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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(pr. n.) a renowned Roman statesman and orator of the 1st century BC

chick peas on top of a bowl of hummus

The Roman statesman Cicero has earned his second HH shout out (here’s the first) thanks to a bizarre fact about the origin of his name: apparently, it is derived from the Latin for ‘chickpea’, either because his family made their money farming the crop—or, if Plutarch be believed, because he had a chickpea-shaped wart on his face.

Marcus Tullius Cicero served as Roman consul in the first century BC. Before a somewhat swift and bloody fall from grace in 43BC (having made himself an enemy of Marc Antony, he was executed while trying to flea Rome and his severed hands and head were put on display in the Rostra), Cicero made a name for himself in Rome as an expert orator, translator and writer.

In fact, so influential was his Greek-inspired style of writing and reasoning that some later writers have credited Cicero with establishing much of the groundwork of all European rhetoric and literature. The adjective Ciceronian, likewise, describes anyone with an eloquent style of speaking, or who is expert language skills.

And, so influential were his works in Europe in the Middle Ages, that one edition of his Epistulae ad Familiares (‘Letters to Friends’) published in France in 1468 established the cicero as a standard typographical measurement; kind of like the modern point-size system, one cicero was equal to just over 4mm, or roughly 1/6 inch.

But it’s his name not his life’s work that concerns us here. According to most sources, the cognomen Cicero derives from the Latin word for a chickpea, cicer—but precisely why is something of a mystery.

As explained, one theory is that Cicero’s family made their considerable wealth from growing and selling crops of chickpeas. Another alternative suggestion is that Cicero himself (or, perhaps more likely, one of his ancestors) had a chickpea-like wart on his face—or as Plutarch put it, “a faint dent in the end of his nose, like the cleft of a chickpea.” (Given that Plutarch also said that Cicero was born “without ... pain on the part of his mother,” however, he might not be the most reliable of sources.)

Either way, a nickname that derives from a tiny pale yellow legume might not seem like the most sophisticated way to go down in history, but Cicero himself was apparently unconcerned. When he first stood for public office in Rome and was encouraged to drop his nickname in favour of something with a little more sophistication or prestige, he refused. Again, according to Plutarch, he is “said to have replied with spirit that he would strive to make the name of Cicero more illustrious than such names as Scaurus or Catulus.”

Why namecheck those two fellow statesmen in particular? Well, the cognomen of Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, a second-century BC consul of Rome, literally means ‘swollen-ankled,’ while Catulus’ name literally meant ‘puppy’—despite him being one of the most important naval commanders of the Punic Wars.

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