This article is a brief introduction to naming structures used by Roman citizens. We will begin by describing the most common naming patterns from the first and second centuries AD, and then discuss later developments.
- The Praenomen
- The Nomen
- The Cognomen
- The Nomen
- Later Developments
- The Edict of Caracalla
- Some Late Roman and Early Byzantine Name Constructions
Male citizens of the Roman Empire used the tria nomina (literally, "three names"). The tria nomina consisted of three different types of name elements, in the following order:
The PraenomenThe praenomen (literally, "before name") was chosen from a short list of options and was often abbreviated. In Imperial Roman names, the praenomen functioned rather like the abbreviations Sr., Jr., and III in modern American naming: its presence indicated that the bearer came from an old and prestigious, or would-be prestigious, background. Praenomina were often inherited, and many families and lineages used only a subset of the possible praenomina. Some of the most common praenomina in inscriptions are listed below, with their standard abbreviations in parentheses.
The nomen or nomen gentilicium was the family or clan name. (Nomen means "name".) It plays the role of a modern surname: a Roman citizen inherited his nomen from his father's family. Many nomina end in –ius. Common nomina in inscriptions include:
Cognomen means "byname". A cognomen could be inherited, or could be a personal nickname. Some men used two or more cognomina.
The cognomen is the piece of a Roman name that is most like a given name. In particular, men who became Roman citizens used their old given names as cognomina. Here are some popular cognomina collected in A study of the cognomina of soldiers in the Roman legions by Lindley Richard Dean:
The name of the Roman historian Tacitus has been recorded as Publius Cornelius Tacitus. Here Publius is a praenomen, Cornelius is a nomen, and Tacitus is a cognomen. In formal writing, the praenomen would typically have been abbreviated, yielding P. Cornelius Tacitus. In informal contexts, the praenomen might have been dropped altogether, and the historian referred to as Cornelius Tacitus.
The name of the British soldier Marcus Ulpius Novantico was recorded in the abbreviated form M. Ulpius Novantico. Here, Novantico is the man's original given name. On attaining Roman citizenship, the man adopted the praenomen Marcus and the nomen Ulpius, and kept Novantico as a cognomen. We may assume that his friends still addressed him as Novantico.
Under the Republic, women were frequently identified by just the feminine version of their father’s nomina. These are formed by changing –us to –a:
- Julius → Julia
- Aurelius → Aurelia
Cognomina for women started appearing in the first century BC, and became common in the first century AD. They could be inherited or personal. Again, women used a feminine form of the name, typically formed by changing –us to –a:
As in men's names, the cognomen followed the nomen. Thus, the typical pattern for an Imperial Roman woman's name is:
- Sabinus → Sabina
- Fortunatus → Fortunata
Women did not use the tria nomina.
Examples of Imperial women's names include Julia Sabina, Aurelia Fortunata, and Claudia Severa. In each case, the first element is the nomen or family name, and the second element is a feminine cognomen. Like Imperial Roman men, Imperial Roman women treated the cognomen as the given or personal name. For example, Claudia Severa signed her personal letters Severa.
The Edict of CaracallaThe Constitutio Antoniniana or Edict of Caracalla was a law passed in 212 AD. It made all free men in the Roman empire into Roman citizens. This meant that all men could use the tria nomina. The emperor Caracalla's formal name was Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus, (constructed as praenomen + nomen + 2 cognomina + Augustus for "emperor"), so many of the new citizens took his nomen, Aurelius (for men) or Aurelia (for women).
Some Late Roman and Early Byzantine Name Constructions
After the Edict of Caracalla, the praenomen was no longer a useful status symbol. Praenomina were already rare in informal contexts; they became less and less important even in formal contexts, and were frequently omitted altogether.
People with high status in the later Roman/early Byzantine empire continued the practice of using the emperor's nomen; this makes Valerius (nomen of the late third-century emperor Diocletian) and Flavius (nomen of Constantine the Great, early fourth-century) especially popular, along with Aurelius. Many early Byzantine names consist of Flavius or Flavia plus one or more cognomina.
The general rule that inherited names go first and personal names go last was used at least through the sixth century. For example, the formal name of the sixth-century bishop and historian Gregory of Tours was Georgius Florentius Gregorius: Gregory's grandfather was named Georgius, and his father was named Florentius. We also see Christian names such as Iohannes appearing as cognomina.
- Anthony Birley, The People of Roman Britain. University of California Press, 1980.
- Lindley Richard Dean, "A study of the cognomina of soldiers in the Roman legions". Princeton University, 1916.
- B. H. McLean, An Introduction to Greek Epigraphy of the Hellenistic and Roman Periods: From Alexander the Great to the Reign of Constantine (323 BC-AD 337). University of Michigan Press, 2002.
- Benet Salway, "What's in a Name? A Survey of Roman Onomastic Practice from c. 700 B.C. to A.D. 700", The Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 84, (1994), pp. 124-145.
- Vindolanda Tablets Online, Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents, The British Museum.