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Exploring the Meaning of Julian

October 4, 2020 Aili Winstanley Channer
meaning of julian

Our search for the meaning of Julian takes us through 3000 years of history, telling the story of Roman civilization from its foundation to its fall.

Julian is a quiet classic, which has been in steady use throughout history but never wildly popular. Now, he is at his highest ever rank of #31, appreciated for his jolly but understated charm.

Up to a point, the origins of the name are clear and undisputed: it comes from the Roman name Julianus, meaning “belonging to Julius”.

However, the meaning of Julius itself is unknown, and any search for it must take us right back to the foundation of Rome.

Julius and other Roman Names

Julius, of course, most famously evokes Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), the Roman general and statesman who seized the rule of Rome, triggering the decline of the Roman Republic and the rise of its Empire. Julius was not actually his first name, but his nomen – an inherited family name equivalent to a surname.

The family that passed down this name was known as the gens Julia (Julian clan or family). It was common for ruling families to claim descent from the gods, and the Julia traced their ancestry back to a certain Julus Ascanius, grandson of the goddess Venus and son of the hero Aeneas.

Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian (BC 63-14 AD) became the first Emperor of Rome, and, taking the name Augustus (“magnificent”), he began the JulioClaudian dynasty. Augustus, needing to lend legitimacy to his claim of a right to rule, tasked Virgil with emphasizing the Julian family’s descent from the legendary founders of Rome in his epic poem, the Aeneid. Virgil attempted to connect Roman civilization to the glory of Ancient Greece, by describing Rome as having been founded by Aeneas, Trojan hero and survivor of the Trojan War. According to the legend, Julus Ascanius became king after Aeneas, and became the ancestor of Romulus and Remus.

Several centuries later, the form Julian became the name of one of Rome’s later emperors, known by Christians as Julian the Apostate (AD 331-363), due to his conversion from Christianity to a Greek philosophical worldview, and his attempts to convert the Roman Empire back to Paganism.

His reign was a turning point in the history of Rome, epitomizing the divide between Christianity and Classical Paganism. His efforts weakened the Empire. By AD 363, Christianity was once again the state religion, and a century later, the Roman Empire was finally nearing its end.

What Is the Meaning of Julian?

The name Julus was commonly thought to come from the Greek word ioulos, meaning “downy-bearded”. However, evidence points in favor of it originally being a native Roman name which authors simply tacked onto the existing Greek character Ascanius in order to connect the Julian family with mythology.

It has also been suggested that the name is an alternative form of Ilus, a name borne by several Trojan characters and deriving from Ilium, another name for Troy. However, the fact that the name Julus was probably added to the Trojan character at a later stage rules out this theory as well.

One option for a Latin derivation is that it comes from the adjective iuvenis, meaning “youthful”. But this word actually gave a separate Roman name: Juvenal, the name of a 1st century satirist.

The most likely Latin root for the name seems to be a derivation from Jovis, the genitive form of the name of the god Jupiter. This would make the name’s meaning “of Jupiter”. Jupiter, equivalent of the Greek Zeus, was the king of the Roman pantheon and the chief deity of the Roman state. His name derives from an Indo-European root meaning “sky father”.

This etymology for Julus is supported by the fact that the character Julus Ascanius is associated with Jupiter in a number of Roman texts. The Roman historian Livy even recorded that Julus’ father, Aeneas, was worshipped as the local Jupiter, which suggests a fusion of the native Roman worship of Jupiter and the myth of Aeneas and Julus Ascanius.

However, even this hypothesis is difficult to prove linguistically, meaning that some uncertainty over the meaning of the name remains.

Historical Usage of the Name Julian

In the Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Julian was borne by numerous saints, including St. Julian the Hospitaller, the patron saint of travelers. It was used in England from the 13th century onwards.

In Medieval England, it was considerably more popular for girls than boys, being used as the English form of Juliana as well as Julianus.

It was notably borne by Julian of Norwich, an important medieval mystic and theologian. Her work Revelations of Divine Love is the first book in English known to have been written by a woman.

Modern Feminine Forms of Julian

As a girls’ name, Julian survived in the forms Gillian and Jill. Juliet arose as a diminutive form in the Middle Ages and was later used by Shakespeare to render the Italian Giulietta. Julia and Julie, the feminine forms of Julius, only came into common use in the English-speaking world centuries later.

For boys, Julian has remained in modest usage across history, gradually beginning to gain popularity in the 20th century.

Although his quiet warmth would not suggest it, Julian can be truly said to be one of the most historic names in the English name pool.

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