Roman Names

When a man or boy was registered as a Roman citizen in AD 100, how many names were recorded?

Funeral Stele of Marcus Ogulnius Justus

Funeral Stele of Marcus Ogulnius Justus, AD 100 (Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD)

Unlike many ancient societies, where a person had a single given name and the rest of the name referred to a place of residence or a profession, the Romans developed a complex naming system that made it much easier to distinguish one person from another. In a literate society where even shopping lists, receipts, and bills of sale were routinely used, a more specific way of naming a person than Paul the tent maker, Aristarchus of Thessalonica, or Otto of the Vangiones tribe was required.

The common form of names changed from the early republic to the late empire, starting fairly simple during the Republic, becoming complex at the height of the Empire, and returning to a simpler form as Christian influence grew.

Names of Roman Citizens
During the early Republic, a free Roman man used two names: a given name and a clan name. During the time of Sulla (80’s BC) the three-part name (tria nomina) became common. During the late Republic and the Empire until AD 212, the three-part name was a sign of Roman citizenship. It became a criminal offense in AD 24 to adopt the tria nomina if a man was not a citizen; it was treated as a type of forgery.

Freeborn Men’s Names
There were three main parts of a free Roman’s name:
Praenomen (personal given name)
Nomen (clan or gens name)
Cognomen (family name)
General structure: praenomen + nomen (gens, clan) + cognomen + agnomen (optional)

Praenomen
There were a limited number of praenomens in common use. Fewer than 25 were in routine use, and 12 of them accounted for the vast majority. Consequently, the first name was often abbreviated to one or two letters without any confusion about the true name.

Ap. = Appius M. = Marcus Post. = Postumus
Sp. = Spurius C. = Gaius M’. = Manius
Proc. = Proculus T. = Titus Cn. = Gnaeus
Mam. = Mamercus Q. = Quintus Ti. = Tiberius
D. = Decimus N. = Numerius Ser. = Servius
Vop. = Vopiscus K. = Caeso Opet. = Opiter

The most common by far was Gaius. That explains the generic use of the name in the vow made by a Roman woman at the end of the marriage rite: Ubi tu Gaius, ego Gaia. (Where you are Gaius, I am Gaia). Lucius was a close second, followed by Marcus. These three accounted for almost 60% of the praenomens in use. George Davis Chase’s definitive study of Roman names published in 1897 identified 64 praenomina in the literary sources of his day.

Nomen
The full term for the gens (clan) name was the nomen gentilicium. This was a surname that was common to many families. Some nomen always belonged to patrician families and some always to plebian families. For some gens, there were both patrician and plebian lines that were distinguished by their cognomen. For example, Ogulnius was generally a plebian gens, but it did produce a consul. Marcus Ogulnius Justus, whose stele is pictured above, was plebian, but Quintus Ogulnius Gallus was consul in 269 BC.

Cognomen
The cognomen started as an extra personal name and developed into the hereditary family name that distinguished different family lines within the clan, which might include thousands of people. The full cognomen might include more than one name.

A man’s cognomen often traced back to a personal characteristic of an ancestor. Examples include Rufus (red-haired), Barbatus (bearded), and Lepidus (pleasant, charming). The references weren’t always complimentary, like Brutus (heavy, dull) and Balbus (stammering). Some were ambiguous, like Lentulus (somewhat tough, resistant, slow, inactive, apathetic).

Extra names (as if three aren’t enough)
Sometimes an additional name (the agnomen) was added after the cognomen. It was given to a man for some particular service to Rome. A famous example is Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who received the agnomen Africanus for defeating the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, at the battle of Zama in Africa in 202 BC. Most frequently, he is called Scipio Africanus.

If a man or boy was adopted into another family, generally to provide a male heir, his nomen and cognomen changed to that of his new family while his old nomen was tacked on the end with the ―ius ending changed to ―ianus. For example when Gaius Octavius Thurinus was adopted by his great uncle, Julius Caesar, he became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

Which name to use?
With so many combinations to choose from, the form of his name that a man used depended on the level of formality demanded by a specific situation.

In the lex Iulius municipalis of 45 BC, the precise way that a man was registered as a Roman citizen was defined:

nomen + praenomen + (name of father or former master) + tribe + cognomen.

Since the father or former master would have a three-part name, that makes seven names in the official records.

The tribe referred to the 35 voting divisions of the population of Italy during the late Republic and early Empire. Each tribe was centered in a particular region. When Roman citizens came to Rome to elect the next year’s consuls, they came forward to vote when their tribe was called. New citizens were often assigned to the tribe of the current emperor.

This full name was used in imperial inscriptions, except the praenomen was listed before the nomen. It’s no wonder abbreviations for at least part of the name were in common use.

