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Roman naming conventions

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Title: Roman naming conventions  
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Roman naming conventions

From the earliest period, the Romans and other peoples of Italy developed a system of nomenclature that differed markedly from that used elsewhere in Europe and the Mediterranean. While most other ancient cultures used a combination of monothematic and dithematic personal names to distinguish between individuals, the peoples of ancient Italy instead developed a binomial nomenclature, in which individuals could be distinguished by the use of two names, one of which became a hereditary surname. Over time, this system expanded to include additional names and designations.[1]

The most familiar version of the Italic system of nomenclature is known as the tria nomina, or "three names", used by Roman citizens for over a thousand years. Through classical literature and Roman history, modern scholars are acquainted with the praenomen, nomen, and cognomen. Toward the end of the Republic, the Roman name included not only these elements, but also a filiation and the name of the tribe to which a citizen belonged.[1]

In the earliest period, Roman women shared the binomial nomenclature of men. But over time, as the praenomen became less useful for identification, it was discarded in most cases, and replaced by a variety of informal names. By the end of the Republic, the majority of Roman women either did not have or did not use praenomina. Most women were called by the nomen alone, or in the case of some larger families, by a cognomen or a combination of nomen and cognomen. If further differentiation were needed, informal names usually sufficed.[1]

Although the basic elements of the tria nomina continued under the Empire, they were gradually supplemented by a variety of increasingly elaborate models, which ultimately obscured and in some cases displaced the traditional tria nomina. Nevertheless, many of the names developed as part of the original system persisted, surviving the Empire itself and becoming disseminated throughout Europe.[1]


  • Origin and development 1
  • The tria nomina 2
    • Praenomen 2.1
    • Nomen 2.2
    • Cognomen 2.3
      • Agnomen 2.3.1
        • Cognomina ex virtute
        • Adoptive cognomina
  • Filiation 3
  • Tribe 4
  • Women's names 5
  • Foreign names 6
  • Freedmen 7
  • Examples of the tria nomina 8
  • Later development 9
    • Binary nomenclature and polyonomy 9.1
    • Cognomen replaces praenomen 9.2
    • Constitutio Antoniniana 9.3
    • Traditional nomen replaced 9.4
  • See also 10
  • Notes 11
  • References 12
  • Bibliography 13

Origin and development

The Shepherd Faustulus Bringing Romulus and Remus to His Wife
Nicolas Mignard, 1606–1668

As in other cultures, the early peoples of Italy probably used a single name, which later developed into the praenomen.[1] The scholar Marcus Terentius Varro is said to have written that the earliest Italians used simple names.[2] Names of this type could be honorific or aspirational, or might refer to deities, physical peculiarities, or circumstances of birth.[1] In this early period, the number of personal names must have been quite large; but with the development of additional names the number in widespread use dwindled.[1] By the early Republic, about three dozen Latin praenomina remained in use, some of which were already rare; about eighteen were used by the patricians.[3] Barely a dozen praenomina remained in general use under the Empire, although aristocratic families sometimes revived older praenomina, or created new ones from cognomina.[1]

The development of the nomen as the second element of the Italic name cannot be attributed to a specific period or culture. From the earliest period it was common to both the Indo-European speaking Italic peoples and the Etruscans. The historian Livy relates the adoption of Silvius as a nomen by the Kings of Alba Longa, in honour of their ancestor, Silvius.[4] As part of Rome's foundation myth, this statement cannot be regarded as historical fact, but it does indicate the antiquity of the period to which the Romans themselves ascribed the adoption of hereditary surnames.[lower-roman 1][lower-roman 2]

In Latin, most nomina were formed by adding an adjectival suffix, usually -ius, to the stem of an existing name. Often this was accompanied by a joining element, such as -e, -id, -il, or -on, all of which served to indicate that the name was derived from the stem. Many common nomina arose as patronymic surnames; for instance Marcius from Marci filius, Sextius from Sexti filius, Publilius and Lucilius from Publi filius and Luci filius.[1] This seems to indicate that, as with later European surnames, the earliest nomina were not always hereditary, but might be adopted and discarded at will, and changed from one generation to the next. The practice from which these patronymics arose also gave rise to the filiation, which in later times, once the nomen had become fixed, nearly always followed the nomen. Other nomina were derived from names that later came to be regarded as cognomina, such as Plancius from Plancus or Flavius from Flavus; or place-names, such as Norbanus from Norba.[1]

The binomial name consisting of praenomen and nomen eventually spread throughout Italy. Nomina from different languages and regions often have distinctive characteristics; Latin nomina tended to end in -ius, -us, -aius, -eius, -eus, or aeus, while Oscan names frequently ended in -is or -iis; Umbrian names in -as, -anas, -enas, or -inas, and Etruscan names in -arna, -erna, -ena, -enna, -ina, or -inna.[3]

