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Caesar (English pl. Caesars; Latin pl. Caesares) is a title of imperial character. It derives from the cognomen of Julius Caesar, the Roman dictator. The change from being a familial name to a title adopted by the Roman Emperors can be dated to about AD 68/69, the so-called "Year of the Four Emperors".
For political and personal reasons Octavian chose to emphasize his relationship with Julius Caesar by styling himself simply "Imperator Caesar" (whereto the Roman Senate added the honorific Augustus, "Majestic" or "Venerable," in 27 BC), without any of the other elements of his full name. His successor as emperor, his stepson Tiberius, also bore the name as a matter of course; born Tiberius Claudius Nero, he was adopted by Caesar Augustus on June 26, 4 AD, as "Tiberius Julius Caesar." The precedent was set: the Emperor designated his successor by adopting him and giving him the name "Caesar."
The fourth Emperor, Claudius, was the first to assume the name "Caesar" upon accession, without having been adopted by the previous emperor; however, he was at least a member by blood of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, being the maternal great-nephew of Augustus on his mother's side, the nephew of Tiberius, and the uncle of Caligula. Claudius in turn adopted his stepson and grand-nephew Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, giving him the name "Caesar" in the traditional way; his stepson would rule as the Emperor Nero. The first emperor to assume the position and the name simultaneously without any real claim to either was the usurper Servius Sulpicius Galba, who took the imperial throne under the name "Servius Galba Imperator Caesar" following the death of the last of the Julio-Claudians, Nero, in 68. Galba helped solidify "Caesar" as the title of the designated heir by giving it to his own adopted heir, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Frugi Licinianus.
Galba's reign did not last long and he was soon deposed by Marcus Otho. Otho did not at first use the title "Caesar" and occasionally used the title "Nero" as emperor, but later adopted the title "Caesar" as well. Otho was then defeated by Aulus Vitellius who acceded with the name "Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Imperator Augustus." Vitellius did not adopt the cognomen "Caesar" as part of his name, and may have intended to replace it with "Germanicus" (he bestowed the name "Germanicus" upon his own son that year).
Nevertheless, Caesar had become such an integral part of the imperial dignity that its place was immediately restored by Titus Flavius Vespasianus ("Vespasian"), whose defeat of Vitellius in 69 put an end to the period of instability and began the Flavian dynasty. Vespasian's son, Titus Flavius Vespasianus became "Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus".
By this point the status of "Caesar" had been regularised into that of a title given to the Emperor-designate (occasionally also with the honorific title Princeps Iuventutis, "Prince of Youth") and retained by him upon accession to the throne (e.g., Marcus Ulpius Traianus became Marcus Cocceius Nerva's designated heir as Caesar Nerva Traianus in October 97 and acceded on January 28, 98 as "Imperator Caesar Nerva Traianus Augustus"). After some variation among the earliest emperors, the style of the Emperor-designate on coins was usually Nobilissimus Caesar "Most Noble Caesar" (abbreviated to NOB CAES, N CAES etc.), though Caesar (CAES) on its own was also used.
The popularity of using the title Caesar to designate heirs-apparent increased throughout the third century. Many of the soldier emperors during the Crisis of the Third Century attempted to strengthen their legitimacy by naming heirs, including Maximinus Thrax, Philip the Arab, Decius, Trebonianus Gallus and Gallienus. Some of these were promoted to the rank of Augustus within their father's lifetime, for example Philippus II. The same title would also be used in the Gallic Empire which operated autonomously from the rest of the Roman Empire from 260 to 274, with the final Gallic emperor Tetricus I appointing his heir Tetricus II Caesar and his consular colleague for 274.
Despite the best efforts of these emperors, however, the granting of this title does not seem to have made succession in this chaotic period any more stable. Almost all Caesars would be killed before or alongside their fathers, or at best outlive them for a matter of months as in the case of Hostilian. The sole Caesar to successfully obtain the rank of Augustus and rule for some time in his own right was Gordian III, and even he was heavily controlled by his court.
On March 1, 293, Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus established the Tetrarchy, a system of rule by two senior Emperors and two junior sub-Emperors. The two coequal senior emperors were styled identically to previous Emperors, as Imperator Caesar NN. Pius Felix Invictus Augustus (Elagabalus had introduced the use of Pius Felix, "the Pious and Blessed", while Gaius Iulius Verus Maximinus "Thrax" introduced the use of Invictus, "the Unconquered"), and were called the Augusti, while the two junior sub-Emperors were styled identically to previous Emperors-designate, as Nobilissimus Caesar. Likewise, the junior sub-Emperors retained the title "Caesar" upon accession to the senior position.
The Tetrarchy was quickly abandoned as a system (though the four quarters of the empire survived as praetorian prefectures) in favour of two equal, territorial emperors, and the previous system of Emperors and Emperors-designate was restored, both in the Latin-speaking West and the Greek-speaking East.
The title of Caesar remained in use throughout the Constantinian period, with both Constantine I and his co-emperor and rival Licinius utilising it to mark their heirs. In the case of Constantine, this meant that by the time he died he had four Caesars, Constantius II, Constantine II, Constans and his nephew Dalmatius, with his eldest son Crispus having been executed in mysterious circumstances earlier in his reign. In the event, Constantine would be succeeded only by his three sons, with Dalmatius dying in the summer of 337 in similarly murky circumstances.
Constantius II himself would nominate as Caesars his two cousins Constantius Gallus and Julian in succession in the 350s, although he first executed Gallus and then found himself at war with Julian before his own death. After Julian's revolt of 361, the title Caesar fell out of imperial fashion for some time, with emperors preferring simply to elevate their sons directly to the post of Augustus, as with Gratian. It would be revived only nearly three quarters of a century later when Theodosius II used it to mark his nephew Valentinian III before successfully installing him upon the western throne vacated by the boy's other uncle Honorius. Thereafter it would receive limited use in the Eastern Roman Empire, for example in the designation of the future Leo II in the final months of his grandfather's life.
