Friday, March 22, 2024

Cajun, Creole, Acadian, Arcadian: Classical World Connections to South Louisiana

If I am known as a historian, I am known as one of Cajun and Creole history, and of south Louisiana history in general. My published work, after all, has always focused on these topics. When consulted by students, other scholars, or the media, it has always been as a historian versed in these regional topics.

I have, however, a strong interest in ancient history and literature. I find not only Rome and Greece of interest, but all ancient history touching on the Mediterranean world: Byzantium, Assyria, Persia, Parthia, Babylonia, Egypt, Kush, Carthage, and Etruria, among others. I am hardly an expert in these fields; I merely enjoy learning about them in my spare time, avowed “nerd” that I am.

The author at Mycenae, 2023.

Because of this interest I sometimes notice connections, however indirect and tentative, between south Louisiana history and the realm of ancient history. Odd as it may seem, there are indeed connections.

For example, New Orleans and Orleans Parish (we have parishes, not counties in Louisiana) take their names from Orléans, France. The name of that Old World city in turn evolved from its Roman-era form, Aurelianum, after the Roman emperor Aurelian. An effective leader who ruled from 270 to 275 A.D., he was murdered by his own bodyguards under tragic circumstances.(1)

Another example: my town, New Iberia, takes its name from the Iberian Peninsula of Spain (known in Roman times as the province of Hispania). Roman colonists and, before them, Greek colonists had settled that peninsula, and both exerted an influence on its toponymy (that is, its place naming). Thus, according to, the word Iberia, though Latinate in form, comes “from Ancient Greek Ἰβηρία (Ibēría), after the river Ἴβηρος (Íbēros), which itself came from a native Celtiberian name for the river *Ibēr (modern Spanish Ebro).”(2)

New Iberia was founded in 1779 by Spanish settlers from Malaga, Spain (established as Málaka by Phoenicians, ruled later by Carthage and, ultimately, by its enemy Rome). Naturally, the newly arrived Malagueños in south Louisiana gave their village a Spanish name, calling it Nueva Iberia in reference to their peninsular homeland. By the very late 18th century, however, the Spanish name had morphed into its English equivalent, New Iberia. This reflected a growing Anglo-American presence in the Spanish colony, which, beginning in 1803, became part of the U.S.(3)

Louisiana law book referring
to New Iberia as Nova Iberia, 1814.

The region’s large francophone population, however, continued to refer to the place as Nouvelle-Iberie. Others called it New Town for short (much as some today call it “da Berry” — why they do so is another story). But by the 1810s the town’s name sometimes appeared as Nova Iberia, an entirely Latinized version of New Iberia.

For this reason it seemed fitting that for decades New Iberia boasted its very own ancient marble statue of the emperor Hadrian — even more fitting because Hadrian, according to many sources, was born in 76 A.D. on the Iberian Peninsula, in Hispania, near what is today Seville, Spain. (Even if he were born in Rome, as other sources state, his family had nonetheless lived in Hispania for generations.) Alas, the Hadrian statue’s owner, a local bank, carted off the artwork from the “Hadrian Building” — an edifice still bearing that name today — and sold it at auction.(4)

Ancient statue of Hadrian,
the Hadrian Building, New Iberia, La.
Photo by Matt Howry, taken 13 November 2006, 
CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

(It is worth mentioning that the famous “New Iberia haircut” — subject of YouTube videos, Internet memes, and even its own song — is actually no more than the style known elsewhere as “the Caesar.” In fact, one south Louisiana media site refers to the hairstyle as “the New Iberia Caesar.” I am not making this up!)(5)

The emperor Tiberius
sporting a New Iberia haircut.
(Source: CC BY-SA 2.0)

Another ancient-world connection can be found in the ethnic label that I and over 100,000 others in south Louisiana and beyond apply to ourselves: Cajun.(6)

(Source: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0)

