The Ancient City of Rome Has Many Nicknames

The Roman Coliseum in the early morning
Robin-Angelo Photography / Getty Images

Italy's capital city of Rome is known by many names—and not just translations into other languages. Rome has recorded history going back more than two millennia, and legends go back even further, to about 753 BCE, when the Romans traditionally date the founding of their city.

Etymology of Rome

The city is called Roma in Latin, which has an uncertain origin. Some scholars believe the word refers to the city's founder and first king, Romulus, and roughly translates to "oar" or "swift." There are also additional theories that "Rome" derives from the Umbrian language, where the word might mean "flowing waters." Ancestors of the Umbri were likely in Etruria prior to the Etruscans

Centuries of Names for Rome

Rome is often called the Eternal City, a reference to its longevity and used first by the Roman poet Tibullus (c. 54–19 BCE) (ii.5.23) and a bit later, by Ovid (8 CE).

Rome is the Caput Mundi (Capital of the world), or so said the Roman poet Marco Anneo Lucano in 61 CE. The Roman emperor Septimius Severus (145–211 CE) first called Rome the Urbs Sacra (the Sacred City)—he was speaking of Rome as the sacred city of the Roman religion, not that of the Christian religion, which it would become later.

The Romans were shocked when the city fell to a sack by the Goths in 410 CE, and many said that the reason the city had fallen was that they had forsaken the old Roman religion for Christianity. In response, St. Augustine wrote his City of God in which he censured the Goths for their attack. The perfect society could be a City of God, said Augustine, or an Earthly City, depending on whether Rome could embrace Christianity and be cleaned of its moral turpitude.

Rome is the City of Seven Hills: Aventine, Caelian, Capitoline, Esquiline, Palatine, Quirinal, and Vimina. The Italian painter Giotto di Bondone (1267–1377) perhaps said it best when he described Rome as "the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning."

A Handful of Quotes

  • “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.” Augustus (Roman Emperor 27 BCE–14 CE)
  • ”How is it possible to say an unkind or irreverential word of Rome? The city of all time, and of all the world!” Nathaniel Hawthorne (American novelist. 1804–1864)
  • “Everyone soon or late comes round by Rome.” Robert Browning (English Poet 1812–1889)
  • Irish playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) called Rome the "Scarlet Woman," and the "the one city of the soul."
  • “Italy has changed. But Rome is Rome.” Robert De Niro (American actor, born 1943)

The Secret Name of Rome

Several writers from antiquity—including the historians Pliny and Plutarch—reported that Rome had a sacred name that was secret and that revealing that name would allow the enemies of Rome to ruin the city.

The secret name of Rome, the ancients said, was kept by the cult of the goddess Angerona or Angeronia, who was, depending on which source you read, the goddess of silence, of anguish and fear, or of the new year. There was said to be a statue of her at Volupia which showed her with her mouth bound and sealed up. The name was so secret, that no one was allowed to say it, not even in rituals for Angerona.

According to reports, one man, the poet and grammarian Quintus Valerius Soranus (~145 BCE–82 BCE), revealed the name. He was seized by the Senate and either crucified on the spot or fled in fear of punishment to Sicily, where he was captured by the governor and executed there. Modern historians are not so sure any of that is true: although Valerius was executed, it may have been for political reasons.

Plenty of names have been suggested for the secret name of Rome: Hirpa, Evouia, Valentia, Amor are just a few. A secret name has the power of a talisman, even if it didn't actually exist, powerful enough to make it into the anecdotes of antiquarians. If Rome has a secret name, there is knowledge of the ancient world that is unknowable.

Popular Phrases

  • "All roads lead to Rome." This idiom means that there are many different methods or ways to reach the same goal or conclusion, and likely refers to the extensive Roman Empire's road system throughout its hinterlands.
  • "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." Adapt to your decisions and actions to that of the present circumstances.
  • "Rome wasn't built in a day." Great projects take time.
  • "Do not sit in Rome and strive with the Pope." It is best not to criticize or oppose someone in his or her own territory.

Sources

  • Cairns, Francis. "Roma and Her Tutelary Deity: Names and Ancient Evidence." Ancient Historiography and Its Contexts: Studies in Honour of A. J. Woodman. Eds. Kraus, Christina S., John Marincola and Christoper Pelling. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 245–66.
  • Moore, F. G. "On Urbs Aeterna and Urbs Sacra." Transactions of the American Philological Association (1869-1896) 25 (1894): 34–60.
  • Murphy, Trevor. "Privileged Knowledge: Valerius Soranus and the Secret Name of Rome." Rituals in Ink. A Conference on Religion and Literary Production in Ancient Rome. Eds. Barchiesi, Alessandro, Jörg Rüpke and Susan Stephens: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2004.
  • "Rome." Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online, Oxford University Press, June 2019
  • Van Nuffelen, Peter. "Varro's Divine Antiquities: Roman Religion as an Image of Truth." Classical Philology 105.2 (2010): 162–88.