To this, many individuals added an additional surname, or cognomen, which helped to distinguish between members of larger families. Originally these were simply personal names, which might be derived from a person's physical features, personal qualities, occupation, place of origin, or even an object with which a person was associated. Some cognomina were derived from the circumstance of a person's adoption from one family into another, or were derived from foreign names, such as when a freedman received a Roman praenomen and nomen. Other cognomina commemorated important events associated with a person; a battle in which a man had fought (Regillensis), a town captured (Coriolanus); or a miraculous occurrence (Corvus).[1]

Although originally a personal name, the cognomen frequently became hereditary, especially in large families, or gentes, in which they served to identify distinct branches, or stirpes. Some Romans had more than one cognomen, and in aristocratic families it was not unheard of for individuals to have as many as three, of which some might be hereditary and some personal. These surnames were initially characteristic of patrician families, but over time cognomina were also acquired by the plebeians. However, a number of distinguished plebeian gentes, such as the Antonii and the Marii, were never divided into different branches, and in these families cognomina were the exception rather than the rule.[1]

Cognomina are known from the beginning of the Republic, but were long regarded as informal names, and omitted from most official records before the second century BC. Later inscriptions commemorating the early centuries of the Republic supply these missing surnames, although the authenticity of some of them has been disputed. Under the Empire, however, the cognomen acquired great importance, and the number of cognomina assumed by the Roman aristocracy multiplied exponentially, occasionally displacing the praenomen and nomen altogether; by the fifth century few Romans were known by these names. The late grammarians distinguished certain cognomina as agnomina.[1]

In the final centuries of the Empire, even cognomina were sometimes discarded in favour of alternate names, known as signa. In the course of the sixth century, as central authority collapsed, and Roman institutions disappeared, the complex forms of Roman nomenclature were abandoned, and the people of Italy reverted to single names, many of which, however, were rooted firmly in Roman tradition.[1] Modern European nomenclature developed independently of the Roman model during the middle ages and the renaissance, but many of the names that were familiar to the ancient Romans survived, and remain in use today.

The tria nomina

The three types of names that have come to be regarded as quintessentially Roman were the praenomen, nomen, and cognomen. Together, these were referred to as the tria nomina which distinguished Roman citizens from foreigners.


A Roman child.
In the Peristyle (1874),
John William Waterhouse, 1849–1917

The praenomen was a true personal name, chosen by a child's parents, and bestowed on the dies lustricius, or "day of lustration," a ritual purification performed on the eighth day after the birth of a girl, or the ninth day after the birth of a boy.[lower-roman 3] Normally all of the children in a family would have different praenomina.[lower-roman 4] Although there was no law restricting the use of specific praenomina,[lower-roman 5] the choice of the parents was usually governed by custom and family tradition. An eldest son was usually named after his father, and younger sons were named after their father's brothers or other male ancestors. In this way, the same praenomina were passed down in a family from one generation to the next. Not only did this serve to emphasize the continuity of a family across many generations, but the selection of praenomina also distinguished the customs of one gens from another. The patrician gentes in particular tended to limit the number of praenomina that they used far more than the plebeians, which was a way of reinforcing the exclusiveness of their social status.[7]

Of course, there were many exceptions to these general practices. A son might be named in honour of one of his maternal relatives, thus bringing a new name into the gens.[8] Because some gentes made regular use of only three or four praenomina, new names might appear whenever there were several younger sons. Furthermore, a number of the oldest and most influential patrician families made a habit of choosing unusual names; in particular the Fabii, Aemilii, Furii, Claudii, Cornelii, and Valerii all used praenomina that were uncommon amongst the patricians, or which had fallen out of general use. In the last two centuries of the Republic, and under the early Empire, it was fashionable for aristocratic families to revive older praenomina.[1]

About three dozen Latin praenomina were in use at the beginning of the Republic, although only about eighteen were common. This number fell gradually, until by the first century AD, about a dozen praenomina remained in widespread use, with a handful of others used by particular families.[3] The origin and use of praenomina was a matter of curiosity to the Romans themselves; in De Praenominibus, Varro discussed a number of older praenomina and their meanings.[2] Most praenomina were regularly abbreviated, and rarely written in full.[3] Other praenomina were used by the Oscan, Umbrian, and Etruscan-speaking peoples of Italy, and many of these also had regular abbreviations. Lists of praenomina used by the various people of Italy, together with their usual abbreviations, can be found at praenomen.

