I’ve long used “Acilius” as my screen-name, in tribute to Gaius Acilius, a Roman historian who was alive and doing interesting things in 155 BC. It never occurred to me that anyone would know the etymology of the name “Acilius”; it was quite an old name among the Romans, and they did not really keep track of that sort of thing in those days.
A couple of months ago, I happened onto a post on the blog “Paleoglot” which led me to wonder if there might not be a way to explore the question of where the gens Acilia found its name. Blogger Glen Gordon analyzes various occurrences of a stem acil- in Etruscan. In his conclusion, Mr Gordon offers these definitions to cover the occurrences he has discussed:
I think we could define the English translations of the whole word family much better as part of a grander morphological design:
*aχ (v.) = ‘to do, to make, to cause’
> acas (v.) = ‘to craft, to make’
> acil (n.) = ‘thing, act; rite, holy service’ (> acil (v.) = ‘to do rites, to worship’)
The implied underlying verb here, *aχ, reminds me very much of the Indo-European *h₂eǵ-, as if borrowed from Latin agere ‘to drive, lead, conduct, impel’.
This intrigues me very much. If the Etruscans borrowed such a word from Latin, that would suggest that the usual story about the relationship between Etruscan religion and Roman religion is misleading. Rather than a situation in which the Etruscans molded the religious practices and ideas of their subjects, the early Romans, the presence of a Latinate word in Etruscan religious vocabulary would suggest a reciprocal relationship between the hegemonic Etruscans and their vassals.
On the other hand, if the similarity between acil- and agere is a mere coincidence, another possibility presents itself. This is where the Acilii come to mind. Perhaps the name “Acilius” is a combination of the Etruscan root acil-, with its sense of performing holy service, and the Latinate suffix -ius. A fairly exact equivalent could be suggested, as chance would have it, in the English name “Priestley,” where the borrowed word priest is combined with the indigenous suffix -ley. So perhaps all these years I’ve been unwittingly associating myself with such distinguished polymaths as Joseph Priestley and J. B. Priestley.