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.


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  • Theo says:

    Can you point me to where in the arti­cle it explains how Lon­dini­um became Lon­don as promised in the head­line.

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