On this day in 54AD Emperor Claudius was poisoned in suspicious circumstances and his 17 year old stepson Nero succeeds him. Never being the greatest student of Latin – I gave up after a year of mindless chanting of ‘amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant’ and all the other verbs I’ll never remember – I do have an interest in links between Latin and Old English, Middle English and Modern English. And I began to think about the meaning of the names of the Roman emperors.
The first emperor was Augustus, whose full name of Imperator Gaius Julius Divi Filius Caesar Octavianus Augustus included Augustus, a title more than a true name, which comes from Latin augere (meaning ’to increase’). This is translated as ‘the illustrious one’ and a title which comes from religious beginnings and a symbol of the holder’s authority over the populace but one which exceeded constitutional status while falling short of god-hood. He is recorded as dying from natural causes.
Tiberius followed, whole ruled as Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus. The origin of the name is obscure, although it seems impossible if Tiberius is not from the river Tiber or the city of Tibur. Tiberius is sometimes said to have died of natural causes, others point to assassination and likely at the hands of his successor.
Caligula was that successor, his full name Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus did not include the name by which he is remembered. This is derived from the footwear worn by his father’s soldiers, the caliga. Hence Caligula means ‘little soldier’s boot’ and doubtless a name which he resented. We do know he was assassinated, although the conspiracy involved so many it encompassed several senators and members of the Praetorian Guard.
Claudius was next in the line. Full name of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, Claudius is derived from claudus meaning ’lame, crippled’. As stated his death was most suspicious. It is generally thought his wife was to blame, Agrippina wanting to see her son Nero in charge.
Nero’s reputation has not improved with the centuries. Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, he was named as a baby when his mother clearly had his future well-planned for his name means ‘great and powerful’. He certainly remained in full control of his own destiny to the very end for he committed suicide when he heard the senate declared him an enemy of Rome.
Galba was next in the year known for having four emperors. Galba Servius Sulpicius Galba Caesar Augustus, his name meaning ‘paunchy, fat’, seized power in January and was murdered by the Praetorian Guard led by his successor seven months later.
Otho only lasted three months. Marcus Salvius Otho Caesar Augustus, his name meaning ‘wealth’, committed suicide after defeat in the Battle of Bedriacum to his successor.
Vitellius was the victor at the Battle of Bedriacum. Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Augustus, his name means ‘calf’ (and probably more suitable for Nero considering his mother’s actions), and was murdered by Vespasian’s troops.
No points for guessing Vespasian was the next holder of the office. Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus was the first emperor for 65 years (since Augustus) known to have died from natural causes. Less is known of the origin of his name, which could either represent vesper ‘evening, west’ or vespa ‘wasp’.
Titus is also said to have died from ‘natural causes’, although this simply means nobody killed him nor did he take his own life but died from the plague - which sounds anything but natural. Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus can define every one of his names but for the one he was given at birth. The origin is obscure, all we do know is it was in use by the time Romulus founded the city in the eighth century BC.
Domitian was next, something of a traditional emperor in that he was assassinated, this time by members of the court. Known as Titus Flavius Caesar Domitianus Augustus, his birth name means ‘tamed’.
Nerva followed, his name meaning ‘strength’. In full Marcus Cocceius Nerva Caesar Augustus, this emperor died from natural causes just over a year after he became emperor.
Caesar Marcus Ulpius Nerva Traianus Augustus also died from natural causes. Trajan, as he is remembered, is a name understood to mean ‘the kind-hearted soldier’.
Caesar Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus, another who died from natural causes, is better known as Hadrian. Sadly his name does not mean ‘builder of walls’ but ‘from Hadria’. This town in northern Italy has a name which is also seen in that of the Adriatic Sea.
Thereafter the emperors are not as well known or remembered, thus I shall stop here – and not because Antoninius shares an origin with the modern Anthony in coming from the Greek anthos for ‘flower’. However, as ever, I would welcome any suggestions for themes or subjects, or even specific words to examine the origins, meanings and etymologies. I’d be delighted to hear from you.