Roman Nomenclature

Naming of Male Roman Citizens during the Republic
(plural praenomina)
(plural nomina)
(plural cognomina)
personal, individualizing name; given through naming ceremony name of the clan (gens) to which the man belonged; hereditary name of the branch of the clan to which the man belonged; hereditary
used primarily within the family or among close intimates; usually abbreviated in inscriptions used to designate the man in informal conversation and between friends if he had no cognomen most commonly used to designate the man in informal conversation and between friends
In more formal circumstances, a man would be called by his praenomen and nomen or cognomen; in very formal circumstances and inscriptions, all three names were used

Tria Nomina: Aristocratic Romans in the Republic had all three names; until late in the Republic, non-aristocrats frequently had only the first two (e.g., Gaius Marius, Gnaeus Pompeius). There were only a small number of personal names in use, and the same praenomina tended to be used again and again in families; in particular, the first-born son was usually named after his father. On inscriptions and official documents, the male citizen was also usually designated by reference to his paternal ancestors and the Roman voting tribe in which he was registered; an indication of the voting tribe is proof positive that the man was a Roman citizen. For example, the Roman orator Cicero registered the birth of his son as follows:

M. TULLIUS M[arci] F[ilius] M[arci] N[epos] M[arci] PR[onepos] COR[nelia tribu] CICERO, “Marcus Tullius Cicero, the son of Marcus, the grandson of Marcus, the great-grandson of Marcus, of the Cornelian voting tribe.”

Cognomen ex virtute: Men with two or three names could be officially awarded an additional cognomen, an “honorific” which they bore for life but did not pass down to their descendants (e.g., Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (“the Great”), Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (“conqueror of Africa”); both these cognomina were awarded by senatorial decree. Sometimes this additional cognomen was a nickname that stuck (e.g., Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix (“the Lucky”). This type of cognomen is sometimes called an agnomen.

Adoption: An adult son of a family which already had a male heir could be adopted into a family which did not have a surviving son. The adopted man took all three names of his adoptive father and usually added the adjectival form of his own clan name, formed by adding the suffix -anus) to his own nomen. Thus, when Gaius Octavius Thurinus was adopted by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar, his formal name became Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. At the time, those who addressed or referred to him respectfully would do so as "Caesar" or "Gaius Caesar"; those who wished to be denigrating or disrespectful would use his adoptive, "Octavianus." Modern historians usually call him Octavian until he officially added the honorific Augustus (“the revered one”) to his name in 27 BCE.

Names of Citizen Women: All female children of citizen families were named with the feminine form of the clan into which they were born; hence, all women whose fathers had the nomen Julius were named Julia, and all women whose fathers had the nomen Cornelius were named Cornelia. In public, they would be identified by the possessive form of their father's cognomen (e.g., Julia Caesaris, “Julia, the daughter of Caesar”), or if married by the possessive form of their husband's cognomen (e.g., Clodia Metelli, “Clodia, the wife of Metellus”). If families had more than one daughter, they were distinguished by the words maior and minor (“elder” and “younger”), or prima, secunda, tertia, etc.

However, by the late Republic these conventions were changing slightly, in that elite Roman woman were sometimes designated by the feminine form of their father's nomen plus the feminine form of his cognomen, sometimes in the dominutive (e.g. Livia, who married Octavian and became Rome's first empress, was often referred to as Livia Drusilla, since her father was a noble named Marcus Livius Drusus). Starting with Augustus, names of the most prominent women did not necessarily follow the Republican convention, but rather reflected the family connections that were most significant to the namers. For example, the two daughters of Augustus' daughter Julia, who was married to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, would normally have been named Vipsania; instead one was called Julia and the other Agrippina. When Agrippina married Nero Claudius Germanicus (grandson of Livia), her three daughters were named Agrippina, Drusilla, and Julia Livilla (referring to the family lines of both of their distinguished great-grandparents) instead of Claudia, which would refer to their father's nomen.

Names of Freedpeople: When slaves were freed, they occupied a middle status between the freeborn and the enslaved; they were referred to as liberti or libertini, which we translate as “freedpeople.” While they were still enslaved, they had a single name, either a part of the name they had carried before they were enslaved or a name given to them by their master, often coming from mythology, referring to their country of origin, or referring to a personal characteristic. The slave's name, like everything else, was completely at the discretion of his/her owner. However, there were specific conventions that governed the names of freedpeople. A freedman took the praenomen and nomen of his former master, who was now his patron, plus his slave name as a cognomen; if he had been freed by a woman, he took her father's praenomen and nomen plus his slave name (e.g., Marcus Antonius' daughter Antonia freed a slave named Pallas, who was then called M. Antonius Pallas). Freedwomen took the feminine form of their master's (or mistress's) nomen plus their slave name (e.g., Antonia's freed slavewoman Caenis became Antonia Caenis). If the freedperson then contracted a legal marriage, the children born after this marriage were freeborn, and they often continued to bear the nomen of their father's patron. For example, according to an inscription from the first century BCE, a man named Publius Larcius freed a male slave named Nicia, who was then called Publius Larcius Nicia, and his freeborn sons were named Publius Larcius Rufus and Publius Larcius Brocchus. Publius Larcius Nicia later freed his own female slave named Horaea, who was then named Larcia Horaea.

Possession of three names did not necessarily mean that a freedman was a Roman citizen. If his former master or mistress had been a Roman citizen and if he had been formally freed according to certain specific procedures and conditions, he would become a Roman citizen. However, if he had been freed informally by a Roman citizen, he would become a Junian Latin rather than a Roman citizen, even though his name would be the same; thus only an indication of a voting tribe after his name would prove that the freedman was now a Roman citizen.

External Links:

Barbara F. McManus, The College of New Rochelle
revised November, 2007