I define “Cajun” as a descendant of the Acadians, a French-speaking, Roman Catholic people from Acadia, a historical region comprised of modern-day New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia (itself a Latin term meaning “New Scotland”). But there’s more to it than this: starting in 1764 about 3,000 Acadians, brutally exiled from Acadia by British redcoats, began to arrive in south Louisiana. There they intermarried on the semitropical frontier with other ethnic groups, and it was this intermarriage that created a new ethnic group, the Cajuns — very much a one-from-many people.(7)

How does this relate to the classical world? The word Cajun derived from Acadian (Acadien in French), the demonym for someone from Acadia (Acadie). While some researchers have suggested a Native American origin, others assert Acadia hails from Arcadia, a word of Greek origin (Arkadia) frequently used in poetry and other literature to evoke a rustic ideal.(7) It is, or was, a real place — a region in the central Peloponnese of Ancient Greece that reached its political apex around 370 B.C.(8) 

Arcadia (in red),
Central Peloponnese, Greece.
(Source: Wikimedia, CC0 1.0 Deed)

“The name Arcadia,” notes the Dictionary of Classical Mythology, “derives from [the demigod king] Arcas, the son of Callisto who was loved by Zeus and turned into a bear. . . . Later, under the initial influence of Theocritus and Virgil, [Arcadia] became idealized as the setting for pastoral poetry and song, a place of nymphs and shepherds, satyrs and demigods, all living an idyllic life of rustic simplicity.” (Interestingly, the word Creole — of whom the Cajuns, as I and others believe, form a subset — stems from the Latin creāre, meaning “to create” or “to beget.”)(9)

The Acadiana region (in light gray).
Map by the author.

The south Louisiana region that gave rise to the Cajuns is called Acadiana, thus (like the word Louisiana, or for that matter Indiana) draws on the convention of Latinizing a pre-existing word to form a place name — in this case by adding the Latinate suffix -ana or -iana. Consider, for example, the ancient Roman settlements of Hadriana, Civita Giuliana, Tricciana, Biriciana, and Petriana, among others.

Incidentally, we should lend absolutely no credence to one particular claim linking Cajuns and their Acadian ancestors to the ancient Mediterranean world. I refer to an assertation by mid-20th-century south Louisiana author and self-styled Cajun “expert,” the pseudonymous André Cajun, that the Cajun people trace their ethnic roots to Christian disciples in first-century Armenia — a West-Asian, some say Middle-Eastern, client kingdom contested by Rome and its eastern foe Parthia (centered on what is now Iran). 

Book by André Cajun, 1947.

“The story of the class, or group of people in Louisiana known as ‘Cajuns,’” declared that author in 1947, referring to a circa 70 A.D. event, “began the hour St. Bartholomew, a disciple [of Jesus], gave up the ghost. The location of this sad event was the ancient land of Armenia. . . .” The author goes on to relate how, over roughly 1,700 years, a group of persecuted Christians migrated from Armenia to France to Nova Scotia and, finally, to south Louisiana, where they became the Cajuns. It seems likely, however, that “Mr. Cajun” either made up this story out of whole cloth or confused the Cajuns’ history with that of some other, unrelated, incredibly older people.(10)

While on this topic, a similar caveat: neither the Acadians of Nova Scotia nor the Arcadians of ancient Greece should be confused with the even more ancient people called the Akkadians, whose empire, some 4,300 years ago, covered much of what we call Mesopotamia. (Annoyingly, when I dictate “Acadian” to my cellphone, which I do fairly often, it inevitably transcribes the word as “Akkadian.”)

The Akkadian Empire, 2280 B.C.
(Source: Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Perhaps the strangest connection between south Louisiana and the ancient world concerns Cold War-era rocketry: the U.S. military and, in its earlier days, NASA tended to name American rockets and missiles, and even space programs, after Greek and Roman deities. Thus, Saturn V rockets sent Apollo moon missions into space; before that, the Mercury missions put American astronauts into orbit. Besides the Saturn, the U.S. built other rockets dubbed Atlas, Jupiter, Juno, Titan, Athena, Minotaur, and even one named Arcas, the aforementioned mythical king who gave his name to Arcadia.

