus gets those honors). It is to be hoped that America will escape the fate of the Roman Republic and that all our Caesars will be appointed, and not anointed. But there will always be those who want to make themselves Caesars rather than having the title bestowed upon them, and we have our share of power-hungry Caesar wannabes, and our Republic is not out of danger yet.