History and Culture: Roman Naming Conventions

What’s in a name? In this chapter, we were introduced to a colorful cast of characters, all of them young Latin students at different stages of their education. As they chat amongst themselves, they pose some fairly basic questions to each other: how are you doing, how old are you, and so on. First and foremost, though, they ask each other for their names: Quid nomen est tibi? While Corinna, Marcus, Lea, and the others all have names familiar to us in the 21st century, the ancient Romans had ways of naming themselves which can seem at once familiar and alien.

Typically, a male Roman citizen of the republic and early empire would have two or three names (e.g. Marcus Tullius Cicero), depending on various factors, including where they were from and their socio-economic status. Roman women typically had one or two names (e.g. Gaius Julius Caesar’s daughter, simply named Iulia), while slaves and lower-class Romans (e.g. Cicero’s secretary and slave Tiro), especially those living in the provinces, often had only one.

The structure of Cicero’s full name, Marcus Tullius Cicero, is typical for an aristocratic male citizen of the late republic and early empire. His first name Marcus, the praenōmen, would have been given to him by his parents shortly after birth, while his second and third names, the nōmen gentilicium and cognōmen, were family names that more specifically identified him as a member of the Cicero branch of the Tullius family. Although the choice of a praenōmen lay freely with individual parents, there were still only about a dozen or so names that were actually in common use by the end of the republic. These names were so common and familiar to a Roman audience that they could easily be abbreviated both in manuscripts and inscriptions:

Aulus (A.)

Gnaeus (Cn.)

Lūcius (L.)

Mārcus (M.)

Pūblius (P.)

Quīntus (Q.)

Sextus (Sex.)

Tiberius (Ti.)

Titus (T.)

A citizen’s name would often be written out in a slightly different way in formal settings such as for monumental inscriptions. Consider how Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa’s name is written on the 1st century BC inscription on the Pantheon:


That is: “MARCUS AGRIPPA, SON OF LUCIUS, CONSUL FOR THE THIRD TIME, MADE THIS.” This system of reference, called filiation, establishes Agrippa’s lineage through his father as just another part of his identity, distinguishing him from all the other Marcuses of Rome.

To add an extra dash of character, cognōmina and nōmina gentilicia were frequently derived from a physical or personality trait of a distant ancestor. The cognōmen Cicero, for instance, seems to derive from the Latin word for ‘garbanzo bean,’ cicer — the Greek biographer Plutarch (Life of Cicero 1.4) says that one of Cicero’s ancestors had had a mark on the end of his nose that resembled a bean. Evidently the description was an apt one: the name stuck through generations of the Cicero family. The physical characteristics involved were often rather unflattering, including M. Porcius Cato (from porcus, “pig”), M. Licinius Crassus (from crassus, “fat”); and C. Licinius Macer Calvus (from macer, “skinny,” and calvus, “bald”). These were important, prestigious men, some of the most powerful in Rome, but nonetheless did not wince at being called skinny or being compared to pigs! However unkind their names might seem to us, they were not a serious impediment to their social and political prestige.

The names of female citizens in late republican and early imperial Rome were provided by their father’s nōmen gentilicium, sometimes with the cognōmen  or other descriptor added; so the daughter of Gaius Iulius Caesar was named Iulia; if Julia had had any sisters (she didn’t), they would accordingly have been called things like Iulia Minor or Iulia Secunda, Iulia Tertia, etc. Other Roman women of this period had names like Caecilia Metella, whose name derived from the nōmen gentilicium and cognōmen of her father, Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus.

In the republic and early empire, sometimes a fourth name, an agnōmen, was added as an honorific. This fourth name could commemorate a great deed or an important military victory: for instance, Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus above earned his agnōmen by subduing the island of Crete in the 60’s BCE. Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, for his part, earned his agnōmen after Rome’s victory against Carthage in North Africa. His younger brother Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus defeated the Hellenistic king Antiochus in Asia.

The emperor Septimius Severus took this trend to an almost comical extreme: whenever he conquered a new place or people, he took on for himself a new agnōmen, the only trouble being that he was conquering almost every year! By 203, the year of the dedication of his triumphal arch in the Roman Forum, his old name, Lucius Septimius Severus, had bloated out to many times its original size: Imperator Lucius Septimius Severus Pius Pertinax Augustus Pater Patriae Arabicus et Parthicus Adiabenicus, names and titles given by the Senate and the soldiers in honor of his status and prestige, including for victories in Arabia, Parthia (an empire centered on modern Iran), and Adiabene (a kingdom located in northern Mesopotamia).

Taking on a fourth name wasn’t only a means of boasting over military success. The emperor Augustus was born Gaius Octavius, but upon his adoption by Gaius Julius Caesar became Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus, before eventually assuming the new name Augustus upon becoming the de facto ruler of the Roman world. Freedmen, former slaves who had been released by their previous masters, also often took on additional names: Tiro, for instance, became Marcus Tullius Tiro when he was freed in 53 BC.

In the later centuries of Roman rule, it was not unheard of for a citizen to have many more names than the standard three or four. Consider one of two chief magistrates of 169 AD, the consul Quintus Pompeius Senecio Roscius Murena Coelius Sextus Iulius Frontinus Silius Decianus Gaius Iulius Eurycles Herculaneus Lucius Vibullius Pius Augustanus Alpinus Bellicius Sollers Iulius Aper Ducenius Proculus Rutilianus Rufinus Silius Valens Valerius Niger Claudius Fuscus Saxa Amyntianus Sosius Priscus — whom historians (mercifully) know simply as Sosius Priscus.

We find another example later in that same century. Sometime in the 240s AD, a boy was born in the province of Illyria named Diocles. Like many Illyrians of the time, he joined the Roman army and eventually rose up the ranks, eventually becoming a high-ranking officer. The third century was a time of massive social and political unrest, and before long he found himself in the position of being able to seize the imperial throne for himself. But when he did, he cast aside his old name, which didn’t sound very Roman to begin with, and which betrayed the low status of his birth as a provincial in what is today Croatia. Upon his accession to the throne, he chose a new, more regal name for himself. He became Gaius Aurelius Valerius Diocletianus: the emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305). When, however, after twenty years on the throne, he and his imperial colleague (at this point in time there were in fact four Roman emperors working on cooperation with each other, two senior and two junior — but that’s a different story) decided to retire, he changed his name again. The historian Lactantius, writing a little later in the reign of Constantine I (r. 306–337), dramatizes the event (De Mort. 19.3–6):

Cum lacrimis alloquitur milites: se invalidum esse, requiem post labores petere, imperium validioribus tradere, alios Caesares subrogare. . . . Huic [Maximino Daiae] purpuram Diocetianus iniecit suam qua se exuit; et Diocles iterum factus est. Tum descenditur, et raeda per civitatem veteranus rex foras exportatur in patriamque dimittitur.

“With tears he addressed the soldiers: telling them that he was weak, that he sought rest after his labors, that he was handing over power to more vigorous men, that he was substituting new [junior emperors]. . . . Diocletian handed over to this man [Maximinus Daia] the purple cloak that he had stripped himself of; and he became Diocles once more. Then he got down, and the old ruler was carried out of the country in a carriage and went away to the land of his birth.”

Discussion Questions:

1)     Why do you think a Roman aristocrat like Sosius Priscus would accumulate so many names?

2)     What main similarities and differences do you notice between Roman naming conventions and those of your own time and culture?

3)     Why do you think Septimius Severus made so many additions to his name?

4)    What is the relationship, if any, between a person’s name and their identity in ancient Rome?