. . . During The Late Roman Republic


Roman naming conventions can seem quite confusing when you're first exposed to them. Unlike our English/American naming conventions, the Roman naming conventions varied based on where the individual stood in the societal pecking order. Sometimes Romans had one name, two names, three names, four names, or even five names. Let's take a look at this in more detail.

Names of Patricians and Equites (the aristocrats)

Most aristocratic Roman men–the Patricians and the Equites (i.e., knights)–had three names (the tria nomina): a "praenomen," a "nomen," and a "cognomen," which were typically written in that order. So the Julius Caesar and Cicero that you might be familiar with from your history or from your Latin studies were actually Gaius Julius Caesar and Marcus Tullius Cicero. However, when they wrote out their "full names", they typically followed a five name convention: "praenomen", "nomen", an indication of the father's name, the name of their voting tribe ("tribus"), and the cognomen. So Cicero when writing out his name might write: M. Tullius M. f. Cor. Cicero–which stands for Marcus Tullius Marcus Filius (son of Marcus) Cornelia Cicero. Let's look at the various parts of the name in detail.

The praenomen was the counterpart of our first name. However the number of praenomina actually used was considerably smaller than our enormous pool of first English/American names. In the Late Republic (circa 100 BC and later) the number of praenomina had shrunk from a maximum of thirty to about eighteen. Of those, Gaius, Gnaeus, Lucius, Marcus, and Publius were the most common.  Normally, the praenomen was abbreviated rather than written out. Below are the more  common praenomina used with their abbreviations following in parentheses. 

Some praenomina were used exclusively by a single family.  Here's a short list of some of them (let me know if you know of more):

The eldest son was normally given the praenomen of his father.

The  nomen, the name of the clan or gens, was similar to our surname. Originally, most names were formed based on the clan or gens name and adding such suffixes as -ius, -eius, -aius, -aeus, -eus, or -us. Some examples of aristocratic nomen are: Julius, Domitius, Petreius, Lucceius, Calvinus, and Sacerdus.

Other nomina used indicated a gens or clan of non-Latin origin. For instance, a nomen ending in -acus was usually of Gallic origin. Those ending in -na and many in -nius were of Etruscan origin. Other nomina ending in -inius were found in the western provinces. Names ending in -i(e)dius were of Oscan origin. And those ending in -enus or -ienus (e.g., Labienus) indicate a tribe which originated in Umbria or Picenum.

The next part of a Roman's name was the name of the (voting) tribe he belonged to. By the end of the Late Republic there were 35 major (voting) tribes. Those tribes and their abbreviations (as they were often written) are listed below. 

The cognomen was the family name or branch of the tribe. It tended to indicate ancient lineage, and citizens who had.just achieved aristocratic status were eager to acquire a cognomen to pass on to their children. Such citizens often chose their own based on physical or mental traits, behavorial peculiarities, wish-names (e.g., Felix [favorable, auspicious]), circumstances of birth or sex (e.g., Natalis [natal], Masculus [male, vigorous]), occupations (e.g., Agricola [farmer]), historical figures (e.g., Sulla, Alexander), names of the gods or mythological names (e.g., Saturninus, Romulus, Didorus, Hermes), or other nicknames based on animals or plants (e.g., Cicero [chickpea], Coepis [onion], Porcius [pig], Asinius [ass]). Others were conceded or imposed by public opinion (e.g., Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus  [G. Pompey the Great]). Still others were derived from other names, directly or by adding a suffix (e.g.,  Marcus, Marcellus, Julianus, Frontinus). Spanish tribes like to use animal names as cognomina (e.g., Taurus, Lupus, etc.). Africans favored descriptive names as cognomina (e.g., Saturninus, Martialis, Datus, etc.)

Aristocratic Roman men were usually known by their nomen and cognomen (e.g., Julius Caesar), or by their nomen alone. Family, intimate friends, and even a man's slaves addressed him by his praenomen (e.g., Gaius or Caius for Julius Caesar). Mere acquaintances used his cognomen, with the praenomen preceding for emphasis. In formal situations, he was addressed by his praenomen and nomen (e.g., Gaius Julius). or by all three names.

Often additional third or fourth names were present; these were referred to collectively as cognomina (later on, historians tagged these agnomina ). These names tended to be one of four types:

The first type was a further subdivision of the branch of the tribe into familia, subsidiary branches of families Take, for example, the name P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica. Nasica was a further family subdivision within the larger Scipio family which was part of the Cornelia tribe.

The second type occurred when a man passed from one family to another by adoption. Typically he took the tria nomina (three names) of his adoptive father and added his own nomen with the suffix -ianus tacked onto it. For instance, G. Octavius Caepias was adopted by G. Julius Caesar; his new name became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus.

