The Debunker: Are Caesarean Sections Named for Julius Caesar?

by Ken Jennings

Babies: they're everywhere, especially when we fly coach. But how much do we really know about them? Ken Jennings of Jeopardy! fame asked if he could spend April debunking some persistent misconceptions about babies, in hopes that it will persuade the universe to deliver Beyoncé's twins this month. Hey—she cancelled Coachella on doctor's orders. It could happen.

The Debunker: Are Caesarean Sections Named for Julius Caesar?

The Caesarean section is an increasingly popular way to deliver babies in the United States. By 2011, a third of all babies in this country were born via C-section. But the technology isn't a new one. Ancient texts from China, India, Persia, Ireland, and Rome describe a similar technique—though it was inevitably fatal to the mother (and often the child as well) until the modern invention of antiseptic surgery.

la clemence de cesar

Many authors trace Caesarean sections back to that Rubicon-crossing general himself, Julius Caesar. My copy of The Oxford English Dictionary defines a Caesarean birth as "the delivery of a child by cutting through the wall of the abdomen… as was done in the case of Julius Caesar." This account of Caesar's birth goes back at least to 10th-century reference books, but there's a problem with it. Tacitus wrote that Aurelia Cotta, Caesar's mom, was an attentive mother during his early childhood and education. Plutarch even has her overseeing Julius Caesar's household as an adult, and sabotaging an extramarital affair his second wife was planning. This would have been hard to do if she'd died in C-section childbirth, as was the style at the time.

The popular belief that Caesar was a Caesarean baby may have started with Pliny the Elder, who knew that the etymology would have to go the other way: the Latin for "cut from the womb" is ab utero caeso, and maybe "Caesar" came from that. In Pliny's account, it was an ancestor of Caesar's who was first given that name because he was born via C-section, but there are a bunch of other Roman legends to explain the Caesar name as well, so we'll probably never know for sure. The birth of words can sometimes be just as messy as the birth of babies.

Quick Quiz: What Shakespeare title character is told that "no man that's born of woman" shall ever defeat him, only to be slain by a rival who was born via Caesarean section?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.