A male Roman citizen typically
had three names, a praenōmen, nōmen and cognōmen,
i.e. a name which precedes (prae) the (family) name, the (family)
name, and the name which comes with (cum) the (family) name.
The praenōmen was used by family and close friends; in public
contexts, the nōmen or cognōmen might be used, or both
together. More formally, the father’s name and that of the tribe might
be added: for example, M(arcus) Tullius M(arcī)
f(īlius) Cor(nēliā tribū) Cicerō,
Marcus Tullius Cicero, son of Marcus, from the Cornelian tribe.
At the end of the Republic, only 18 praenōmina were current, though 15 more are known from earlier times. Gaius, Lūcius, Marcus, Publius and Quintus were much the commonest and, conversely, others (marked with an asterisk) are found almost exclusively in only a few, mostly patrician, families:
|A. Aulus||Ap. Appius*|
|C. Gaius||Cn. Gnaeus|
|D. Decimus||K. Kaesō*|
|L. Lūcius||M. Marcus|
|Mam. Māmercus*||M’. Mānius*|
|N. Numerius*||P. Publius|
|Q. Quintus||Ser. Servius*|
|S(ex). Sextus||Sp. Spurius*|
|T. Titus||Ti. Tiberius|
Roman praenōmina may
seem very restricted to us, but a Roman would find our abbreviations
peculiarly vague. Without further guidance, he could not fully
identify M. Jordan, M. Monroe, M. Mouse or M. Proust, whereas M. Tullius
Cicero is unambiguous.
The letter G was said
to have been invented in the 3rd cent. BC as a modification of C,
which continued to be used in the abbreviations for Gaius and
Gnaeus. The invention is usually credited to one Carvilius, a freedman
reported, rather improbably, to have been the first person to teach
for a fee in Rome. (His former owner, the consular Sp. Carvilius Ruga
Maximus, notoriously divorced his wife c. 230 BC on the grounds that
she was sterile, and that he could not therefore assure the censors
that he was married for the purpose of procreation.)
The nōmen denoted the
family to which a person belonged. Nearly all nōmina end in
-ius; for example, Tullius, Iūlius, Antōnius,
Horātius, Ovidius, Propertius, Vergilius.
A distinguished exception is Annaeus, the family name of the
The origin of most nōmina
is lost to us, but it seems reasonable to asume that Ovid’s ancestors
were sheep-herders (ovis, -is fem. 3 “sheep”) in his
native Abruzzi, an area in which sheep-farming is traditional; see Gabriele
D’Annunzio’s famous poem, I Pastori. Ovid’s step-daughter
married P. Suillius Rufus (“red-haired”), who became consul in AD
43 or 45; his family may have made their money from pigs (sūs,
suis common 3 “pig”, and note also suīle, -is
neut. 3 “pig-sty”). (Her other husband, Cornelius Fidus, once burst
into tears in the senate when Domitius Corbulo, Nero’s great general,
called him a “plucked ostrich” [strūthocamēlus dēpilātus],
a choice spark of personal invective of the sort that may have led to
many of the less complimentary cognōmina.) The same background
in pig-farming can be surmised for the family of M. Porcius Cato.
Other such nōmina hinting
at a family involvement in animal husbandry are Asinius (asinus,
-i masc. 2 “donkey”; e.g. C. Asinius Pollio, an early patron
of Vergil), Hirtius (hirtus, -i masc. 2 “billy-goat”;
e.g. A. Hirtius, consul in 43 BC), Vitellius (vitellus, -i
masc. 2 “calf”; e.g. A. Vitellius, emperor for several weeks in
AD 69). cognōmina could start as whimsical nicknames. In Varro’s
treatise on farming, the Dē Rē
Rusticā, advice on care of the pig is given by Cn. Tremellius Scrofa
(“Sow”). Varro enjoys rather obvious puns: cows are discussed by
one Vaccius, aviaries by L. Cornelius Merula (“Blackbird”). Varro’s
Scrofa, however, says explicitly: cognosce meam gentem suillum cognōmen
nōn habēre, nec mē esse ab Eumaeō
ortum “Know that my family does not have a piggy cognomen
and that I am not a descendant of Eumaeus [Odysseus’ pig-man]”.
He explains his cognōmen as having been awarded to his grandfather
ex virtūte when, on campaign in Macedonia, he had made good a boast
that he would scatter the enemy as a scrofa scatters her piglets.
