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Caesar (plural Caesars), Latin: Cæsar (plural Cæsares), is a title of imperial character. It derives from the cognomen of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator. The change from being a familial name to an imperial title can be loosely dated to AD 68/69, the so-called "Year of the Four Emperors".


Onomastic root

Although the etymology of the name of Julius Caesar is not known with certainty, many scholars believe that it was simply a use of the Latin expression caesar meaning hairy.[1][2] As such this might imply that the Iulii Caesares, a specific branch of the gens Julia bearing this name, were conspicuous for having fine heads of hair (alternatively, given the Roman sense of humour and Julius Caesar's own receding hairline, it could be that the Julii Caesares were conspicuous for going bald).[3] It is probably not related to the root "to cut", a hypothesized etymology for Caesarian section.

The first Emperor, Caesar Augustus, bore the name as a matter of course; born Gaius Octavius, he was posthumously adopted by Caesar in his will, and per Roman naming conventions was renamed "Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus" (usually called "Octavian" in English when referring to this stage of his life).

Sole Roman emperor

For political and personal reasons Octavian chose to emphasise his relationship with Caesar by styling himself simply "Imperator Caesar" (whereto the Roman Senate added the honorific Augustus, "Majestic" or "Venerable", in 27 BC), without any of the other elements of his full name. His successor as emperor, his stepson Tiberius, also bore the name as a matter of course; born Tiberius Claudius Nero, he was adopted by Caesar Augustus on June 26, 4, as "Tiberius Iulius Caesar". The precedent was set: the Emperor designated his successor by adopting him and giving him the name "Caesar".

The fourth Emperor, Claudius, was the first to assume the name "Caesar" upon accession, without having been adopted by the previous emperor; however, he was at least a member by blood of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, being the nephew of Tiberius and the uncle of Caligula. Claudius in turn adopted his stepson and grand-nephew Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, giving him the name "Caesar" in the traditional way; his stepson would rule as the Emperor Nero. The first emperor to assume the position and the name simultaneously without any real claim to either was the usurper Servius Sulpicius Galba, who took the imperial throne under the name "Servius Galba Imperator Caesar" following the death of the last of the Julio-Claudians, Nero, in 68. Galba helped solidify "Caesar" as the title of the designated heir by giving it to his own adopted heir, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus.

Galba's reign did not last long and he was soon deposed by Marcus Otho. Otho did not use the title "Caesar", but occasionally used the title "Nero" as emperor. Otho was then defeated by Aulus Vitellius who acceded with the name "Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Imperator Augustus." Vitellius did not at first adopt the cognomen "Caesar" as part of his name, and may have intended to replace it with "Germanicus" (he bestowed the name "Germanicus" upon his own son that year).

Nevertheless, Caesar had become such an integral part of the imperial dignity that its place was immediately restored by Titus Flavius Vespasianus ("Vespasian"), whose defeat of Vitellius in 69 put an end to the period of instability and began the Flavian dynasty. Vespasian's natural son, Titus Flavius Vespasianus became "Titus Caesar Vespasianus".

Minor dynastic title

By this point the status of "Caesar" had been regularised into that of a title given to the Emperor-designate (occasionally also with the honorific title Princeps Iuventutis, "Prince of Youth") and retained by him upon accession to the throne (e.g., Marcus Ulpius Traianus became Marcus Cocceius Nerva's designated heir as Caesar Nerva Traianus in October 97 and acceded on January 28, 98 as "Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Augustus"). After some variation among the earliest Emperors, the style of the Emperor-designate was NN. Caesar before accession and Imperator Caesar NN. Augustus after accession; starting with Marcus Aurelius Severus Alexander, it became customary to style the Emperor-designate as NN. Nobilissimus Caesar ("NN. Most Noble Caesar") rather than simply NN. Caesar.

Late Empire

The use of Caesar for the junior partner in a consortium imperii naturally occurred also in break-away 'empires', eager to copy the Rome-proper original; e.g. the last Gallic emperor, Tetricus I, granted the title to his son, Tetricus II.


On March 1, 293, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus established the Tetrarchy, a system of rule by two senior Emperors and two junior sub-Emperors. The two coequal senior emperors were styled identically to previous Emperors, as Imperator Caesar NN. Pius Felix Invictus Augustus ("Elagabalus" had introduced the use of Pius Felix, "the Pious and Blessed", while Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus "Thrax" introduced the use of Invictus, "the Unconquered"), and were called the Augusti, while the two junior sub-Emperors were styled identically to previous Emperors-designate, as NN. Nobilissimus Caesar. Likewise, the junior sub-Emperors retained the title "Caesar" upon accession to the senior position.

The Tetrarchy was quickly abandoned as a system (though the four quarters of the empire survived as praetorian prefectures) in favour of two equal, territorial emperors, and the previous system of Emperors and Emperors-designate was restored, both in the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East.

