The Roman man’s name has three parts: the praenomen, the nomen, and the cognomen:
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Praenomen Nomen Cognomen
The praenomen is the man’s personal name. For the most part, only the immediate family would call a person by his praenomen. There are only a limited number of praenomina which Romans used to name their male children. On inscriptions, the praenomen is usually abbreviated. The following is a list of praenomina and the abbreviation(s) for each:
The eldest son in a family generally assumed the same name as his father. Subsequent sons would take a different praenomen and often a different praenomen from other members of the family or even their mother’s family.
The nomen indicates the family to which the person belonged. Every member of the family had the same nomen. There were many nomina, but some common examples include:
In the late Republic and early Empire, people began to add a third name, the cognomen, to further differentiate people within the family. Although last, these names were not family names (although some only appear with certain nomina). The nomen continued to be the name shared by the entire family. Cognomina were often names that described a particular feature of the first holder of the cognomen (but not necessarily people who inherited that cognomen from an earlier member of the family). For example, Cicero means “chickpea”, Ahenobarbus means “red-bearded”, Quietus means “quiet”, and Crassus means “fat”. In the second and third centuries, it became common for people (especially equestrians and senators) to have more than one cognomen. Some common cognomina include:
Here are some foreign cognomina (for people not of original Roman descent):
Women’s names originally only had one part: a feminine version of their family’s nomen (e.g., Aelia, Claudia, Cornelia, etc.). If parents had more than one daughter, the earliest practice was to assign numbers to their name in order to differentiate between the girls (e.g. Claudia Prima, Claudia Secunda, Claudia Tertia, etc). As the cognomen became more common, daughters’ names were distinguished by varying combinations of nomen and cognomina, rather than by numeration. The cognomina could be derived from the mother’s or father’s family names. Women did not change their name after marriage.
When a child was adopted into another family, he assumed the full name of his new father, but retained his former nomen by converting it into a second cognomen by adding “-anus” to the end of it. For example, the future emperor Octavian was named at birth Gaius Octavius (after his father). When Julius Caesar adopted him, his name became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.
Non-Roman citizens (slaves, provincials, foreigners) generally had only one name. When such people received the citizenship, they adopted the Roman three-part name. Their original name became their cognomen (sometimes in Romanized form) and their praenomen and nomen were taken from the person who granted them the citizenship. For example, if a man named Publius Cornelius Scipio freed a slave named Botar, Botar’s name became Publius Cornelius Botar, freedman of Publius. Imperial freedmen (a very common type of freedman, often with high standing in society as well as some money) received the praenomen and nomen of the reigning emperor. The following is a list of imperial names from the first two centuries:
The same holds true for freeborn provincials who received the citizenship either from an emperor’s patronage, widespread enfranchisement of a certain geographical region, or through military service in the auxiliaries. Like imperial freedmen, the new citizens assumed the praenomen and nomen of the reigning emperor. For example, Augustus granted citizenship to a German chieftain named Herman. Herman Romanized his name and became Gaius Julius Arminius. Arminius was quite famous, because he later led his tribe in revolt against Rome and destroyed three legions in the Black Forest.
There are plenty of sites on the web that talk about Roman names. To find some good ones, search Yahoo (or whatever site) for something like "Roman cognomina" (click here to run the search in Yahoo for some sites that look pretty good to me). Also, look at the examples of family inscriptions in the database on this site for some real-life examples of families and names:
Also, feel free to e-mail me with question (email@example.com).
Last Updated 01/31/2003