This is how Roman names worked!

When we think of ancient Rome we automatically think of men like Caius Julius Caesar, Marcus Tullius Cicero, or Augustus (a.k.a. Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus).

But while we know these names and the achievements of the men carrying these names one question remains.

How did roman names work? And why did some Romans have 3 and others 4 names? And what about female Romans and freed slaves! How were they named? All these questions shall be answered in the following article.

Male roman names consisted of a first name, a family name (nomen gentile), and one or multiple cognomen that could be used to differentiate between different branches within a clan but could also be a nickname or an honorary name. Female names were the feminized form of their nomen gentile while freed slaves kept their slave name as a cognomen and took on their masters first- and family name.

Let`s find out more!

How did male roman names work?

One typical problem that made it necessary for roman names to be so long and confusing was a certain simplicity when it came to naming children. First names like Publius, Quintus, of Caius were extremely popular.

Another problem that went hand in hand with the first one was that especially the families of the Roman nobility, more on the different social classes of Rome here, were extremely branched so just one first name and one family name would often not clarify the name situation.

Just think about it. Let`s say the Cornelia family (the Gens Cornelia, more on the family names later) has 10 members that are all called Publius and who are all serving in different political offices.

How would you be able to differentiate between them?

To be able to differentiate between individual family members with the same first name the Romans came up with a naming system that consisted of the first name (the praenomen), the family name (the nomen gentile), and either one or several additional names (cognomen).

Let`s take a separate look at the meanings and the importance of the first name, the family name, and additional names.

First name (=praenomen)

Popular first names in ancient Rome included:

  • Quintus
  • Caius
  • Gnaeus
  • Aulus
  • Publius
  • Titus
  • Tiberius
  • Appius
  • Lucius
  • Marcus

Many roman names are still used today. Just think about how many people called Marcus you know.

When it comes to first names the Romans might not have been the most creative so the topic can be quickly enclosed. So let`s move on to the family names.

Family name (=nomen gentile)

When we talk about roman family names we have to realize that these names and belonging to a family had much more important than today. To be successful in Roman politics you had to be a part of a rather small circle of noble families.

If you weren`t you had almost no chance of reaching important political offices.

Please check out my article here for more information on the political offices of the Roman republic and the requirements a man had to meet to run for office.

So when it comes to roman nobility it might be more precise to talk about the name of clans rather than families when we talk about the nomen gentile. One of the results of that clan-like structure was that these families could be rather large.

Famous and important families/clans (also called gentes) were the

  • Gens Julia (to which Caius Julius Caesar belonged)
  • Gens Cornelia (to which Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus belonged)
  • Gens Aemilia (to which Marcus Aemilius Lepidus belonged)
  • Gens Claudia
  • Gens Antonia (to which Marc Antony (originally Marcus Antonius) belonged)
  • Gens Sempronia
  • Gens Licinia (to which Marcus Licinius Crassus belonged)

By the way. The last-mentioned clan, the Gens Licinia is a prime example of why cognomen were necessary.

The Gens Licinia was divided into several branches, Marcus Licinius Crassus belonged to the „Crassi“-branch but there was also the „Luculli“-branch. A famous member of the latter was general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

So let`s now dive into the 4 possible ways a cognomen could develop.

Additional names / roman Cognomen and their origins

Additional to the first name and the family name many noble Romans also had one or multiple cognomens.

A Cognomen to keep different branches of a clan apart

Especially when talking about large clans with several different branches like the Gens Cornelia it made sense to give different families within the clan an additional cognomen.

The famous general Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus for example had the first name Publius, belonged to the Gens Cornelia and to the branch that held the cognomen Scipio, and had Africanus as his second cognomen.

Please keep reading for more information on why and how he earned his second cognomen.

A Cognomen as a nickname

A cognomen could easily develop from a nickname or a describing feature of the man who would bear the name.

For example, the already mentioned Marcus Tullius Cicero had the first name Marcus, belonged to the gens Tullia (his family/clan), and had the nickname Cicero. Cicero comes from the word „cicer“ which means chick-pea and could be a hint at a special way of giggling.

Other nicknames could be

  • Brutus (=the ugly one)
  • Barbatus (= the bearded one)
  • Postumus (= born after the death of his father).

But there were also nicknames like Caesar, Cato, Scipio, of Gracchus.

Additionally, some men also gave themselves nicknames. Gnaeus Pompey for example called himself Magnus (= the Great) probably because of his military successes and as an allusion to Alexander the Great.

Others called themself Felix (= the fortunate).

A Cognomen through Adoption

Adoption was pretty common in ancient Rome and made the already large and enmeshed family structures even larger and more enmeshed.

Especially the Roman nobility saw adoption as a good tool to on the one hand find a worthy successor and on the other hand as an option for families with many sons to inherit the family fortune to only one son while the other sons would be adopted by other roman noblemen.

Famous adopted political figures in ancient Rome are for example the first emperor Augustus and the adoptive emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Lucius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius.

