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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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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
8 New Ancient Ships Found at the 'Shipwreck Capital of the World'
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The number of wrecks discovered at the "shipwreck capital of the world" continues to grow. According to Haaretz, the latest find adds eight new wreck discoveries, bringing the total up to 53 sunken ships in a 17-mile stretch off the coast of Fourni, Greece.

As Mental Floss reported, in 2015 archaeologists working off the coast of Fourni identified 22 shipwrecks dating back to 700 BCE—already an historic find. But additional dives conducted by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture and the RPM Nautical Foundation have continued to yield new discoveries. Nine months later, in June 2016, the Fourni Underwater survey turned up 23 more ancient, Medieval, and post-Medieval shipwrecks in the area with the help of local fishermen and sponge divers. The latest expedition took place in June 2017.

Divers inspect and survey an ancient amphora near the shipwreck site.

The Fourni archipelago, consisting of 13 tiny islands, never hosted a sizable town, but it was an important stopping point for shipping routes between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and on to Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The area may have been a hotspot for ships seeking safe harbor from violent storms in that part of the Aegean Sea, as Peter Campbell of the RPM Nautical Foundation told Haaretz. It wasn’t an entirely safe destination for merchant ships, though; it was also a pirate haven.

Some of the latest wrecks found include a ship from the Greek Classical Period—around 500 BCE to 320 BCE—carrying Greek amphorae (ceramic jars), a Roman ship with origins in the Iberian Peninsula, and anchors dating back to the Archaic Period (800 to 479 BCE). Researchers found more stone, lead, and iron anchors all the way up to the Byzantine Empire, which lasted until the 15th century.

Two conservationists sit at a table working with shards of ancient pottery.

The ancient trade routes that crisscrossed the Mediterranean (and the dangers of ancient seafaring) have made the area a fertile ground for millennia-old shipwrecks even outside of Fourni. As recently as 2016, divers off the coast of Israel stumbled upon a 1600-year-old merchant ship filled with Roman artifacts. In 2015, Italian divers discovered the wreck of a 2000-year-old ship carrying terra cotta tiles in deep waters near Sardinia.

The Fourni project is still ongoing, and researchers plan to conduct a fourth season of underwater surveying in 2018. Once the project completes a full survey and documentation of the area, the researchers may consider excavating some of the wrecks.

[h/t Haaretz]

All photos by Vasilis Mentogianis courtesy the RPM Nautical Foundation

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J. P. Oleson
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Time Has Only Strengthened These Ancient Roman Walls
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J. P. Oleson

Any seaside structure will erode and eventually crumble into the water below. That’s how things work. Or at least that’s how they usually work. Scientists say the ancient Romans figured out a way to build seawalls that actually got tougher over time. They published their findings in the journal American Mineralogist.

The walls’ astonishing durability is not, itself, news. In the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder described the phenomenon in his Naturalis Historia, writing that the swell-battered concrete walls became "a single stone mass, impregnable to the waves and every day stronger."

We know that Roman concrete involved a mixture of volcanic ash, lime, seawater, and chunks of volcanic rock—and that combining these ingredients produces a pozzolanic chemical reaction that makes the concrete stronger. But modern cement involves a similar reaction, and our seawalls fall apart like anything else beneath the ocean's corrosive battering ram.

Something else was clearly going on.

To find out what it was, geologists examined samples from walls built between 55 BCE and 115 CE. They used high-powered microscopes and X-ray scanners to peer into the concrete's basic structure, and a technique called raman spectroscopy to identify its ingredients.

Microscope image of crystals in ancient Roman concrete.
Courtesy of Marie Jackson

Their results showed that the pozzolanic reaction during the walls' creation was just one stage of the concrete toughening process. The real magic happened once the walls were built, as they sat soaking in the sea. The saltwater did indeed corrode elements of the concrete—but in doing so, it made room for new crystals to grow, creating even stronger bonds.

"We're looking at a system that's contrary to everything one would not want in cement-based concrete," lead author Marie Jackson, of the University of Utah, said in a statement. It's one "that thrives in open chemical exchange with seawater."

The goal now, Jackson says, is to reproduce the precise recipe and toughen our own building materials. But that might be harder than it sounds.

"Romans were fortunate in the type of rock they had to work with," she says. "They observed that volcanic ash grew cements to produce the tuff. We don't have those rocks in a lot of the world, so there would have to be substitutions made."

We still have a lot to learn from the ancient walls and their long-gone architects. Jackson and her colleagues will continue to pore through Roman texts and the concrete itself, looking for clues to its extraordinary strength.

"The Romans were concerned with this," Jackson says. "If we're going to build in the sea, we should be concerned with it too."

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