Statue of Nike,
Greek goddess of victory.
(Source: Wikimedia, CC0 1.0 Deed)

There was, however, another rocket — a sounding rocket used to test the upper atmosphere — named the Nike, after the Greek goddess of victory. In the 1950s and ‘60s, NASA and the military often paired the Nike with another rocket called (in a notable deviation from the usual Greco-Roman nomenclature) the Cajun! How did this come about? As I write in my book The Cajuns: Americanization of a People:

Cajuns have further demonstrated their ability to adapt to the modern world by pursuing high-tech careers. A few Cajuns, for example, became veritable rocket scientists, among them J. G. Thibodaux [sic]. . . . Born in a lumber camp in the Atchafalaya swamp, he helped to develop the Nike-Cajun rocket in the 1950s, whose second stage, a sounding missile used for testing the upper atmosphere, was named in honor of his ancestry. He went on to serve as chief of the Propulsion and Power Division at Johnson Space Center, assisting NASA with the Apollo moon missions and later with the space shuttle.

As I note elsewhere in this blog, the Nike-Cajun name “evoked a strange combination of ancient Greek mythology and rural south Louisiana folklife.”(11)

A Nike-Cajun rocket.
(Source:, public domain)

Another vestige of classical-world influence on south Louisiana — not so much in the present as in the recent past — can be found in the custom of giving classical prénoms to Cajun and Creole newborns. These classical first names, always rendered in French, came directly from classical history, literature, and mythology. As anthropologist C. Paige Gutierrez has explained, “Typical Cajun given names include French names and also Gallicized Greek and Roman names, such as Aristide and Telesphore — the legacy of classically educated French priests” [italics added]. Presumably these classically educated priests suggested the Greek and Roman names to congregants, either at a child's birth or at its baptism.(12) 

This may have been the case, but it occurs to me there is another possible explanation for the abundance of classical names among 19th- and early-20th-century Cajuns and Creoles (including those with little or no knowledge of classical sources): that is, well-educated, upper-class French-speaking Creoles in Louisiana — aware of European trends and imbibing some of the ideals of the Enlightenment, neoclassicism, and romanticism — gave their children names from classical sources, in turn spurring the mass of local, less formally educated French-speakers to emulate them in their name choices. But I am merely theorizing.

In any event, glancing through historian Glenn R. Conrad’s Land Records of the Attakapas District (1804-1818) — a book indexing hundreds of south-central Louisiana landowners, big and small — reveals many 19th-century locals named Achille (Achilles), Adrien (Hadrian), Agricole (Agricola), Alexandre (Alexander), Antoine (Antonius), Auguste (Augustus), Aurelien (Aurelian), Césaire (Caesar), Delphine (Delphi), Fabien (Fabius), Irene (Eirene), Julien (Julianus), Lucien (Lucianus), Maximilien (Maximilianus), Narcisse (Narcissus), Octave (Octavius), Philippe (Philippos), Térance (Terentius), Théodore (Theodorus), Vallerin (Valerian), and Zenon (Zeno, derived from Zeus).(13)

And those are merely some of the more obvious classical throwbacks.

Marriage record mentioning
my great-great-grandfather,
Homer Bernard.

My great-great-grandfather’s first name might be included in the above list: it was Homer — pronounced the French way, with a silent H, as OH-MARE. It derives from the legendary composer of those ancient Greek epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey. (A reader reminds me that “Minos is a classical Greek name known among Cajuns and Creoles. Indeed, I often drive past the J. Minos Simon [pron. SEE-MOH(N) in the French manner] law offices in nearby Lafayette. Simon's namesake was Minos, son of Zeus and Europa, who ruled as king of Crete. It was he who kept the half-man, half-bull Minotaur — literally Bull of Minos — in the heart of a labyrinth.)

