Exonyms are names used in a particular language to refer to a foreign nation or country; they can be completely different from the name that country uses (in its particular language) to qualify itself. Quite often, they can be of interest from a historical point of view because they can be surprisingly conservative. The exonym is sometimes preserved for hundreds of years after the political or ethnic entity it originally referred to ceased to be.

One of the best-known cases is Germany. Many nations share their linguistic origin with the German term Deutschland, even though they have sometimes assumed a quite different form i.e. Duitsland, Tedesco or Tyskland – from the Proto-Germanic Þeudiskaz. The Slavic peoples call the Germans Niemcy or similar which means ‘a mute’, someone who does not speak Slavic. The French and Spanish, among others, employ the name of the Alamanni tribe. The English, Italians and Russians, to name a few, use a derivative of the Latin Germania or Greek Γερμανία. And the Finns and Baltic states either refer to the name of the Saxon tribe or employ a word of unknown origin, like the Latvian Vacija or the Lithuanian Vokietija.

Consider these other cases:

  • The Latvians call Russia Krievija, referring to an ancient Slavic tribal union, the Krivichi;
  • The Turks call Greece Yunanistan and the Greeks Yunan, another very old exonym which probably has for origin the word ‘Ionia’, that is the Greek region on the coast of Asia Minor;
  • In a kind of an opposite logic, Russia was called Muscovy by the Poles, and then by other Europeans as a way to deny the claim of the Moscow-based government on the totality of Russian lands;
  • The Japanese used to call China Tang even hundreds of years after the end of that dynasty. In the late 19th- and early 20th century they resorted to an even older and more obscure word Shina, which had the advantage of being similar to the equivalent Western terms.

Also, there is something particularly curious about Roman exonyms; it seems the Romans gave completely random names to any people they encountered. A people that called itself Rasenna received the name Tuscans or Etruscans. The inhabitants of Carthage became Punics, and the Hellenes or Achaeans were Greeks. Celts became Galli or the Gauls.

“Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it.”
– George Bernard Shaw

Antidotes of Pliny the Elder

Antidotes of the Roman physician, naturalist and philosopher Pliny the Elder (CE 23 – August 25, CE 79) include:

  • To cure epilepsy, eat the heart of a black jackass, outside, on the second day of the moon. Alternatively, eat lightly poached bear testes, a dried camel brain with honey, or drink fresh gladiator’s blood.
  • To cure incontinence, touch the tips of the genitals with linen or papyrus. Alternatively, drink a glass of wine mixed with the ash of a burned pig’s penis, or urinate in your or your neighbour’s dog’s bed.
  • To cure haemorrhoids, use a cream made from pig lard and the rust of a chariot wheel. Alternatively, use swan fat or the urine of a female goat.
  • To cure headaches, tie some fox genitals to your head.
  • To cure choking on a piece of bread, take a piece from the same loaf of bread, and put it in each ear.

Regarding his death, we know that Pliny the Elder died on August 25, CE 79, the day Mount Vesuvius erupted and destroyed Pompeii. Pliny went to investigate the eruption, wearing a pillow tied to his head to protect him. His curiosity proved fatal.

Profanity in Ancient Rome

Petronius laments “if only we had the balls,” while the contemporary poet Persius groans “if only we had a drop of our fathers’ spunk,” and Cicero complained about “Rome having its balls [coleos] cut off.”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Marcus Tullius Cicero

Speaking with Roman plainness, as the euphemism for cursing at the time went, mostly involved vividly describing genitals, which were considered both shameful and awe-inspiring – veretrum and verecundum.

The ten worst words in ancient Latin centred on bodies and sex.

Slight a Roman, and he might retaliate by threatening to perform irrumatio, or oral rape. The worst of the worst insults related to being on the receiving end of oral sex, since the mouth was one of the most sacred of body parts.

Interestingly, many of these Roman swears weren’t passed down to English. Latin usually gives us the proper medical terms for immodest parts of the body, like for instance penis or vagina, not our primary obscenities.

In one epigram, the poet Martial rhetorically asks an old woman why she’s plucking her pubic hair, inquiring, among other things, “Why stir up the ashes in your tomb?”

Instead, another word was considered far more foul: landica, or clitoris. People swore about what they cared about, and the Romans cared about the clitoris. They thought that both male and female partners in intercourse had to achieve orgasm for conception to occur, a wrong, but gallant, idea.

Other Roman expletives centred on passivity and aggressiveness in sex – passivity being considered far inferior. There were two profanities for a man who allowed himself to be penetrated – catamitus and cinaedus. 

