No, I’m not talking about Mr. Bean!
It turns out, that legumes were so important (or at least prevalent) in ancient Rome that multiple great families shared their names with one species or another of the plant. As you’ll see, the names actually weren’t always born of respect for the legume, but the names and the people who wore them still give us a very interesting window into how these beans were viewed at the time.
To begin, let’s talk about this guy to the left. Marcus Tullius Cicero, a Roman statesman and prolific writer whose works give us some of the best primary material concerning Roman history. He was born six years before the first century BCE and lived to be 63, before having his heat cut off on the orders of Mark Antony for having given a series of speeches condemning Antony (these are the Philippics). He is considered the master of Latin prose and credited with transforming the Latin language. He was admired by Erasmus, Martin Luther, and John Lock. He influenced the culture of the Renaissance and the penning of the Declaration of the Independence. He has been loved and loathed as a writer, statesman, and philosopher for millennia.
And his last name means chickpea in Latin. Literally.
I could apparently do an entire article on this guy, he’s got so many interesting stories and works to explore, but most of it’s not related to food, so let’s look at how he got his name. Luckily, Plutarch wrote about Cicero in his Parallel Lives, a series of biographies Plutarch put together probably only a few centuries after Cicero had lived. In it, he writes that the first of Cicero’s forebears to have been given the family name due to a dent in his nose that apparently had made it look like a chickpea. When it was suggested to Cicero that he drop the name upon his entrance into politics he instead promised to make the name of Cicero even more famous than those of Scaurus or Catulus. Funnily enough, those names mean “Swollen-ankled” and “Puppy” respectively. Apparently the Romans had a thing for silly nicknames.
So you got the name of chickpea if you had a funny looking nose. Okay.
Let’s look at another leguminous family, the gens Fabia. One of the most ancient patrician families in Rome, they claimed to be descended from Hercules. Maybe you can put this one together after our long talk about Pythagoras, but Pliny the Elder claimed that their name was derived from the word faba, for fava bean, since the family was supposed to be the first to have cultivated the plant.
You get the name of fava if you have a hand in agricultural revolution. That’s pretty neat, if true!
Another is the Piso family, named for peas. This family included Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the father of Calpurnia, Julius Caesar’s wife. According to the entry for peas in Christopher Martin Cumo’s Encyclopedia of Cultivated Plants: From Acacia to Zinnia, a wealthy family taking on the name of the humble pea was a way for them to identify with those of rural origins. It was a shorthand way of claiming that their family valued thrift, self-reliance, hard work, and piety. Sounds about right for politics!
The Piso family has even managed to get pulled into a contemporary conspiracy theory about the invention of Jesus. It also makes me wonder if the name of the city of Pisa has anything to do with peas, but a quick search didn’t turn anything up.
You get the name of pea if you’re trying to cultivate an image of a down-to-earth politician. Clever!
According to Emma Borghesi’s The Beans & Grains Bible, there’s supposed to be another family, Lentullus (after lentils), but I couldn’t find anything about that family. So we unfortunately don’t get to find out how you get the name of lentils.
Well that was a really fun brush with Roman history. Found a couple of cool books I’d like to check out, and learned a lot about Cicero that I didn’t know. I’d call that a win!