Byzantine Empire

In the East (the so-called "Byzantine Empire"), the kaisar (Greek: καῖσαρ) acquired a crown (without a cross) and was junior in rank to the Patriarch of Constantinople; as a result, this title was seen as a suitable one for a high prince of the blood, a Prince-regent or an Emperor-designate (Emperors-designate were usually crowned as co-Emperors during their predecessors' reigns). The proliferation of individuals so titled prompted Alexios I Komnenos to create the superior title sebastokratōr (a portmanteau word meaning "majestic ruler" derived from sebastos and autokratōr, the Greek equivalents of Augustus and Imperator) for his brother Isaakios. Both kaisar and sebastokratōr were reduced in degree when Manuel I Komnenos introduced despotēs as a superior title; unlike the kaisar and sebastokratōr, the Despot had a territorial jurisdiction, known as despotate, in addition to his degree of precedence. The continuing title cycle of proliferation causing devaluation continued to produce more artificial titles.

Ottoman Empire

In the Middle East, the Persians and later the Arabs continued to refer to the Roman and Byzantine emperors as "Caesar" (in Persian Qaisar-e-Rum). Thus, following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the victorious Ottoman sultan Mehmed II was the first of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire to assume the title "Caesar of the Roman Empire" (Ottoman Turkish Kayser-i-Rûm). Here, the Caesar title should not be understood as the minor title it had become, but as the glorious title of the emperors of the past, a connotation that had been preserved in Persian and Arabic. The adoption of the title also implied that the Ottoman state considered itself the continuation, by absorption, of the Roman Empire, a view not shared in the West. Acting in his capacity as Caesar of the Roman Empire, Mehmed reinstated the defunct Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.


The history of "Caesar" as an imperial title is reflected by the following monarchic titles, usually reserved for "Emperor" and "Empress" in many languages (note that the name Caesar, pronounced see-zer in English, was pronounced kai-sahr in Classical Latin):

Germanic languages:

Slavic and Baltic languages:

  • Belarusian: Tsar & Tsarytsa
  • Bulgarian: Цар & Царица (Tsar & Tsaritsa);
  • Croatian: Car & Carica (c is read ts);
  • Czech: Císař & Císařovna;
  • Latvian: Keizars & Keizarienne;
  • Macedonian: Кајсар & Кајсарица (Kajsar & Kajsarica c is read ts)
  • Polish: Cesarz & Cesarzowa;
  • Russian: Царь & Царица, Czar & Czaritsa (archaic transliteration), Tsar & Tsaritsa (modern transliteration); however in the Russian empire (also reflected in some of its other languages), which aimed to be the "third Rome" as successor to the Byzantine empire, it was abandoned (not in the foreign language renderings though) as imperial style -in favor of Imperator and Autocrator- and used as a lower, royal style as within the empire in chief of some of its parts, e.g. Georgia and Siberia
  • Serbian: Цар & Царица (Tsar & Tsaritsa)
  • Slovak: Cisár & Cisárovná;
  • Slovene: Cesar & Cesarica;
  • Ukrainian: Tsar & Tsarytsya

Indo-Iranian languages:

Altaic languages:

  • Turkish: Kayser (historical), Sezar (modern). Kayser-i-Rûm "Caesar of [Constantinople, the second] Rome", one of many subsidiary titles proclaiming the Ottoman Great Sultan (main imperial title Padishah) as (Muslim) successor to "Rum" as the Turks called the (Christian) Roman Empire (as Byzantium had continued to call itself), continuing to use the name for part of formerly Byzantine territory (compare the Seljuk Rum-sultanate)

Finno-Ugric languages:

Afro-Asiatic languages:

  • Arabic: Qaysar - قيصر
  • Hebrew: Keisár קיסר & Keisarít קיסרית;

In various Romance and other languages, the imperial title was rather based on the Latin Imperator (in fact a military mandate or a victory title), but Caesar or a derivation is then still used for both the name and the minor ranks (still perceived as Latin)

There have been other cases of a noun proper being turned into a title, such as Charlemagne's Latin name, including the epithet, Carolus (magnus) becoming Slavonic titles rendered as King: Kralj (Serbo-Croat), Král (Czech) and Król (Polish), etc.

However certain languages, especially Romance languages, also commonly use a 'modernized' word (e.g. César in French) for the name, both referring to the Roman cognomen and modern use as a first name, and even to render the title Caesar, sometimes again extended to the derived imperial titles above.

See also



  1. ^ Aldrete, Gregory S.: Daily Life In The Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, And Ostia, pg. 145, Greenwood Press, 2004, ISBN 978-0313331749
  2. ^ Ellis, Ralph: Cleopatra to Christ/Scota: Egyptian Queen of the Scots, pp. 21-23, Edfu Books Ltd, 2006, ISBN 0953191338.
  3. ^ Cokayne, Karen: Experiencing Old Age in Ancient Rome, pg. 14, Routledge, 2003, ISBN 0415299144.


  • Pauly-Wissowa - Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft

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