There is, however, another version: an early Tremellius had hidden a
neighbor’s pig under the blankets of the bed in which his wife was
sleeping, and, when the neighbor came to search for it, he swore that
the only scrofa in the house was the one lying in the bed. In
his speeches against C. Verres, Cicero puns repeatedly on verrēs
(“boar”), but makes a laudatory reference to Scrofa as Cn. Tremellius.
In the 2nd or 3rd century AD, one M. Porcius Aper served as a tribūnus
mīlitum with the 6th legion.
Names which to us might seem
odd, even humorous, often lose their literal force. Ovid refers to himself
by name more often than does any other ancient poet, always as Nāsō
“Nosey”; Helmut Kohl (“Cabbage”) was chancellor of [West] Germany
for 16 years (and his nickname was Birne [“pear”]). There
was another Naso, M. Actorius Naso, a 1st cent. BC historian twice cited
by Suetonius in his Life of Julius Caesar.
The cognōmen specified
the particular branch of the family to which a man belonged and, like
the praenōmen, helped identify him as an individual. For example,
the Cornelii had at least nine branches. By contrast to praenōmina,
there was great variety in cognōmina. They could be derived
from many sources, but the most notable are those given ex virtūte,
indicating military achievement (e.g. P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus,
the cognōmen Africānus being in honor of his victory
over Hannibal at Zama in 202 BC) and those indicating adoption (e.g.
P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Africanus Numantinus, who took the full
name of his adoptive father, the son of the victor of Zama, together
with the cognōmen Aemiliānus, indicating his origins,
as the son of L. Aemilius Paullus, the victor over Perseus of Macedon
at Pydna in 168. [He himself assumed the honorific cognōmen Numantīnus
after he put an end to resistance to Rome in Iberia by his taking of
the small, but important, town of Numantia in 133]).
Some cognōmina are
flattering, as, for example, Ap. Claudius Pulcher (“handsome”)
or L. Cornelius Sulla Fēlix (“fortunate”). Others are distinctly
not so: an ancestor of the poet P. Ovidius Nāsō presumably
had a big nose; of the poet Q. Horatius Flaccus, floppy ears;
of P. Quinctilius Vārus, the general who lost three legions
in the Teutoburg disaster of AD 9, bandy legs.
No cognōmen was as
evocative as Caesar. Some said that an early member of the family
had been born by Caesarian section (caedō, -ere, cecīdī,
caesum 3 “cut”; (the praenōmen Kaesō will have
had the same origin), or that he had single-handedly killed an elephant
in battle (casai being Moorish or caesa Punic for “elephant”),
or that he had eyes of a remarkable grey-blue colour (caesius,
-a, -um), or that he already had a full head of hair (caesariēs,
caesariēī f. 5) at birth. Caesar may have been particularly
pleased by this last explanation, for he himself was practically bald,
a fact which he took pains to disguise by wearing a laurel wreath on
all possible occasions. (The right to wear this wreath was said to have
been the most gratifying of all the honors bestowed on him by the senate
and people.) It has been suggested that the name is actually derived
from the Etruscan city of Caere (in Etruscan Caesre).
There was no limit to the number
of cognōmina an individual might possess, but no one else comes
close to Q. Pompeius Senecio ... (etc., etc.) ... Sosius Priscus, consul
in AD 169, who had 36, as is known from a commemorative inscription
found at Tivoli. (That Iūlius is used three times, and Sīlius
twice, will have made it that much easier for him to remember his name.)
Not all Romans had a cognōmen.
For example, C. Marius, seven times consul and Julius Caesar’s uncle
by marriage, Cn. Pompeius, until his army acclaimed him as Magnus in
81 BC, M. Antonius, the triumvir, T. Livius, the historian, A. Vitellius,
emperor briefly in AD 69. (After Antony’s defeat by Octavian [Augustus],
the Senate decreed that no Antonius should bear the praenōmen
Marcus.) Certain types of cognōmina later became known as
agnōmina (ad + nōmen; i.e. names added to the (family)
name (and usually to other cognōmina).
Modern usage is generally to
refer to less familiar figures by their nōmen and cognōmen.
