Roman naming conventions

Roman naming conventions

By the Republican era and throughout the Imperial era, a name in ancient Rome for a male citizen consisted of three parts (tria nomina): praenomen (given name), nomen (or nomen gentile or simply gentilicium, being the name of the gens or clan) and cognomen (name of a family line within the gens). Sometimes a second or third cognomen, called agnomen, was added. The nomen, and later, cognomen were virtually always hereditary. This system was derived from the Etruscan civilization.

Females were officially known by the feminine form of their father's nomen gentile, followed by the genitive case of their father's (husband's if married) cognomen and an indication of order among sisters. By the late Roman Republic, women sometimes also adopted the feminine of their father's cognomen. A woman usually did not have the praenomen and agnomen, unless the parents chose to give her those.



In the early regal period of Rome, it appears that people were at first referred to by one name (e.g., Romulus, Manius). As Rome grew in area and population, a second, family name came into use. By the earliest days of the Republic, every member of a household had at least two names—praenomen, and the genitive form of the pater familias' name, which became a fixed and inherited nomen.

This binomial nomenclature was unique among Indo-European languages of that era. Also, the core part of the name (nomen) was the inherited gens name, not the given name (praenomen). This is probably why so few different praenomina were used.

Later in the Republic a cognomen was added to distinguish families within a gens, as the importance of the gens grew and the size of voting tribes required this differentiation. Thus patricians (nobility) commonly had three names (Tria Nomina). Although this system dates to the later 5th century BC, it was slow to take root, as it does not appear in official documents until the late 2nd century BC and was not common until the time of Sulla, right before the Empire. It was adopted even more slowly by non-patricians; the first examples of cognomina for plebeians date to c. 125 BC and it was not popular for another century.

In the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire), old Roman naming conventions were gradually replaced by Greek ones, although Roman names themselves would have continuing influence.


The praenomen, equivalent to given names nowadays, was chosen by the parents (often with the pater familias naming male infants after himself). There was, however, a very limited selection of praenomina, such as Gaius, Gnaeus, Marcus, Quintus, Publius, Tiberius, and Titus. As a result, men from a given family often have identical names for generations. It was therefore necessary to use other names (cognomen and later, agnomen) to distinguish between individuals. Only intimates would use the praenomen.


The second name, or nomen gentile (usually simply nomen), rarely gentilicium, is the name of the gens (the family clan), in masculine form for men. The original gentes were descended from the family groups that settled Rome. These eventually developed into entire clans, which covered specific geographic regions. As the area of Rome expanded, the number of tribes also expanded. This meant that not all tribes were from original settlers. Some were named for Etruscan families, while others were from local tribes or from major geographical features, such as rivers. Well-known nomina include many of the familiar names of ancient Rome, such as Aemilius, Claudius, Cornelius, Domitius, Julius, Junius, Pompeius, Antonius, Didius and Valerius.


The third name, or cognomen, began as a nickname or personal name that distinguished individuals with the same names. Cognomina do not appear in official documents until around 100 BC. Often the cognomen was chosen based on some physical or personality trait, sometimes with ironic results: Julius Caesar's cognomen, in one interpretation, meant hairy (cf. etymology of the name of Julius Caesar) although he was balding, and Tacitus' cognomen meant silent, while he was a well-known orator. However, from the Republican era, many cognomina were no longer nicknames, but instead were passed from father to son, serving to distinguish a family within a gens (and frequently requiring an agnomen to distinguish people of the same family if they shared praenomen as well as nomen and cognomen).

During the empire period the cognomen varied within families in order to identify individuals within the family. This can be seen clearly in the family tree of the emperor Vespasian, where additional cognomina are generated for sons from the names of women who marry into the family. The family tree is as follows:

  • grandfather: Titus Flavius Petro
  • father: Titus Flavius Sabinus (married Vespasia Polla)
  • elder brother: Titus Flavius Sabinus
  • Vespasian: Titus Flavius Vespasianus (married Flavia Domitilla)
  • eldest son: Titus Flavius Vespasianus
  • youngest son: Titus Flavius Domitianus
  • daughter: Domitilla the Younger

Nomen-derived names

Some males had a cognomen that ends in -anus, which was adapted from and commemorated a nomen, sometimes their maternal family or—if they were adopted—their original paternal family. For instance, Vespasian's nomen (Flavius) came from his father's nomen. His cognomen (Vespasianus), on the other hand, was derived from his mother's nomen, Vespasia. Others had cognomina that were derived not from the nomen, but the cognomen of their mothers' families. For instance, Caracalla's maternal grandfather was Julius Bassianus, but Caracalla's cognomen was not Julianus, but rather Bassianus as well.

