This article originally appeared on FIVE THôT.
Ancient Rome had running water, central heating, and representative democracy, but it didn’t have a lot of personal names. The great city had a small number of gens, noble families, and all the members of one gens, plus many of their retainers, hangers-on, even their freed slaves, used the same nomen, what we would call a surname, and there was only a small pool of prenomen, given names.
It was quite confusing. If for example you referred to Gaius Julius – that is Gaius of the Julian family – were you talking about the 3rd-century grammarian, the leader of the Batavian rebellion, or the famous statesman?
Early on, the resourceful Romans solved the problems by tacking on third name, called a cognomen, to describe some attribute or aspiration of the person. The grammarian was Gaius Julius Hyginus (Hyginus meaning “healthy”), the rebel was Gaius Julius Civilus (“citizen”), and the statesman was Gaius Julius Caesar, of course – “Caesar” meaning “hairy”. Many ancient Romans are known popularly today mostly by their cognomen: Caesar, Brutus, Scipio.
One such cognomen was Camillus, which meant “altar boy”. The most famous Camillus was Marcus Furius Camillus, a hugely successful Roman soldier and statesman who served five times as “dictator”, an honorable job at the time, acting as the senior magistrate in time of emergency. After Camillus died of the Plague in 365 BC, the historian Livy called him “the second founder of Rome”.
Like “Caesar”, “Camillus” became a given name in Europe, spelled as Camil, Kamille, or Camille, usually for men but never particularly popular.
In 1688, a Jesuit priest named Georg Joseph Kamel established a pharmacy in Manila. His name was unrelated to Camillus; it came from the Arabic word for “perfect”. Kamel was Czech-born but of Turkish extraction,
Being a pharmacist in those days meant being a botanist, and Kamel published the first scientific study of the plants native to the Philippines. A hundred years later, when the great naturalist Carl Linnaeus needed a Latin name for the brightly flowering shrub that the Chinese call “the tea flower”, he honored his forerunner by choosing to call the plant Camellia.
Skip ahead to 1848 and a boy named Alexandre Dumas. Not, unfortunately, that Alexandre Dumas, not the novelist famous for rollicking adventures like The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers. This was Dumas fils, the illegitimate son of the famous Dumas, the accidental consequence of a brief affair between the writer and a seamstress. When the boy was a teenager, his father took him from the custody of his impoverished mother and moved to Saint-Germain-en-Laye, an upscale suburb west of Paris. His adolescence was spent as a pariah, a bastard child alone among children of privilege.
Post-Napoleonic France lacked a cognomen system like Rome’s, so if this Alexandre Dumas wanted “make a name for himself”, to distinguish himself from his aloof and illustrious father, the unhappy boy would have to do it through art.
They tell us writers to “write what you know” and young Dumas had a tragic story to tell. When he was 20 and still living in his father’s house, he met and became sexually involved with a woman named Marie Duplessis.
Duplessis, born Alphonsine Plessis, had been a dress-maker like Alexandre’s mother until the age of 13, when her father sold her into concubinage with a 70-year-old man. When the old man tired of her, she was shipped off to Paris. By 16 years old, she was a working prostitute, and a very successful one. She was beautiful, witty, and charming. Her clientele was strictly top-drawer: aristocrats, diplomats, and millionaires.
The courtesan and the son of the famous novelist had a year-long affair. Duplessis was an expensive lover to keep. Dumas spent every franc he could scrape together, borrowing, gambling, whatever it took to keep her in the lavish style to which she had become accustomed. Eventually, exhausted and impoverished, he gave up, writing to her, “I am neither rich enough to love you as I wish nor poor enough to be loved as you wish.”
Duplessis never answered the letter. She was already involved with another man, the pianist Franz Liszt, who was preparing to leave for a tour. Duplessis begged to go with him, saying “I can’t hold onto this life that’s the only kind I know how to lead and that I can’t endure.” Liszt demurred, and true to her word, Duplessis soon contracted tuberculosis and died.
This was Dumas’s story and tell it he did. Not completely accurately; he cleaned it up a fair amount. In his novel, the hero – now named “Armand Duval” – didn’t simply dump his unaffordable lady-love. Instead, the villainous father convinces the heroine that she should leave the son to protect his good name, then tells the son she left him for another man. Duplessis is “Marguerite Gauthier”, a prostitute who was known to wear a red camellia to inform her many lovers when she was menstruating and therefore temporarily off the market, switching to a white one when she was open for business. From that somewhat sordid signal, Dumas drew the title La Dame aux camélias: The Lady of the Camellias.
The novel was only moderately well-received, but Dumas adapted it for the stage, and the play became wildly successful. The bastard son surpassed his famous father.
The story has been popular ever since. Verdi adapted it into an opera, La traviata (“The Transgressor”). There have been three ballets based on the play, and it was filmed at least 48 times. In the most famous screen versions, the title was shortened to Camille.
And you can see why. Deriving a title from way the prostitute-heroine publicized her menstrual cycle might have seemed daring or tragic in 1848 France, but in America of the early 20th century, it was indecent; the movie would have been banned. Frances Marion, the screenwriter hired for the first American version, needed to connect the movie to the name somehow, so she re-christened the heroine with the almost-forgotten French version of the Roman cognomen.
That name stuck, at least for the movies. The 1912 French version was released in the US in 1916 as Camille without explanation: the heroine (portrayed by the legendary actress Sarah Bernhardt) was still named Marguerite Gauthier. The 1936 Greta Garbo version, with Robert Taylor as Armand and Lionel Barrymore as the father, same thing: the character was named Marguerite and movie was named Camille. Even the 1984 TV version (with Greta Scacchi, Colin Firth, and John Gielgud), same thing.
The success of the movie title revived the name, and Camille, Camila, and Camilla have all become fairly popular in the last 100 years For some reason that utterly escapes me, parents found it irresistibly romantic to name a baby girl after a prostitute who contracts a contagious disease, and then dies.
And it wasn’t a fluke! For his modern retelling of the Camille story, the 1972 best-seller Love Story, the author Erich Segal chose “Jennifer” as the name of the doomed love-interest. Jennifer is not a prostitute, merely working-class, so it is a little less bizarre – but only a little – that the book and subsequent movie (with Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw) made Jennifer, previously a fairly unusual name, the most popular girl’s name for an entire decade.