*The examples given here will deal with Marcus Tullius Cicero and his daughter Tullia

Names For Boys

The name of every Roman man consisted of three parts at least:

The first name ('Marcus' in our example) is the personal name, usually a Roman firstborn will be named after his grandfather. The Romans had a narrow supply of first names (about 30). This name was considered to be the least important name of the three.

The third name ('Cicero' in our example) is the family name or Cognomen, and indicates the nucleus family. It often describes one aspect or another of the family (Cicero for instance means hummus, and it is possible that in some point or another the family made its living from selling hummus). The Cognomen is more important than the first name, as it indicate some of the familial ties of a person, but it is not as important as the second name.

The second name ('Tullius' in our example) is the Nomen Gentis, and is the most important of these names as it indicates the Gens to which the man belongs and thus has great political and social meaning. The Gens (which might be translated as 'clan') is a group of families, connected to each other with historic and mythic ties. The Gens usually goes back to a mythical ancestor and founder (in our case: Tullus)

Any further name of a man is either a title given to him by the state, or (rarely) inherited from his parents. These could be descriptions of political offices that man has carried (for example Gaius Iulius Caesar Dictator), nations he has vanquished (Tiberius Claudius Drusus Germanicus), or significant points in his public service (Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator - the hesitant).

In cases of adoption the nomen gentis and the cognomen of a person will change to that of his adopting family, however, to mark the fact that he was not actually born to this gens, his old nomen gentis will be added to his name after his new cognomen incorporating the component -an- (Thus Gaius Octavius Drusus changed to Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus)

Names For Girls

Women had no personal name or Cognomen (In the later Republic some married women also began to be referred by a cognomen- usually that of their husbands). They carried only their Nomen Gentis. Thus Marcus Tullius Cicero's daughter was called Tullia. Had he had more than one daughter, his eldest would be called Tullia Prima (the first Tullia) and then Tullia Secunda, Tullia Tertia (second, third) etc.

Roman names consisted of several parts :

An example of a Roman name is P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus:

P. is the praenomen (Publius).
Cornelius is the nomen. The gens Cornelia was an old patrician family.
Scipio is the cognomen, inherited from his father.
Africanus refers to his conquests in North Africa.

Credits: The praenomen list comes from http://www.novaroma.org/via_romana/names2.html
Just to add a few footnotes to thbz's outstanding writeup:

1: There were a few other (very rare) praenomina - Mamercus, Postumus, and Vopsicus. The praenomina were abbrieviated in Roman inscriptions as follows:

  • A. - Aulus
  • Ap. (App.) - Appius
  • K. - Caeso
  • C. - Gaius
  • Cn. - Gnaeus
  • D. - Decimus
  • L. - Lucius
  • M. - Marcus
  • Mam. - Mamercus
  • M'. - Manius
  • N. - Numerius
  • P. - Publius
  • Q. - Quintus
  • Ser. - Servius
  • S. (Sex.) - Sextus
  • Sp. - Spurius
  • T. - Titus
  • Ti. - Tiberius
  • V. - Vibius

2: Adoption was very common in Ancient Rome, especially for political or pecuniary purposes. When Roman men were adopted they took on the nomen and cognomen of their new father, and frequently added a fourth name (or agnomen) indicating their original gens. Thus when Gaius Octavius (the future emperor Augustus) was adopted by Julius Caesar, he became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, which we shorten in English to Octavian.

3: When Roman men wanted to be very precise, they would give the first names of their father and grandfather and their ancient tribe on top of their own three or four names. Thus the most formal way to identify Marcus Tullius Cicero would be to introduce him as Marcus Tullius Marci filius Marci nepos Cornelia tribu Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero, son of Marcus, grandson of Marcus, of the tribe Cornelius).