Similarly, in Teche: A History of Louisiana’s Most Famous Bayou, I wrote of my canoe trip down that waterway:

Passing along downtown New Iberia, which sat on the west bank of the Teche, we glided under the Duperier Street bridge. It was here in the early twentieth century that bridgekeeper Everard Viator and his wife — urged by the town’s esteemed family physician, Dr. George Sabatier — christened each of their children with a name borrowed from Shakespeare [and ultimately from Roman history]. And so this spot on the Teche became home to Brutus, Cassius, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Cleopatra Viator.(14)

The Viator family in the 1930 U.S. Census.
Brutus is not listed.

Entirely by chance I met Marc Antony Viator at Victor’s Cafeteria in New Iberia two or three years before his death at age 97. His 2019 obituary spells his name Mark Anthony, which, no matter, recorded he had been preceded in death by “brothers, Julius P. [not C!] Viator . . . John Brutus Viator . . . Cassius Q. Viator . . . and a sister, Cleo Viator Trappey. . . .”(15)

A Telesphore Boudreaux book
by humorist Walter Coquille, 1938.

Consider also the fictional Cajun mayor of Bayou Pom-Pom, Telesphore Boudreaux, depicted in the early to mid-20th century by south Louisiana humorist Walter Coquille. The name Telesphore (cited above by Gutierrez as a quintessential old-time Cajun name) derives from the Greek Telesphoros, a minor god associated with Asclepius, god of medicine.(16)

Although less common today, such classically inspired names do survive in south Louisiana, even about a quarter into the 21st century. Within the past year I spotted a man driving around New Iberia in an older-model sedan, his name plastered on the driver’s-side door in metallic stick-on letters, the sort normally used on mail boxes. His name: Ulysse — the French form of Ulysses, in itself an alternate spelling of Odysseus. And so this modern-day Ulysse goes about his daily quests like the hero of Homer’s tale. “Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost,” reads the Odyssey, “and where he went, and who he met. . . .”(17) Ulysse's stops, however, might not include the Underworld or the island of the Cyclops, but rather Lowes, Walmart, and the post office.

Although I provide some of the above examples in a facetious, tongue-in-cheek manner, they are all rooted in fact. And so they help to reveal how the classical world impacted south Louisiana history and culture in ways that, though often right before our eyes, are not always evident.

For those wanting to learn more about such connections, but in a broader national and international context, I can recommend Why We're All Romans: The Roman Contribution to the Western World. Its author, University of Louisiana at Lafayette professor Carl J. Richard, could himself be considered another link between south Louisiana and the ancient world: like me, he is a Cajun (his surname is pronounced REE-SHARD in the French manner) and a historian, yet one whose specialized fields include — as might be expected, given his book's title — ancient Greek and Roman history.

The Hadrian Building
sans its statue of Hadrian.
(Source: Google Maps)


(1) Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. Orleans (n.d.,, accessed 19 March 2024).

    Other, similar early names of Orléans have been used (Civitas Aurelianorum, Urbs Aurelianensis, Aureliana Civitas), but they all seem to allude to the Emperor Aurelian.

(2) Wiktionary, s.v. Iberia (9 March 2024,, accessed 19 March 2024).

(3) New Iberia is mentioned early on by its English name, for example, in “A Short Account of Some Excursions of Mr. Spillard, the Celebrated Pedestrian,” The Sporting Magazine [London], Vol. 5 (October 1794), p. 29. It has been suggested Spillard was a fraud; even so, it remains true the article mentioned “New Iberia” in 1794.

(4) For an early reference to New Iberia as Nova Iberia, see, for instance, John Brice, comp., A Selection of All the Laws of the United States Now in Force, Relative to Commercial Subjects (Baltimore: Neal, Wills, & Cole, 1814), p. 262; Mary Tutwiler, Hadrians Waltz out of New Iberia, The Independent (Lafayette, La.), 6 May 2008,, accessed 19 March 2024.

(5) CJ [pen name], New Iberia Haircut and Song Explained,, 21 October 2021,, accessed 24 March 2024.

(6) The 2020 national count for persons identifying in whole or part as “Cajun” was 107,553. “Cajun, People Reporting Ancestry, 2020: American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates Detailed Tables (B04006), Total U.S. Population,, accessed 2 May 2021.

