Monday, May 11, 2020

Dispelling Some Myths: Julius Caesar's Birth

On the face of it one could be forgiven for thinking the medical procedure known as Caesarean section[1] was named for Roman statesman and general, Gaius Julius Caesar.  It is, however, a false etymology[2] despite a couple of reasons to make the connection.

Firstly, the ancient Romans performed caesarean sections in accordance with the Lex Regia (royal law)[3], instituted during the reign of the legendary second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius (reigned 715 - 673 BC).  The law required the child of a mother who had died during childbirth to be cut from her womb to save the baby[4].  The Roman practice also held that the procedure could be performed where an expectant mother was in her tenth month of pregnancy or experiencing birthing complications.  Carrying out the procedure, however, was only ever done in the full knowledge that the mother would not survive the delivery.

Secondly, Pliny the Elder theorised that an ancestor of the famous Roman statesman, also called Julius Caesar, was ab utero caeso, "cut from the womb".  In this way Pliny explained the cognomen "Caesar" carried by the family's male descendants.  The Roman practice of sharing familial names may explain the confusion and why it was thought Gaius Julius Caesar was born by caesarean section.  Of course had he been ab utero caeso, then his mother, Aurelia Cotta, would have almost certainly died as no classical source records a mother surviving such a delivery.  This was clearly not the case as Aurelia Cotta took an active and substantial role in her son's upbringing, and died (in 54 BC) just ten years before Caesar's assassination[5].

Notes:

1. Also known as C-section or caesarean delivery, it is the use of surgery to deliver babies.
2. Etymology is the study of the history of words.
3. Under the rule of Caesars, the Lex Regia (royal law) became the Lex Caesarea (imperial law), hence the procedure's name.
4. Segen, J. C. (1992). The Dictionary of Modern Medicine: A Sourcebook of Currently Used Medical Expressions, Jargon and Technical Terms, Taylor & Francis. p. 102. retrieved May 10th, 2020.
5.  Caesar was stabbed to death in the Theatre of Pompey on the Ides of March (March 15th) 44 BC.  The assassination was a conspiracy of several Roman senators, notably led by Marcus Junius Brutus, Cassius Longinus, and Decimus Brutus, at the end of the Roman Republic.

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