On the Fourth of July, 1776, members of the Second Continental Congress approved the final version of the Declaration of Independence, formally separating America’s 13 colonies from the British crown. Annual celebrations began a year later, even though the Revolutionary War was raging, and in 1870 Independence Day was declared a federal holiday. From at least the 19th century onward, celebrating often commenced the night before, and all across the U.S. folks are already beginning to party.
Like the Brits who colonized America, the ancient Greeks dispatched settlers westward to Italy starting in the eighth century B.C., in search of more resources for their expanding population. But the Greek settlements were chiefly in south Italy and on Sicily, while to the north, on the hills overlooking the Tiber River, the town that was to be Roma was organized by locals who had inhabited the area for generations (though their own Indo-European ancestors had originally migrated from even further north). Tradition identified Rome’s founding date as April 21, 753 B.C., when Romulus, the city’s first king, ritually plowed a trench around what was then a simple village of thatched huts, marking the town’s sacred, inviolable boundary.
But violations there were, as Rome’s northern neighbors, the non-Italic Etruscans, invaded and ruled the area for more than a century. When the last of the Etruscan kings, Tarquinius Superbus (“Tarquin the Arrogant”) was overthrown in 509 B.C., the monarchy too was ended and replaced by a form of government known as the Republic. Though not fully democratic by any means (slaves and women could not vote, and the poor too were largely disfranchised), the Republican constitution did provide for elected officials and popular assembles. Tarquin’s ouster thus represented a kind of Independence Day, but Romans continued to celebrate the country’s birthday on April 21, their equivalent to our Fourth of July.
July was an important month for the Romans, however. In their earliest official calendar, which Romulus was credited with establishing, the year had only 10 months and the first was named “March,” to honor the war god Mars. Even long after the addition of January and February, the original fifth month was called simply Quintilis,/fifth (as in QUINTet, QUINTuplets, and QUINquennium, a period of five years). But in 44 B.C. the month was re-named Iulius/July by the Roman senate, to commemorate the recently assassinated Julius Caesar, who had been born in that month. Caesar’s nephew and successor Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, sponsored a festival glorifying his uncle’s military successes called the Ludi Victoriae Caesaris (“Games of Caesar’s Victory”), scheduled in his birthday month, on July 20-30.
Caesar’s victories in Gaul (which included modern France and Belgium) and forays into Britain were important steps in the expansion of the empire and of the Latin language’s contributions to French and English. Beginning with Augustus, Rome’s emperors assumed the appellation “Caesar” as a title, and centuries later Russian monarchs dubbed themselves “Czar.” Cinema tough guys are given the name too, like Edward G. Robinson’s mobster character in the 1931 classic “Little Caesar” and the simian king Caesar in the rebooted “Planet of the Apes” series. An ancient law that required surgical removal of a fetus if the mother died in childbirth was renewed under the emperors and hence came to be known as CAESARian SECtion (from secare/to cut, as in biSECt/disSECt).
I used to joke with my students that four quite different Latin expressions could all be translated the same way — well, sort of. Caesar eam videt (as in VIDeo/VISion) means “Caesar sees her.” Caesar, cape eam (think CAPture/CAPtive) is translated “Caesar, seize her!” Caesar, Caesar means of course “Caesar, Caesar”; search “Little Caesars 1990s band commercial” on YouTube and you’ll find tiny Roman pizza-eating puppets singing “Caesar Caesar bo-be-zer banana-fana fo-feez-er me-my-mo-meez-er, Caesar!” And Caesaris convulsio (as in CONVULSIOn) can be rendered with a sound-alike “Caesar’s seizure” — not a laughing matter, as the general is known to have collapsed in public on several occasions, either from epilepsy or a series of mini-strokes.
The Fourth of July revelry started way early in our town, and I’ve already gained a couple of pounds from all the beer and pizza-pizza. Maybe I’ll back off tonight and order just a glass of vino (Latin vinum, as in VINe and WINe), to wash down a small Caesar salad.
Rick LaFleur is retired from 40 years of teaching Latin language and literature at the University of Georgia, which during his tenure came to have the largest Latin enrollment of all of the nation’s colleges and universities; his latest book is “Ubi Fera Sunt,” a lively, lovingly wrought translation into classical Latin of Maurice Sendak’s classic, “Where the Wild Things Are,” ranked first on TIME magazine’s 2015 list of the top 100 children’s books of all time.