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.