Roman men were usually known by their praenomina to members of their family and household, clientes and close friends; but outside of this circle, they might be called by their nomen, cognomen, or any combination of praenomen, nomen, and cognomen that was sufficient to distinguish them from other men with similar names.[3] In the literature of the Republic, and on all formal occasions, such as when a senator was called upon to speak, it was customary to address a citizen by praenomen and nomen; or, if this were insufficient to distinguish him from other members of the gens, by praenomen and cognomen.[3][1]

In imperial times, the praenomen became increasingly confused by the practices of the aristocracy. The emperors usually prefixed Imperator to their names as a praenomen, while at the same time retaining their own praenomina; but because most of the early emperors were legally adopted by their predecessors, and formally assumed new names, even these were subject to change. Several members of the Julio-Claudian dynasty exchanged their original praenomina for cognomina, or received cognomina in place of praenomina at birth. An emperor might emancipate or enfranchise large groups of people at once, all of whom would automatically receive the emperor's praenomen and nomen. Yet another common practice beginning in the first century AD was to give multiple sons the same praenomen, and distinguish them using different cognomina; another was to append the full nomenclature of a maternal ancestor to the basic tria nomina, so that a man might appear to have two praenomina, one occurring in the middle of his name.

Under the weight of these practices and others, the utility of the praenomen to distinguish between men continued to decline, until only the force of tradition prevented its utter abandonment. In the course of the third century AD, the praenomina of prominent Romans became scarcer and scarcer in written records, and from the fourth century onward their appearance becomes exceptional. In their place, Roman aristocrats frequently substituted the nomina of prominent gentes; especially Flavius, but also Claudius, Aurelius, and Valerius, all of which were frequently abbreviated, as though they were praenomina, as well as Fabius, Julius, and Junius.


The nomen gentilicum or "gentile name,"[lower-roman 6] designated a Roman citizen as a member of a gens. A gens, which may be translated as "race", "family", or "clan", constituted an extended Roman family, all of whom shared the same nomen, and claimed descent from a common ancestor. Particularly in the early Republic, the gens functioned as a state within the state, observing its own sacred rites, and establishing private laws, which were binding on its members, although not on the community as a whole.[9]

Although the other peoples of Italy also possessed nomina, the distinction between Romans and the non-Roman peoples of Italy disappeared as various communities were granted the Roman franchise, and following the Social War, when this was extended to most of Italy. Once this occurred, the possession of the nomen gentilicum identified a man as a Roman citizen.


Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus Cunctator.
Maximus was the branch of the Fabia gens to which he belonged; Verrucosus was a personal cognomen referring to a wart above his upper lip; Cunctator a cognomen ex virtute referring to his delaying strategy against Hannibal.
Statue at Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna

The cognomen, the third element of the Roman name, began as an additional personal name. It was not unique to Rome, but Rome was where the cognomen flourished, as the development of the gens and the gradual decline of the praenomen as a useful means of distinguishing between individuals made the cognomen a useful means of identifying both individuals and whole branches of Rome's leading families. Already, in the early Republic, some aristocratic Romans had as many as three cognomina, some of which might be hereditary while others were personal.

Unlike the nomen, which was passed down unchanged from father to son, cognomina could appear and disappear almost at will. They were not normally chosen by the persons who bore them, but were earned or bestowed by others, which may account for the wide variety of unflattering names that were used as cognomina. New cognomina were coined and came into fashion throughout Roman history.[1]

Under the Empire, the number of cognomina increased dramatically. Where once only the most noble patrician houses used multiple surnames, Romans of all backgrounds and social standing might bear several cognomina. By the third century, this had become the norm amongst freeborn Roman citizens. The question of how to classify different cognomina led the grammarians of the fourth and fifth centuries to designate some of them as agnomina.[3]


The proliferation of cognomina in the later centuries of the Empire led some grammarians to classify certain types as agnomina. This class included two main types of cognomen: the cognomen ex virtute, and cognomina that were derived from nomina, to indicate the parentage of Romans who had been adopted from one gens into another. Although these names had existed throughout Roman history, it was only in this late period that they were distinguished from other cognomina.[3]

Cognomina ex virtute

The cognomen ex virtute was a surname derived from some virtuous or heroic episode attributed to the bearer. Roman history is filled with individuals who obtained cognomina as a result of their exploits: Aulus Postumius Albus Regillensis, who commanded the Roman army at the Battle of Lake Regillus; Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, who captured the city of Corioli; Marcus Valerius Corvus, who defeated a giant Gaul in single combat, aided by a raven; Titus Manlius Torquatus, who likewise defeated a Gaulish giant, and took his name from the torque that he claimed as a prize; Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, who carried the Second Punic War to Africa, and defeated Hannibal. Ironically, the most famous examples of this class of cognomen come from the period of the Republic, centuries before the concept of the agnomen was formulated.