“The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest is just a fucking lunatic.” – Stephen Fry

Germanic Kingship‏

According to the testimony of Tacitus (Germania), the early Germanic peoples had an elective monarchy already in the 1st century.

“They choose their kings by birth, their generals for merit. These kings have not unlimited or arbitrary power, and the generals do more by example than by authority.”

The Germanic peoples’ traditions of government and law differed from those of the Romans. The Germans gave loyalty to a tribal chief, whereas the Romans belonged to an impersonal state that ruled citizens of many nationalities. Roman law was written and applied to all citizens throughout the Empire, regardless of nationality. At the time of the invasions, Germanic law consisted of unwritten tribal customs that applied only to people of a particular tribe and permitted blood feuds and trial by ordeal.

The duties of the Germanic kings varied from nation to nation; all were expected to be effective warriors, but few seem to have been law-givers like the Roman emperors. The powers of Germanic kings were limited by tribal custom and by their need to win the consent of the assembled leaders of the people for any new policy affecting people’s lives or property. The kings were subject to the customary law, and their role in law enforcement was quite limited compared to the police powers exercised by Roman emperors. The right of people to settle disputes among themselves by blood feud was generally recognized.

Germanic ideas of kingship and law underwent slow modification under the influence of the Christian church and Roman imperial traditions. The church promoted a new model of kingship, that of the biblical Hebrew King David. In the eighth century, to Christianize the traditional religious character of Germanic kingship, the church began to anoint and inaugurate the Germanic kings in liturgical ceremonies similar to those used to consecrate bishops and priests. In time, the secular Germanic practice of selecting kings was combined with new liturgical ceremonies, through which the chosen king was given sacral dignity. According to church theory, the king was chosen for royal office by God; he was called upon to uphold divine law, to defend Christianity, to protect the weak, and to rule justly.

Census of Quirinius

The Census of Quirinius refers to the enrolment of the Roman Provinces of Syria and Judaea for tax purposes taken in the year 6/7 AD during the reign of Emperor Augustus. Supposedly the census was taken when Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria, after the banishment of Herod Archelaus from the Tetrarchy of Judea and the imposition of direct Roman rule.

An account of the census was given by the first century historian Josephus, who associated it with the beginning of a resistance movement that he called the Zealots.

In Christianity, the Gospel of Luke connects the birth of Jesus to a so-called worldwide census in which individuals had to return to their ancestral cities.

Jesus’ parents, Joseph and Mary, travelled from their home in Nazareth, Galilee, to Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. This explains how Jesus, a Galilean, could have been born in Bethlehem in Judea, the city of King David.

English: The evangelist portrait from the Gosp...

The evangelist Luke writing

No other record than Luke’s account of such a census exists, and there was no practice in the Roman Empire of requiring people to returning to an ancestral city for a census. No historical sources mention a worldwide or even a Roman-controlled world census which would cover the population as a whole; those of Augustus covered Roman citizens only; and it was not the practice in Roman censuses to require people to return to their ancestral homes.

Biblical scholars, troubled by the apparent contradiction in Scripture, have traditionally sought to harmonise these accounts, while most critical scholars regard this as an error by the author of the Gospel of Luke.

The first two chapters of the Gospel of Luke comprise a birth narrative that is unique to this gospel. The passage (Luke 2:1-7) has long been considered problematic by Biblical scholars, since it places the birth of Jesus around the time of the census around 6/7 AD, whereas the Gospel of Matthew indicates a birth during or just after the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC, nine years earlier.

1 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.

2 (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)

3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)

5 To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

6 And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

7 And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

(Luke 2 : 1 – 7)

Modern scholars tend to explain the disparity as an error on the part of the author of the Gospel, concluding that Luke was more concerned with creating a symbolic narrative than a historical account, and was either unaware of, or indifferent to, the chronological difficulty. The Gospel associates the birth of Jesus with that of John the Baptist, in the time of King Herod’s reign.

Traditional scholars, bibliolatrous fundamentalists, who on the whole take Biblical inerrancy more or less for granted, have sought to reconcile these details. For the most part this has involved the suggestion of an earlier census carried out, or begun, during the reign of King Herod.

This view may have been in response to this problem that the historian Tertullian, writing around 200 AD, stated that the census had been taken by Gaius Sentius Saturninus, the legate of Syria, 9 – 6 BC, rather than Quirinius. This would solve the problem of the varying dates in the books of Matthew and Luke but would still leave us with the question why the population had to return to their place of birth. An event which remains unproven by any other historical evidence than the bible.