Understanding Roman Names

Bust Hadrian Musei Capitolini MC817

(Emperor Hadrian, whose real name was Publius Aelius Traianus Hadrianus Augustus)

In Western culture, we have a lot of famous Romans from ancient history: Cicero, Julius Caesar, Marcus Aurelius, etc. Such men are famous enough that people can recognize their name.

But interestingly, while reading the excellent textbook by Wheelock, he talked about how Roman names really worked.

Similar to modern Western culture, the given name (praenomen) came first. This was followed by a family name or gens. Finally Roman men often had a cognomen which was a kind of nickname to describe a person’s traits. Later, Romans also used agnomen as a “nickname of nicknames” because some cognomen became well-known.

An example of a complicated name is that of the famous general, Scipio whose real name was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus:

  • Publius, his given name.
  • Cornelius, his family name.
  • Scipio, his nickname, which actually came from the particular branch of the Cornelii family he was born from.
  • Africanus, his secondary nickname. Due to his victory at the Battle of Zama in north Africa.

Even more complicated is the name for Emperor Hadrian above:

  • Publius, a common given name (praenomen)
  • Aelius, his family name (gens)
  • Traianus, his nickname, which came from his family relations with Emperor Trajan (cognomen).
  • Hadrianus, his secondary nickname due to his family’s ancestry from the ancient city of Hadria (agnomen)/
  • Augustus, meaning “wise”. This was a special titled used by all Roman Emperors.

Also, it was very common to abbreviate the given name because there was little variety. During the Empire, only about 12 given names were commonly used for men, though more were used in ancient times. The name “Gaius” was abbreviated as “G”, while Marcus was “M”, Tiberius was “T” and so on. In general, Romans liked to abbreviate things a lot. Probably because writing on stone was a hassle. 😉

But what about women? In early Roman society, they had names similar to men, but over time people stopped using given names for women. They would only use their family name, but with a feminine ending. So, a family name like Julius would become Julia. If there were two daughters, they might be named Julia Major and Julia Minor and so on.

Interestingly though, women didn’t change their name when they got married. Children did not inherit their mother’s name, but women didn’t have to change their name either.

Just a little reference post I made. 🙂


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

5 thoughts on “Understanding Roman Names”

  1. this is very insightful.. am enjoying your posts so far. first came across your blog when i was searching about hyakunin isshu.. 🙂 looking forward to reading more posts.


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