Why Is It Called a Cesarean Section?

"Let's name him Caesar."
"Let's name him Caesar." / Liana2012l/iStock via Getty Images

When giving birth vaginally isn’t an option (or isn’t the best or safest option), the doctor will cut into an expectant mother’s abdomen and remove the baby surgically, instead. The procedure is commonly called a C-section—short for Cesarean section.

It’s not lost on anyone that the word Cesarean bears a resemblance to the name Caesar. In fact, early spellings of the term, dating at least as far back as the early 17th century, include Caesarean and Caesarian. And according to the most prevalent theory about its origins, the namesake was indeedJulius Caesar himself, who purportedly entered the world via C-section. 

“[Caesar] was rip’t out of his Mothers wombe, at the verie instant she died,” French surgeon Jacques Guillemeau wrote in his book Child-birth, or, The Happy Delivery of Women, first published in 1609.

There’s one glaring issue with this theory: Julius Caesar’s mother, Aurelia Cotta, didn’t die in childbirth. She passed away in 54 BCE, just 10 years before her son’s murder. And since we have no evidence that any ancient Roman mother survived a C-section—they were typically only performed on women who were already dead or couldn’t be saved—it’s highly doubtful that Aurelia Cotta underwent one. 

Pliny the Elder presented an alternate origin story in his Natural History: That Julius Caesar’s oldest ancestor was named Caesar because he was cut from his mother’s womb. In Latin, caesus is a form of the verb caedere, meaning “to cut.” (That said, other people have different ideas about how the name Caesar originated.)

As Lawrence D. Longo and Lawrence P. Reynolds explained in their 2016 reference work Wombs with a View, the word Cesarean as it pertains to childbirth may have ties to Numa Pompilius, who ruled over Rome from 715 to 672 BCE. During his reign, he enacted a law mandating that if a pregnant woman died far enough into her term, her baby must be delivered by incision. The law was still active by the time the Caesars took over, so it’s possible the delivery method came to be associated with—and then named for—Caesarean rule.

The theories are just theories. But even if no Caesar ever had anything to do with a Cesarean section, the fact that so many important historians and physicians believed (and reiterated) the link between the two is probably why the term has stuck to this day.