Friday, 1 July 2011

Another book, another wall

The latest book to land on my imperial desk is The Aurelian Wall and the Refashioning of Imperial Rome by art historian Hendrik W. Dey, whose c.v. is eclectic in the extreme. (He has jointly authored papers on "Evidence for Holocene Marine Transgression and Shoreline Progradation Due to Barrier Development in Iskele, Bay of Izmir, Turkey" and "Tsunami waves generated by the Santorini eruption reached Eastern Mediterranean shores".)

The title of the book intrigued me, as it misuses the adjective "Aurelian". Dey requires a word that means "belonging to Aurelian", the emperor universally credited with building the visible walls of Rome. But the adjective "Aurelian" means "belonging to Aurelius" (as, for example, Marcus Aurelius' column at Rome is known as the Aurelian Column).

Think of Julius and the adjective "Julian", Augustus and the adjective "Augustan", Tiberius and the adjective "Tiberian", ... and then think of Trajan and the adjective "Trajanic", Hadrian and the adjective "Hadrianic", Diocletian and the adjective "Diocletianic". The word Dey needed is "Aurelianic".

This obvious error set my mind working: how did such an elementary mistake get past the editors at Cambridge University Press?

Aurelian's Wall

Although Dey's book is called The Aurelian Wall, and he mostly uses this phrase to describe it, he is well aware that "Aurelianic" is the correct form of the adjective: he refers to Aurelianic brickwork, and even occasionally (admittedly, very occasionally) risks confusing his readers by writing about the "Aurelianic Wall" (I counted only three instances). Clearly, he and his editors at Cambridge University Press have made the decision to re-christen the famous muri Aureliani "the Aurelian Wall".

It seems that Dey is not the first to make this mistake, though the perpetrators are usually North American. In 1898, the Canadian poet Bliss Carman wrote a poem entitled "By the Aurelian Wall", in memory of John Keats. Contemporary editions of the Encyclopedia Britannica were perhaps the source, as they seem to have opted for this same erroneous version. Yet a century earlier, the Scots philosopher David Hume correctly referred to "Aurelian's wall" in his 1758 essay "Of the Populousness of Antient Nations", and Edward Gibbon used the same phrase. Characteristically, the German wikipedia entry has it right, but not the American version.

So it must remain a curious puzzle, exactly when the mistaken form originated, and why. We wouldn't refer to Hadrian's Wall as "the Hadrian Wall", nor the Baths of Diocletian as "the Diocletian Baths", but for some reason, Cambridge University Press have chosen to throw their weight behind "the Aurelian Wall". Odd.


  1. So. How was the book itself?

  2. In the interest of continuity and so as not to confuse with the 'Imperial Desk Co.' of Evansville Illinois or the desk of any later Germanic 'wannabe' shouldn't we refer to your furniture as an'Imperatorial Desk'. ( I assume your possesions deserve capitalization ) Forgive my impiety

  3. You are quite right, Fvrivs. And I do not consider your constructive suggestion impious in the slightest.

  4. I just stumbled upon your blog and like it, but you are really in the wrong here. Your academic point has no point because in the English language, these walls are called "the Aurelian Walls." That's just their name. No one calls them the Aurelianic Walls--not even the Richmond book you prefer. (I don't know Dey, but I recently had a chance to look over his new book and was very impressed.)

    Anyway, there's no mistake or conspiracy by Cambridge U. Press. Here, it is you who is mistaken. But as Favorinus once said of your father (SHA Hadr. 15.13) when the two of them disagreed on some academic point: he who has command of thirty legions can safely be regarded as the most learned.

    -Magister Fugitivus

  5. You make an interesting point, Magister Fugitivus. I wonder how long a mistake must be ignored for it to become "accepted usage". Or is there always an opportunity to correct past wrongs? With or without the support of thirty legions.