When a man was adopted into another family, he would take on his adoptive father's names (excluding the praenomen). If he chose to, he could turn his original nomen into an additional cognomen that followed his newly gained names. For example, these adoptees incorporated into their new names their adopted family's nomen and cognomen, and also kept their birth family's nomen:

Not all adoptees chose to identify their birth families. For instance, as an adult, Augustus did not use his cognomen Octavianus (shortened to Octavian), since the gens Octavia was not nearly as esteemed as the Julii. (See also: Adoption in Rome.)


After the cognomen became hereditary and lost its function as a nickname, a second nickname, or agnomen, was appended to the name after birth—usually not immediately—to signify some personal characteristic or accomplishment. A common agnomen was Pius, for someone who displayed virtues like honesty, reverence to the gods, or devotion to family and state. Superbus ("Proud") and Pulcher ("Handsome") were also examples of agnomina.

Unlike the nomen and cognomen, an agnomen was usually not inherited unless the son also had the same attribute or did the same deeds, although some victory agnomina like Augustus ("Majestic") and Germanicus ("the German (Conqueror)") eventually became handed down as additional cognomina.

It may also have been the case that some families used an agnomen in order to distinguish individuals, especially when there was a famous cognomen which they wanted all their sons to be able to bear. This is evident in the Valerius Messalla family tree where the following names are to be found:

Names adapted from nomina (with the -anus suffix) are sometimes considered agnomina. Priscian specifically cites Claudianus and Aemilianus as examples.

Foreign names

As Rome conquered territories beyond the Italian peninsula, many foreign names were introduced. Discharged auxiliary soldiers and others gaining Roman citizenship could, and many did, continue to use at least a portion of their former names. Most were of Greek or Etruscan origin, while others came from regions that were brought under Roman influence. Non-citizen auxiliary soldiers who were granted citizenship often adopted the nomen of their Emperor, adding their native name as a cognomen.

New citizens often also took on the nomen of the reigning emperor. For instance, after Caracalla ("Marcus Aurelius Septimius Bassianus Antoninus") expanded citizenship to all free men in the empire, many of them took on the nomen Aurelius. (Caracalla's correct nomen was actually Septimius; "Aurelius" was a pretension to Roman nobility.)

Female names

Roman women usually had no praenomen and were known only by the feminine form of their father's nomen. If further description was needed, the name was followed by the genitive case of her father's cognomen or, after marriage, of her husband's. Hence, Cicero speaks of a woman as "Annia P. Anni senatoris filia" (Annia the daughter of P. Annius the senator). By the late Republic, women also adopted the feminine form of their father's cognomen. Aquilia Severa was the daughter of Aquilius and married a Severus (in her case, both of her names are derived from nomina). Feminized cognomen was often made a diminutive, e.g. Augustus's third wife Livia Drusilla was the daughter of Marcus Livius Drusus.

If only two daughters survived, they could be distinguished as major and minor. Mark Antony's daughters were Antonia Major (paternal grandmother of the emperor Nero) and Antonia Minor (mother of the emperor Claudius, maternal great-grandmother of the emperor Nero). If a family had more than two daughters, they were distinguished by ordinal numbers: Cornelia Quinta, the fifth daughter of a Cornelius. The epithets of Major and Minor (or the Elder and the Younger) also served to distinguish between daughters and mothers of the same name, e.g., Agrippina the Younger and Julia the Younger, respective daughters of Agrippina the Elder and Julia the Elder.

Additional elements and examples

The full form of a Roman name, used in official records, included the praenomen and nomen, followed by a "filiation", the name of the voting tribe in which the person was enrolled, and finally the cognomen and agnomen, if any. In some instances the place of a person's residence might also be added.


The filiation was a traditional element of a Roman name, usually giving the praenomina of the person's father and grandfather. A typical example written in full would be Marcus Aemilius Quinti filius Marci nepos Lepidus, although this would normally be abbreviated to M. Aemilius Q. f. M. n. Lepidus. In this example, Quinti filius means "son of Quintus", and Marci nepos means "grandson of Marcus". Sometimes the filiation would be extended to pronepos (great-grandson) and abnepos (great-great-grandson). Filiation was also used for daughters, in which case filius and nepos would be replaced by filia (daughter) and neptis (granddaughter). The same abbreviations were used for both sons and daughters. For a list of praenomina and their abbreviations, see praenomen.


The tribus, or "tribe," was a geographically-determined voting assembly, not an ethnic designation, although certain social and ethnic groups sometimes were concentrated in particular tribes. All Roman citizens were enrolled in one of the voting tribes, whose number was fixed at thirty-five by the late Republic. The tribe in which a man was enrolled was generally determined by the location of his principal residence, but if he changed residence he did not also change tribes.

