How Did Caesarean Sections Get Their Name?

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Reader Alistair wrote in wondering about the supposed origins of C-Sections: “Was Julius Caesar really born this way and is it the origin of the medical procedure?”

The story that the C-section originates—either in practice or in name, depending on who’s telling the story—with the birth of everyone’s favorite Roman Consul has been around for a while and gets repeated often. The 10th century Byzantine-Greek historical encyclopedia The Suda reads, “For when his mother died in the ninth month, they cut her open, took him out…” Even the Oxford English Dictionary gives that story as the term’s origin. Almost every other historical and etymological source, though, is stacked behind the answer “probably not.”

To start, Gaius Julius Caesar (we’ll call him GJC from here on out) certainly wasn’t the first person born via C-section. The procedure, or something close to it, is mentioned in the history and legend of various civilizations—from Europe to the Far East—well before his birth. He wasn’t even the first Roman born that way. By the time GJC entered the world, Romans were already performing C-sections and Roman law reserved the operation for women who died in childbirth (so that the woman and her baby could be buried separately) and as a last resort for living mothers in order to save the baby’s life during deliveries with complications.

Among the still-living mothers, no Roman or other classical source records one surviving the procedure. The first known mother to make it through the ordeal was from 16th century Switzerland (her husband, a professional pig castrater, performed the delivery), and before that the mortality rate is presumed to be 100 percent. This is an issue because GJC’s mother, Aurelia Cotta, is known to have lived long enough to see her son reach adulthood and serve him as a political advisor, despite what The Suda says. Some sources even suggest she outlived him. If little GJC really was born via C-section, Aurelia was exceptionally lucky to not only survive the delivery but also not have anyone make a fuss about it and record her accomplishment for posterity.

Does the C-section at least take its name from GJC? Again, probably not. While The Suda mistakenly has Aurelia Cotta die in childbirth, it does hint at a strong candidate for the origin of “Caesarean section.” The rest of the passage quoted above goes, “…and named him thus; for in the Roman tongue dissection is called ‘Caesar.’” Not quite right, but going in the right direction. In Latin, caedo is “to cut,” so Caesar, both as the name for the man and for the procedure, might derive from some form of the word (like caesus, its part participle). The Roman author Pliny the Elder notes that origin for both Caesar and Caesones, the name of a branch of the Fabian family.

But if “Caesarean section” comes from a word for cut, and GJC wasn’t born that way, how’d the two get connected? That might come from some confusion about Pliny’s writings. Pliny refers to a Caesar being born by C-Section, but not GJC.  Pliny was actually talking about one of GJC’s remote ancestors, specifying that he was the first person to bear the name Caesar* (who exactly that was is unclear) that “was so named from his having been removed by an incision in his mother’s womb.”

But wait, there’s more! The name Caesar may not have necessarily come from the way any of them was born. The Historia Augusta, a collection of biographies of Roman emperors, suggests a few alternate origins for the name:

“…he who first received the name of Caesar was called by this name either because he slew in battle an elephant, which in the Moorish tongue is called caesai, or because he was brought into the world after his mother’s death and by an incision in her abdomen, or because he had a thick head of hair [caesaries is a Latin term for hair] when he came forth from his mother’s womb, or, finally, because he had bright grey eyes [caesiis is Latin for “blind,” and “grey eyes” may refer to glaucoma]…”

If the first Caesar was named for an elephant, his hair or his eyes, the C-section might still be named for the Latin caedo, or actually take its name from the man. In that case, the story that started this whole explanation is a little closer to reality, but simply mixes up its Caesars.

*In ancient Rome, Caesar was a cognomen, a “third name” that augmented the family or clan name, sometimes used to identify a particular branch of the group. In this case, it ID’d the Julii Caesares subdivision of the Julii family.

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April 25, 2013 - 9:30am
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