With so many choices, what do you call someone? That changed depending on the degree of intimacy enjoyed between parties. Only a citizen was allowed the tria nomina, such as Lucius Claudius Drusus. He would be generally known by his nomen plus cognomen (Claudius Drusus). At home, his family addressed him by his praenomen (Lucius). His friends called him by his nomen (Claudius) or cognomen (Drusus). His closest friends might sometimes use his praenomen (Lucius). In formal situations, he was addressed as Lucius Claudius or Lucius Claudius Drusus.

Freedmen’s Names
A freedman took his former owner’s first and clan names (praenomen and nomen) and added his slave name as his third name (cognomen). For example, if Malleolus was freed by Publius Claudius Drusus, he became Publius Claudius Malleolus. In essence, a freed slave became a member of the former owner’s extended family.

When All Free Men Became Citizens
When Caracalla extended citizenship to virtually all free men in the Empire in AD 212, the significance of the tria nomina ended, and its use faded away. It became common for men who came from non-citizen families to combine a Roman name with a foreign name, such as Flavius Stilicho. Stilicho was half Vandal and served as regent for the emperor Honorius around AD 400.

Roman Women’s Names
The conventions for women’s names changed as their relative degree of freedom changed moving from the early Republic into the Empire. A rigid set of rules determined the names for the girls born during the Republic. That was replaced during the Empire by a naming system that still reflected the woman’s birth family but allowed greater latitude in the specific name.

During the Republic
Women were given only one name, and it was derived from the gens nomen. The daughter of Sextus Julius Caesar, consul in 157 BC, would be Julia. If there were two girls, the elder was Julia Maior and the younger Julia Menor. If there were more than two, they were numbered, like Julia Tertia.

During the Early Empire
Citizen women during the early Empire typically had two names that were the feminine form of their father’s nomen and cognomen. If there were two or more daughters, the standard pattern was varied for the later daughters. For example, the daughter of Publius Claudius Drusus would be Claudia Drusilla. The name of her niece that was born to one of her brothers would also be Claudia Drusilla. To avoid confusion, nicknames may have been used among the family. If Claudia Drusilla married Flavius Sabinus, she could add the genitive form of her husband’s name, but that wasn’t required.

Slave Names
The name of a slave was whatever the owner wanted and changeable at any time for any reason. There were, however, some common patterns that changed over time. In general, a slave had only a single name, and keeping the same name from birth to death was subject to the whims of the masters.

During the Early Republic
Before the military expansion of Rome’s sphere of control brought huge numbers of slaves into Italy, the name of a slave was derived from his owner’s by adding a suffix. A slave belonging to Marcus was “Marcus’s boy.” (That usage of “boy” remained a disrespectful tradition in the American South after the Civil War officially ended slavery in 1865.) Derived from the Latin for “boy,” puer, the suffix ―por was added. So the male slave of Marcus became Marcipor. At the beginning of the second century BC, few households in Rome had more than one slave. By the 2nd century AD, even households of relatively humble means had eight to twelve, and the variety of slave names had expanded to accommodate their larger numbers.

During the later Republic and the Empire
Greater variety in slave names developed as the number of slaves rose. A new slave from a freshly conquered region could never expect to keep his own name. He could be renamed by the new master and usually was to convey the loss of his former personhood. Greek names were especially popular, as were Latin names derived from animals, plants, or some physical or mental characteristic. A master might also choose to rename a slave he already owned whenever he felt like it.

For example, a boy named Diegis might be enslaved when Trajan’s forces conquered Dacia in AD 106. When he was first purchased, he might be renamed Dacius (Latin for “something from Dacia”―emphasis on “thing,” for that’s what slaves were considered). Disclosure of the country of origin was mandatory under Roman law for slave sales at that time, and slaves were often given names that were adjectives for their home country. After owning Dacius for a while, his owner might decide to rename him Leander (Greek and Latin for “like a lion”) because he had done something particularly brave that impressed the owner. If the current owner sold him, the new owner might let him keep his present name or rename him.

Changing names when free
Slave names changed frequently, but there were some life events that could change a name for a free person. For men, those included performing a notable act to get an agnomen and being adopted. A woman’s name during the early empire didn’t often change, even when she married. Divorce was very common among the upper classes, but the woman’s name could remain a constant even while she changed husbands.

Sources

Adkins, Lesley and Roy A. Adkins. Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Bruce, F. F. “Some Roman Slave-Names,” Proceedings of the Leeds Philosophical Society: Literary and Historical Section 5 (1938), Part I, pp.44-60.

Carcopino, Jerome. Daily Life in Ancient Rome: the People and the City at the Height of the Empire. Edited by Henry T. Rowell. Translated by E. O. Lorimer. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1968.

Chase, George Davis. “Origin of the Roman Praenomina.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 8 (1897), pp. 103-184.

Crook, J. A. Law and Life of Rome, 90 BC.―A.D. 212. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.

The image of the funeral stele of Marcus Ogulnius Justus is from the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, MD.

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