Beyond the Revolution

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Visitors to Charleston sometimes take note of the Latin inscriptions on historical plaques: Collegium Carolopolitanum, Diocesis Carolopolitana, and, most commonly, Carolopolis, the Latin version of Charleston’s name, which sounds like one of those Greek cities created by Alexander the Great and his successors somewhere in the hinterlands of Bithynia or Afghanistan.  Charleston has always been its own place, a town whose sense of the past can make European visitors feel at home.  Charleston used to be a world apart even from the rest of South Carolina, and, since the Collegium Carolopolitanum did not drop its Latin requirement for the A.B. until the late 1960’s, it seems appropriate that its name slips so easily into a classical form ending in -polis.

Most people know that polis is the Greek word for city.  To be more accurate, it is a many-layered word that we conveniently translate with the simple English word city, which comes (by way of French) from the Latin civitasCivitas, of course, does not really mean “city” in our sense of an urban sprawl exploited by a corrupt government.  A civitas was a commonwealth, a body of citizens (cives) and the institutions of their common life—that is, their constitutional order.

The Greek polis is an even richer word, the central social and political fact of Greek civilization.  There were...

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