by wjw on January 15, 2007

The new series of HBO’s Rome is upon us, something I’ve been awaiting with great anticipation. But it brings again to mind the business of Latin names.

Say you are visiting ancient Rome. A bunch of men come up to you, and one of them says:

“Hi. I’m Stick. These are my friends Pretty-Boy, Piggy, Chickpea, Buzzard, Baldy, Big-Lips, Warty, Lefty, Curly, Gimpy, Hairy, Fatty, Squinty, Animal, Red, Stutters, and Dumb-Ass.”

So who are these guys? The cast of the Roman production of West Side Story? Actors who failed in their audition for the Seven Dwarfs?

No. They’re aristicrats from Rome’s best families, and they’re dressed in the red-striped toga of the Senatorial class.

The speaker is Scipio. His friends are Pulcher, Verres, Cicero, Buteo, Calvus, Labeo, Verrucosus, Scaevola, Cincinnatus, Crassipes, Caesar, Crassus, Strabo, Bestia, Rufus, Balbus, and Brutus. You see these names all through Roman history.

(And interesting, isn’t it, that Caesar’s last words can be translated as “You too, dumb-ass?”)

These names are all cognomina, which is to say nicknames that got attached to branches of prominent families. Most Romans made do with two names, like Marcus Antonius (“Mark Antony”), but some got a third name attached. Sometimes the name was dignified, like Macedonicus, “Conqueror of Macedon,” but most often it wasn’t, and it was often intended to be insulting. (Ahala, say, meaning “armpit.”)

So we have whole generations of rich, privileged people growing up full in the knowledge that they’re from the Dumb-Ass branch of the Junius family. No wonder young Marcus decided to whack his mom’s boyfriend— or, as his friends doubtless called him, “Mister Hairy.”

All those statues of solemn people in togas take on a new dimension when you start thinking of them as Gimpy, Warty, and Chickpea. It shows, I think that dignity came late to the Romans. They started as a bunch of cattle-raiders and escaped slaves camped on a hill above the Tiber, and however dignified they got and however much of the world they conquered, their origins followed them in their names.

InsightStraight January 16, 2007 at 3:05 am

I was recently reflecting on Roman Latin names meself. Some wonderful kind souls banded together to Christmas-gift us with the I, Claudius set on DVD, and I have since watched the series. Again, for I saw it when it came on PBS in the 1970’s but had not encountered it since.

The series holds up well on a new viewing, and I in fact can foresee watching it again fairly soon. Such treachery! Such decadent debauchery! Such ruthless power-grasping! Such relentless Sibyllian foretelling of events!

After having seen the series, I one college summer read all of the Robert Graves books which were the source materials for the video series. Talk about names! Worse than a Russian novel, with all of the different Agrippas, Agrippinas, and Agrippinillae to keep track of. (Though I once worked in an orchard, it still proved a challenge to follow the Claudian family tree.) And all of the finances – endless bickering en famille as to who would pay for what triumphal procession or celebratory games. Still, they were involving reads, even (especially?) with the Sibyl revealing all at the outset.

But you have given me a whole new perspective on the matter, with the families seeming more Sicilian than Roman, antique versions of “Vinnie the Icepick” and “Vito the Brick”.

Please keep us up to date on the HBO series. We don’t get HBO, but have been known to pick up DVD sets of series proven worthwhile…

dubjay January 16, 2007 at 4:59 am

Rome is the best drama about ancient Rome since, well, I, Claudius. I’ve got my quarrels with both interpretations, but they were both made by people who knew the period and who had respect for their audience, which is more than you could say for the recently, ghastly Empire.

Since I’m one of those people who’s always claimed that real history is so much more interesting than what screenwriters and producers habitually come up with, I’m always happy when I’m proved right.

The first series of Rome is available on DVD. Check it out.

Joe Crow January 16, 2007 at 8:20 am

Y’know, I watched the first season of Rome, and knowing that “Brutus” translates out to “Dumb-Ass” explains a lot.

Pat January 16, 2007 at 3:20 pm

I got Pretty Boy, Chickpea, and Red. I should have gotten Dumb-Ass.