In the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, Caesar (Greek: Καῖσαρ) continued in existence as a title marking out the heir-apparent, although since the time of Theodosius I, most emperors chose to solidify the succession of their intended heirs by raising them to co-emperors. Hence the title was more frequently awarded to second- and third-born sons, or to close and influential relatives of the Emperor: thus for example Alexios Mosele was the son-in-law of Theophilos (ruled 829–842), Bardas was the uncle and chief minister of Michael III (r. 842–867), while Nikephoros II (r. 963–969) awarded the title to his father, Bardas Phokas. An exceptional case was the conferment of the dignity and its insignia to the Bulgarian khan Tervel by Justinian II (r. 685–695, 705–711) who had helped him regain his throne in 705. The title was awarded to the brother of Empress Maria of Alania, George II of Georgia in 1081.
According to the Klētorologion of 899, the Byzantine Caesar's insignia were a crown without a cross, and the ceremony of a Caesar's creation (in this case dating to Constantine V), is included in De Ceremoniis I.43. The title remained the highest in the imperial hierarchy until the introduction of the sebastokratōr (a composite derived from sebastos and autokratōr, the Greek equivalents of Augustus and imperator) by Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081–1118) and later of despotēs by Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143–1180). The title remained in existence through the last centuries of the Empire. In the Palaiologan period, it was held by prominent nobles like Alexios Strategopoulos, but from the 14th century, it was mostly awarded to rulers of the Balkans such as the princes of Vlachia, Serbia and Thessaly.
In the late Byzantine hierarchy, as recorded in the mid-14th century Book of Offices of pseudo-Kodinos, the rank continued to come after the sebastokratōr. Pseudo-Kodinos further records that the Caesar was equal in precedence to the panhypersebastos, another creation of Alexios I, but that Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1259–1282) had raised his nephew Michael Tarchaneiotes to the rank of prōtovestiarios and decreed that to come after the Caesar; while under Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282–1328) the megas domestikos was raised to the same eminence, when it was awarded to the future emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (r. 1347–1354). According to pseudo-Kodinos, the Caesar's insignia under the Palaiologoi were a skiadion hat in red and gold, decorated with gold-wire embroideries, with a veil bearing the wearer's name and pendants identical to those of the despotēs and the sebastokratōr. He wore a red tunic (rouchon) similar to the emperor's (without certain decorations), and his shoes and stockings were blue, as were the accouterments of his horse; these were all identical to those of the sebastokratōr, but without the embroidered eagles of the latter. Pseudo-Kodinos writes that the particular forms of another form of hat, the domed skaranikon, and of the mantle, the tamparion, for the Caesar were not known.
In the Middle East, the Persians and the Arabs continued to refer to the Roman and Byzantine emperors as "Caesar" (in Persian: قیصر روم Qaysar-i Rūm, "Caesar of Rûm", from Middle Persian kēsar). Thus, following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the victorious Ottoman sultan Mehmed II became the first of the rulers of the Ottoman Empire to assume the title "Caesar of the Roman Empire" (Ottoman Turkish: قیصر روم Kayser-i Rûm).
After the Fall of Constantinople, having conquered the Byzantine Empire, Mehmed took the title Kayser-i Rûm, claiming to be a successor to the Roman emperors. He did so as a symbol of conquering Roman legacy, while setting the project of creating an empire in motion. Contemporary scholar George of Trebizond wrote "the seat of the Roman Empire is Constantinople ... and he who is and remains Emperor of the Romans is also the Emperor of the whole world". The Eastern Orthodox Church recognized Mehmed's claim to the title, but Catholic Church did not, nor did the powers of Christendom generally.
Gennadius Scholarius, a staunch antagonist of the West because of the Sack of Constantinople committed by the Western Catholics and theological controversies between the two Churches, had been enthroned the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople-New Rome with all the ceremonial elements and ethnarch (or milletbashi) status by the Sultan himself in 1454. In turn, Gennadius II recognized Mehmed as successor to the throne. Mehmed also had a blood lineage to the Byzantine Imperial family; his predecessor, Sultan Orhan I had married a Byzantine princess, and Mehmed may have claimed descent from John Tzelepes Komnenos. Ottoman sultans were not the only rulers to claim such a title, as there was the Holy Roman Empire in Western Europe, whose emperor, Frederick III, traced his titular lineage from Charlemagne who obtained the title of Roman Emperor when he was crowned by Pope Leo III in 800, although he was never recognized as such by the Byzantine Empire.
The history of "Caesar" as an imperial title is reflected by the following monarchic titles, usually reserved for "Emperor" and "Empress" in many languages (note that the name Caesar, pronounced // in English, was pronounced [kaisar] in Classical Latin):
In various Romance and other languages, the imperial title was rather based on the Latin Imperator (in fact a military mandate or a victory title), but Caesar or a derivation is then still used for both the name and the minor ranks (still perceived as Latin)
There have been other cases of a noun proper being turned into a title, such as Charlemagne's Latin name, including the epithet, Carolus (magnus) becoming Slavonic titles rendered as King: Kralj (Serbo-Croat), Král (Czech) and Król (Polish), etc.
However certain languages, especially Romance languages, also commonly use a 'modernized' word (e.g. César in French) for the name, both referring to the Roman cognomen and modern use as a first name, and even to render the title Caesar, sometimes again extended to the derived imperial titles above.