Adoptive cognomina

Adoption was a common and formal process in Roman culture. Its chief purpose had nothing to do with providing homes for children; it was about ensuring the continuity of family lines that might otherwise become extinct. In early Rome, this was especially important for the patricians, who enjoyed tremendous status and privilege compared with the plebeians. Because few families were admitted to the patriciate after the expulsion of the kings, while the number of plebeians continually grew, the patricians continually struggled to preserve their wealth and influence. A man who had no sons to inherit his property and preserve his family name would adopt one of the younger sons from another family. In time, as the plebeians also acquired wealth and gained access to the offices of the Roman state, they too came to participate in the Roman system of adoption.[10][11]

Since the primary purpose of adoption was to preserve the name and status of the adopter, an adopted son would usually assume both the praenomen and nomen of his adoptive father, together with any hereditary cognomina, just as an eldest son would have done. However, adoption did not result in the complete abandonment of the adopted son's birth name. The son's original nomen (or occasionally cognomen) would become the basis of a new surname, formed by adding the derivative suffix -anus or -inus to the stem. Thus, when a son of Lucius Aemilius Paullus was adopted by Publius Cornelius Scipio, he became Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus; in his will, the dictator Gaius Julius Caesar adopted his grandnephew, Gaius Octavius, who became known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.[10][3][1]


Apart from the praenomen, the filiation was the oldest element of the Roman name. Even before the development of the nomen as a hereditary surname, it was customary to use the name of a person's father as a means of distinguishing him or her from others with the same personal name; thus Lucius, the son of Marcus would be Lucius, Marci filius; Paulla, the daughter of Quintus, would be Paulla, Quinti filia. Many nomina were derived in the same way, and most praenomina have at least one corresponding nomen, such as Lucilius, Marcius, Publilius, Quinctius, or Servilius. These are known as patronymic surnames, because they are derived from the name of the original bearer's father. Even after the development of the nomen and cognomen, filiation remained a useful means of distinguishing between members of a large family.[12]

  "Dedicated by the son of the divine emperor Caesar Marcus Aurelius Pius, brother of the divine Commodus, grandson of the divine Antoninus Pius, great-grandson of the divine Hadrian, great-great-grandson of the divine Trajan, conqueror of Parthia, great-great-great-grandson of the divine Nerva, Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus Arabicus Adiabenicus, father of his country, Pontifex Maximus, holding the tribunician power for the fourth year, in the eighth year of his imperium, consul for the second time; and Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caesar"

Filiations were normally written between the nomen and any cognomina, and abbreviated using the typical abbreviations for praenomina, followed by f. for filius or filia, and sometimes n. for nepos (grandson) or neptis (granddaughter). Thus, the inscription S. Postumius A. f. P. n. Albus Regillensis means "Spurius Postumius Albus Regillensis, of Aulus the son, of Publius the grandson." "Tiberius Aemilius Mamercinus, the son of Lucius and grandson of Mamercus," would be written Ti. Aemilius L. f. Mam. n. Mamercinus. The more formal the writing, the more generations might be included; a great-grandchild would be pron. or pronep. for pronepos or proneptis, a great-great-grandchild abn. or abnep. for abnepos or abneptis, and a great-great-great-grandchild adnepos or adneptis.[lower-roman 7] However, these forms are rarely included as part of a name, except on the grandest of monumental inscriptions.[13]

The filiation sometimes included the name of the mother, in which case gnatus[lower-roman 8] would follow the mother's name, instead of filius or filia. This is especially common in families of Etruscan origin. The names of married women were sometimes followed by the husband's name and uxor for "wife." N. Fabius Q. f. M. n. Furia gnatus Maximus means "Numerius Fabius Maximus, son of Quintus, grandson of Marcus, born of Furia",[lower-roman 9] while Claudia L. Valeri uxor would be "Claudia, wife of Lucius Valerius."

Slaves and freedmen also possessed filiations, although in this case the person referred to is usually the slave's owner, rather than his or her father. The abbreviations here include s. for servus or serva and l. for libertus or liberta. A slave might have more than one owner, in which case the names could be given serially. In some cases the owner's nomen or cognomen was used instead of or in addition to the praenomen. The liberti of women sometimes used an inverted "C", signifying the feminine praenomen Gaia, here used generically to mean any woman; and there are a few examples of an inverted "M", although it is not clear whether this was used generically, or specifically for the feminine praenomen Marca or Marcia.[14]

An example of the filiation of slaves and freedmen would be: Alexander Corneli L. s., "Alexander, slave of Lucius Cornelius," who upon his emancipation would probably become L. Cornelius L. l. Alexander, "Lucius Cornelius Alexander, freedman of Lucius"; it was customary for a freedman to take the praenomen of his former owner, if he did not already have one, and to use his original personal name as a cognomen. Another example might be Salvia Pompeia Cn. Ɔ. l., "Salvia Pompeia, freedwoman of Gnaeus (Pompeius) and Gaia"; here Gaia is used generically, irrespective of whether Pompeius' wife was actually named Gaia. A freedman of the emperor might have the filiation Aug. l., Augusti libertus.

