I was asked if I could recommend an overview of how Roman names work. This is a type of lecture I give every semester sometimes multiple times, but I realized I don’t have a standard write-up of the framework to recommend. Writing up the basics in plain English seems like a good idea, as maybe I could then use that class time for something more interesting.
Greek naming conventions tended to involve a personal name (typically the same as one’s paternal grandfather) followed by an indication of who your father was and maybe where you lived to distinguish you from others with the same name. Greeks thought Romans were bizarre for having three names rather than one and sometimes had a hard time distinguishing which of the three names was the ‘right’ one to identify an individual.
Let’s run through some examples so unlike the Greeks we can know what is going on
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Marcus is the praenomen, or first name. This is typically the same as one’s father, or if one is a younger son, then the same as another male kin. If your older brother dies you might even take his praenomen to preserve its use in your generation. Branches of families rarely used more than two or three praenomina. This is the name your parents and close friends would call you in intimate situations. It is the closest thing a Roman has to a personal name. The Romans have very few common praenomina. Because of this they tend to be abbreviated. These abbreviations also preserve archaic letter forms in some cases: M.= Marcus, but M’. = a five stroke M = Manius, and C. = Gaius because Cs and Gs were historically the same letter. Many families uses the same few common praenomen, but a few families had special praenomen of their very own, the most famous being Appius (Ap.) among the Claudii.
Tullius is the nomen, or clan (gens) name. This is the biggest family unit. All the daughters of the men with in the same gens all had the same name, Tullia. Yes this was confusing and led to the use in the families of nicknames often reflecting birth order (e.g. Prima, Secunda, Tertia), or sometimes just terms of endearment (e.g. Tulliola). More on women and names below.
Cicero is the cognomen, or familial branch name. Not all Roman citizens have a cognomen. A famous example of a Roman citizen with only two names would be C. Marius. Cognomen often use terms to describe physical or personal characteristics. Cicero means chickpea. Balbus means stammerer. Caecus means blind. However, they are inherited on the paternal line and we can sometimes know when a cognomen was adopted by a specific historical individual and a new branch of the family begun using that name to mark the descendants of that individual, but usually we cannot. The main function of the cognomen is to distinguish family lines within a gens.
A lot of other information can appear in and around the Roman naming conventions:
M. Tullius f. M. n. M. Cor. Cicero Imperator
f. M. is the filiation of the individual. It expands in this instance to filius Marci, ‘son of Marcus’.
n. M. is a rarer inclusion but is used when an individual wished to indicate their paternal grandfather. Here it expand to nepos Marci, ‘grandson of Marcus’.
Cor. is the abbreviation of a tribus (tribe) and indicates the division in which one voted in certain assemblies. Enrollment in a tribe is inherited and established and confirmed in the census. Through out most of the historical period of the Roman Republic there were 35 tribes each with their own three letter abbreviation and originally correlating to geographical regions, but as families moved they did not change tribe.
Imperator is an title. All such titles go at the end of the name, not the beginning. When in the imperial period Imperator appears a the front of the name it is itself a praenomen, not a title.
Let’s look at a few other instances to observe other Roman naming features.
Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus
Publius is the Praenomen, Cornelius the Nomen (gens), and Scipio the Cognomen. So far so good. But let’s remember that Publius was born the son of L. Aemilius Paullus conqueror of Macedon in 168 BCE. His biological father had him adopted by the son of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus, the dude who defeated Hannibal at Zama. Divorce was relatively common in Roman society so while marriage alliances between families could establish political alliances, giving a son in adoption created an even stronger (almost unbreakable) bond between families. Publius remained on intimate terms with his biological father and his birth family is preserved in his name by the inclusion of his original gens plus -an as another cognomen. This is why we sometimes call Caesar’s heir the former Octavius and future Augustus, Octavianus, even though he never used that name himself.
Africanus is sometimes called a agnomen, or honorific name. This type of cognomen can also be passed down to one’s sons after it is earned, typically through military victory and then triumph. But other agnomens exist like, Pius (the pious one), which is typically earned by extraordinary dedication to one’s father. Or Torquatus, referring to a famous instance of single combat in which the original individual who earned the name slew a Gaul and took the torque from his neck.
Thus far we’ve looked at elite male names. What about everyone else?
M. Tullius l. M. Tiro
This is the name after manumission of Cicero’s secretary. Tiro is his slave name. He retains this as a cognomen. He has no filiation (cf. Orlando Patterson and the idea that enslavement entail natal alienation). Instead, his ex-enslaver (dominus = master, lord), becomes his patronus (patron = father-like figure), and his status as a formerly enslaved person is worked into his name by the inclusion of patron’s praenomen. l. M. = libertus Marci, Marcus’ freedman. Notice he is given his ex enslaver’s praenomen and nomen (gens). Remember that familia in the Roman sense of family includes the enslaved.
The following passage shows how elite men liked to play with naming conventions when manumitting enslaved peoples using the name creation process to flatter each other and themselves:
I am glad about Eutychides, who, using your old praenomen and your new nomen, will be called Titus Caecilius, just as Dionysius, from a combination of your names and mine, is Marcus Pomponius. I am, by Hercules, exceedingly gratified that Eutychides has had cause to know your kindness to me, and that the sympathy he shewed me in the time of my sorrow was neither unnoticed at the time nor afterwards forgotten by meOpening of Cicero’s Letter to Atticus 4.15
Cicero’s friend was born
He earned Atticus as a cognomen through his fondness for Athens (including many acts of generosity to the city). BUT then his rich maternal uncle Quintus Metellus had no male children and thus wrote a will that Atticus could have the greater part of his estate if he accept a posthumous adoption thus taking a new name and responsibility for the family cult. (Cf. Caesar’s testamentary adoption of his great nephew Octavius.) He thus became
Q. Metellus Pomponianus Atticus
When Atticus manumitted Dionysius he flattered his friend by giving him the praenomen Marcus. When Atticus manumitted Eutychides he gave him his own old praenomen Titus. The purportedly ‘freed’ individuals had no say in this.
What about women you ask?!
When female enslavers manumit an enslaved person they have the fictive feminine praenomen Gaia.
M. Tullius l. Ↄ. Syrus
This is a plausible freedman’s name for a formerly enslaved man named Syrus manumitted by a woman named Tullia. One could refer to this woman formerly as:
Tullia f. M. Cornelii (Dolabellae)
Tullia daughter of Marcus, wife of Publius Cornelius Dolabella
Her husband freed a female slave named Aphrodita she would come
Cornelia l. P. Aphrodita
Did I miss something? Did I make a mistake? Let me know!