Our History: Title of czar had ultimate origin in the name Caesar

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

Czars have played a role throughout history. In governments today we have an unprecedented number of people serving with that title. This piqued my interest as to the origin and use of that term over the centuries. Most dictionaries give little explanation and many are sparse as far as history is concerned, so I proceeded to search on my own.

The most frequent reference I came upon was the reference that was made to the family name “Caesar.” In Roman times it was the practice to give a newborn child three names. The first would be, for example, “Marcus” or “Julius” and the second the name of a tribe or clan, such as “ Cornelii.” The third name was the “cognomen,” a nickname that distinguished one branch of a family from another. Occasionally a fourth name, or “agnomen,” was a name a person earned himself.

Caesar was the family name with which Gaius Julius Caesar was born. According to Pliny, the cognomen Caesar originated with an ancestor born by caesarian section — from the verb “caedo,” “to cut.” This, however, is only one of a series of explanations.

Originally the title “czar” was derived from the word Caesar and meant a ruler who was looked upon as claiming the same rank as a Roman emperor. “Tsar,” another spelling, was used as that of the supreme ruler of Bulgaria from 913-1018, 1185-1422 and 1908-1986. In Serbia that term was in use from 1346-1371 and in Russia from 1547-1721, but remained in common usage politically until 1917.

In the Greek language the word originally meant “potentate” and gradually evolved into “king” in the Hellenistic period and “emperor” during the Roman Empire. Western European kings were translated from the Latin “rex.” The title of king is perceived as reserved for West European titles — king in English, “roi” in French. Foreign monarchs of imperial status were usually called “imperator” rather than tsar.

The Serbian language translates as “emperor” and “tsar,” not imperator. The earliest occurrences of the use of the contraction “tsesar” — cesar — are found in the grave inscriptions of Mostich, a contemporary of Simon I and Peter I.

During the 500-year period of Bulgaria’s rule under the Ottomans, the sultan was frequently referred to as tsar. The title was used by only two monarchs between 1345 and 1371, as previously early royalty had used the Serbian royal title for king.

The first Russian ruler to be formally crowned “tsar of all Russia” was Ivan IV, known until then as “grand prince of all Russia” in 1547. The last czar of Russia was Nicholas II. Despite official changes of style, the word tsar remained the popular designation of the Russian ruler.

Today in the United States as well as England the “lofty” title, an informal one for usually a few high-level officials, is czar. Lately the term in the United States seems to be overly used. Recently in England the British multimillionaire Sir Alan Sugar was named “enterprise tsar” of the Labor Party.

The recent prime minister of Bulgaria, Simeon of Saxe-Coberg and Gotha, served as head of state as “tsar of Bulgaria” from 1943-46. He is one of the only living heads of state who has borne the Slavonic title of tsar as well as one of the few monarchs in history to have become head of a government through a democratic election.