4: Officially women only had one name: their nomen. Thus, whether Marcus Antonius had one daughter or fifteen, they would all have been called "Antonia." It is true that women were often distinguished by birth order (by adding "Maxima," "Secunda" "Minor," "Tertia," etc.) but with very common family names such as Julia or Cornelia there was still much potential for confusion, as thousands of "Julia Secundas" must have been floating around. One way this confusion began to be resolved in the late Republic was the practice of women taking on the name of their husbands or fathers, in the genitive case, for example Postumia Servi Sulpicii (Postumia, wife of Servius Sulpicius) or Caecilia Metelli ( Caecilia, daughter of Metellus). In the period of the empire, women increasingly began to acquire their own cognomina and even new feminine versions of the praenomina.

The average male Roman name was always composed of at least two, often three, and sometimes more well defined parts:

  • Praenomen: This was equivalent to what a first name would be today. Thus, to give a very famous example, Julius Caesar's full name was actually Gaius Julius Caesar. These were taken from a very small pool, and include such names as Marcus, Lucius, Gaius and Quintus. They tend to be dropped in modern documents for reasons of brevity.

  • Nomen: This would be the family name, equivalent roughly to our modern "last" names. Julius was the nomen of the gens or clan Julia, Antonius (of Mark Anthony fame) the nomen of the clan Antonia, etcetera.

  • Cognomen: This was a part added by a man to his name for a two main reasons: in order to distinguish himself from other, distant members of his family, usually by choosing a cognomen relating to some personal charecteristic; or in order to distinguish himself and his descendants to commemorate some great feat. The cognomen Caesar, meaning "a fine head of hair" was of the first variety, and, like many cognomina, was ironic: the family was actually prone to baldness. Brutus, another famous cognomen meaning stupid or animally dumb, is another such cognomen adopted by a man famous for his shrewdness. The famous Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio, on the other hand, adopted the cognomen Africanus to commemorate his victory over Carthage, and his descendants inherited it (he had already had one - Scipio was a cognomen - but that was not an impediment).

Here's the funny thing, though. Women from the Roman famous families did not seem to have the equivalent of the praenomen or first name. The women in Caesar's family - his paternal aunt, his two sister, his own daughter and his granddaughter by adoption, the daughter of the Emperor Augustus - were all called Julia: named after the gens, and although they may have had family nicknames to distinguish them from one another, they had no personal names of their own. The same is true of the great noblewoman and model of Roman virtue, Cornelia the Mother of the Gracchi, who was the daughter of Africanus, but whom he named simply after his own nomen of Cornelius. The same is true again of the Empress Livia, and of the daughter of Augustus's famous general Agrippa (named Agrippina).

In some cases women were called by the nomen and the cognomen of their fathers, such as in the case of the Dictator Sulla's thrid wife Caecilia Dalmatica (daughter of a Caecilius cognominated Dalmaticus) and his granddaughter Pompeia Sulla. There are no cases I can ferret out of women actually having names the equivalent of a male nomen: no Gaias, Lucias or Quintas. Not in the late Republican and early Imperial Rome I'm most familiar with, anyway. I'm guessing that in later times, with the influence of foreign cultures, things can be shown to have changed.

Now, a Republican Roman noblewoman was the complete chattel of her male relatives. She passed from the authority of her father to that of her husband, and in the case of his death to that of her sons or some other male relative. They wielded complete control over her life, including being allowed to beat her or kill her outright for disobeying or dishonouring them. She had no rights under law, could not testify for herself in a law court and could not inherit (although legal loopholes for that predicament were occasionally found). Women did have their own dowries, protected by law, but in case of divorce - notoriously common in Roman society - these were quite often embezzled by their husbands.

I have only recently noticed this peculiarity of Roman nomenclature, and on the background of women's general disempowerment in ancient Rome, I find it quite disturbing. It's impossible to say at this remove what the lives of Roman women were actually like - I'm sure some husbands and fathers were more loving, respectful and lenient than a look at the surface of custom and law indicates. However, I find myself distressed at this eradication of half the population from the history of Rome. If they cannot even be distinguished by name, how are we ever to appreciate the lives and deeds of the mothers and wives of all these legendary heroes?


I have used the excellent glossary at the back of Colleen McCullough's epic The First Man in Rome to verify spellings, but otherwise this is written from general knowledge.

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