Certain famous persons are known by their nōmen (e.g. Lucretius,
Propertius, Petronius) or by an Anglicized version of it (e.g. Vergil,
Horace, Ovid), others by their cognōmen, either without change
(e.g. Caesar, Catullus, Cicero) or with slight change (e.g. Catiline,
praenōmina are almost
never used: notable exceptions are made to distinguish between the Gracchi
brothers and to denote Sextus Pompey, who saw his father butchered on
the beach in Egypt after Pharsalus and continued the struggle against
the 2nd triumvirate till the mid-30s. (Rather confusingly, he adopted
the name Magnus Pompeius Magnī fīlius Pius.) The Anglicized form Mark
Antony is probably influenced by Shakespeare.
The choice between the various
combinations of praenōmina, nōmina and cognōmina
seems arbitrary, but is adhered to fairly rigidly in individual cases:
the playwright Terence (P. Terentius Afer) is never called Terentius
or Afer or Terentius Afer, whereas the great scholar Varro (M. Terentius
Varro) is never called Terence, though he is occasionally Terentius
Varro; to refer to Ovid as Naso or to Vergil as Maro is antiquated;
to call Cicero Tully has long gone out of fashion, while Sallust (C.
Sallustius Crispus) has never been known as Crispy, and M. Porcius Cato
has always been known as Cato.
The emperor Augustus had a
particularly complex name. He was born as C. Octāvius. As a
child, he was given the cognōmen Thūrīnus, either because
his family was from Thurii (in S. Italy) or because his father had defeated
remnants of the partisans of Spartacus and Catiline there. On his adoption
by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, he became C. Iūlius C. f(īlius)
Caesar Octāviānus. He himself never used the cognōmen
Octāviānus, though he was so called by his contemporaries, and
he is still known as Octavian if reference is being made to the period
of his life before 27 BC, when he became Augustus. He also dropped
Iūlius, preferring to have the cognōmen Caesar as
his nōmen. After the deification of Julius Caesar, he restyled
his name to C. Caesar Dīvī f. (i.e. “son of a god”). He
preferred to use the further cognōmen Imperātor in the
place of his praenōmen. When the Senate gave him the title
Augustus, his name reached its definitive version, Imperātor
Caesar Dīvī f. Augustus.
One Greek source suggests that
Augustus initially had the cognōmen Caepiās (perhaps
from caepa, -ae fem. 1 “onion” [cf. e.g. Cicero
from cicer, ciceris neut. 3 “chick-pea”, Pīsō
from Pīsum, -ī neut. 2 “pea”]; Caepiō,
presumably cognate, occurs quite frequently as a cognōmen, and
was for a time the official nōmen of M. Junius Brutus, the most
prominent of Caesar’s murderers).
Nothing illustrates the low
status of women so vividly as the fact that they were usually known
only by the feminine form of the family nomen (e.g. Tullia,
Iūlia, Semprōnia), without even a praenōmen, except
that Maior, Minor, Tertia, Quarta etc. would be
used to distinguish between sisters. In the late Republic, it became
more frequent for women to be known by the feminine form of the family
nōmen and by the cognōmen in the genitive case; e.g.
Tullia Cicerōnis. In modern Greece an unmarried woman’s surname
is the family name in the genitive case, and most Slavic countries have
a comparable system.
Women generally did not change
their name when they married. Many married women referred to in inscriptions
have the same name as their husbands, presumably because they had both
been slaves in the same household, or because freedwomen had married
their former owners. Cicero’s first wife was called Terentia; she
seems to have lived to the age of 103, with subsequent marriages to
the historian Sallust and to M. Valerius Messalla Corvinus. Messalla
was not only a successful military commander, but an important patron
of literature, a rival in this respect to C. Maecenas, whose wife was
also called Terentia; it would be fascinating to know what relation,
if any, there was between the two women.
Curious forms such as Gāipor,
Lūcipor, Marcipor (= Gaiī
puer, Lūciī puer, Marcī
puer) attest that in early times slaves had little personal identity.
Later, they had a single name, but their owner’s name might be appended,
as e.g. Fēlix Antōniī (servus), “Felix, the slave
of Antonius”. There was a broad range of slave names, a large proportion
being Greek. (It would enhance a slave’s value to suggest an origin
in such a civilized part of the Empire.) If a slave was freed, he typically
took the praenōmen and nōmen of his ex-master, but retained
his slave-name as his cognōmen. Herodes Atticus (who built the
Odeon at Athens) called a group of his slaves by the names of the letters
of the alphabet, which they wore on the back of their tunics to help
his son to learn to read.