How Londinium Became London, Lutetia Became Paris, and Other Roman Cities Got Their Modern Names

They Might Be Giants achieved pop-cultural immortality when they covered Jimmy Kennedy and music by Nat Simon’s novelty song “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” in 1990. Key to the the lyrics’ humor is their simultaneous fixation on and apparent disinterest in the reason for the re-naming of the Turkish metropolis. As often as you hear the song — and we’ve all heard it countless times over the past few decades — you’ll learn only that Constantinople became Istanbul, not why. In his new video above, on how the cities of the Roman Empire got their modern names, ancient history YouTuber Garrett Ryan, creator of Youtube channel Told in Stone, provides a little more detail.

“Istanbul seems to be a Turkish rendering of the Greek phrase eis ten polin, ‘into the city,” Ryan says. Other of that country’s urban settlements have names that would be more recognizable to an ancient Roman citizen: “Bursa is Prusa, Smyrna is Izmir, Attaleia is Antalya, Iconium is Konya, and Ancyra is Ankara.”

Iznik was originally called Nicaea, but so was Nice, France (though only the former has the historical distinction of having produced the Nicene Creed). “The French towns Aix and Dax are descendants of the Latin aquae, springs. The same word, literally translated, is behind Baden Baden, Germany, and Bath, England.”

For some cities, the transition from a Roman to post-Roman name didn’t happen in one simple step. It’s well known that, in the days of the Roman Empire, London was called Londinium; what’s less well known is that it also took on the names Lundenwic and Lundenburg in the eras between. And “although the classical name of Paris was Lutetia” — as previously featured here on Open Culture — “the city was already known by the name of a local tribe, the Parisii, by late antiquity.” If you can guess the current names of Forum Traiani, Igilgili, or, Borbetomagus, you’ve got a keener sense of ancient history than most. Modern Western civilization may descend from the Roman Empire, but that legacy comes through much more clearly in some places than others.

Related content:

A Virtual Tour of Ancient Rome, Circa 320 CE: Explore Stunning Recreations of The Forum, Colosseum and Other Monuments

A 3D Animation Reveals What Paris Looked Like When It Was a Roman Town

A Data Visualization of Every Italian City & Town Founded in the BC Era

The Roads of Ancient Rome Visualized in the Style of Modern Subway Maps

Every Roman Emperor: A Video Timeline Moving from Augustus to the Byzantine Empire’s Last Ruler, Constantine XI

Do You Think About Ancient Rome Every Day? Then Browse a Wealth of Videos, Maps & Photos That Explore the Roman Empire

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


Title: How Londinium Became London, Lutetia Became Paris, and Other Roman Cities Got Their Modern Names
Source: Open Culture
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Date: January 3, 2024 at 12:30PM
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