Was Julius Caesar born by cesarean section?

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Dear Cecil: My dictionary tells me that the obstetrical term “cesarean” is derived from “the belief that Julius Caesar was born this way.” Who believes this, and why? Does anybody know how Caesar’s mother felt about it, given what must have been the rather primitive state of anesthesiology at the time? Did the operation have more than one survivor? A Concerned Sister, Washington, D.C.

Cecil replies:

Apparently the only people who believe in Caesar’s untimely arrival on this mortal coil are the people who write dictionaries. This shocking error, which has even crept into that last bastion of academic infallibility, the Oxford English Dictionary, seems to have originated in the account Pliny gives of the Caesar family name. The Caesars, a branch of the Roman Julii clan, supposedly took their name from the verb caedere–“to cut”–in reference to a forgotten ancestor who made his entrance through the side door, so to speak. But like most noble Roman families, the Caesars also traced their genealogy back to the gods, which doesn’t say much for their credibility. Julius’s mother, Aurelia, actually outlived her husband by some years, and apparently became something of a Miss Lillian of her time.

The cesarean section, though, was well known in Caesar’s day. The operation is alluded to in the Talmud and makes a brief appearance in the tenth-century Persian epic, the Shah-nameh; in 1608 the Venetian Senate passed a law requiring that it be performed on women dying in the last stages of pregnancy.

Not much hope was given to saving the mother. Even with the “anesthesia” of the time–in which the patient was either frozen, beaten senseless, asphyxiated, or pumped full of alcohol–the surgeons never really knew how to heal the gaping wounds they produced with their primitive instruments. On those few occasions when hemorrhage could be prevented, the patient inevitably died of infection.

The first successful cesarean–that is, in which the mother lived to tell the tale–is supposed to have been performed around 1500 by a Swiss pig gelder, clearly a man of experience and skill. His name has been forgotten, but the operation served to inspire several more centuries of butchery. Even by the middle of the nineteenth century, the mother was only given a 25 percent chance of survival. Today, of course, modern antiseptics and suturing techniques have made the operation routine.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.