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Masters of Rome
from Marius to Caesar
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Roman names

It is no longer possible to link to the Encyclopedia Britannica article on the subject, so here is my version:

In the earliest times the Romans seemingly had only one name; e.g., Romulus, Remus, Manius. From the beginning of historical times, however, the Roman personal name for men consisted of a praenomen (given name, forename) and a nomen (or nomen gentile). Only intimates used the praenomen, and its choice was restricted to fewer than 20 names. The top six - Gaius, Gnaeus, Marcus, Quintus, Publius, Lucius account for almost 90% of the characters in these books. Many families had a preference for certain traditional praenomina, giving successive generations of Quintus or Lucius Caecilius Metellus and Sextus or Gaius Julius Caesar. Some families had a tradition of relatively rare names such as Aulus, Spurius and Manius. Women's names had no equivalent to the praenomen, and were called by the feminine of the nomen.

The nomen that followed the praenomen was hereditary in each gens (a related group of families, like the Scottish clan); examples include Aelius, Antonius, Aurelius, Claudius, Cornelius and Julius. The feminine of these was Aelia, Antonia, Aurelia, Claudia, Cornelia and Julia. Because the choice of both the praenomen and the nomen was restricted, the patrician families and later all families started using an additional hereditary name, called a cognomen.

These cognomina developed from "nicknames"; e.g., Strabo "cross-eyed," Plautus "flat foot," Tacitus "silent." These were often adopted by the children of the original bearer of the name, to distinguish different branches of the family. Thus many Roman names of the first class eventually consisted of three parts: Quintus Caecilius Metellus, Gaius Julius Caesar. Lower class Romans and New Men still commonly had a two part name, particularly when the nomen was uncommon, e.g. Gaius Marius. Women could also use the cognomen in its feminine form, e.g. Caecilia Metella, Cornelia Sulla.

In addition, a person might acquire an individual honorific surname, called an agnomen: Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus was so named because of his successful war in Africa. Many other successful generals also acquired titles derived from their conquests, e.g. Macedonicus, Numidicus, Allobrogicus.

In some cases, particularly where the honour was sufficiently great to accrue to the descendants, the agnomen was inherited. Thus the most distinguished families had a "family name" of three parts, such as the successive generations of Cornelius Scipio Africanus descendants, distinguished from the Cornelius Scipio Nasica branch. This could lead to a further agnomen being added, giving a name of five parts, such as Publius Cornelius Scipio Nasica Serapio.

All the above still resulted in a succession of grandfather/father/son with identical names. In the genealogy and other lists I have tried to distinguish individuals in different generations by the use of Junior/Senior or I/II/III. These do not necessarily have any general validity.

The common practice of adoption could also lead to a final name attached to the nomen/cognomen combination. The adopted son would take a name from his adopted family, but attach the cognomen or a derivative of the nomen from his birth family. Thus Sextus Julius Caesar, upon adoption by Quintus Lutatius, Catulus took the name Quintus Lutatius Catulus Caesar. Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus was born into the Aemilii Pauli and adopted by a Scipio.

Where there were several daughters in the same family they would be distinguished by order of birth: Major, Minor, Tertia, etc. Thus Aemilia Tertia, wife to Scipio Africanus. Informal nicknames further helped to distinguish sisters.

This system of naming was used during the whole republican period and later in the empire. Toward the end of the empire, however, the naming pattern began to change and subsequently was lost. One reason was that more persons used names lacking any real relation to themselves. For instance, a slave (and then his children) used the praenomen and the nomen of the master who set him free; e.g., had Marcus Tullius Cicero freed a Syrian slave, the name of the latter might have been Marcus Tullius Syrus.

Printable version ©Mark Emerson 2001. Acknowledgements to Steven H. Gibbs, Randy Winch and Tim Doyle. Back to top of page ^