How Did Caesarean Sections Get Their Name?

iStock / Steve Debenport
iStock / Steve Debenport

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.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

Apple
Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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Apple

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Sony

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Sony

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Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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FenSens

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

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Do You Remember? 12 Memorable Events That Happened on September 21—the Internet’s Favorite Day of the Year

Earth, Wind & Fire performs during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival just two weeks ahead of their favorite date: September 21st.
Earth, Wind & Fire performs during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival just two weeks ahead of their favorite date: September 21st.
George Pimentel/Getty Images

“Do you remember the 21st night of September?” Earth, Wind and Fire first asked the question back in 1978. In the years since—with many thanks owed to writer and comedian Demi Adejuyigbe’s viral videos celebrating the song and the day—September 21st has become something like the internet’s birthday or, as some have called it, “the most important day of the year.”

In honor of the ceremonious occasion, here are 12 memorable things that have happened on September 21st. After reading them, not only will you remember the 21st night of September—you’ll remember exactly what makes it worth singing about.

1. The Last Day of Summer

September 21 frequently marks the last official day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, as the Autumnal Equinox often falls on September 22 (which is the case in 2020).

2. The Ganesha Milk Miracle

Palani Mohan/Getty Images

In what has become known as the “Ganesha Milk Miracle,” India was briefly brought to a standstill on September 21, 1995, when statues of the elephant deity Ganesha appeared, when offered, to sip milk by the spoonful. Millions of people stood outside the country’s temples, hoping for a glance of this marvel, which stopped as quickly as it started. Milk prices increased by fourfold.

3. Belize Independence Day

After years of diplomacy talks, in 1981 Belize became a nation independent from the United Kingdom.

4. H.G. Wells’s Birthday

H.G. Wells was born on September 21, 1866. His work later influenced and has been referenced by author Stephen King, who was born on the very same day, 81 years later.

5. Mad Men Made Basic Cable TV History

Jon Hamm stars in Mad Men.Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

The Academy of Television of Arts and Sciences confirmed what everyone was thinking in 2008 when it named Mad Men the year’s Outstanding Drama Series, making AMC the first basic cable network to ever win the award. Bonus: Bryan Cranston also took home his first Emmy (of an eventually record-breaking four) for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Breaking Bad.

6. Benedict Arnold Became a Traitor

General Benedict Arnold committed the act that would make his name synonymous with treason and betrayal. In 1780, he met with British Major John Andre, offering to hand over his command of West Point in exchange for money and a high ranking within the British army.

7. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit Was Published

J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit—which would eventually go on to sell 100 million copies, be translated into more than 50 languages, and most importantly, introduce the world to the concept of second breakfast—was published in 1937. In its honor, Tolkien Fans everywhere will celebrate Hobbit Day on September 22 (presumably with some second breakfast, amongst other felicitations).

8. Sandra Day O’Connor Confirmed as First Female Supreme Court Justice

Sandra Day O'Connor is sworn into the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Warren Burger while her husband, John O'Connor, looks on.The U.S. National Archives, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

On September 21, 1981, Sandra Day O’Connor was confirmed by the U.S. Senate with a vote of 99–0 to become the first female U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Four days later, on September 25, O'Connor was officially sworn in.

9. Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” Made its Debut

In 1968, Jimi Hendrix released his cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” While this was the first cover of the song, it became the definitive version as well.

10. NASA’s Galileo Mission Concluded

NASA, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

After becoming the first spacecraft to visit an asteroid (visiting two, actually) and successfully completing its mission to gather information about Jupiter and its moons, NASA concluded its Galileo mission in 2003. In order to avoid an unwanted crash between Galileo and the Jupiter moon of Europa—and in a poetic twist, to protect its own discovery of a possible ocean underneath Europa’s icy crust—Galileo was plunged into Jupiter’s atmosphere.

11. Perry Mason Made His Television Debut

Perry Mason premiered in 1957 and with it, we got America’s first weekly, hourlong primetime series to follow one character, which created the DNA for all of your favorite courtroom procedurals to follow (including all the Law & Orders, and then some), and a lawyer with a strikingly high success rate (yes, even for a fictional lawyer).

12. National Pecan Cookie Day

A tray of pecan cookies—just in time for Pecan Cookie Day.rojoimages/iStock via Getty Images

September 21 marks National Pecan Cookie Day, likely because pecan trees become ready to harvest in September. But really, who needs an excuse to eat a pecan cookie?