Although filiation was common throughout the history of the Republic and well into imperial times, no law governed its use or inclusion in writing. It was used by custom and for convenience, but could be ignored or discarded, as it suited the needs of the writer.


From the beginning of the Roman Republic Republic, all citizens were enumerated in one of the tribes making up the comitia tributa, or "Tribal Assembly." This was the most democratic of Rome's three main voting assemblies, in that all citizens could participate on an equal basis, without regard to wealth or social status. Over time, its decrees, known as plebi scita, or "plebiscites" became binding on the whole Roman people. Although much of the assembly's authority was usurped by the emperors, membership in a tribe remained an important part of Roman citizenship, so that the name of the tribe came to be incorporated into a citizen's full nomenclature.[15][16][17]

The number of tribes varied over time; tradition ascribed the institution of thirty tribes to Servius Tullius, the sixth King of Rome, but ten of these were destroyed at the beginning of the Republic. Several tribes were added between 387 and 241 BC, as large swaths of Italy came under Roman control, bringing the total number of tribes to thirty-five; except for a brief experiment at the end of the Social War, this number remained fixed. The nature of the tribes was mainly geographic, rather than ethnic; inhabitants of Rome were, in theory, assigned to one of the four "urban" tribes, while the territory beyond the city was allocated to the "rural" or "rustic" tribes.[15][16]

Geography was not the sole determining factor in one's tribus; at times efforts were made to assign freedmen to the four urban tribes, thus concentrating their votes and limiting their influence on the comitia tributa. Perhaps for similar reasons, when large numbers of provincials gained the franchise, certain rural tribes were preferred for their enrollment. Citizens did not normally change tribes when they moved from one region to another; but the censors had the power to punish a citizen by expelling him from one of the rural tribes and assigning him to one of the urban tribes. In later periods, most citizens were enrolled in tribes without respect to geography.[16]

Precisely when it became common to include the name of a citizen's tribus as part of his full nomenclature is uncertain. The name of the tribe normally follows the filiation and precedes any cognomina, suggesting that it occurred before the cognomen was recognized as a formal part of the Roman name; so probably no later than the second century BC. However, in both writing and inscriptions, the tribus is found with much less frequency than other parts of the name; so the custom of including it does not seem to have been deeply ingrained in Roman practice. As with the filiation, it was common to abbreviate the name of the tribe. For the names of the thirty-five tribes and their abbreviations, see Roman tribe.[15]

Women's names

A Roman woman, attired as a Priestess of Vesta, performing sacred rites.
Frederic Leighton (1830–1896)

In the earliest period, the binomial nomenclature of praenomen and nomen that developed throughout Italy was shared by both men and women. Most praenomina had both masculine and feminine forms, and a number of praenomina common to women were seldom or never used by men. Just as men's praenomina, women's names were regularly abbreviated instead of being written in full. A list of women's praenomina can be found at praenomen.

But for a variety of reasons, women's praenomina became neglected over the course of Roman history, and by the end of the Republic, most women did not have or did not use praenomina. They did not disappear entirely, nor were Roman women bereft of personal names; but for most of Roman history women were known chiefly by their nomina or cognomina.

The first of these reasons is probably that the praenomen itself lost much of its original utility following the adoption of hereditary surnames. The number of praenomina commonly used by both men and women declined throughout Roman history. For men, who might hold public office or serve in the military, the praenomen remained an important part of the legal name. But, as in other ancient societies, Roman women played little role in public life, so the factors that resulted in the continuation of men's praenomina did not exist for women.

Another factor was probably that the praenomen was not usually necessary to distinguish between women within the family. Because a Roman woman did not change her nomen when she married, her nomen alone was usually sufficient to distinguish her from every other member of the family. As Latin names had distinctive masculine and feminine forms, the nomen was sufficient to distinguish a daughter from both of her parents and all of her brothers. Thus, there was no need for a personal name unless there were multiple sisters in the same household.

When this occurred, praenomina could be and frequently were used to distinguish between sisters. However, it was also common to identify sisters using a variety of names, some of which could be used as either praenomina or cognomina. For example, if Publius Servilius had two daughters, they would typically be referred to as Servilia Major and Servilia Minor. If there were more daughters, the eldest might be called Servilia Prima or Servilia Maxima;[lower-roman 10] younger daughters as Servilia Secunda, Tertia, Quarta, etc. All of these names could be used as praenomina, preceding the nomen, but common usage from the later Republic onward was to treat them as personal cognomina; when these names appear in either position, it is frequently impossible to determine whether they were intended as praenomina or cognomina.