I have always mentally thought of the period’s two most important characters as Big Julie and L’il Augie, gangster style. (Duh. Well?)

It’s amazing how much of the classical stuff can best be modernized as gangsta.

Pat January 16, 2007 at 3:25 pm

P.S. Right now I’m reading the world’s longest and oldest gangsta-rap piece, about what happened when the Big Man dissed one of his capos and stole the man’s girl ….

SpeakerToManagers January 18, 2007 at 7:49 am

Walter, thanks for the gloss on Roman names. We just had a satellite dish installed last Friday, and one of the first things we discovered was the episode of Rome where Caeser gets his triumph. I was frantically trying to remember all that history I learned in high school Latin class those many years ago.

Then I read your translations of the names, and I remembered how my teacher used to tell us about all the gang bosses of Rome, who had names as strange as the aristocrats. Definitely a nostalgic moment.

I just finished re-reading Hardwired, having read it and enjoyed it when it first came out, and liked it even better the second time.

tarlneustaedter January 18, 2007 at 8:11 pm

I was chuckling over your comments on Roman cognomens, when it occurred to me that the only people I can think of today who use similar names are mafiosi; Joe “Animal” Barbozza, Joe “Rifleman” Flemmi, ect. There are probably other lowlifes who use similar nicknames, but they aren’t coming to mind.

This struck me as particularly relevant because the only way I can make sense of the antics of the Roman Senate is to think of them as a bunch of Mafia Dons meeting to settle disputes. The Consul as a Capo di Tutti Cappi. Next time I read about Lucius Calpurnia Bestia, I’ll remember Joe Animal Barboza…

dubjay January 18, 2007 at 9:31 pm

Of course, la Cosa Nostra was deliberately modeled on ancient Roman society in the 1920s by the college-educated Don Salvatore Maranzano, who seemed not to have ever earned himself a colorful nickname. Winner of the Castellemarese War against the old-line Mafia dons (“Mustache Petes”), Maranzano worshiped Gaius Julius “the Hairy” Caesar, and had a bust of Caesar on his mantel.

He gave la Cosa Nostra its family structure, complete with Boss, Consigliere, Capos, Soldati, etc. He dreamed out loud about establishingc a new Roman Empire with himself as Emperor.

Unfortunately for him, his dreams were a little too grandiose for his underlings, and like his idol Caesar he was whacked by disgruntled subordinates led by Charlie “Lucky” Luciano, aka Carolus Lucianus Felix.

SPM, Roman gangsters sometimes were the aristocrats, especially the most successful of them all, Publius Clodius “Pretty-Boy” Pulcher, who came from a distinguished patrician family. He was murdered by the henchmen of fellow gangster Titus Annius Milo, who though not aristocratic himself operated on behalf of the aristicratic party.

Most of what gangsters did for a living wasn’t illegal in Rome. Prostitution and loan-sharking weren’t against the law. Extortion was illegal, but under the Republic there was no police force to enforce the edicts, so gangsters pretty much got away with anything they liked. Lucky Luciano should have had it so good.

Anonymous January 19, 2007 at 1:38 pm

Now I’m wondering if H. Beam Piper was thinking of this aspect of Roman history in his story “Ministry of Disturbance”. Set in the capital of a calcified interstellar empire, the nominally democratic planetary government is actually controlled by gangsters who control voting blocs, with names like “Nico the Nose”.

– Captain Button

St. Izzy January 20, 2007 at 4:04 pm

Thanks for the post; I often point out such delightful tidbits to my students. One caution to your readers, though.

While the Shakespearean Julius Caesar (who lapses into Latin at the critical moment) can be modernized as saying “you, too, Dumb-ass,” the Roman Julius Caesar can not. According to Roman historians, Fuzzy lasped into Greek at moments of high emotion.

So at the crossing of the rubicon, his famous “the die is cast” comes out NOT as “alea iacta est” but as “kubos anerriphthô.” And his last words are reported not as the Shakespearean “et tu, Brute?” but as “kai su, teknon?” or “you as well, my son?”