Precisely when it became common to include the name of a man's voting tribe as part of his full name is unknown. The name of the tribe normally follows a man's filiation and precedes his cognomina, suggesting that it was an early development. However, it is found with much less frequency than the other parts of the name, so the custom of including it does not seem to have been deeply ingrained in Roman practice. As with the filiation, it was common to abbreviate the name of the tribe. For the names of the thirty-five tribes during the late Republic, see list of Roman tribes.

Naming and birth order

The eldest son usually carries on his father's name. Younger sons are typically named for a grandfather or uncle.[1] The proliferation of men carrying the same name can complicate prosopography; for instance, in the early 1st century BC, three prominent men were named Lucius Valerius Flaccus: the consul of 100 BC, the suffect consul of 86 BC, and the latter's son, who was defended by Cicero (Pro Flacco).

Analysis of a complete name

The tomb of Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus: Lucius of the gens Cornelia, of the sub-family of Scipio, conqueror of the Barbarians

Analysis of an example complete name: Marcus Aurelius Lucii f. Quinti n. tribu Galeria Antoninus Felix, domo Caesaraugusta.

Component Name Note
Marcus praenomen
Aurelius nomen gentile he belonged to gens Aurelia (the Aurelii)
Lucii f(ilius) patronimicus son of Lucius
Quinti n(epos) grandparent grandson of Quintus
tribu Galeria tribe a tribe from Galleria, a region of Hispania
Antoninus cognomen he belonged to Antonini branch of the clan
Felix agnomen "the Fortunate", a nickname
domo Caesaraugusta residence ancient Zaragoza in Hispania

A Roman man could be referred to in several ways: by his praenomen and nomen; by his nomen or cognomen standing alone; by his nomen and cognomen; or by his praenomen and cognomen. Which of these was used typically depended on how many other people might be referred to by the same name or combination of names. In the early Republic the nomen was often sufficient to distinguish people, but by imperial times a person's various cognomina were usually more distinctive. "Marcus Livius Drusus" would typically be referred to as "Marcus Livius" or simply as "Drusus", although both "Livius Drusus" and "Marcus Drusus" could also be used.

Although many women had praenomina, most women were known by their nomen alone. Multiple women with the same nomen were sometimes distinguished by nicknames or "inverted" praenomina (that is, praenomina that were treated as cognomina). Only in very large families was it common for women to be referred to by both a nomen and cognomen, although it was not uncommon for women to be called by a cognomen instead of a nomen.

Thus, the daughter of Lucius Julius Caesar was simply called "Julia". The daughters of Marcus Antonius were typically referred to as "Antonia Major" and "Antonia Minor". A daughter of Lucius Aemilius Paullus could be called "Tertia Aemilia", or "Aemilia Tertia" (with an inverted praenomen). Both nomen and cognomen were used by Caecilia Metella, the daughter of Lucius Caecilius Metellus.

The tendency to omit one or more parts of a person's name can create problems for modern scholars. Often several different people shared the same name, or names that differed in only one element. In many cases, we no longer have the context to know which person was actually meant.

Evolution of a personal name

In Ancient Rome, a person's name was not static but often evolved with his status or social connections. Take for example the evolution of the name of the Emperor Augustus:

63 BC: Augustus is born as Gaius Octavius

  • Gaius Octavius Gaii filius
    • Gaius of the gens Octavia, son of Gaius

44 BC: Julius Caesar dies. In his will he adopts Gaius Octavius. See Adoption in ancient Rome.

  • Gaius Iulius Gaii filius Caesar Octavianus
    • Gaius Caesar of the gens Julia, son of Gaius, originally of the gens Octavia

42 BC: Julius Caesar is deified, prompting a change in Gaius Octavianus' name.

  • Gaius Iulius Divi filius Caesar Octavianus
    • Gaius Caesar of the gens Julia, son of the Deified, originally of the gens Octavia

31 BC: Gaius Octavianus is declared imperator by the army

  • Imperator Gaius Iulius Divi filius Caesar Octavianus
    • Imperator Gaius Caesar of the gens Julia, son of the Deified, originally of the gens Octavia

27 BC: The Roman Senate grants the title Augustus. Gaius Octavianus assumes his official regnal name.

  • Imperator Caesar Divi filius Augustus
    • Imperator Caesar the August, son of the Deified

See also


  1. ^ Lawrence Keppie, Understanding Roman Inscriptions (Routledge, 1991), p. 19 online.

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