Sunday, 15 March 2009

An absence of barbecued haddock

It's the Ides of March today. It was on this day in 44BC that Gaius Julius Caesar was done in by a number of senators who were attempting to save Rome from his (alleged) ambitions to be king. Except that, to Caesar, it wasn't 44BC. I rather think it was 710 AUC (anno urbis conditae - from the founding of the city) as this was one of the methods the Romans used to denote what year it was. Ironically, this method of dating was introduced by Caesar only a couple of years earlier, and it was taken into use only a year before his assassination. They also used consulships as an aide memoire - for example In the year of the Consuls Tiberius Claudius Nero and Publius Quinctilius Varus.

Now, the sharp-eyed amongst you will notice that the Romans I've mentioned above all have three names. This was referred to as the tria nomina (erm...three names!) The first, the praenomen, was a bit like our forename; it was a given name, individual to you. Except that it wasn't that individual. There were only around seventeen of these names in common use, ranging from Caius (the most popular) to Vibius (the least so), with Caia and Vibia as the feminine equivalents. There wasn't any room for innovation, so you couldn't go out on a limb and decide to call your son Brian, or your daughter Doris.

The second name, the nomen, indicated the gens (or clan) you belonged to; in other words, you were loosely associated with every other family with that nomen. Thus, Caius Julius Caesar belonged belonged to the gens of the Julii, and Mr. Varus, the consul I mentioned above, to the Quinctilii. Which sounds like a painful condition. There were a good many families in Rome, so plenty of family names, starting with Acilius and going all the way down to Volumnius. Sadly, there was no Biggus Dickus (as per Life of Brian) but the nomen Fannius might raise a chuckle among the more childish. It made me laugh...

The third name of the trio was the cognomen. This was almost, but not quite, a nickname. It would quite often refer to the physical characteristics, personality, career or place of birth of the first ancestor to bear the cognomen. Thus, the poet Ovid (Publius Ovidius Naso) must have had an ancestor with a big nose (that's what Naso means!); and Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus is likely to have had a red-bearded forbear. I was initially confused when it came to the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. 'Cicero' means 'chick pea'. Does this mean that our Marcus had an ancestor who was a chick pea? Or who farmed chick peas? Or who thought he was a chick pea? No. Apparently, said ancestor had a little cleft at the end of his nose that made it look like a chick pea. Just imagine the time he had at school. When Cicero entered politics, he was advised to change his cognomen to something a bit more serious, but he refused, saying at least he wasn't a Scaurus (swollen ankled) or a Catulus (puppy).

I seem to have got rather bogged down in this Roman stuff. I had originally planned to talk to you about drains, barbecued haddock, and an afternoon walk along the beach, but all this can wait. At the risk of ruining your day, I'm going to tell you how to pronounce Roman names properly. In Latin, the letter C at the start of a word is always 'hard'. Thus, Caesar is properly pronounced Kaizar; and Cicero (not surprisingly) Kikkero. Yes, I know they always say Caesar on the History Channel. But what do they know?

14 comments:

mo.stoneskin said...

Every chick pea I have ever known has been a great orator, so I guess this all makes sense.

Enjoyed the read though, always been fascinated by the Romans. And chick peas.

Sadly, to answer your question, I am no aviator. I hate flying actually!

chris hale said...

Hi Mo.

Yes, I concur with your sentiments. Haricot beans, however, are less loquacious. And don't even think of engaging a lentil in any kind of intelligent debate...

Shame about the flying thing. It's less nerve-wracking if you're at the controls yourself!

Comedy Goddess said...

I am so glad someone posted about the Ides of March!

My friends married name is Imperatore. And since she is getting divorced I asked if she knew when she married that she was in fact marrying the supreme commander. She just about fell down. I guess that was kinda mean of me. Mea maxima culpa.

chris hale said...

CG - Sory to hear about your friend, but it could have been worse, I suppose. She friend could have been married to a Mr. Caligula. Or a Mr. Nero

Elftea said...

I love Historical tid bits. I enjoyed your post.

Derrick said...

Chris,

I kept waiting for the haddock to make an appearance. I shall be mentioning some myself, tomorrow! I rather like chick peas, especially hommus, but now I'm not so sure.

And you mean to say that the Germans got it right all along?!

willow said...

I'll keep that in mind next time I order a Kaizar salad.

Happy Ides of March!

Rowan said...

Enjoyed reading this - the bit about Cicero really made me laugh. Did A-level Classical Studies some years ago so am familiar with Caesar et al. Wish I'd known the bit about chickpeas then though - it would have made reading Cicero infinitely more interesting:)

Madame DeFarge said...

Well, now there's something I didn't know. Presumably Cicero wrote that houmous is where the heart is.

chris hale said...

Elftea - You are most kind. Welcome to my blog!

Derrick - I await with interest your haddock-related post. And yes, it seems the Germans were right!

Willow - You might get some strange looks...but you can always blame me!

Rowan - Yes, someone needed to lighten him up a bit. I mean, Pro Roscio Amerino isn't exactly a barrel of laughs, is it?

MDF - That's awful! More please!

MDF -

punk in writing said...

So all those old Hollywood movies set in the Roman Empire pronounce it wrong? I knew it.

Movie latin always sounded way to lah-di-dah for a people that were warriors and engineers.

chris hale said...

Punky - yes, they got it wrong. But the convention of pronunciation has gone on for so long it would take a brave director to go for the real thing. It would confuse the heck out of the audience. Vale amica!

Raph G. Neckmann said...

I do love Roman names! I wonder what the Latin for 'barbecued haddock' would be?

chris hale said...

Hmm...can't find any specific mention of haddock as part of the Roman diet, and there isn't a Latin word for 'barbecue'. I think we're going to have to go for the rather bland Pisces in carbo calido - fish in hot charcoal...or thereabouts!