I don’t remember how old I was when my parents told me they had planned to name me Tom, but I do recall it was around the same time my mom announced that I might have been better off as a cartoon character. Although Bugs Bunny Morse sounded like a winning combination in my mind, or maybe even Space Ghost Morse, clearly I had missed the point. This was certainly one of those days when I had fully achieved “Speed,” a nickname given me by my dad; one of those frequent childhood occasions when, after running my young mom ragged, my officially given name hung in the air for what must have been hours…SUSAN MARGRET MORSE!!! (from cartoon character to lover of animation, gaming and the fantasy genre)
Jests aside, one of the first pieces of personal information we generally offer about ourselves is some form of our name. Even though our name seems at once inextricably tied to each of us, I’d be curious to know how many of us have ever considered or, better yet, researched the origins of these identifiers that make us known or that situate us in the world and in relation to others. Questions of identity and those supports and histories that inform it, whether at the level of the individual, group or nation, have been at the heart of my own research for many years – which you will discover over time – so it seems only natural that while reflecting on the next to last lecture on the Roman Empire I wondered what my Roman name might look like and what that might say about my own existence in that ancient world.
Based on the three-part structure offered in lecture (praenomen – personal name + gens – broad family/regional designation + cognomen – specific branch of gens), had I been born Tom the aristocrat, my Roman “ish” name might have looked something like Thomas Zaranian Morse. As “not Tom” I was saddened, yet not surprised to learn that I would barely have existed – destined not to be remembered beyond the feminized form of the broad family designation – as Zarania, one among many confused, deindividuated daughters at the Zaranian family banquet trying to find her place card among the several other Zaranias seeking the same empty space.
Such rigid restriction does not seem to exist in today’s America where among the trending baby names for 2015 were such telling and vacant identifiers as Dagger, Common and Wimberley. Really!? I have a hard time believing that parents actually consider the lasting impact a choice like “Sunshine Valley” or “Poppy Seed” or “Iman Ash” or “Bare” might have on these individuals – all people I’ve known by the way – as they move through life. Perhaps this explains why there are a number of cultures around the world that still follow very strict naming conventions and in some cases even have laws about what kinds of names are allowed and what ones not.
As it turns out, my very common sounding name was specially selected for me by my German mother according to German naming laws, some of which go back to 1782. This oft considered progressive nation still requires that the personal name is understood as a name (rather than as a place or inanimate object or abstract idea), is gender specific, is not a last name used as a first name, or is not made up of more than two hyphenated family names. I was surprised to learn that there is actually a list of approved “boys” and “girls” names and that foreign names or other contemporary names have to be researched and then government approved. Not included on this list are any that could be understood as evil or disparaging to others. I’m guessing that Adolph probably hasn’t been on the list since the early 1940’s.
Here’s where our current Humcore course on Empire and more specifically on the Roman Empire weirdly infiltrates my blog and my own identity…My mom, who was raised in the Bavarian Catholic tradition, selected my namesake based on the story of St. Susanna, who goes back to third century Rome. Based on details I found in various Catholic sources, Susanna’s marriage was arranged, according to the tradition of that time. It was, however, arranged to the Emperor’s adopted son, but Susanna – who had converted to Christianity – refused to worship Roman gods or enter into the marriage arrangement, even though she knew the very real and final “costs” this would spell for her mortal existence. On the command of Emperor Diocletian, she was beheaded in her father’s house as punishment. So, basically I was named after an ancient rebel, who chose death to remain true to her personal convictions. The Emperor’s full name was Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus Augustus.
So here’s to Tom because without that particular naming convention, I may not have come to my namesake or to the “cyber punk” rebellious spirit that it contains. I am (parts adopted, chosen, given): Susan “Jimmy John” Zaranian McNiven Steffan Wilde Grossgasteiger Rankin Eheler Tokmakoff Morse.