The major benefit of adopting a successor was that the current emperor could pick the most suitable man and was not limited to his sons. The 5 adopted emperors Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius, Lucius Verus, and Marcus Aurelius are often described as the five god emperors while the rule of Commodus, the biological son of Marcus Aurelius broke the tradition of adopted emperors and ended the golden period of peace.

It is actually pretty easy to spot an adopted roman nobleman when you look at his full name.

Let`s take the famous Augustus for example:

Augustus was born as Caius Octavius and was adopted by Caius Julius Caesar. That changed his name to Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus. So whenever you see a roman name ending on „-ianus“ you can be pretty sure that the man was adopted.

The same can be seen when looking at the names of the already mentioned adopted emperors.

Antoninus Pius had the full name Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius. You can clearly see by the Hadrianus part of his name that he was adopted by emperor Hadrian (who in return had been adopted by emperor Trajan).

A Cognomen as a sign of Triumph or political office

The last option was that a Cognomen could also be granted as a special honor for outstanding military success.

That kind of recognition was especially important since the main currency in the political structure of Rome was social prestige. That desire for social prestige was also the reason why Roman generals were so keen on holding Triumphs, more on that here.

An even more obvious option to present that kind of social prestige was a Cognomen. Let`s look at an example.

After Hannibal had been defeated in the battle of Zama in 202 BC during the Second Punic War, more on how Rome became a global power through the Punic Wars here, the victorious Roman general received a special cognomen to honor his achievement.

Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus got his second Cognomen „Africanus“ for his victory against Hannibal in the battle of Zama in 202 BC. Since the battle was fought in Africa he earned the cognomen „Africanus“.

So when a general was able to win a large enough victory he would be honored by a cognomen that represented the defeated people. A victory over the Parthians would result in the cognomen Parthicus, a victory over a germanic tribe in the cognomen Germanicus.

That by the way is also the reason why many roman emperors carried a lot of cognomens like Germanicus or Asiaticus.

The other, much less common option was to earn a cognomen through political office. Once again, that was extremely uncommon and I could only tell you of one person.

And that person is Marcus Porcius Cato Censorius. Let`s dissect that name. Marcus was his first name, he belonged to the Gens Porcia, his first cognomen was Cato (indicating common sense) and his second cognomen referred to the office of Censor that he met with great commitment.

Do you wonder what tasks the censor had and why it was an office with great importance although it did not hold the authority to command armies and was seen as the end of a political career? Here you can find my article with the answers!

How did female roman names work?

So we found out that Romans weren`t that imaginative when it came to male first names. But when it came to female first names they were even less imaginative.

Usually, the female members of the Roman nobility just got a first name. And that first name was usually the feminized family name. So the daughter of Caius Julius Caesar, a member of the Gens Julia (=Julius-Family) was called Julia.

And a daughter of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus would usually be named Cornelia since the family name (nomen gentile) was Cornelius.

I know that is not really creative but the benefit for us is that it is rather easy to find out into which noble roman family a woman was born.

And when we want a more difficult experience we can always turn to the names of freed slaves. Since Rome offered certain social mobility even for former slaves, more on that here, freed slaves could not just keep their slave name.

How were freed slaves named in ancient Rome?

It is important to realize that just because a slave was freed he was still closely bound to his former owner through the Patronage system.

After a slave was released he would no longer be the property of his master but he would remain the client of his former owner who would now be in the role of his patron.

That kind of patronage system was not a one-way street but a clever system with bilateral benefits. But that is a story for another time. And that bond between the former slaveowner and the former slave also showed in the name that the freed slave would get.

A freed slave would take on the first name and family name of his former master while keeping his slave name as the cognomen. So when Tiro, the private secretary of Marcus Tullius Cicero, was freed he got the name Marcus Tullius Tiro.

By the way, slave names in general often allow us a certain insight into the geographical origins of the slave. A slave named who was named after the Greek god Hermes usually had Greek origins. The same obviously goes for Celtic, Oriental, or Germanic names.

And even Roman names can give us some insight on if the name bearer was an original Roman or if his name was romanized.

How to find out if a name is Roman or romanized!

Roman male names usually ended on „-us“. But the first part of the name usually gives a good first idea if the bearer was originally roman or romanized.

For example, a man called Actumerus has a name that ends on „us“. But the „Actumer“, the first part of the name, is clearly not of Roman but of Germanic origin.

So we have a first hint that a man called Actumerus was probably a romanized member of a germanic tribe. That kind of romanization was not uncommon. Especially since many Germanic warriors served in the Roman auxiliary, more on that here.

By the way, names like „Dumnorix“ that ended on „ix“ are usually a sign of Gallic or Celtic origins.

I hope you enjoyed our trip into the fascinating world of Roman names.

Take care of yourself because you deserve it. You really do.

Until next time

Yours truly

Luke Reitzer


Propyläen Weltgeschichte, (Hg. G. Mann, A. Heuß), Bd. 4.