Although women's praenomina were infrequently used in the later Republic, they continued to be used, when needed, into imperial times. Among the other peoples of Italy, women's praenomina continued to be used regularly until the populace was thoroughly Romanized. In the Etruscan culture, where women held a markedly higher social status than at Rome or in other ancient societies, inscriptions referring to women nearly always include praenomina.

Avlia L.F. Secunda
Aulia Secunda, daughter of Lucius

Most Roman women were known by their nomina, with such distinction as described above for older and younger siblings. If further distinction were needed, she could be identified as a particular citizen's daughter or wife. For instance, Cicero refers to a woman as Annia P. Anni senatoris filia, which means "Annia, daughter of Publius Annius, the senator." However, toward the end of the Republic, as hereditary cognomina came to be regarded as proper names, a woman might be referred to by her cognomen instead, or by a combination of nomen and cognomen; the daughter of Lucius Caecilius Metellus was usually referred to as Caecilia Metella. Sometimes these cognomina were given diminutive forms, such as Agrippina from the masculine Agrippa, or Drusilla from Drusus.

In imperial times, other, less formal names were sometimes used to distinguish between women with similar names. Still later, Roman women, like men, adopted signa, or alternative names, in place of their Roman names. With the fall of the western empire in the fifth century, the last traces of the distinctive Italic nomenclature system began to disappear, and women too reverted to single names.

Foreign names

As Rome conquered territories beyond the Italian Peninsula, many foreign names were introduced. Discharged auxiliary soldiers and others gaining Roman citizenship could, and many did, continue to use at least a portion of their former names. Most were of Greek or Etruscan origin, while others came from regions that were brought under Roman influence.


A freedman customarily took his former owner's praenomen and the nomen of his master's gens, retaining his former name as a cognomen. For instance, a former slave named Chrysogonus freed by Lucius Cornelius Sulla acquired the name Lucius Cornelius Chrysogonus.

Examples of the tria nomina

The tomb of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus: Lucius of the gens Cornelia, of the sub-family of Scipio, conqueror of the Barbarians

Analysis of an example complete name: Marcus Aurelius Lucii f. Quinti n. tribu Galeria Antoninus Felix, domo Caesaraugusta.

Component Name Note
Marcus praenomen
Aurelius nomen gentile he belonged to gens Aurelia (the Aurelii)
Lucii f(ilius) patronimicus son of Lucius
Quinti n(epos) grandparent grandson of Quintus
tribu Galeria tribe a tribe from Galleria, a region of Hispania
Antoninus cognomen he belonged to Antonini branch of the clan
Felix agnomen "the Fortunate", a nickname
domo Caesaraugusta residence ancient Zaragoza in Hispania

A Roman man could be referred to in several ways: by his praenomen and nomen; by his nomen or cognomen standing alone; by his nomen and cognomen; or by his praenomen and cognomen. Which of these was used typically depended on how many other people might be referred to by the same name or combination of names. In the early Republic the nomen was often sufficient to distinguish people, but by imperial times a person's various cognomina were usually more distinctive. "Marcus Livius Drusus" would typically be referred to as "Marcus Livius" or simply as "Drusus", although both "Livius Drusus" and "Marcus Drusus" could also be used.

The tendency to omit one or more parts of a person's name can create problems for modern scholars. Often several different people shared the same name, or names that differed in only one element. In many cases, we no longer have the context to know which person was actually meant.

In Ancient Rome, a person's name was not static but often evolved with his status or social connections. Take for example the evolution of the name of the Emperor Augustus:

63 BC: Augustus is born as Gaius Octavius

  • Gaius Octavius Gaii filius
    • Gaius of the gens Octavia, son of Gaius

44 BC: Julius Caesar dies. In his will he adopts Gaius Octavius. See Adoption in ancient Rome.

  • Gaius Iulius Gaii filius Caesar Octavianus
    • Gaius Caesar of the gens Julia, son of Gaius, originally of the gens Octavia

42 BC: Julius Caesar is deified, prompting a change in Gaius Octavianus' name.

  • Gaius Iulius Divi filius Caesar Octavianus
    • Gaius Caesar of the gens Julia, son of the Deified, originally of the gens Octavia

31 BC: Gaius Octavianus is declared imperator by the army

  • Imperator Gaius Iulius Divi filius Caesar Octavianus
    • Imperator Gaius Caesar of the gens Julia, son of the Deified, originally of the gens Octavia

27 BC : The Roman Senate grants the title Augustus. Gaius Octavianus assumes his official regnal name.

  • Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus
    • Imperator Caesar the August, son of the Deified

Later development

During the Empire, superficially the naming conventions appear to dissolve into anarchy. In fact, this was not the case: new conventions developed, which were themselves internally coherent.[18]

