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The Roman Name
compiled by John Porter, University of Saskatchewan

Notice: This material is the copyrighted property of the author and should not be reproduced without the author's permission.

Suggested Background Reading

The typical Athenian male had but one given name (e.g., Socrates), but would identify himself formally (at least from the late fifth century on) by adding the name of his father and of his deme (e.g., Socrates, son of Sophroniscus, of the deme of Alopece). A Roman's name usually will have at least three elements:

*The Praenomen - the "first" name; perhaps originally the only given name. Versus modern Western practice, relatively unimportant and generally quite colorless. We know of fewer than 100 praenomina in use; the Roman upper classes generally limited themselves to 15 or so common praenomina: see below for a list of the most common praenomina with their abbreviated forms.

*The Nomen (nomen gentilicium) - the "family" name, designating the person's gens ("clan"). The most important of a Roman's names. Often end in -ius; built off a praenomen, a place name, or a cognomen.

*The Cognomen - most Romans had at least one cognomen, often more than one. The cognomen could serve a variety of purposes: 1) It could distinguish a particular branch of a gens (e.g., M. Tullius Cicero - a member of the "Ciceronian" branch of the "Tullian" gens; in the case of P. Licinius Crassus Dives we find that the "Crassus" branch has been further subdivided into a "Dives" sub-branch). 2) The cognomen could be honorific (e.g., P. Cornelius Scipio acquired the additional cognomen "Africanus" after his victory in the Second Punic War). 3) In the case of someone who had been adopted, the "adoptee" would assume the name of his adoptive father but would add a cognomen which indicated the gens into which he originally had been born (e.g., C. Octavius, on being adopted by C. Julius Caesar, becomes C. Julius Caesar Octavianus). As a result, Roman names could become quite unwieldy: e.g., P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus.

Friends would use the nomen or cognomen in addressing one another: hence we refer to M. Tullius Cicero as "Cicero", while Chaucer will call the same man "Tullyus." In a formal address one would employ the praenomen with the nomen (since the the cognomen was not used officially until around the time of Sulla: cf. Catullus 49.2). If one was being extremely formal one would say (e.g.): Marcus Tullius Marci filius Marci nepos Cornelia tribu Cicero ("Marcus Tullius Cicero, son of Marcus, grandson of Marcus, of the Cornelian tribe"). To look a particular Roman up in a dictionary, index, etc., look under the nomen or under the first specifying cognomen.

Women routinely had only one name: a feminine form of the nomen (or, occasionally, the cognomen) that indicated her gens. Thus, all of M. Tullius Cicero's daughters would have the name Tullia; all of C. Julius Caesar's daughters would have the name Julia; etc.

Slaves also had only one name, either their original name (especially if Greek) or a name indicative of their country of origin, their character, appearance, etc.

Freedmen (former slaves) took the praenomen and nomen of their former masters and added their own name (or an appropriate adjective) as their cognomen. M. Tullius Cicero's slave Tiro, on gaining his freedom, becomes M. Tullius Tiro; Terentius Lucanus' slave, born in the Roman province of Africa, becomes P. Terentius Afer ("the African"); etc.

List of Praenomina

  • A. - Aulus
  • Ap(p). - Appius
  • C. - Gaius
  • Cn. - Gnaeus
  • D. - Decimus
  • L. - Lucius
  • M. - Marcus
  • M'. - Manius
  • N. - Numerius
  • P. - Publius
  • Q. - Quintus
  • Ser. - Servius
  • Sex. - Sextus
  • Sp. - Spurius
  • T. - Titus
  • Ti. - Tiberius
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