Some take this final utterance as confirmation that Brutus was the product of Caesar’s dalliance with Brutus’ mother. But one way or another, that Dumb-Ass turned out to be a real bastard.


Anonymous January 22, 2007 at 8:02 pm

Many early European kings and princes tended to have similar nicknames.

Some from Poland – Spindleshanks, Elbow-high (that is, dwarf), Tanglefoot, Bashful (his wife took a vow of chastity, Big Belly, Wasteful,

dubjay January 22, 2007 at 9:52 pm

Spindleshanks? Wasteful?

The worst we’ve got in English is Ethelred the Ill-Advised.

Foxessa January 24, 2007 at 1:28 am

Since I still refuse to own a television, I’ll have to endure the prolonged wait for this season to go dvd before seeing it.

That’s o.k. though. I’d rather wait than have a tv.

Long live the dvd player!

Though it shall soon go the way of cable and computer downloads, They Say.

Love, C.

dubjay January 24, 2007 at 11:04 pm

My Oxford Dictionary of Quotations gives “Et tu, Brute?” as “oral tradition,” and “Kai su, teknon” as originating with Suetonius.

My best guess at Big Julie’s =actual= last words, however, would be “Oh, shit! Aarrrrrgh!”

But, as Hairy himself remarked, “Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.” Men believe what they wish.

By the way, I once checked to see whether young Brutus was in fact sired by Caesar, and Julie seems to have been out of town that year.

He seems to have taken up with Servilia later, anyway.

Brutus’ geneaology is colossally complex. Servilia’s father was Quintus Servilius Caepio Junior, who despite having the cognomen “onion-seller” came from one of the most distinguished, patrician, and conservative families in Rome. (In other words, he was a total shithead.)

Caepio Senior, aka Caepio the Consul, had distinguished himself by stealing the Gold of Tolosa, no less than 300 =tons= of Gaulish gold that belonged (by right of conquest, anyway) to the Roman state. He also was responsible for the horrific Roman defeat at Arausio, of which he was one of the five survivors. (In other words, only four people in the battle ran faster than the commander.)

Caepio Senior was convicted of theft and exiled. Caepio Junior married a daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus, who had started as a conservative politician until he took a radical swing to the left. Caepio then divorced Livia, who subsequently married a Porcius Cato, presumably descended from a freed slave of Cato the Censor (another first-rate shithead, by the way). Their child was Caesar’s arch-enemy, Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger.

Servilia had a brother (Caepio III) from her mother’s first marriage, and then her half-brother Cato (Shrewdie, if you like).

Servilia’s first husband was Marcus Junius Dumb-ass the Elder, who rebelled against the Sullan order and was (after a promise of amnesty) assassinated by the young, bloodthirsty Pompey the Great. (“Magnus” was a cognomen chosen by young Pompeius himself, but the Roman street called him “Adulescentulus Carnufex,” the “Boy Butcher.”)

Young Brutus was the son of the elder Dumb-ass. Servilia then married a distant cousin of her first husband, Decimus Junius Silanus, a far more conventional Roman politician, by whom she had several more children before taking up with Caesar.

So Servilia was the daughter of a reactionary, grand-daughter of a radical, wife of a martyred revolutionary, half-sister to an arch-conservative, and a lover of Caesar.

The political conversations around the dinner table must have been =fascinating=.

And apropos the 300 tons of gold. Caepio III died young without issue, which meant that the whole shooting match was inherited by the regicide Marcus Junius Dumbass the Younger.

To quote my friend Toberius: “If 300 tons of gold doesn’t give you a solid interest in the established political order, what does?”

Anonymous March 16, 2007 at 12:52 am

Can’t you say the same about our modern English names? We don’t even think of their actual meaning anymore. But if A Mr. Cooper met a Mr. Smith, would anyone think of this as a meeting between ‘barrel-maker’ and
‘metal-forger’? When Mrs. Thatcher met Mr. Gorbachev did anyone think ‘roofer’ meets ‘humpback’ or have we lost the actual connotation the names provide in place of thinking only of the name, just as I suppose the Romans did as well?

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