Binary nomenclature and polyonomy

Under the "High Empire", the new aristocracy began adopting two or more nomina – a practice which has been termed 'binary nomenclature'.[19] This arose out of a desire to incorporate distinguished maternal ancestry in a name or, in order to inherit property, an heir was required by a will to incorporate the testator's name into his own name.[20] For example, the suffect consul of AD II8/9, Gaius Bruttius Praesens Lucius Fulvius Rusticus, has a name which is composed of two standard sets of tria nomina: he was the natural son of a Lucius Bruttius, and added the nomina of his maternal grandfather, Lucius Fulvius Rusticus, to his paternal nomina.[20]

In order to reflect an illustrious pedigree or other connections, the aristocracy expanded the binary nomenclature concept to include other nomina from an individual's paternal and maternal ancestry.[20] There was no limit to the number of names which could be added in this way (known as polyonomy), and, for example, the consul of 169 AD, (usually called Q. Sosius Priscus) had 38 names comprising 14 sets of nomina reflecting a complex pedigree stretching back three generations.[20]

Cognomen replaces praenomen

The praenomen, even under the classic system, had never been particularly distinctive because of the limited number of praenomina available.[21] Between the late Republic and the 2nd century AD, the praenomen gradually became less used and eventually disappeared altogether.[19] Even among the senatorial aristocracy it became a rarity by about 300 AD.[19] In part this came about through a tendency for the same praenomen to be given to all males of a family, thereby fossilizing a particular preaenomen/nomen combination and making the praenomen even less distinctive e.g. all males in the emperor Vespasian's family (including all his sons) had the praenomen/nomen combination Titus Flavius:[22]

The cognomen, as in Vespasian's family, then assumed the distinguishing function for individuals; where this happened, the cognomen replaced the praenomen in intimate address.[22] The result was that two names remained in use for formal public address but instead of praenomen + nomen, it became nomen + cognomen.[22]

Constitutio Antoniniana

With the Constitutio Antoniniana in 212, the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire. It had long been the expectation that when a non-Roman acquired citizenship he, as part of his enfranchisement, took on a Roman name.[23] With the mass enfranchisement of 212, the new citizens adopted the nomen "Aurelius" in recognition of Caracalla’s beneficence[22] (the emperor's full name was Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus, with Aurelius as the nomen). "Aurelius" quickly became the most common nomen in the east and the second most common (after "Julius") in the west.[24] The change in the origins of the new governing elite that assumed control of the empire from the end of the 3rd century can be seen in their names: 7 of the 13 emperors between Gallienus and Diocletian bore the name "Marcus Aurelius"[25]

Although praenomina were not adopted by the new citizens, reflecting the pre-existing decline amongst "old" Romans,[23] in the west the new names were formulated on the same basis as the existing Roman practices.[24] In the east, however, the new citizens formulated their names by placing "Aurelius" before versions of their non-Roman given name and a patronymic.[24] Ultimately, the ubiquity of "Aurelius" meant that it could not function as a true distinguishing nomen, and became primarily just a badge of citizenship added to any name.[24]

Traditional nomen replaced

Although a nomen would long be required for official purposes, and, in isolated corners of the empire and in parts of Italy, its usage would persist into the 7th century, the nomen was generally omitted from the name (even of emperors) by the 3rd century.[26]

Two factors encouraged its frequent non-use. Firstly, the cognomen increasingly became the distinguishing name and general name of address.[26] As a result, "New Romans" and, under their influence, "old Romans" too, either dropped the nomen from their name[26] or, in some cases, treated the nomen as a praenomen.[25]

Secondly, with the nomen becoming an increasingly fossilized formality, non-Italian families, even those who had acquired citizenship and a nomen prior to 212, began to ignore their nomen.[26] When a nomen was required for official purposes they would simply put the default nomen of "Aurelius" in front of their name, rather than use their actual nomen.[26]

