Holy Roman Emperors, Batman!

Unlike some of us, my sister J had a social life when she was a student, and this source of distraction  sometimes led to unhappy quiz experiences, as when her German prof expected her to write something about Charles the Big (Karl der Grosse).  To her chagrin, she later figured out that this obscure monarch was the man known in English under his Frenchified name, Charlemagne (both versions mean ‘Charles the Great’).

The name Karl/Carl/Charles/Carlo/Carlos/Karol has a twisty history.  The Germanic versions are the originals; they started out not as a name but as a word meaning ‘man,’ ‘guy’ (I believe the German word Kerl still has the sense of ‘regular guy, dude’).  The word then went in two opposite directions—The Old English form, ceorl, came to be contrasted with eorl, ‘nobleman,’ and thus a “churl” (for that is how ceorl was pronounced) was a person of lower class.  And as typically happens, (see villain), a class distinction was turned into a moral one, and to behave churlishly was the opposite of behaving nobly (too bad we don’t have the word earlishly for symmetry).

Meanwhile, the association with the Big Dude Charlemagne sent the same root in the opposite direction.  In various Slavic languages, the name Karol became the word for king (for example, korol’ in Russion, as in the title of Nabokov’s novel Korol’, Dama, Valet, King, Queen, Knave).  This development nicely parallels its female counterpart, in which a root meaning ‘woman,’ cognate with Greek gyne, evolved into the high-class queen and the low-class quean’skank, hussy.’

Of course, the Russians didn’t use korol’ as the title of their own ruler, but instead drew on another personal name.  Tsar, like the German Kaiser, comes from the family name of Julius Caesar.  As a kid, I assumed that Julius was his personal name, as with Julius Erving or Julius Rosenberg, but actually it’s another family name.  The Caesares were a subclan of the Julii, so basically all the guys in a Caesar family portrait would have been named Julius Caesar.  To be sure, Roman men did have a praenomen or personal name for intimate use, so the famous JC was, like his father and grandfather, Gaius Julius Caesar, but there were so few of these that usually a first initial was used:  P for Publius, Q for Quintus, C for Gaius (don’t ask).  Still, you can imagine that Romans did a lot of finger-pointing to specify who they were talking about.

They also used a lot of nicknames, which could become part of a person’s official name and eventually a clan name.  Like many aspects of Roman culture, the nicknames were about what you’d expect from 9-year-olds: Rufus ‘Red,’ Balbus ‘Stammerer,’ Brutus ‘Dummy,’ Strabo ‘Squinty.’  Cicero apparently had an ancestor with a wart or mole that looked like a garbanzo bean (modern Italian ceci).  Some of these were so common that they too could be sources of confusion: Caesar and his great rival Pompey both had close relatives named Squinty, and the group of JC’s assassins included two Dummies.

Bad as the situation was for the men, it was worse for the women, who didn’t have a praenomen.  All the sisters and daughters of all the Julius Caesars were named Julia.  JC’s mistress Servilia married a man from the Junius Brutus clan and gave birth to a son (the M. Junius Brutus who stabbed his mother’s lover) and three daughters, named Junia, Junia, and Junia.  In such cases, when pointing was inconvenient, the daughters were known by ordinals, Prima, Secunda, Tertia (1st, 2nd, 3rd).  Apparently, when the sex cooled down between JC and Servilia, she suggested that he take up with #3 daughter.  When JC sold some real estate to Servilia, Cicero joked that she had gotten a great deal because he knocked a Third off the price.  The fact that no-one thought women needed their own name tells you a lot about their status in Roman society.

But as long as we’re talking about Servilia…during the fracas over the Catiline conspiracy, JC’s arch-enemy and world-class prig Cato (who happened to be Servilia’s half-brother—there’s a very Dies Vitarum Nostrarum quality about these people) accused JC of being secretly in correspondence with the conspirators.  When a letter was handed to JC during the debate, Cato saw his chance and, in high dudgeon, demanded that Caesar read the letter aloud.  When JC demurred, Cato became more insistent, until Caesar finally handed him the note and invited him to read it out himself.  Of course, when Cato glanced at it, he saw that it was a love-letter from Servilia, a sort of wax-tablet predecessor of congressional sexting.  Cato threw down the tablet and, in one of the great “Look, a chicken!”  moments of world history accused Caesar of being drunk.

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2 Responses to Holy Roman Emperors, Batman!

  1. Ann Foxen says:

    I never knew you were a Dies Vitarum Nostrarum follower.

    • Roy says:

      Well, I probably watcged a good deal mure of Amor Res Splendidissima Est, but that was Gramps’ fault.

      On Sun, Apr 14, 2013 at 4:04 PM, lippenheimer

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