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Republican Roman Names
by J. A. Geary

Noble Romans in the time of the Republic generally had three names, though they are seldom remembered by all three today. Julius Caesar was Gaius Julius Caesar and Cicero was Marcus Tullius Cicero for example.

The first two names, the praenomen and nomen, were much like first and last names in our time. The nomen was the gens name, like our family name, passed from a father to all of his children. Just like today, certain family names carried more prestige than others. The aristocrats, the descendants of the original ruling class from the time of the kings, were Etruscan in origin and represented only about 20 families. Claudius, Julius and Cornelius are examples of aristocratic Roman names. The plebians, or commoners, were considered noble if a member of their family was elected to the rank of consul, or ruling magistrate. Clodius, Annius and Marius are examples of noble plebian names.

A boy was given a praenomen name at birth and was known by it to his family and close friends. However, there were only about 15 praenomen in common usage among Roman families and only two or three of these might be used by a particular family. For example, most Julius boys were either Sextus or Gaius. As you may have noticed, all the truly Roman praenomen and nomen ended in the letters "us," even the ones often given different endings in modern translations. Limited possibilities meant that in an extended family there might be many men and boys with exactly the same praenomen and nomen. At least some help in distinguishing between one Gaius Julius and another was provided by the cognomen, the third name.

A Roman's cognomen might refer to some physical characteristic. For example Rufus meant "red-haired" and Strabo referred to crossed eyes. Some were awarded by the Senate in honor of achievement or a military victory. Africanus referred to military victories in Africa and Magnus and Augustus were titles of distinction. Some seemed almost ironic or mocking. Brutus translates as "animal stupidity" and Caepio as "onion-vender." Each of these cognomen was carried with distinction by more than one Roman, however.

The cognomen might be handed down to a man's children, or it might not. The father of Pompey the Great (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus to his fellow Romans) was cognomened Strabo, even though he was a military leader. Gnaeus Pompeius the son started campaigning early to make another name for himself. Brothers might have different cognomen; the brother of historical writer, Gaius Asinius Pollio was cognomened Maruscinus. However, both the well-known Roman statesman Marcus Tullius and his military strategist brother Quintus carried their father's cognomen of Cicero. The meaning of "chickpea" may have referred to the family's origins as farmers in Arpinum, south of Rome, or to a curiously shaped tip on an ancestor's nose. Whatever the original meaning, Marcus ignored those who advised him to change it if he had any hope for a career in politics, made the name famous and carried it with honor.

A slave freed by his master adopted the master's first two names and added his own slave name as cognomen. For example, Marcus Tullius Tiro was the freed slave secretary of Marcus Tullius Cicero. We might think that the descendants of freed slaves might so become mixed up with the kin of their wealthy former masters, but letters of the time seem to indicate that the Romans kept the origins of the families sorted out in their own minds.

Slaves, male and female, were named whatever their masters chose to call them much as we name our pets. We know more about the slaves of wealthy Romans than we do the underclass in most societies because the Romans' admiration for competence seems to have often overridden their snobbery. Slave origin did not prevent the playwrite Terence (Publius Terentius Afer) becoming renowned, and Tiro was recognized for developing a system of shorthand to use in recording Cicero's speeches. Indeed, the civil wars that ended the Republican Period, the proscriptions and repeated assassinations that decimated aristocratic and noble families, meant that during the empire many senators and even emperors had slaves in their lineage.

In the Republican Roman household, Greek-sounding names were fashionable for slaves, whatever their country of origin. Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the dictator, named a favored slave Chrysogonus "golden one," perhaps after a character in a play by Menander. Slaves might be named after their place of origin, from their physical appearance or from their master's name. Marcipor translates as "Marius' boy," for example.

Women carried, as their legal names, only the feminine form of their father's nomen. For example, all the daughters of all the Julius family were legally named Julia. A woman might also use a form of her father's cognomen and so be known as Julia Caesaria. In practice, the second daughter of the family might be called Minoria, and the third Tertia, for "minor" and "third." By the first century CE women might be known by more modern, often Greek-sounding names like "Helena." Modern writers speculate that, within the family, women and girls had personal names like modern nicknames, but we have no records confirming this practice from the Republican period.

The modern reader isn't required to be able to decipher a character's family tree from his name in order to enjoy reading about Republican Rome. Indeed, popular authors from the 1950s and 1960s often seem not to have been too knowledgeable themselves, so it doen't pay to hold the character's names in these books to too strict a standard. However, in reading modern fiction with settings of this period, and in deciphering history, familiarity with the Roman "rules" of naming adds another dimension to the story.

The illustration on this page is a composite of the official moneyers' signature from several denarii of the Roman Republican period. The names seen here follow the Roman practice of abbreviating the praenomen with one initial or the first two letters. The purppose was not to abbreviate the name, as is done in modern society, but was the correct, formal and legal form of the name. Most popular praenomina were always represented with a standard abbreviation on official documents and inscriptions. For example, Gaius was abbreviated C or G, Cnaeus was CN, etc. while Sextus was spelled out in its entirety.

If you would like to see images of each of these coins, please visit the Roman Republican coins area of this site.     -- Jay King

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