Veni, vidi, vici—I came, I saw, I conquered. That was Julius Caesar’s famous dispatch to Rome after he and his legions dispatched King Pharnaces. While I didn’t conquer anything on my trip to Rome, I can say I ate a lot of food, drank a lot of wine and picked up some interesting word origins from ancient Rome.
My trip was a vacation, so let’s start with Roman holiday. Since the film Roman Holiday starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, this phrase has taken on a kinder, gentler meaning, but originally it meant gaining pleasure from seeing others suffer. That’s because the ancient Romans got a big kick out of grisly spectacles, like gladiators slaughtering one another, lions attacking elephants, and other cruel exhibitions.
These bloody sports took place at the Roman Coliseum, an engineering marvel that seated more than 50,000 screaming fans, and was completed in 80 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Titus. The Romans themselves didn’t call this stadium the Coliseum. To them it was the Amphitheatrum. Not until the Middle Ages did it become known as the Coliseum. That happened because of the gigantic hundred foot tall bronze statue that stood next to the stadium. The statue had originally been built as the Colossus Neronis for Emperor Nero, the stupendously crazy tyrant, but later was modified and called the Colossus Solis after the Roman sun god. In Latin, “colossus” (from Greek “kolossos”) meant an enormous statue. Eventually, in the Middle Ages, the word “colossus” was transferred to the Amphiteatrum itself, becoming known as the Coliseum. Today we use coliseum to mean a large sports stadium, while colossal has become a synonym for anything that’s outsized.
The phrase bread and circuses is used to describe how the Roman elite appeased the miserable masses with free grain and dazzling games. The “circus” part of that phrase comes from the Circus Maximus, which was another huge sports venue that could hold—get this—250,000 people, which is why it deserves the superlative “maximus”. The most prominent games were chariot races. Despite its name, Circus Maximus is not a circle, but rather oblong, like a modern track, with a very tight turn at each end. The chariots were liable to flip while rounding the hairpin, which made the races all the more thrilling. The name “Circus Maximus” lives on in our modern traveling shows known as circuses, which don’t feature chariot races, but are a bit more circular.
Circus Maximus sits in a valley just below Palatine Hill, the most central of Rome’s seven hills. Palatine Hill originally was the home of Rome’s important temples and shrines, but it was so prestigious that Emperor Augustus couldn’t resist erecting his own mansion on its crest, overlooking Circus Maximus and the Forum, with the glorious Temple of the Vestal Virgins just below. Not to be outdone, later emperors followed suit. As a result, “Palatine” entered Latin as “palatium”, which gives us our modern word for palace, usually meaning a home of a ruler, but nowadays also any magnificent residence.
Speaking of emperors, we associate that word with a ruler, like a king only bigger because his territory comprises other lands and people, normally taken by force. This comes from Latin “imperator”, which was a title conferred on a successful general. But since the most successful Roman generals tended to seize dictatorial power, eventually emperor became the title of Roman rulers.
One of these was Julius, whose family name was Caesar. Whether or not Caesar was truly born by cutting through his mother’s abdomen, his name lives on in caesarian section births. Caesar became such a larger than life figure that subsequent Roman emperors adopted his name as a title to add luster. Later German emperors, who fancied themselves as Holy Roman Emperors, called themselves “Kaisers”, a Germanic riff on caesar. Russian emperor Ivan the Terrible took the title czar (or tsar) because he saw himself, and the Russian empire, as the inheritors of the fallen Eastern (Byzantine) Roman Empire—and as the protectors of the Orthodox Christianity championed by the Byzantines—that had been ruled by a caesar.
Caesar of course was not universally admired in his own day—he was regarded as having dealt a death blow to the beloved Roman Republic—and ultimately was brutally assassinated by Roman Senators, including Brutus. The date of the assassination was March 15th, which has lived on in infamy as the fateful Ides of March.
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