The question “How many Caesars were there?” can be answered “From 1 only, there were more than 70 Caesars, possibly hundreds, depending on how you define Caesar, whether you include both western and eastern halves of the Roman empire, and whether you include derivative titles such as Kaiser and Qaysar amongst others referring to Caesar”.
The question can be interpreted in at least 4 ways. Before listing them, it is worth considering the origins of the name…
“Caesar” was a cognomen – in early Rome this was like a nickname though cognomens later became associated with particular branches of clans (see gens Iulia below). It is worth starting with a quick look at where the Roman name Caesar came from. There are a few theories including:
- Aisar – an ancient Etruscan name meaning “great”
- Caesaries – meaning “with a lot of hair”
- Caesus – meaning “cut” – linked to terms such as ‘Caesarian’ birth
- Caseus – meaning cheese – itself from proto Indo-European kwhet meaning sour.
Etymologysts are tending towards the Etruscan origin such as “Aisar” though we like the cheese-maker theory as many Roman names were linked to agricultural origins.
Gaius Julius Caesar was in fact of the “gens Iulia” – an ancient Roman clan or family, which in its rich history had had over 20 ancestors holding important positions of power within the Roman state. It was a noble family.
Gaius was a very common and popular praenomen – forename.
Whatever the origin it is evident that the name was of ancient origin and the success of a single individual within the family ensured its survival through time.
So how many Caesars were there?
There are a few alternative answers to this question, depending on how tightly we wish to define the meaning of the name “Caesar” and whether we want to treat it purely as a name or also as noun equivalent of “leader”.
- A family name: Caesar was an entire portion of a clan and part of a common name within his family: Learning from the origins of the name we can see there were multiple “Caesars” through time before the famous Julius Caesar. Multiple family members, including his father and grandfather were called exactly like him: Gaius Julius Caesar
- There was only one true “Caesar”: There was only one Caesar – Julius Caesar – who achieved what he did. Whilst he achieved the title of “Dictator” he was never what we would call “Emperor” since that title was effectively invented by his adoptive son Octavian aka Augustus – the first Roman Emperor.
- Julio-Claudian dynasty of emperors: “Caesar” came to be associated with imperial descendance from Julius Caesar making up the Julio-Claudian lineage – a form of dynastyof 5 successive emperors after Julius Caesar including his adoptive son, the first emperor Augustus followed by Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero. To these we could also add a few more Caesar individuals such as Claudius’ first son Britannicus (Tiberius Claudius Caesar Britannicus) who was eliminated by Nero (Nero Claudius Caesar). The lineage imploded with Nero and after a short period of civil war gave way to Vespasian’s “Flavian” dynasty. The name Caesar remained as indication of imperial rank and power.
- The name “Caesar” had become associated with imperial rank and power, for example, “The 12 Caesars”: This was a popular name given to a book written by the Roman historian Suetonius. The book was actually called “De vita Caesarum” (life of the Caesars”) and included 12 successive leader/emperors all the way through to Domitian – the end of the Flavian dynasty mentioned above.
- Having become interchangeable with the term for “ruler”, Caesar remained associated with all Roman leaders through to the fall of the Roman empire. There were about 70 emperors from beginning to end of the Roman empire of the west.
- It was more than 70! Notwithstanding the words in 5 above “about 70 emperors to the end of the Roman empire of the West” there were actually more individuals who defined themselves as “Caesar” throughout ancient Roman history: For a considerable period of time the empire was split into West and East and power over them was distributed across “The Tetrarchy”: Each half had an Emperor and below them a “Caesar” who on death of the Emperor would upgrade to being Emperor. So to get a full count of Caesars we must consider both Eastern and Western Caesars and accept that at a certain point “Caesar” was not the emperor but a co-emperor. Furthermore, we would also have to consider the eastern empire which went on longer beyond the fall of the western empire. The Sasanids/Persians referred to rulers of the eastern empire as Qaysar and after the fall of Constantinople the title was taken on by the new Turkish/Ottoman emperors.
- In the west or Europe, the Holy Roman Empire sprang out of the middle ages, in parallel with the eastern empire. Germanic kings and rulers themselves also took on the name of “Kaiser” all the way through to the 19th century. If the broader use of Caesar is included then the answer to “How many Caesars were there” swells into the hundreds.