See also


  1. ^ Although a few individuals mentioned in relation to the period of and before Rome's legendary foundation in the eighth century BC are known by only a single name, it is equally difficult to discern which of these represent actual historical figures, and if so, whether their names were accurately remembered by the historians who recorded these myths centuries later. Romulus and Remus, together with their foster-father, the herdsman Faustulus, are among those easily remembered; but even supposing that Romulus and Remus are the names of historical persons, they belonged, in theory, to the royal house of the Silvii; or they might have borne no surname because they were said to have been fathered by Mars himself. Meanwhile, Faustulus may represent a mythical personage interjected into Rome's foundation legend; although it may be noted that his name is a diminutive of the Latin praenomen Faustus. Almost all other persons mentioned as part of the traditions surrounding Romulus as the first King of Rome have both praenomen and nomen.[5][3]
  2. ^ Livy refers to this as a cognomen, or "surname," which in later Roman practice was the third element of the Roman tria nomina; but it must be remembered that the word nomen simply means "name," and before the adoption of a second name, this is how the praenomen would have been called; thus, the first surnames adopted would have been known as cognomina before their gradually-increasing importance caused the word nomen to refer to them, while the original personal name became known as the praenomen, or "forename."[4]
  3. ^ In his treatise, De Praenominibus, Valerius Maximus cites Quintus Mucius Scaevola, an authority on Roman law, for the proposition that boys did not receive a praenomen before assuming the Toga virilis, signifying the transition into adulthood, and that girls did not receive a praenomen before marriage.[2] But this appears to refer to some sort of formal ceremony in which a praenomen was granted or confirmed, rather than the original act of naming. The funerary inscriptions of many Romans who died in childhood conclusively demonstrate that Roman children had praenomina.[3]
  4. ^ As usual, there were exceptions to this policy as well; for instance, among the Fabii Maximi, several brothers in a single family were all named Quintus; in the first century AD, the Flavii Sabini all bore the praenomen Titus, but were distinguished in each generation by the use of different cognomina. Also, because praenomina had grammatical gender, a brother and sister could have the same praenomen, in masculine and feminine forms, and still be easily distinguished.
  5. ^ A few exceptions are noted by the ancient historians; for example, supposedly no member of the Junia gens was named Titus or Tiberius after two brothers of this name, sons of the consul Lucius Junius Brutus, were put to death for plotting to restore the Roman monarchy. The Manlia gens is said to have forbidden the use of Marcus after the condemnation of Marcus Manlius Capitolinus;[6] and after the death of Marcus Antonius and the execution of his son, it was decreed that none of the Antonii should ever again be named Marcus. However, all of these supposed prohibitions were subsequently broken.
  6. ^ Although this use of the term gentile has the same origin as the term used to distinguish non-Jews from the Jewish population, its meaning is purely civil, and has nothing to do with ethnic or religious identity; in this use it simply refers to a member of a gens, distinguished by his or her surname, and in this sense the term gentile name is used today without any religious connotation, despite (or perhaps because of) the use of Christian name to refer to personal names. In this sense, Romanized Jews could also be gentiles, and gentiles could be Jewish! This is also the origin of the term gentleman; the association of gentlemen with courtesy developed later.
  7. ^ Also spelled atnepos and atneptis.
  8. ^ Also spelled natus; this could be abbreviated gn., gnat., or, perhaps confusingly, n.
  9. ^ Note that while the names of the father and grandfather are genetive (Quinti filius, Marci nepos), the mother's name is ablative; the translation "born of" is simply idiomatic in English. "Born to" would also be idiomatic, but could imply the dative case.
  10. ^ However, the eldest daughter, who might have been called by her nomen alone for several years, might continue to be so called even after the birth of younger sisters; in this case only the younger sisters might receive distinctive personal names.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (1970), "Names, Personal."
  2. ^ a b c Valerius Maximus, De Praenominibus, epitome by Julius Paris.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, Editor (1897), "Nomen."
  4. ^ a b Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita i. 3.
  5. ^ Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita i. 4–16.
  6. ^ Titus Livius, Ab Urbe Condita vi. 20.
  7. ^ Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft.
  8. ^ Sextus Pompeius Festus, epitome of Marcus Verrius Flaccus, De Verborum Significatu, s.v. "Numerius."
  9. ^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (1970), "Gens."
  10. ^ a b Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, Editor (1897), "Adoption."
  11. ^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (1970), "Adoption."
  12. ^ Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, Editor (1897), "Nomen."
  13. ^ James Chidester Egbert, Jr., Introduction to the Study of Latin Inscriptions (American Book Company, 1896).
  14. ^ George Davis Chase, "The Origin of Roman Praenomina", in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. VIII (1897).
  15. ^ a b c Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, Editor (1897), "Tribus."
  16. ^ a b c Oxford Classical Dictionary, 2nd Ed. (1970), "Tribus."
  17. ^ Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, Second Edition, Harry Thurston Peck, Editor (1897), "Comitia."
  18. ^ Salway, p.145
  19. ^ a b c Salway, p.131
  20. ^ a b c d Salway, p.132
  21. ^ Flower, Harriet (ed.). The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Republic. p. 119.  
  22. ^ a b c d Salway, p.130
  23. ^ a b Salway, p.133
  24. ^ a b c d Salway, p.134
  25. ^ a b Salway, p.136
  26. ^ a b c d e Salway, p.135


  • Cambridge Latin Course, University of Cambridge Press 2004, ISBN 0-521-78230-9
  • Liberati, Anna Maria and Bourbon, Fabio (2005), Barnes and Noble Press, ISBN 0-7607-6234-1
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