The third type, sometimes called cognomina ex virtute (i.e., surnames of merit or title of honor) was often bestowed by acclamation to a victorious general (often the name of the town or area conquered) or to a great politician. It was usually written after the cognomen. For instance, G. Julius Caesar Octavianus was given the title Augustus by the Roman Senate. He became G. Julius Caesar Augustus Octavianus. Another example was P. Cornelius Scipio, who after he'd defeated Hannibal, was given the title Africanus. He was subsequently known as P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus.

The fourth type was an additional name received by a man because of some characteristic of his own. It's this latter case which makes it difficult to tell whether such a name was applied to an individual or was a family name of some sort. 

Plebeian Names

Each of the tribes were divided into many family branches; some aristocratic, some plebeian. The Cornelia tribe, for instance, not only included the patrician Scipiones, Malugninenses, Rufini, and other branches; but also the plebeian Antonii, Perpernae, Cethegi, Dolabellae, Cinnae, Lentuli, and other branches. Plebeians could have, but did not necessarily have, tria nomina; but each did have at least a nomen. Some also had a cognomen.

Women’s Names

There was no rigid naming system adhered to in the choice or ordering of women's names.

Throughout most of the Republican period, women were typically given only one name–the female form of their father's nomen. For example, G. Julius Caesar's daughter was Julia. As a result, sisters in the same family were given the same name, which presented a problem. So terms such as the greatest (Maxima), the least (Minima), the elder (Major), the younger (Minor),  the first (Prima or Una), the second (Secunda), etc., were added to distinguish one from the other. When a woman married, she took her husband's name in the genitive and tacked it onto her given name; so when Julia, Caesar's daughter, married Pompeius, she became Julia Pompeii. 

By the end of the Republic, however, there was a trend toward women having two names: the first the female form of her father's nomen and the second her cognomen, which would be the feminine form of the family cognomen (e.g., Caecilia Metella for the daughter of L. Caecilius Metellus).

Names of Slaves and Freedmen

A slave might keep the name he had when he was free or he might be given a completely new one. However, typically, a slave was given a single name by his master–usually a Greek or some other foreign one which often indicated the slave's nationality (e.g., Syrus, Thraex) or his appearance (e.g., Rufus [redhead], Flavus [blond, golden], Glabrio [bald]), or something loftier like Eutychus, Felix, Hermes, Onesimus, or Phoebus. In the Late Republic, a slave's name consisted of his own name follwed by the nomen and praenomen of his master. The last two names were written in the genitive case and followed by the word "servus."  For example, "Afer Antonii Marci servus" would be the name of the slave Afer if he belonged to Marcus Antonius.

When a slave was sold to a new master, he took the nomen of his new master and tacked on the cognomen of his old master while adding an -anus suffix.

A master could choose any name he wished for a slave he was freeing. An ex-slave usually adopted the praenomen and nomen of his or her former master while retaining his or her slave name as a cognomen. Thus, Cicero's educated slave, Tiro, when he was freed, became Marcus Tullius Tiro; and Zosimus, the slave of M. Aurelius Cotta Maximus, when he was freed, became Marcus Aurelius Zosimus. If the slave's former owner was female, an inverted C (backward C, open to the left) was used instead of the praenomen.

Names of Foreigners

Provincials who weren't Roman citizens had single names. Foreigners ( peregrini ) used their individual name followed by the father's name in the genitive (e.g. Tritano Acali and Tritano Lani).

When a foreigner became a Roman citizen, he adopted a new name which was formed like that of the freedman. He chose his own praenomen; he received the nomen of his citizen sponsor; and he adopted his original name as cognomen. For example, when the Greek poet Archias became a citizen, his name changed to Aulus Licinius Archias. He'd been attached to the Luculli family so he adopted the nomen of his patron, L. Lincinius Lucullus.  

Names of Soldiers

Recruits into the Roman legions often acquired new names when they first signed on. For the auxiliary soldier, who was usually a foreigner, this usually took the form of a two names plus a "patronymic" (a name derived from a person's father or ancestor), a tribal name (e.g., Pollia, Sabina), and possibly the name of his home town, resulting in a name like Lucius Julius, son of Menander, of the Pollia tribe.

Roman soldiers who were citizens already might get a cognomen for the first time or might even exchange their old cognomen for a new one. The cognomen might indicate the soldier's place of birth (e.g. Tarsus, Salica, Sabinus, Palaepharsalus), some sterling moral virtue, or some remarkable physical attribute.

Names of Adopted Men

There were no rigid rules regarding how names were affected by adoption. After Sulla died, for instance, an adopted man might turn the cognomen of the family adopting him into a nomen and then tack on his own cognomen. By the very end of the Republic, however, he might add one or more of his original names to the new name he received at his adoption (e.g., Scipio Nasica was adopted by Metellus Pius and became "Q. Caecilius Pius Scipio Nasica).


Roman naming conventions during the Late Republic make ours look incredibly simple in comparison. However, with the emergence of the Roman Empire and the addition of many foreigners to Roman citizenry, Roman naming conventions became still more muddled.