(7) The evolution of Acadians into Cajuns through intermarriage with other ethnic groups is examined in Carl A. Brasseaux, Acadian to Cajun: Transformation of a People, 1803-1877 (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992).

(8) Some sources aver that the place name Acadia derives not from Greek origins, but from the Mikmaq akadie meaning fertile land or quoddy meaning place (among other proposed Native American origins). Thus we find assertions ranging from the authoritative It is certainly not from the Greek Arcadia to the equally authoritative The Micmac termination . . . appears to have no bearing on the origin of the choronym [the proper name of a . . . geographical . . . unit of land]. It is possible, however, that both etymologies could be true, the Native American word, by its very similarity, suggesting the Greek one to European explorers.

S. M. Sener, The Acadians in Lancaster County, Papers Read before the Lancaster County Historical Society on Sept. 4, 1896 (Lancaster, Pa.: [Lancaster County Historical Society], 1896), [p. 37]; Alan Rayburn, Acadia: The Origin of the Name and Its Geographical and Historical Utilization, Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization, Vol. 10 (June 1973): pp. 26-43, quote is from the abstract on UTP Journals [University of Toronto Press], n.d. [12 October 2006?],, accessed 20 March 2024; Terminology/Keywords, Names: A Journal of Onomastics, n.d., American Name Society/University of Pittsburgh,, accessed 20 March 2024 s.v. choronym.

(9) Jenny March, Dictionary of Classical Mythology, 2nd ed. (2014), s.v. “Arcadia,” “Arcas”; Wiktionary, s.v. Creole, 5 January 2024,, accessed 19 March 2024); also s.v. creo, 21 February 2024,, accessed 19 March 2024.

(10) André Cajun [pseudonym], Why Louisiana Has. . . (New Orleans: Harmanson, 1947), pp. 16-21.

(11) Shane K. Bernard, The Cajuns: Americanization of a People (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2003): 147; Shane K. Bernard, The Nike-Cajun Rocket: How It Got Its Name, Bayou Teche Dispatches (blog), 11 April 2012,, accessed 19 March 2024; Shane K. Bernard, Debunking the Alleged Origin of the Word Coonass, Bayou Teche Dispatches (blog), 5 August 2010,, accessed 19 March 2024.

12) C. Paige Gutierrez, Cajun Foodways (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012), p. 18.

13) Glenn R. Conrad, comp., Land Records of the Attakapas District, Vol. II, Pt. I: Conveyance Records of Attakapas County, 1804-1818 (Lafayette, La.: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1992), see index (pp. 416-80).

    Other names I found in Conrad’s book that derive, or appear to derive, from classical sources are Anasthasie, Aspasie, Athanase, Clémance, Constant, Cosme, Cyprien, Donat, Eugène, Eugénie, Eulalie, Euphrosine, Félicité, Hiacinthe/Hyacinthe, Hortense, Hypolite, Marcel, Marcélite, Marcellin, Maxile, Modeste, Onézime, Pélagie, Perpetua, Phibe [Phoebe], Philémond, Phrosine, Placide, Scholastie, Scholastique, Silvain, Sylvestre, Théodule, Théophile, Théotice, Urbain, Vallere, Victoire, and Vital. No doubt many others exist in various sources listing south Louisiana names.

(14) Shane K. Bernard, Teche: A History of Louisiana’s Most Famous Bayou (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2016), p. 168.

(15) Mark Anthony Viator, Sr., obituary, Pellerin Funeral Home website, ca. 26 February 2019,, accessed 17 March 2024.

(16) For more on Walter Coquille, see Mayor of Bayou Pom Pom — Walter Coquille, Early Cajun Music (blog), 19 October 2016,, accessed 20 March 2024.

(17) Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2017), cited in Charlotte Higgens, The Odyssey Translated by Emily Wilson Review – A New Cultural Landmark, The Guardian, 8 December 2017,, accessed 19 March 2024.

For a similar article, see Jaclyn Tripp, Louisiana’s Connections to Ancient Greece Might Surprise You, KTAL News, 13 March 2024,, accessed 19 March 2024.

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